A tribute to Shelton Kodikara - III

Shelton Kodikara

Shelton Kodikara’s posthumously published Book "Domestic Politics and Diplomacy"

Edited by W .B. Dorakumbura and published by BCIS (September 2008).

Joining the ASEAN was not a thing that could take place without going through long procedures of protracted negotiations and waiting time leading to acceptance by the ASEAN group. I do not recall any preparation in the Foreign Ministry during the first two years before 1967 of Dudley Senanayake government over an ASEAN project. How far the ASEAN bogey had become a ‘plaything’ in the hands of some writers, both academic and others, could be seen from the way that even a seasoned Indian diplomat like J. N. Dixit, former Indian High Commissioner in Colombo has floated it in his book ‘Assignment Colombo’, where he levelled a baseless accusation at both Mr. R. Premadsa as Prime Minister and B. P. Tilakaratna (He was Director–General of the Foreign Office at the time and became Foreign Secretary under President Premadasa) for promoting Sri Lanka’s entry to the ASEAN. (Ironically, that was what Dixit himself did as soon as he became Foreign Secretary of India as claimed in his second book on his stint as Foreign Secretary of India!).

I can speak with some authority on the subject referred to by Dixit because the preparation of the brief on ASEAN for Mr.Premadasa who was visiting Djakarta, was assigned to me by the Director– General Tilakaratna for the reason that I was a senior Foreign Office man at the time and also because he knew that I was more familiar with the late Mr. Premadasa’s thinking than any other in the Foreign Office. Besides, the subject had to be handled with extreme care also not to create problems (another Stanley de Zoysa situation!) because there were undisclosed concerns on the part of the Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hamid and some officials (it spilled beyond the Ministry) that Mr. Premadasa was increasingly making efforts to shake off his ‘Peon’ mantle as Prime Minister through a role in foreign affairs and there were people wanting to see Mr. Premadasa taking a wrong step!

Secondly, there was no compulsion in 1967 to renew the five year trade agreement with China. [This was the fourth agreement]. The exchange of Chinese rice for our rubber, which the author rightly asserts as forming the foundation on which the original agreement was based, was no longer a priority for both countries. Even on the first renewal in 1957 under S.W.R.D. Government, of which I had a ring side view in Beijing, there was some pulling in the opposite direction by a section in the government.

The author’s assertion that the agreement (in 1967) provided a stable market at favourable prices is certainly off the mark. I have said quite emphatically that both those advantages ceased at the renewal of the agreement in 1957 with Sri Lanka’s own Ambassador in China, Wilmot Perera, kicking into our own goal on the issue of the premium paid by China on Sri Lankan rubber supplied under the first agreement. With that support, China point blank refused to pay more favourable price by way of the premium. Thereafter, what we received was the same as Singapoe base price. By 1967 China also had new supply sources as Tunku Abdul Rahman had dropped his stance not to sell Malaysia’s rubber to China. I cannot recall whether China’s HaiInan island rubber growing which commenced with Sri Lankan support (seeds were supplied from here) was ready for latex production by 1967.

Nor was rice a scarce commodity in the world market after 1957. The rice market situation also eased as early as 1957 when Burma’s (Myanmar) five-year commitment to China in 1952 which had partly caused the world shortage ended. [On both these points see Lorna Dewaraja: article on the "Trade Agreement with China", by me in V. L. B. Mendis Felicitation volume]. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s ‘Green Revolution’ was yet to materialize but it came about shortly afterwards. So were the ‘green revolutions’ in India (Punjab) and other crop producing countries.

Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s xenophobia over the Chinese needs no comment. Even in 1960 when he was Prime Minister for a very short time before the UNP which had won the previous general election by a narrow margin was defeated in the next election which followed soon afterwards, the Prime Minister showed his displeasure over the manner I had been taken into custody in Beijing by the people and confined to a Police station for a day. To my serious embarrassment, he tried to make an issue of it though I knew that I had been apprehended through mistaken identity as an Indian trying to spy outside Beijing. My embarrassment was removed only when the U.N.P lost the election and Mrs. Bandaranaike sent instructions to drop the matter. I continued to enjoy the confidence of the Chinese government to the extent of receiving favourable responses on rice negotiations throughout my stay and even being given an official send-off dinner by the Chinese officials despite my lower diplomatic ranking at the time. That was something unusual.

This may appear a rather lengthy discourse on a small point and a rather harsh observation, but its significance is that it points to the truism that academic reading of source material and their assessment can at times miss out the reality which practitioners of foreign affairs are familiar with. (Anyway, that is the view of a former diplomatic practitioner like me). But one can see some linkages being developed between the two positions of practice of foreign affairs and the academic assessments of international relations, a manifestation of which is the rise of a new generation of ‘peace-vallas’, ‘peace-negotiators’, conflict–resolution experts, INGOS and NGOS, some making a living on it and increasing their tribe.

With my admiration and reverence to my old friend for his earlier contributions to analysis of domestic politics and their relationship to external factors without dependence on these external models, it seems to me that yielding to such foreign models to understand Sri Lanka’s situation is more than a bit far-fledged. The author could have stood on his own ground as an experienced well honed analyst of domestic politics without such overbearing external theoretical support. However, the attempt made by him to guide the inquiry as he has done, only points to the involuntary imposition of present day scholarly (abstract) trends in approaching national issues in relation to external influences. That is getting away from the perspective of ‘real politique’ involved. This is no condemnation, however, of the author’s choice which he, as an academic, is free to choose and present his arguments accordingly.

The last two Chapters

For the purpose of this essay, because of space constraints, I shall concentrate on a few comments in general and on the last two chapters in particular, namely, "Indian military presence and domestic politics of Sri Lanka" and the conclusion: "Sri Lanka’s foreign policy options in the 1990s."

Though one gets the impression at the outset that Shelton has got caught up in the midst of external models, as his inquiry proceeds one sees that he is escaping from this clasp-hold and his analysis returning to more familiar old terms but with more refinement of phraseology. In other words, he seems to have used the external models to review to some extent his own earlier writings on the domestic issue and India’s role to bring them closer to present day ideology and phraseology.

My own view is that there was no need for even such reinterpretation in extraneous light and he could have gone on his own steam and standing as a seasoned researcher. He tries to review his own earlier writing on Sri Lankan foreign policy from the time of the first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake through Sir John Kotalawala’s, the Bandaranaike’s and J.R.Jayewardene’s to the time of the 18th September 1989 agreement with India for the pull out of the IPKF but there is not much change in the substance or the interpretations except a little emphasis on the lines of his theoretical external perceptions for which he has shown some preference lately.

Shelton’s appraisals of prospects for a future settlement of major issues between the Sinhalese and Tamils, conceived against those theoretical parameters I described above, also seems to follow a sympathetic appreciation of issues as they stood in 1990, including the role of actors such as the LTTE from the point of view of academic perceptions he quotes at the beginning of the book.

The chapter also brings out much information on hitherto overlooked factors in the development of domestic politics. For example, there are certain points in the statements attributed to the former LTTE idealogue, Anton Balasingham which suggest that the LTTE, as the author observes, though not giving a direct reply to the question if they had abandoned the pursuit of a separate state, however, says that the LTTE was, at around 1990, in a mood to go along in joining the main stream of politics to the extent, at least as a first step, of participating in elections to the Provincial Council, subject to conditions, of course. Whether this was a ploy or not on the part of the LTTE was not important to the author. He does not get into such a discussion. He seemed to be thinking more in terms of a particular turn of events in the LTTE frame of mind, a certain mutation from the hard line it held up to that time. This type of approach could be the result of reliance on the theory of looking beyond ‘state-centric’ approach to political problems more than playing attention to nuances of ‘real politique.’ Any hard-line officials may not have been ready to recognize the nuances in the LTTE position. That type of academic perception is not altogether irrelevant. It is on that type of assessment of openings available that peace lobbies and conflict –resolving experts base their work.

This is then a situation where I see Shelton though rising above parochial politics and rhetoric and even quick diplomatic analysis, places trust on the words of ideologue Anton Balasingham and former Deputy, Mahendrarajah, not taking into account what the LTTE Supremo, Prabhakaran’s views were. That Mahendrarajah was later tortured and put to death by the LTTE leader and Balasingham was side-lined which events took place after the period covered by the book was closed, point to a different direction of events than perceived by the author. Whether or not Balasingham was used as a ‘front-man’ by Prabhakaran has not been gone into as a result of the overall approach selected by the author.

One bit of interesting information which can be elicited from the description relating to the Civilian Voluntary Force (CVF) -later Tamil National Army- is the recruitment of young school boys who for all intents and purposes, were under age youth – the so called child soldiers- who had been allegedly taken from homes by the EPRLF, ENDLF, and TELO, and enlisted for military training by the IPKF. (pp. 220-221). This is an aspect at which one can look with askance! Did the LTTE learn from this precedent?

The way the author has presented the situation of inter-group rivalry, the demand to carry arms as a security measure, that the government was willing to accommodate to the extent of withdrawing troops are revealing. I may even ask the question if President R. Premadasa ordering the Police in the East to surrender to the LTTE as a result of which over 600 unarmed Policemen were taken to the jungles by the latter, shot dead at point blank range and their bodies burnt in mass graves was the result of that mis-guided accommodation.

These are sometimes issues that academics who rely on foreign models and superficial evidence ignoring ‘real ploitique’ will miss out. This is, however, not a condemnation of Shelton’s assessment but suffice it to show that the LTTE leader has not shown any such accommodation on what his real objective is. No amount of white-washing by the more ‘exposed’ LTTE personnel like the late Anton Balasingham could change the hermitic LTTE leader’s perception of things. The latter’s background is conditioned not by learning or international exposure but by the inheritance from Velvatithurai smugglers, who were the descendants of earlier pirates -the seafaring people who sustained the so called Tamil kingdom through acts of piracy, to which Ibn Batuta, the 14th century Moroccan traveler referred. (The Moroccan called Ariyachakravarti, a "vicious/perverse sea pirate.").

In conclusion, the author discusses the future course (as they stood in 1990) that Indo-Sri Lankan relations might take and observes that this might depend on the attitudes that each party will take to the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. In the ensuing discussion, he discusses the division of opinions on the two sides, the GOSL claiming that the accord is dead but India insisting that the Letters Exchanged are binding. Though the author does not comment on it, it makes it clear that the objective of the Accord was not so much extracting an arrangement from the GOSL for the Tamils of the North and the East but India gaining a foothold in the island’s foreign policy direction and its strategic assets, a view on which leading Tamil opinion including that of the LTTE had not been in disagreement, but for different reasons. Against this background, the author examines the pros and cons of the proposed Friendship Treaty between the two countries which was subjected to negotiations but has since been shelved. As he observes for Sri Lanka, the proposed Treaty was a way out of the one-sided obligations imposed on her by the Letters Exchanged in 1987.

The author’s final remark on the future of Indo-Sri Lanka relations, made in the context of the withdrawal of the IPKF is that one should not be complacent as to think that with that withdrawal of Indian forces the curtain has come down, meaning that there may not be reason to think that there will be no future interventions.

This volume is a valuable intellectual exercise written from a somewhat different perspective with different emphasis, by an experienced researcher on Indo-Sri Lankan relations. It certainly adds to the assessment of the issues laid before the readers so far. It is one which both policy makers and researchers should not miss to read.

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