|The SAARC Summit and myth of Lanka’s international isolation|
|Thursday, 21 August 2008|
By: Dayan JAYATILLEKA
Sri Lanka is the Chairman of SAARC, the world’s most populous region. The importance of SAARC today is also evidenced by the presence of powerful observer states, ranging from the USA to China and Iran.The successful holding of SAARC under the chairmanship of President Rajapaksa is no small deal when one recalls that under President Premadasa - and I would say, due to no fault of his- a previous SAARC summit (in the early ’90s) was subject to absenteeism, in effect a soft boycott, by a single crucial player, leaving the rest of the region to turn up in solidarity.
No such thing happened this time. It was a spectacle of a broadly united South Asia under Sri Lanka’s leadership.
The fastest growing, most confident region of the world is Asia— and Sri Lanka is an organic component of it.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first act in the international arena after assuming the chairmanship of SAARC was to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, showcase of China’s wonderful synthesis of ultra-modern transformation and millennia-old tradition, and great gateway for East-West interaction.
At the WTO talks in Geneva India and China simply refused to blink in the face of Western pressure to agree to terms which the Asian powers and developing countries perceived as unbalanced. At the Security Council, South Africa and Vietnam supported Russia and China in blocking attempts to shift the global goal posts in the cases of Zimbabwe and Sudan.
At the NAM meeting in Tehran the Foreign Ministers of 115 countries reaffirmed the inalienable right of all countries to peaceful nuclear energy, prompting the Iranian President and the Foreign Minister to urge certain countries to “get the message”.
An adventuristic return to the Cold War in Europe could lead Russia to understand that its defensive geo-strategic interests in the face of encirclement are best served by realizing its destiny as a Euro-Asian power and strengthening its strategic ties with the East. In any event, this unfortunate New Cold War with its short sighted overstretching of a West, already caught up in two shooting wars and an economic crisis, cannot but enhance the position and prospects of Asia.
Sri Lanka’s international relations have problematic zones, of course. The relations with the EU are troubled. One does not know whether the EU renews GSP Plus or not.
But the EU is not the international community, and it is sad when Sri Lankans are psychologically dependent as to think so. It is not even all of Europe, as Russia readily reminds it.
I’ve heard the same story so many times. It’s the narrative of the nationalist government in the Third World - left wing, centrist or right wing nationalist-that started out with the blessings of the benign West, but soon blew it due to its own extremism, petulance or personality cult. The tale is retold from post-revolutionary Cuba through Mahathir’s Malaysia up to contemporary Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.
The story has Right and Left variants: in the former version the nationalist government in the Third World was disguising its malign intentions initially, taking the gullible West for a ride, but soon unmasked itself and revealed its true character.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh
at the 15th SAARC Summit in Colombo.
In its left wing version, the nasty West drove the innocent nationalists into the arms of the West’s competitors. Establishment social scientists use a model derived from the study of the French Revolution to posit a series of stages, in which the so-called rational moderates (a Prime Minister, Finance Minister or Foreign Minister) is replaced by the so-called irrational radicals (in the case of Cuba, the landmark was supposedly the resignation of President Urrutia), and the West awaits or works towards the next stage in which there is a backlash against the radicals (who have inevitably messed up the economy) and sanity is restored, with all being well once again, in the world.
What is most depressing is when the country’s own puppet politicians and commentators begin to echo these versions of the story.
The truth of the story is of course very different. Superficially, it is usually true that the nationalist government/regime in question started out with a seemingly positive relationship with the West. But the deeper truth is that underlying this frail truce, are real contradictions between the interests or perceived interests of the two sides, the nationalists and this or that Western power. In that sense the distancing or clash is inevitable.
Anti-Sri Lankan Spin
According to one reading, the EU ban on the LTTE is evidence of the goodwill that the West had for Sri Lanka even under the Rajapaksa administration, which was later squandered by the latter.
While a superficial reading would appear to support this, a deeper one would not. The crucial question remain unasked: what was the West’s policy towards Sri Lanka at the time the Rajapaksa administration came to office? And what was the policy of the Rajapaksa administration towards the West?
The West’s policy framework for Sri Lanka was rather simple: the CFA as it was operating in other words, peace at any cost with the Tigers. Whatever they did, the Sri Lankan state should not go to war, and if it did slip into war, it should pull back as soon as possible to negotiations.
If Sri Lanka is winning the war it should negotiate with a weakened LTTE, eschewing a drive for complete and final defeat of the enemy. In short, Sri Lanka was expected to desist from the policy the West adopts towards terrorism and adopt a policy which is the exact opposite.
Throughout the years of cold blooded murder and expansionism, the West did nothing to actively deter the Tigers. The so-called safety net did not exist. On the other hand, President Rajapaksa came to office on a nationalist ticket, representing public sentiment against appeasement and national humiliation.
The dominant Western approach was predicated on an assumption that President Rajapaksa explicitly and repeatedly rejected: that of “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”, with the former being non-Islamic and non-Marxist while the latter are those who claim to be Islamic.
This was the objective contradiction complicating the relationship between the West and the new administration in Colombo.
The EU ban on the LTTE was the result of two intersecting factors: the murder of Foreign Minister Kadirgamar and the West’s need to reprimand the Tigers for sabotaging the Tamil vote that could have accrued to its favourite son, former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The muted nature of the West’s response to the Kadirgamar murder and the opposition even within the EU to the ban, were telling evidence of the real attitude.
When the Tigers went to war, launching claymore attacks which consumed dozens of soldiers and sailors, including off-duty ones, the West did nothing. During the Mavil Aru crisis, when the Tigers finally bit off more than they could chew, cutting of the water supply of tens of thousands of peasants, the West was determined that Sri Lanka should not counter attack and that the desultory Norwegian mediation was the only way to go.
The End of Appeasement
The LTTE’s planning for The Final War which took the form of the LTTE’s withdrawal from talks in April 2003 and its subsequent sabotage of the Wickremesinghe candidacy, sank the policy of appeasement.
The LTTE’s aggression produced its dialectical result: the resurgent patriotism which brought President Rajapaksa to power. The contradiction was sharpened by the Tigers’ military attacks on a fledgling Rajapaksa administration. With Mavil Aru, the policy of appeasement died, as the Sri Lankan armed forces counterattacked. That counterattack turned uninterruptedly into an operation to liberate the vital Trincomalee area.
The Final War for Tamil Eelam had become the final war for the reunification of Sri Lanka. This contradiction between the West’s policy of the continuation of or return to its pacifistic policy of appeasement of the Tigers as represented by the CFA, came up against the Sri Lankan peoples’ nationalist, patriotic and anti-fascist determination to defeat LTTE fascism and liberate their country once and for all.
Whether the West was motivated by the pressure of the Tamil Diaspora, or a bias towards the minority Tamils (a hangover from colonial days when the only armed rebellions against British colonialism came from the Sinhalese), or a soft corner for the Tigers who were neither Islamic nor Marxist but a possible instrumentality, or a determination to replace a nationalist government with a pro-Western puppet, one does not know.
What we do know is that the majority of the Sri Lankan people had reached the end of their tolerance for the West’s preference and support for appeasement of the aggressive LTTE, and was determined to reassert their sovereignty and territorial unity.
Relative Standing, Comparative Performance
The golden age of Sri Lanka’s international relations was the two decade long period 1956-1976. The ten years that followed were a period of deviation from our natural Non Aligned vocation and constituency; a period of illusion and real isolation-unlike today’s imaginary one. When Sri Lanka’s airspace and sovereignty were violated, none came to our defense.
A retrospective glance at the periods that followed disproves the propaganda claim that the Rajapaksa administration’s supposedly unenlightened view on the ethnic issue is responsible for a crisis in our external relations.
Both President Premadasa and Kumaratunga maintained a discourse that was explicitly multiethnic, multilingual and multi-religious, which did not prevent the then UK High Commissioner from intruding in our internal affairs to a degree that he was declared persona non grata, and our neighbour from absenting itself from the SAARC summit.
President Kumaratunga’s projects for devolution (excessive in 1995 and 1997, appropriate in its year 2000 version) did not generate assistance from our neighbour in our greatest hour of need, during the Tiger offensive on Jaffna in 2000. President Kumaratunga was to express her dismay in an interview given to Nirupama Subramanian of the Hindu.
The recent disclosures by former UK High Commissioner David Gladstone to the BBC’s Sinhala Service give us a clue as to the reality. The report says that: Mr. Gladstone was expelled from Sri Lanka in 1991 by then President Ranasinghe Premadasa accusing him of interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.
The former British High Commissioner did not deny the accusation. The clear instructions by the British government to interfere to help protect human rights in Sri Lanka marked a new chapter in very long tradition of international diplomacy whereby diplomats did not openly criticise their host countries, according to Mr. Gladstone.
“Rules of diplomacy have actually changed. I was thrust into the situation to pioneer (in 1991) a new approach to international diplomacy while I was in Sri Lanka,” he said.
This is the reality: a new approach which marked a departure in a very long tradition of international diplomacy; an approach specific to the post-Cold war period, politely referred to as Public Diplomacy. The failure to obtain help from our closest neighbour under the CBK Presidency in our hour of need sheds light on a hard dual reality of Sri Lanka in the world, which has to be grasped by any lucid politician or analyst.
Though the absence of a political reform package does have a significant negative effect on external perceptions of the conflict and resultant behaviour, the presence of such a package is no guarantee of support.
The inner core of that reality is that there is a contradiction between Sri Lanka’s imperative need, and desire to win the war, on the one hand, and the perceived interests of certain sectors of the global system (and sub-regional subsystem), on the other.
We must observe universal standards of human rights because that is the right thing to do, is beneficial to the country and is counterproductive to do otherwise.
But we must not swallow Western propaganda to the degree that we mistake the excuse for the reason. Human rights violations are not the reason for the gap between certain Western countries and Sri Lanka.
Those who do not wish us to win the war commit far more horrendous violations of human rights and tolerate far more horrific violations on the part of their allies. They also take punitive measures against those countries such as Cuba, which have never committed atrocities in their military operations.
We have been given no choice: if we wish to carry the war forward to the victory that the country requires and so richly deserves; the victory that we have all sacrificed for, then we have to accept a certain gap, a certain degree of disconnect, a contradiction not of our making, with those who oppose that victory and this war.
We must ally with those who not merely preach, but who support us or have no problem with our striving for the reunification of our country-a goal which is now on the horizon.
|Last Updated ( Monday, 09 March 2009 )|
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