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New-Old Foreign Policy?



by Dr Sarala Fernando

Foreign policy is usually defined in terms of the international promotion and protection of the country’s national interests which includes the projection of the country image abroad to attract aid, trade and investment cooperation. Today, with rising nationalism and in the backdrop of de-globalization, more than ever before, foreign policy-making is looking inward as seen most visibly in President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign pledge. However, as practitioners can testify, “reliability” and “continuity” are also hallmarks of a robust foreign policy. This is why the style of “disruption”, familiar in business strategy and characteristic of Mr Trump, does not sit well with traditional diplomacy and has caused consternation and criticism of the US, not least from long time partners like Canada and the EU.

Yet to be fair to Mr Trump, he is carrying out his election pledges, building the controversial wall on the border with Mexico, re-negotiating or taking the US out of multilateral agreements which were considered unfavourable to US interests whether on trade or climate change, stopping funding of UN organizations (like WHO) whose operational behavior was considered inimical to US interests, finding a “permanent” solution to the Middle East question including by moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, working towards bringing American soldiers back home from old theatres of war like the Korean peninsular and Afghanistan etc. Despite the criticism from home and abroad, President Trump has persisted in his roller coaster course, probably propelled by the need to cultivate his main constituent voting blocs before the November Presidential election, ignoring the calls for global accommodation.

In this background, it is perhaps not surprising that on the heels of resounding election results, reversals on foreign policy appear to be also taking place in Sri Lanka. However the problem is that before the elections, there had been a general consensus among all the political parties as to the value of Sri Lanka’s traditional non-aligned foreign policy. President Gotabaya’s visionary speech at Ruwanvelisaya had moreover outlined a policy of “neutrality” to avoid being sucked into power rivalry, friendship- with- all in the expectation of reciprocal respect for our sovereignty (mutuality principle) and open to the need for international cooperation including with the UN on the SDGs . This speech should be made available on the Foreign Ministry website as it sets out important foreign policy objectives.

In that context, eyebrows were raised in Sri Lanka when newly appointed Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage in the course of his first press interviews referred to Sri Lanka’s new strategic security policy as having an “India first” approach while adding that Colombo would remain open to dealing with other key players for “economic development”. Speculation is rife whether this means a departure from non-alignment which traditionally includes such provisions as non- participation in foreign military pacts, non- stationing of military bases and foreign troops on its soil etc. With Maldives recently entering into a security pact with the US, the question many are asking is whether the ‘new policy’ pronouncement by Foreign Secretary Colombage is a precursor to Sri Lanka signing the pending security and development agreements with the US (ACSA, SOFA and MCC) which had become so controversial in the eyes of the public. This speculation is also linked to the recent signing by the Maldives of a security pact with the US. It is said that India had been supportive of this new development despite some press commentary in India about the “crowding” of security interests in the Indian Ocean. India has lately become a major source of funds for the Maldives, thereby countering the early Chinese influence.

To give the affable Foreign Secretary his due, perhaps the phrase “putting India first” was just awkward, suggesting a courteous “kowtow” to a big neighbour, intended to reassure India that its security concerns would be addressed on a priority basis. However, with regard to the well known Indian complaint of Chinese submarines arriving in Sri Lanka unannounced, could these concerns have been better addressed by enacting a transparent and clear policy on port calls as suggested by former Foreign Secretary Palihakkara?

The central problem here is that for many years Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with India have been characterized as driven more by competition than by cooperation on a gamut of issues such that people are just plain distrustful of our giant neighbour. Soon after independence there were the issues of illicit immigration and contraband smuggling from India, the settling of the maritime border, the disputed sovereignty over Kachchativu and citizenship for the indentured labour from India. In the last three matters, bilateral diplomatic negotiations, complex and lengthy were eventually brought to conclusion, with India being persuaded to move on some of the more difficult points of contention such as its initial refusal to take back any of its citizens. I will not touch on the troubled relationship during the conflict years which my colleague John Gooneratne has amply documented in his book as the “Decade of Confrontation”. While the bilateral relationship can be managed, for better or worse, there remains the need to accept that, looking back on the diplomatic history, more often than not, respective national interests have diverged, so that careful identification of our national interests and building domestic public support for foreign policy changes, becomes key.

Centre-State politics have complicated India’s relations with its neighbours as pointed out by many academics and some commentators have argued that, of late, bilateral relations have deteriorated over new legislation brought in by the Modi government altering the status of Jammu and Kashmir, thereby affecting Pakistan, imposing restrictions affecting the residence status of those from neighboring states such as Bangladesh and developments on defining of the border affecting Nepal. But the Modi government has the strength of its parliamentary majority in Delhi which enables it to divorce foreign policy-making from centre-state politics. Perhaps this is why India has recently been able to offer Sri Lanka not only military training but also arms and equipment, judging by press reports on the prospects for increased bilateral security cooperation.

This leaves observers wondering whether Foreign Secretary Colombage’s “kowtow” had domestic political undertones and was intended to soften India’s stance with regard to the current campaign in Sri Lanka to amend the 13th Amendment? However India has always reiterated in its official statements the call for a full implementation of 13A which arose out of the 1987 Indo- Sri Lanka Agreement to Establish Peace and Normalcy in Sri Lanka.


On this matter, it should be remembered that India drives a hard bargain in respect of bilateral relations with its neighbours and it is difficult to see how they will retreat from the 1987 Agreement which has been interpreted as imposing a “lock” on Sri Lanka’s security policy and the use of its ports through the “secret” Annexures. One does not talk much today of these Annexures because they reflect India’s anxiety at the time over the US presence and its military bases in the Indian Ocean, which position has been totally reversed in the current era with India and the US becoming strategic security partners.

There has also been recent references in Sri Lanka to the 1971 Indian Ocean as Zone of Peace proposal made by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to the UN. However, this proposal has a historic context being linked to the expulsion of the indigenous inhabitants of Diego Garcia to make way for an American naval base. The IOPZ initiative eventually lost steam in the UN coming up against the doctrines of freedom of navigation on the high seas for all ships guaranteed by the 1958 Law of the Sea Convention. In Sri Lanka too there was opposition by those who argued that IOPZ was designed to keep extra- regional naval powers out of the Indian Ocean, and would have the effect of leaving room for regional powers to hold sway, at least two of them holding nuclear weapons. A different situation existed in South East Asia where ZOPFAN or Nuclear Free Zone of Peace worked as a confidence building measure for mutual security among members of ASEAN precisely because none of the ASEAN countries held nuclear weapons.

There is also difficulty in accepting Foreign Secretary Colombage’s view that there could be a separation between security and economic interests in developing bilateral relations with nations. India finally moved towards liberalizing its economy in the early 1990’s and since then it has been possible to build synergies with Sri Lanka, as seen in the ISLFTA and increased investment etc. However, looking back at the time of the armed conflict, which country helped us with our security needs, from planes to arms, ammunition and equipment ? Which “old friend” stood with us at the UN ready to help us even in the Security Council if need should arise when human rights attacks inspired by elements of the Tamil diaspora, were launched by the West over the conduct of the war? Can we forget the lessons of history while moving forward the “new” on the “old” security policy?

With much talk today of the impending new Cold War and the looming conflict between the US and China, priority should instead be given to carefully balance both bilateral relationships and avoid any impression of “taking sides”. In this background, there has been some speculation about the new diplomatic appointments to India and China. On the one hand, a former Minister, close to President Gotabaya, with strong personal connections to the US, given Cabinet rank ( a first in Sri Lanka) and posted to New Delhi as opposed to a charming light-weight to Beijing, whose appointment as Foreign Secretary broke the string of professional appointments from within the Foreign Service. While Delhi may be pleased to see the new appointment as a downgrading of the Sri Lanka- China relationship, what would be the reaction in Beijing?

( –  re ref to Palitha Kohona as reputed to have been a representative for a Chinese  company – I just thought it sounds “catty” . Although I saw this info in various press articles previously before the appointment was announced, in the present context it seems to have been wiped out of the cv etc on the net so best leave it out.

(Sarala Fernando PhD, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. She writes now on foreign affairs, diplomacy and protection of heritage).

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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.

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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!.

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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!

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