March of Folly Sri Lankan Foreign Policy
Posted on September 7th, 2018

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha Courtesy Ceylon Today

When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he responded that he thought it would be a good idea. One is tempted to say the same with regard to Sri Lankan foreign policy, but that would be to ignore what was an extraordinarily impressive profile in the second and third decades after independence.

The culmination was perhaps our chairing of the Non-Aligned Movement after the 1976 Summit at the newly opened BMICH, but we should also remember the international stature of Sri Lankans, beginning with Shirley Amerasinghe, who chaired discussions on the Law of the Sea, and was so admired that delegates wanted him kept on as Chairman even when he was removed by J. R. Jayewardene from the post of Permanent Representative at the UN.

That act was symbolic of the way in which Jayewardene deliberately destroyed what had been built up over the previous 20 years, largely because of the Bandaranaikes’. But the UNP too had contributed, notably though R. G. Senanayake’s dealings with China, which were supported by the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake.

S. P. Amerasingham’s book on the Rubber-Rice Pact is an instructive expose of that strand of thinking in the UNP which was bitterly opposed by J. R. and his supporters, notably Ranil Wickremesinghe’s father Esmond. There is a fascinating account in the book of how the Lake House Press initially supported the Pact, only to be reined in by Esmond, following what seems to have been ‘firm instructions’ by the Americans whose interests he served.

But in fairness to both Esmond and J. R., there was some consistency in the foreign policy they advocated, and implemented ruthlessly when J. R. achieved an absolute power that the West did not complain of in those days.

They believed that we needed to nail our colours firmly to the Western, or rather the American, mast. This meant that we lost the stature we had previously, but there was a reason for this in the 70’s and early 80’s, for those who believed that big business oriented capitalism was the only viable economic option.

Communism was clearly failing, and the variations on socialism that the Third World and most members of the Non-Aligned Movement had adopted were also flagging.

The extreme form of this that Sri Lanka had adopted had led to deep dissatisfaction in the seventies – though it must be remembered that the massive victory of the UNP in the 1977 Election was also due to rifts in the left under our then first past the post system (similar to the manner in which Mr. Bandaranaike had got a lopsided majority in 1956 because the UNP decision to campaign for a mandate to implement ‘Sinhala Only’ had alienated its Tamil supporters – who ironically voted for the left, which was how they emerged as the second largest group in Parliament).

Jayewardene’s foreign policy, faithfully implemented by his Minister A. C. S. Hameed then made some sense early on, though both of them and the Westernized youngsters they had recruited should have seen its limitations when the West did not back us to the hilt when tensions with India developed.

Though Thatcher was gung ho about it, the Foreign Office dissuaded her from acting on our Defence Treaty in Britain when Hameed was sent to London to invoke it. The Americans said categorically, when asked if they would support us in the event of a conflict with India, that we were best advised to avoid such conflict.

Therefore, in 1987, geopolitical realities came home to roost and we had to acknowledge India’s primacy. The Liberal Party at the time, in welcoming the Indo-Lankan Accord, noted three caveats, in particular the fact that we had signed up to consulting India on matters as to which we should have guarded our sovereignty.

We had previously noted that, in all those matters, Jayewardene had been foolish and unnecessarily provoked India, as for instance with regard to leasing land to the Voice of America.

However, while we deplored, his behaviour showed that we should have in all instances taken Indian interests into account, it was a pity that we registered this as it were by treaty. And I should note, once India was assured that Jayewardene had stepped back from the brink, of involving us as active cold warriors in a war that was no longer of significant, our large neighbour behaved impeccably and did not impose further.

While this little game was being played, world conditions were changing. Jayewardene continued to believe the United States was the only important player on the world stage, though later he accepted that regionally we had to accept Indian hegemony. Over the 90’s, it became clear that the rest of the world too wanted at least its dignity if not absolute independence with regard to foreign policy.

It was in such a context that Lakshman Kadirgamar became our Foreign Minister, and tried to introduce an ideological shift into the Ministry. He had much difficulty, given the dependency to which its leading lights had grown accustomed.

But some of those he recruited have justified his hopes of a Sri Lankan as opposed to Western oriented foreign policy, though I will not mention names since the Ministry is still dominated by Hameed’s children, notably Kshenuka Seneviratne and Prasad Kariyawasam. For them, as an Indian commentator noted, the Third World is to be ignored except when a vote is needed.

Kadirgamar understood the need for change not just in the Ministry but with regard to policy, and that is why he paid so much attention to developing relationships with think tanks – especially those in China and India that contribute so much to the professional and innovative approach of officials. He also worked well with Dayan, who was the principal thinker on the Board of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, which Kadirgamar chaired with such commitment.

Kadirgamar did much to raise our stature in the world, but unfortunately he could not do much in his second stint as Foreign Minister for Chandrika, instead, turned to Jayantha Dhanapala – whose anti-Indian approach Kadirgamar deplored.

Fortunately Chandrika’s term was cut short before she could do much damage, but sadly the LTTE killed Kadirgamar before he could have taken the place of Prime Minister and principal policy maker with regard to the world, which would have welcomed the leadership he could have provided.

Thus ended the first renaissance, but the reason I feel he could have achieved wonders was because of what Dayan achieved when he was made Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva. The position is not in itself of great importance on the world stage, but Dayan managed to put together a coalition of likeminded countries that made mincemeat of the effort of the West to dragoon the United Nations Human Rights Council into subservience.

I was witness to the admiration in which he was held, not only by the Indians, Pakistanis, Russians, and Chinese, but also Africans, South Americans, and the Islamic nations led by Egypt and Iran. One of the Africans has noted how they all felt a sense of triumph when we conclusively defeated the efforts of the West to put us in the dock for destroying terrorism on our soil. And the Iranians were keen that we should take on the Chair of the G 17, which saw a chance to assert itself on the world stage.

The response to that initiative, however, shows the strength of the forces ranged against the vision Kadirgamar had embodied and which Dayan was able to advance. Dayan got no response from Mahinda Rajapaksa to the proposal, so he got me to call him, having no trust in the Ministry. The President’s response was that his Foreign Minister – Rohitha Bogollagama – had told him that the group served no purpose, consisting of countries of no importance.

When I pointed out that it included India, Brazil, and South Africa, the President realized that something was wrong. But he told me, when I said his Foreign Minister knew nothing, that he was the Foreign Minister, and I should speak to him. I did, and found Bogollagama both amiable and willing to acknowledge his mistake. He granted he had been misled, and agreed to tell the President to accept the invitation.

Sadly, neither he nor Mahinda Rajapaksa wondered how and why he had been misled. Then, Mahinda Rajapaksa committed the first of the mistakes that contributed to himself in eroding his 2009 triumph. He sacked Dayan from the post of PR in Geneva, and appointed Kshenuka Seneviratne.

Therefore, the G 17 died – so did the coalition Dayan had built up so successfully in Geneva. The bridges built to India, that sustained us during the war, were allowed to collapse. Not only was Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated, we crawled back into subservience to the West, with sensible people like Ravinatha Ariyasinha forbidden to negotiate with regard to the resolution critical of us, the West had put forward.

Now, Maithripala Sirisena has again made Dayan an ambassador. How this might change things will be explored next week.

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