Speech in the Votes of the Ministry of External Affairs At the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate – December 7th 2010
Posted on December 10th, 2010

Rajiva Wijesinha

In discussing the votes of the Ministry of External Affairs, Mr Speaker, we should look at the situation in which Sri Lanka found itself five years ago, and what we have now. In those days, we seemed to be wholly dependent on what called itself the international community, so much so that representatives of that community thought they held the balance between conflicting forces in Sri Lanka. Sadly, so deep had the rot sunk that it was outsiders who had to make the position clear, while some of those who represented Sri Lanka spoke slightingly of military solutions to the terrorist problem, and thought it their duty to keep what they thought the international community satisfied.

The United Nations in those days in effect provided funds to a terrorist movement, and made excuses for child soldiers, claiming that the LTTE could not stop recruiting youngsters of 17 until they had amended their legislation to prevent this. Ambassadors to Sri Lanka preached to us about reconciliation, and expected us to fall in line with whatever they prescribed. High Commissioners felt free to denigrate government officials, and swallowed wholesale stories spun by crafty journalists. Funds intended to assist the Sri Lankan people were not given to government, nor indeed allocated in accordance with government priorities, but were rather given to agencies that thought their rationale was to attack government.

All that, Mr Speaker, has now changed “”…” though I should note that there is more work to do in this respect, for instance to ensure that our national institutions are built up instead of international funding continuing to go to external agencies, with no regard for our own priorities. And we must continue to register clearly, and work in terms of, the simple fact that any country will base its foreign policy on the interests of its own citizens. Less acceptably, we must understand too that some politicians will confuse the interests of their country with their own personal electoral considerations. Unfortunately, in having relied so heavily in what the Opposition thought of as its Western safety net, we laid ourselves open to abuse when those holding the safety net put their own safety first.

We had then, Mr Speaker, to rethink our foreign policy, or rather to return to the roots that had held us in such good stead for the first quarter century after independence, before the adventurism of the Jayewardene government caused us such humiliation. Instead of putting all our eggs in a single frail basket, and alienating all others, we reverted to the principle that, I like to think, Mahinda Thero had suggested when he brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka from India.

In testing the King as to his capacity then, he asked him some very simple questions, beginning by pointing out a mango tree in the woodland in which the King had been hunting. He asked him first whether there were any other mango trees, which the King pointed out. He then asked if there were trees other than those other mango trees, and the King assented and pointed some out. He then asked if, apart from those other mango trees, and those other trees that were not mango trees, there were any other trees in the woodland. The King thought hard, and then pointed out the original mango tree, whereupon Mahinda Thero pronounced him fit to be taught the new religion.

Taking that story as a parable we should realize that we need, in our interactions with the world, to think in circles, beginning with those closest to us. Ultimately we have to register the centrality of the self, which with regard to foreign policy means the supremacy of the interests of our own country. But we should think in terms of our kinship to those that surround us, and then of our kinship too with those further away.

This government, Mr Speaker, has achieved much success by following that principle. We have concentrated first on our relations with the SAARC region, and then with Asia, all of which were neglected in the dangerous flirtation with strange gods that began in 1977 and was then reintroduced in 2002. We have also looked further afield, as our most successful ambassador at a time of difficulty, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, did in Geneva, when he built up a coalition of the principled, not one of those willing, to do anything and use anyone, to fulfil their own personal or national goals. Our coalition, Mr Speaker, included many countries in the Middle East and Africa and Latin America, to overcome the threat of renewed terrorism that, we now know clearly, was being encouraged, as we had long suspected, by extraneous electoral considerations.

We need now Mr Speaker to build on those early principles. We have achieved much, but we can for instance do more with the Association of South East Asian Nations, given the long history of cultural contact with that region, and our shared heritage. We should be working harder to build up contacts in South America, following the tremendous impact Ambassador Kunanayagam had in the different stations in which she served. And even in Europe we should diversify, building on the goodwill that the new crop of ambassadors here has evinced, to promote solid trade relations with countries where mature politicians will ignore trivial electoral considerations. Tragically, as we move towards a more mature understanding of the actual shape of the world, we find people who complain childishly of ambassadors when they are positive about Sri Lanka claiming that our “ƒ”¹…”standing in the modern world’ has been eroded.

But the habits these dinosaurs of the United National Party inculcated die hard, and we should therefore institute more rounded training, so that members of our Foreign Service will be able to deal with the wide range of problems the contemporary world, with its recurring tensions, throws up. We should be able to look at relationships through the prism suggested over two thousand years ago, as a philosophical principle rather than a reaction to contingencies, to see where our real interests lie, and how we can promote these while not upsetting others unnecessarily. At the same time, when others upset us unnecessarily, we should deal with them firmly, since undue indulgence to obvious impropriety has allowed individuals without scruples to do us down.

Sadly, some of this impropriety has been encouraged by some members of the Opposition. I am glad that others in the Opposition have now begun to speak out against denigration of this country by its citizens for parochial electoral considerations or other more insidious ways of achieving power or other creature comforts. But it is truly pitiful to see senior leaders of the Opposition jumping on, or even trying to create, a bandwagon, in the belief that this will win them favour. To claim that it is correct to assume that “ƒ”¹…”the West expects a higher standard of governance’ while denigrating Asian nations, including it seems India and China, shows wholesale ignorance of not just recent revelations, but the whole shoddy history of patronage for dictators provided they were clients. We saw what happened in the eighties, when India was treated so shabbily, with President Jayewardene trying to sell tank farms and facilities for broadcasting, with an obsequiousness that even the West had to reject, when it advised him to recognize Asian realities.

But the era of assuming that Western patronage was all that was required for success is now at an end, Mr Speaker, in the new thinking that may breathe life again into the United National Party. I hope that the elected Government of this country, whilst benefiting from constructive criticism, will in future get all the assistance it requires from all Sri Lankans, to promote the goals of this country, in harmony with our neighbours as well as the world at large. Our Minister of External Affairs is well equipped to take us forward in practice and in principle, and we should support the Ministry to work consistently in pursuit of the vision he and His Excellency the President have so effectively sketched out.

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