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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Denizens of the Ministry of External Affairs have no understanding at all of Foreign Policy

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP
The more extreme elements in the Ministry of External Affairs have at last put their cards on the table in the form of an article by the wife of one of its rising stars. The same young lady kindly gave me an opportunity to engage in a strong critique of the viewpoints she represented, when she gratuitously attacked me some weeks back.

What is astonishing is that this article is based on the premise that countries like Cuba and Venezuela are anathema at present to Sri Lanka. I suspect it will be news to President Rajapaksa that Cuba is a failed state and that a positive view of Chavez ‘fundamentally undermines everything Sri Lanka has stood for since it inherited a liberal democracy post 1948’.

Certainly those countries have weaknesses which is why they should not be absolute models for us. But the same applies to the countries to which we are supposed to subscribe without question, if the article is accurate in suggesting that Sri Lankan policy will now focus on its ‘relationships with its traditional liberal democratic allies’, ie the West. It is claimed that this new departure is the reason that Tamara Kunanayakam and Dayan Jayatilleka are being sidelined, while ‘a career diplomat with proven ability to engage the West’ is now being sent to Geneva.

Oddly enough, the article completely ignores the fact that the attack on us as developed by the United States focused on what were seen as inadequacies precisely with regard to what Tamara and Dayan also noted. Their commitment to a pluralistic society with greater attention to Human Rights has never been questioned.

It should also be noted that they have both consistently stressed the need for both Reconciliation and truth telling. It was not they who attacked me when, three years ago, I noted that there had been civilian casualties, a position about which supposedly more ‘liberal democratic’ colleagues were in a state of denial.

What this latest policy statement of the Ministry of External Affairs suggests is that its denizens have no understanding at all of foreign policy. The West basically has three reasons for its continuing assaults on us over the last few years. The first and the one publicly proclaimed was the argument that Sri Lanka was violating Human Rights consistently, and this had to be prevented.

The second was the pressure applied by the diaspora, which exercises a disproportionate amount of influence on some government. Finally there was the desire to bring Sri Lanka into its sphere of influence, and in particular prevent China from gaining a strong foothold here.

Everybody knows, from the continuing support to dictatorships provided they support the West, that the first is not the most important consideration. Rather, Human Rights is used by strategists in the West to promote their own interests, and this has become entrenched with for instance the US government’s massive funding for its own pet causes through the National Endowment for Democracy.

However we must also recognize that at least some of those who promote Human Rights, and are therefore vociferous in their criticism of the Sri Lankan government, genuinely believe that we violate these systematically. Whilst this is not true, certainly violations occur. We should work hard to stop this, not only because we owe it to our own people, but also because such violations strengthen the feelings of those who do care about Human Rights, and are grist to the mill of those who make use of Human Rights to attack us.

The Ministry of External Affairs did nothing to promote Human Rights when that subject was entrusted to it. The communications of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were ignored, whereas when Dayan was in Geneva and I was Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, when we had one, we made sure that all letters were answered promptly.

My staff at the time, some of whom had been absorbed by the Ministry, were badly treated, and it was only because the then Attorney General and I pushed hard that we managed to produce the National Action Plan on Human Rights that Cabinet finally adopted.

Similarly, with regard to the second reason for Western pressures, while I believe that some elements in the diaspora are still committed to the LTTE agenda, the vast moderate majority were ignored, which is why many of them have now gone back to supporting extremism. Efforts to engage were minimal.

It was only because of the efforts of our Honorary Consul in New Zealand that arrangements were made for me to meet diaspora groups in Australia and New Zealand , and the question they put was, why had this not been done before?

Later, because of the indefatigable efforts of our Deputy High Commissioner in London , and later the current High Commissioner, similar arrangements were made there for wide ranging discussions with the diaspora, along with media interactions.

In Chennai too, through the excellent connections established by our Deputy High Commissioner there, a Tamil who has now been prematurely transferred, I met several opinion makers who indicated that this should have been done earlier.

I am sure there were other examples of this, though my interlocutors were of the view that actual discussion and efforts to explain points of potential difficulty had not occurred before. But my point is that there should have been a systematic programme of engagement, and the failure of the Ministry to have suggested something of the sort and planned programmes was a pity.

Indeed it was left to positive thinking NGOs such as International Alert to arrange tours for bright young Members of Parliament , to engage with the diaspora and British Members of Parliament. The MPs who went were unanimous in defending Sri Lanka even while disagreeing on other matters, which was certainly food for thought for those in the diaspora who believe that the government’s actions in getting rid of terrorism are deplored by all those not in government.

Dayan in his own way has extended ties with all members of the diaspora. But what then happens to him? When he engages bright young Tamil staff, he is attacked for promoting Tigers, whereas Ministry personnel who actually give contracts to Tiger agents get away scot free.

The inbuilt prejudice against minorities of our so-called ‘liberal democrats’ can be seen from the fact that there were efforts, three years ago, to make me call the Tamil doctors in the North traitors and LTTE agents, when I was interviewed about statements they had made. I refused, and said that as far as I knew they were professionals who were under tremendous pressure, which it is clear now has been understood by all in government, including those who wished in the past to score brownie points by attacking others.

Thus what I believe we should be dealing with rationally, the call for a better Human Rights dispensation and reducing the pressures from the diaspora (including through political reconciliation in Sri Lanka ) are ignored, and instead what is advocated is total adherence to Western judgments and contempt for countries such as Cuba and Venezuela – and implicitly China . S W R D Bandaranaike would be turning in his grave, as would his widow, and Lakshman Kadirgamar, while I have no doubt that the effects of this type of policy reversal would be to drive the present President to an early political grave.

Sadly, I suspect the adherents of the current policy would not mind this. After all, the nastier elements in the West have made no secret of their desire for regime change, and given that, despite the current policies of the Ministry of External Affairs, President Rajapaksa is not likely to be a slavish adherent of the West, they will soon decide that it would be best to have him replaced – and those in the Ministry of External Affairs who declared that a military victory was out of the question would do what was needed, having destroyed all possible defences.

The proof that they will stop at nothing to destroy the President’s defences and those of the country can be seen in the manner in which they upset India , and continue to do this. I am aware that there was much pressure on India from the West, and perhaps they would have succeeded in getting India not to vote for us, but two blunders by the so-called ‘liberal democrats’ certainly helped in the final decision, as we have quite categorically been informed by Indian diplomats

The first was the publicizing of the claim that India had committed to supporting us, which led to massive pressures in Tamilnadu. The second was the denigration of Tamilnadu politicians, which naturally increased the pressures on the Centre to stand by its own.

These pronouncements may well have been blunders, but it would make sense for the Ministry to check on whether anyone were consulted before they were made. I should add that I do not think those who made the statements did so with deliberate intent to upset India , but that there are others with such an agenda is now manifest.

The clear proof that there is a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between India and Sri Lanka – and thus make us more dependent on the confrontationalists of the West, who want India also in the same boat – was the effort to deceive the President about the Indian Parliamentary delegation.

A deliberate lie, which his more responsible Ministers had to refute, was told him, which nearly led to the cancellation of his meeting with the Indian delegation. Worse, he was also deceived about senior SLFP Ministers, which I believe is designed to cut him away from his natural base.

For what the article inspired by the extremists of the Ministry ignores is that it is the SLFP that represents liberal democracy in Sri Lanka , in accordance with the vision of its founder. He rejected the urban capitalism of the UNP, but equally he rejected the doctrinaire socialism of the Marxist parties.

He was like Nehru in this effort to follow a centrist path, but later, their successors, who were both rejected by the West which wanted total adherence or nothing, moved closer to the socialists in the oppositional international politics that the Cold War engendered.

However, it should be noted that the basic principle of Non-Alignment, which also involved building close ties with those Asian countries that were not involved in Western military alliances, had also been the policy of the UNP under Dudley Senanayake.

He too used brilliant minds such as Shirley Amerasinghe and Neville Kanakaratne, from outside the foreign service, and also Gamini Corea, to assert an independent perspective. These individuals, like Dayan and Tamara, believed in pluralism and human rights, but not because these were Western values (which indeed in those days they were emphatically not).

It was only when J R Jayewardene replaced Senanayake as the leader of the UNP that a different policy, going against the national consensus, was established, and as we know this involved dismissing both Neville Kanakaratne and Shirley Amerasinghe from their positions. The disasters of the slavish adherence to the West that followed, which included hostility towards India in those days, are well known.

Fortunately Jayewardene’s efforts to invoke Western military aid against the Indians proved abortive – though my contacts in the British Ministry of Defence told me that Mrs Thatcher had wanted to comply, until the Foreign Office had dissuaded her.

Despite his initial anti-Indian rhetoric when Jayewardene’s foreign policy was proved a failure in 1987, Premadasa as President also soon saw the light, and used the services of Neville Kanakaratne to rebuild relations with India.

However, though the Jayewardene excesses were avoided, following the end of the Cold War, there were those in our Foreign Ministry who thought that we had to accept Western models wholesale in a unipolar world. But Mr Kadirgamar had a very different vision and, though at times he found the Ministry more conservative, he revived commitment to the Non-Aligned ideals of the party he had joined.

This did not mean anti-Western socialism, as had happened in the seventies when confrontation was the order of the day. Rather, it meant picking what was best from all models.

The West certainly has much to offer, and I believe we should work together with idealists there, as opposed to practitioners of ruthless self interest, to promote pluralism and Human Rights. But we should also – and how can the President not do this, given his whole political history? – follow other models with regard to ensuring better social indicators, promoting equitable development and above all strengthening regional groupings.

I do not know if the groupies who now run policy at the Ministry of External Affairs will understand all this, or even bother to try to do so. I don’t think it occurs to them that we have a duty to the Sri Lankan people to move swiftly towards political reform that will empower all our people and facilitate equitable development with input from relevant stakeholders.

I don’t think it occurs to them that we have a duty to the Sri Lankan people to ensure that their Rights are preserved and advanced. And I don’t think it occurs to them that we have a duty to the Sri Lankan people to preserve our sovereignty and make sure that we do not become a tool for confrontational agendas.

That was what was planned in the eighties, when the enemy of the West was India , and India intervened to prevent misuse of Trincomalee and Iranawila, as the Annexe to the Indo-Lankan Accord makes clear. I hope similar bases are not contemplated now, in theory against China , but possibly to be used against India too in time if India develops into a respected and independent leader of the Third World as Nehru dreamed.

But while I hope such stratagems are not needed in the world of modern technology, we owe it to our people to ensure that this land is not used for hostile moves against any other countries by anyone, Western or Eastern or in between.

Improving relations with the West should be on the basis of principles that we share, and Dayan and Tamara share those principles and have the courage to say so unlike others who believe their political careers might be blighted if they open their mouths.

And so, given the silence of these lambs, we have a situation where we simply react to crisis after crisis, with no effort to develop principled approaches to the world or to our own political difficulties.

Doubtless this will continue until the crisis gets so bad that change will be essential. I can only hope that those who desire regime change, against the democratic will of the Sri Lankan people, will not have their way


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