by Rajan Philips
No one in America would have noticed their roving Secretary of State taking off on an official visit to Asia during the last week of this year’s presidential election campaign. For that matter, even in Asia far more people are following the US election than paying attention to Mike Pompeo’s visit to their countries. In India especially, there is likely to be a very keen interest in the current US election if only because Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, is the American born daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Mr. Pompeo of course belongs to the Republican Party. Not merely is he not a formally apolitical diplomat, he belongs to the right wing faction of the Republican Party – the infamous Tea Party faction. A former Congressman, Pompeo has future presidential ambitions and was strongly encouraged by the Republican Party to run for the Senate seat in Kansas this year. He decided not to. So, what is he doing now visiting India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia? Especially India, with Defence Secretary Mark Esper, on a so called ‘2+2 dialogue’ visit – diplomatese for bilateral meetings between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of two countries?
Did either Prime Minister Modi or President Rajapaksa ask Secretary Pompeo, “You think Trump will win?” The way Boris Yeltsin is said to have asked Bill Clinton as they shook hands on the steps of the White House, “You think OJ is innocent?” This is according to CNN’s Larry King, in 1995, during the OJ Simpson trial that transformed the Atlanta (Georgia) based CNN into a global gossip machine. The November 3 presidential election is being described as hugely consequential, and the results will be consequential for Pompeo himself. There is not much certainty that if Trump wins he will keep Pompeo as Secretary, and he will certainly be out if Trump were to lose. Three times out of four the chances are that Mr. Pompeo may not remain as Secretary after the January inauguration of either the incumbent Trump, or challenger Joe Biden.
A Trump second term will ensure the continuity of unpredictable chaos in US foreign policy. A Biden victory, on the other hand, will likely restore it to the pre-Trump era, perhaps more in tone and style than in substance. Far reaching changes under a Biden presidency are likely to be mostly on the domestic front, at least in the short term. Reversing the Trump legacy in global affairs will take time. There will not be much of a reversal in substance, in America’s policy towards China and Asia.
If there is a pattern to Trump’s foreign policy, there are also about five aspects to it. First, the repudiation of everything that Obama did; to wit, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Second, Trump’s rhetoric of making America great again, a bigoted and racist version of the old unilateralism. Third, the straining of America’s ties with its traditional western allies all of which are constitutional democracies given to disciplined and institutionalized decision making in internal and external affairs. Trump’s bullying and browbeating of NATO, its member countries, and leaders are in this category. Fourth, making new connections with regions and governments which are more autocratic and with whom agreements can be reached through personalized transactions without little or no institutional engagements. Trump’s personal admiration for Putin, his “good feelings” for Erdogan and Duterte, the mutual-admiration diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and the recent agreements involving Israel, the small Gulf States and Sudan under American auspices, are examples of Trump’s global initiatives. It is also well within his presidential pale to look for business opportunities for the Trump enterprise in the external deals he makes for America.
India, China, and America
The fifth and final aspect of Trump’s foreign policy involving China draws on all of the above and ratchets them up into the uniquely Trumpian tariff tantrums. Nonetheless, there is considerable consensus within America and the western hemisphere – about being tough on China. There is also a quiet and begrudging admission in the West and in China’s officialdom that Trump’s impulsive tactics have been effective. The difference under a Biden Administration would be in taking a multilateral approach towards the Asian power unlike the personalized style and unilateral thrust that Trump has been wielding. The rest of Asia is caught in the middle, with the difference that East Asian countries are more directly implicated than South Asian countries.
India, unmoored from its old Cold War, Soviet era alliances that excluded the US, is now central to the US response to the rising Chinese challenge in Asia. In addition, the Modi government and Trump Administration have much common ideologically, and the recent border skirmishes between India and China have given the US a reason to take India’s side and protest against China. Secretary Pompeo did just that quite vehemently on this visit. The bilateral meetings generated quite a collection of agreements, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on geospatial cooperation (BECA). Indian officials are pleased with the visit of the two powerful US Secretaries a week ahead of the presidential election to sign the BECA. They viewed it as a “demonstration to the world at large” of the importance that the U.S. attaches to India.
From New Delhi Pompeo shuttled to Colombo to “underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Once in Colombo, Secretary Pompeo added: “That’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.” This was after President Rajapaksa had made it clear that “he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be,” according to the statement issued by the Presidential Media Division. The President had also indicated that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is “determined by several conditions including historical and cultural relations and development cooperation. He made it a point to note that “China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war … (and) that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.”
The two sets of statements capture the unique bind that Sri Lanka is in as China and the US make their manoeuvres for dominance in Asia. Add to that India’s sensitivity about its South Asian backyard. As well, there are internal factors contributing to Sri Lanka’s external dilemmas. The country is not a military power, except for internal put-downs. It carries nobody’s military bases, but endlessly labours under the illusion that every power in the world has a special strategic desire for Trincomalee. And it has serious preexisting conditions – fruitless historical preoccupations, highly poisoned internal ethnic politics, and a post-independence record of gross economic underachievement. All of which can be collectively overcome by a strong and rational leadership in government; in the absence of such leadership, Sri Lanka is left facing a set of mutually reinforcing dilemmas in its relationships with India, China, and America.
With India, Sri Lanka is constrained to have excellent government-to-government and elite-level relationships, while carefully nursing a deep seated political animosity towards that country. Political pandering to anti-Indian populism invariably carries the heavy economic price of missing out on business opportunities and bilateral trade advantages between two countries that share an enviably proximate market area. China has emerged as the lender of first resort, and increasingly so for Sri Lanka’s debt repayment cash-flow loans. All the while insisting that there is no debt trap and fancying that there is no limit to Chinese credit.
Long distance America is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, as well as a major destination for its footloose families whose familial extensions can now be conveniently (and constitutionally) anchored in dual citizenships. Yet, thanks to the exportation of the island’s poisoned ethnic politics, anti-Americanism in Sri Lankan society has degenerated from the formerly stirring leftist rhetoric of anti-imperialism – to the now stifling paradox of hating anything that is official-American, while coveting everything otherwise-American for private progression.
This is a rough-sketch of the backdrop to Secretary Pompeo’s Sri Lankan visit. The missing elephant that cannot be fitted into this background is, ironically, as metaphorical proportions go, the novel coronavirus. It is the coronavirus that has become the perverse unifier of the world, and even giving the US and China another frontier to bicker about. China stands accused by the US as the originator of the virus, and Secretary Pompeo is one of the more ardent American accusers of China.
But no country in the world has so messed up its response to the virus as the United States of America, and it is the virus more than anything else that has transformed the routine quadrennial presidential election into a most consequential election in over hundred years. So, we return to the question that Modi or Rajapaksa may or may not have asked of Pompeo: “you think Trump will win?”
Who will win in America?
In a nutshell, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, winning 30 States and 306 Electoral College votes against Hillary Clinton’s 20 States and 232 Electoral College (EC) votes. Trump passed the EC threshold of 270 votes and became President, even though he lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million votes – 62.9 M to 65.8 M. Crucial to Trump’s victory were his unexpected wins by extremely narrow margins in three traditionally Democratic mid-western States, viz. Pennsylvania (20 EC votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), yielding a total of 46 EC votes. If Hillary Clinton had won all three of them as she was predicted to, she would have won the presidency with 278 (232+46) EC votes to Trump’s 260 (306 minus 46) EC votes. But Hillary lost the three States, and Trump won the election. The rest has been four years of Trump presidency.
This time the Democratic Candidate and former (Obama’s) Vice President, Joe Biden, is healthily leading all the national opinion polls, just as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. But once bitten, the Democrats and polling pundits are twice shy about making bold predictions of Biden win this time. However, in 2016 while leading nationally, Mrs. Clinton’s leads over Trump in the three States she lost were within polling errors and she was vulnerable to a minor surge in Trump’s votes and a drop in hers. That is what happened eventually in 2016, whereas in this election, Joe Biden is showing healthy leads in the three States that he should win, and in half a dozen other States which also Trump won narrowly in 2016 and where he is vulnerable now. Trump cannot lose any of them.
Although Trump was not predicted to win last time, there were factors in the background that were able to coalesce and push him over the victory bar. This time the same factors are either absent, or have turned against him. His novelty to politics was a significant attraction among many voters in 2016. This time he is not new and he has to run against his record as President. The worst part of his record is the way he personally and by his leadership responded to Covid-19. Covid-19 became the biggest challenge of his presidency and even whatever public life he has had, and it exposed the worst in him. After he won the 2016 election, Trump never exercised moderation in anything to expand his electoral constituency beyond the narrow-minded and extreme political base that stands in unapologetic solidarity with him.
What is should be surprising, even shocking, is that for all his outrageous deviations from the basic norms of civilized society and politics, Trump should still command 30% to 40% support within the American population. That is what the opinion polls constantly tell us. Are the polls missing something – especially the voices of racially marginalized people who are either suppressed from or unmotivated towards voting in elections? At least that part of it seems to be changing in the current election. In 2016, 136 million people voted in the presidential election, which is 55% of America’s voting age population. This year, the advance voting – in person and by mail, reached 78 million, or 50% of the total 2016 vote a week before election day on November 3.
People have been waiting in long queues and over long hours in every City and in every part of America to cast their vote ahead of the election day. The long queues and long hours also tell the story of inadequate voting infrastructure – deliberately done to keep marginalized people from participating in the electoral process. Trump knew he was only going to win by keeping ordinary people as far away from voting as possible. In the end he may have provoked an unprecedented enthusiasm and surge in American voting. Is he going to win or lose? We will know before next Sunday.
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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!