Look beyond confrontation to co-operation

A prime issue that forces itself on the more reflective sections is whether British Foreign Secretary David Milliband has militated against the norms of constructive international engagement among states by addressing a gathering of overseas-based Tamil groups, which are seen by some as LTTE sympathizers, on current controversial Sri Lankan issues. On the face of it, the British Foreign Secretary could be said to have violated the norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of a friendly state, by speaking on the questions at issue and that too in the British House of Commons, an evocative symbol in the ‘Mother of All Democracies’, where debate should aim at being balanced and constructive in nature.

Britain has right along shown solicitous concern for Sri Lanka over its ethnic travails and this is highly appreciated, but the issues broached and commented on by Milliband are of a highly sensitive nature and are best handled delicately and discreetly on the basis of diplomatic norms and forms, at a state- to- state level, if Britain insists that it needs to discuss them with Sri Lanka. Apparently, Milliband has abandoned all semblances of diplomatic correctness by commenting on the concerned questions with a bluntness and insensitivity that smacks more of big power brow-beating than the conduct of an informed discourse among equal states in the comity of nations. To make matters worse, the speech is suggestive of partisanship and bias – qualities that are most unbecoming of the foremost diplomat in a number one liberal democracy.

By saying this we do not mean to imply that the issues concerned should not be discussed openly by the ‘free world’. They should be commented on intelligently by all those who mean well by Sri Lanka, but it is a different matter when the British Foreign Secretary pitches head-long into them in the manner if a parish-pump politician and that too amid persons who could not be expected to reflect on Lankan issues unemotionally. Whereas one would expect ‘our good friend’ Britain to hold the scales evenly in the thrust and parry of debates on Lankan issues, Milliband’s intervention carries with it more than a whiff of big power involvement in the internal affairs of one of its former colonies.

However, we do not intend to go overboard with what may be called righteous indignation on this issue. We think that right along, the West did not get its act right in addressing issues stemming from the Lankan state’s final onslaught on LTTE lawlessness and terror, in May 2009 and the months preceding it. Whereas, the West should have summed-up all the constructive energies it could muster, in handling the issues flowing from Sri Lanka, it sought to use what came to be seen in some sections in Sri Lanka as the big stick and thereby forfeited the goodwill of quite a few sections of this country. We need hardly say that by conducting themselves in ways that injure the sensitivities of many in this country, countries such as Britain are only firming the foundation for troubled relations between them and Sri Lanka. Even if the possibility exists of co-operatively putting things right in this country, the Big Brother mentality of some officials of the West would only undermine these chances.

That said, we do not intend to take-up the position that we could indefinitely shy away from issues that need immediate handling and resolving. To begin with, it would be patently unfair to claim that all sections of the Tamil Diaspora are seeking to promote the LTTE agenda in Sri Lanka. It is, consequently, not clear whether all those assembled to hear Milliband, were seeking the ruin of Sri Lanka. However, what was abundantly plain was that the issues growing out of Lanka’s ethnic conflict are hardly dead. The military onslaught by the Lankan state was necessary to neutralize the Tigers but one would be naïve in the extreme to take-up the position that the conflict has, therefore, been resolved.

A consrtructive approach aimed at finally resolving the Lankan conflict would seek to engage the goodwill and energies of all Lankans in rejuvenating this land and President Rajapaksa could not have done better than to call on also the Tamil Diaspora to contribute abundantly in the country re-building effort. Our hope is that this call will be heeded. Meanwhile, we hope that the government would spare no efforts to make President Rajapaksa’s vision of bringing ‘peace for all’, a reality.

If the Diasporic community is continuing to be seen as engaging in activities which are not Lankan-friendly, this is because the issues at the heart of our conflict are yet to be resolved and, without doubt, one of these is equality of opportunity and condition, without which it is futile to speak of fostering fundamental rights. The government has pledged itself to accelerated development, but it must also not spare any pains to resolve the political issues at the heart of the conflict, such as, the equal empowerment of all. As long as this programme of work is not actively pursued by the government, we would not have perfect peace.

It is also only fair that we point out that constructive engagement with the world community is a two-way process. While there is no denying that the world should seek a co-operative relationship with Lanka, the latter should seek to do likewise with the West in particular. This is the basis of international and inter-state peace and we urge our foreign policy establishment to base our foreign relations on these time-tested principles.

Besides, Sri Lankan decision-makers need to realize that this country is not India or China – two phenomenal power houses of the global economy. We are likely to have tough times in the future on account of the prevailing uncertain world economic climate. The suspension of the GSP plus facility is no laughing matter and it would be naïve to presume that any economic hardships that come in the wake of this suspension could be easily overcome. We need to forge co-operative ties with the rest of the world to face the imminent economic challenges and anti-social behaviour by those in positions of power locally is something Sri Lanka just cannot afford to have.

This calls for the restoration of our proved and tested principle of Non-alignment. This principle does not only denote neutrality in foreign affairs. It also points to the need for friendly ties with all. That this principle should never be abandoned, is proved by the foreign policy successes scored by India. We too need to orientate our foreign policy in the same direction.

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