By Neville Ladduwahetty
The Additional Secretary to the President for Foreign Relations, Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage in an interview stated: “The foreign policy of the new government is based on some key pillars. The number one is neutrality. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has repeatedly stated in Sri Lanka and India and in his interaction with the press and the diplomatic community, that his primary responsibility is maintaining neutrality. We don’t want to be labelled or get caught in this power game (Daily Mirror, January 28, 2020).
However, expanding on the above policy in his current position as Foreign Secretary, Admiral Prof. Colombage, during the course of an interview to Derana 24 news channel stated: “Very categorically, the President has stated that we have a strategic security-wise ‘India first’ policy because we cannot be, we should not be, we can’t afford to be a strategic security threat for India, period,” (August 20, 2020).
The need for Sri Lanka to conduct foreign relations with other countries in a manner that is not a security threat to India was a bitter lesson Sri Lanka, learnt several decades ago at great cost in terms of blood and treasure that lasted three decades. The lesson Sri Lanka learnt was that if Sri Lanka engages in relations with countries such as the USA, or any other whose interests may be perceived by India to be inimical to the latter’s interests, in particular security, India would not hesitate to convey its displeasure at such developments in a manner of its choosing.
However, the circumstances at that time were different. India was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and global politics was determined by two recognised super powers. While the majority of countries were Non-aligned, others opted to be aligned with either one of the two super powers. Today, geopolitics is defined by a single super power, the USA, that is being challenged by a rising power, aspiring to be the other super power or even the sole super power: China. In such a background, India is no longer serious about staying committed to being non-aligned. Instead, it is an integral component of Quad, namely, a security-related alliance made up of the US, India, Japan and Australia, crafted as a feature of the US Policy ‘Pivot to Asia’. This alliance is preparing itself to counter China’s involvement in the Indian Ocean as part of its multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
It is in such an altered landscape that one has to consider whether India would or would not accept Sri Lanka caving into US pressure and signing the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Compact, the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Bearing in mind that India is known to have already signed similar agreements with the US and is a partner of the combined defense arrangements of Quad, would India consider Sri Lanka signing any of these agreements with the US a security threat to India? NO!. On the other hand, India might welcome Sri Lanka signing security related Agreements with the USA, because Sri Lanka would then inadvertently become a part of the Quad security alliance to counter the influence of China.
Under these circumstances, a policy of “India First” would mean that India would not have any security concerns with Sri Lanka if Sri Lanka becomes part of Quad by signing the three Agreements presented by the US, notwithstanding the sustained opposition expressed by the Sri Lankan public. For Sri Lanka to be in a position where its interests and that of its public are determined by any other State or States, is unacceptable. Therefore, ‘India First’ must be viewed with apprehension.
A way to overcome such hard choices is to rely on the President’s initial Foreign Policy of Neutrality; a position he declared to the nation and to the world during his inaugural acceptance speech in the hallowed precincts of Anuradhapura. It would only be a policy of Neutrality that would enable Sri Lanka to exercise its sovereign rights and at the same time ensure other States, in particular India and Quad, that Sri Lanka would be Neutral as far as security issues are concerned while engaging with all nations in respect of other issues. Such a policy would mean that when it comes to security no one is first. All are equal. This is of particular relevance in view of the emerging landscape in the Indian Ocean in respect of security issues
The Annual Report by the US OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE to Congress:” Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 states: “Beyond its current base in Djibouti, the PRC is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air, and ground forces. The PRC has likely considered locations for PLA military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan. The PRC and Cambodia have publicly denied having signed an agreement to provide the PLAN with access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base”.
Whether China is “considering and planning additional overseas military logistics facilities” or not, the several Ports already built by China in the Indian Ocean Rim countries could readily be transformed into military logistics facilities. In this regard Sri Lanka is particularly vulnerable because of all the countries referred to above, the uniqueness of the strategic location of Sri Lanka for military logistics in the Indian Ocean is a fact that is indisputable. Furthermore, China already has a logistic facility in Hambantota, even though not a military facility at this point in time. Consequently, Sri Lanka would be hard pressed to avoid the rivalry that is inexorably emerging between Quad and China.
In such a background, would a policy of Non-Alignment or looking East for support from regional organizations such as BIMSTEC and/or SAARC help Sri Lanka to deal with security related countervailing pressures that are engulfing Sri Lanka in various forms; the latest being sanctions imposed by the US on Companies involved with the Port City Project?
Non-alignment was relevant at a different time when the geopolitical construct was also different. During that time, India and Sri Lanka were on the same page as far as Foreign Relations were concerned as partners of the Non-Aligned Movement. Furthermore, no country was interested in establishing their footprint in Sri Lanka, and the Indian Ocean was not the hot bed of rivalry that it is today as a consequence of China attempting to regain its place in the world, and alliances such as Quad attempting to counter China’s efforts. In addition, by being part of Quad, India cannot realistically claim to be non-aligned. In such a context, Sri Lanka has to be specific and state with whom or what aspects of Foreign Relations Sri Lanka is not aligned with, if non-alignment is in fact its policy. In the absence of an unambiguous statement, the message should be that Sri Lanka’s relations with all States would be Neutral in respect of security related issues. Such a policy would enable Sri Lanka to stay clear of major power rivalries.
The suggestion that Neutrality was an appropriate policy to guide Sri Lanka’s Foreign Relations was mooted in an article titled “Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future” (Ladduwahetty, The Island, February 14, 2019). This article stated: “Traditional thinking as to how small States could cope with external pressures are supposed to be: (1) Non-alignment with any of the major centres of power; (2) Alignment with one of the major powers thus making a choice and facing the consequences of which power block prevails; (3) Bandwagoning which involves unequal exchange where the small State makes asymmetric concessions to the dominant power and accepts a subordinate role of a vassal State; (4) Hedging, which attempts to secure economic and security benefits of engagement with each power centre: (5) Balancing pressures individually, or by forming alliances with other small States; (6) Neutrality”.
Continuing, the article stated: “Of the six strategies cited above, the only strategy that permits a sovereign independent nation to charter its own destiny is neutrality, as it is with Switzerland and some Nordic countries, not only because domestic rivalries prevent the development of consistent policies for engagement with great powers but also because Sri Lanka does not have the skills or the level of sophistication to emerge unscathed from “grey zone coercion” of the great powers. Neutrality has relevance at this particular point in time because regional cooperation arrangements among countries in the Indian Ocean Rim and South and South East Asia have lost its appeal due to each country attempting to engage in arrangements that suit them best. Under the circumstances, how could neutrality translate itself in real terms”?
“Instead of making a public declaration that henceforth Sri Lanka would be neutral in its relations with the great powers, it would be more prudent to express neutrality via the manner in which Sri Lanka engages with the great powers. To start with, Sri Lanka should cease taking outright loans or loans to finance infrastructure projects however attractive the terms from either of the power blocks. Equally important is for Sri Lanka to cease participating in security related land or sea operations with either of the power blocs because they are clearly conducted to further their own security preparedness”.
In the current geopolitical setting where the Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka right in the middle of it has become a theater for rivalry between the security alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia (popularly referred to as the Quad), and China, the most prudent policy for Sri Lanka, given the prevailing geopolitical particularities is one of Neutrality, as advocated and articulated by the President during his inaugural speech in the hallowed precincts of Anuradhapura.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!