Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
There were strange reactions to Sri Lanka’s political responses to and UN vote on the issue of Jerusalem. There are those spokespersons of the Sinhala Far Right who criticized the Sri Lankan stand and the cross-party political consensus as instances of double standards. The argument was that those who could not combine to defend Sri Lanka from the charges leveled at it in Geneva, and did not rally round Lord Naseby’s revelations, had banded together on the remote issue of Jerusalem.
These strange reactions to Sri Lanka’s vote on the Jerusalem issue reminds us of the kinds of human beings there are. There are those who recognize the criteria of right and wrong, and those whose notion of right and wrong is based on who is seen to commit it.
There are those of us who criticize the government and the Sri Lankan foreign ministry because we think they are adopting the wrong stand on this or that issue or on foreign policy issues in general. If and when the government takes a right stand we are therefore not reluctant to commend it.
Sri Lanka has taken the correct position on two issues this last year. We voted with almost the whole world at the UN when the Cubans moved their annual resolution against the US economic embargo, or blockade as Cuba calls it. 190 countries voted against the US embargo. Only 3 voted against the resolution and among them was the US itself. The other issue on which Sri Lanka took a right stand was of course Jerusalem.
These two issues were exceptions to the rule of the Sri Lankan government’s gravely erroneous foreign policy, most especially in Geneva. We must condemn the rule and commend the exception.
What of the argument that the Sri Lankan government and its foreign ministry failed to stand up for the country and indeed collaborate with the West in the matter of the Geneva resolution, and went on to ignore Lord Naseby’s striving on our behalf, failing to table his findings in Geneva? This is true and we must denounce it. But when a wrongdoer does something right, we must welcome it while condemning his or her wrongdoing. The fact that on the Cuban resolution against the embargo as well as on Jerusalem, Sri Lanka voted on the other wide of that which the US voted speaks well of the resilient if residual nonaligned heritage of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and diplomacy. What must be lamented is that the nonaligned position is only fitfully adhered to by Sri Lanka under this government.
Even more insidious is the criticism that the broad civil society and political party platform in Sri Lanka that solidarized with Palestine should somehow be condemned because the same forces did not come together with the same zeal in defense of Sri Lanka. This is a truly incredible argument. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was for decades, a member and leader of the Committee in Solidarity with Palestine, which brought together diverse political personalities and forces in support of Palestine. These elements often failed to unite on issues pertaining to Sri Lankan affairs and even on external threats to Sri Lanka.
For instance there were those who were for and against the Indo-Sri Lanka accord and the IPKF, who nevertheless united on behalf of Palestine, just as those who stood on different points of the spectrum concerning Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE, not to mention with the JVP, were active members of the Solidarity Committee with Mahinda. In fact those who were actually fighting on different sides of the two civil wars, North-east and South, were in sympathy with the cause of the Palestinian people. This was never regarded as anomalous or objectionable, and it would have regarded as eccentric to have done so.
In our lifetime, there have been at least three issues which united absolutely diverse forces in each country and throughout the world, whatever their stands on political issues within their countries among their countries and pertaining to their countries. These three issues have been the Vietnam War, South African apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela and the ending of the Occupation of Palestine. Never has anyone anywhere been crass enough to ask why certain forces stood on the right side on these moral issues but on the wrong side of others. British Conservatives and those of the Labour Left had dramatically opposed views on the campaign against the IRA, the UK war in the Malvinas/Falklands etc., but for the most part with a few aberrations) they stood together against apartheid in South Africa and for the release of Mandela. The same was true of the US Congress. Nobody thought it odd or problematic.
Let us grasp the nettle. The Sinhala Far Right is morally blinkered. It does not understand that there are issue which transcend the national, and that one’s country is not always the exclusive or highest value. Our common humanity stands higher than any nation, and common human values stand higher in the human conscience than purely national ones. The real meaning of solidarity is when one solidarizes with another, not necessarily with one’s own.
Just as the Spanish Civil War brought together diverse political and ideological forces the world over against fascism, whatever their other important differences, national political stances and priorities, so also did the causes of Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine in our time. Such causes are transcendent of national causes and priorities. Such transcendent humanistic causes have a higher value than our purely or primarily national concerns. We are humans before we are citizens of a country or members of an ethnic group.
This is not a question of abstract internationalism over concrete if circumscribed nationalism. In our lifetime and perhaps in known history, there has hardly been a more valiant case of a small country defending itself against the world’s mightiest power while positioned on its doorstep, than that of Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro. That was not because of his nationalism, but because of his combination of patriotism and internationalism. Fidel often quoted the words of Jose Marti, known as the patron saint of Cuban independence, the man of letters who died leading a cavalry charge against the Spanish colonialists on the shores of Cuba. Marti and Fidel often said that “homeland is humanity”. It is because Fidel rose above nationalism that he was able to defend his nation successfully against the mightiest power in history. Fidel’s dedication to the cause of humanity, his militant, radical humanism, drove him to fight against injustice anywhere, sometimes risking the national interests of Cuba itself (as in the case of the highly risky Angola operation). It is this which gave Cuba truly global support.
The point is that if you don’t stand for something beyond your own nation’s interests, then no other nation, no peoples of other nations, will identify with you and support you. If you are not there for others, others will not be there for you. If you do not actively solidarize with others even at the risk of your narrow national interest, others will not do the same for you in the face of the pressures of the powerful upon them.
As Fidel Castro and Cuba proved, the most valuable strategic real estate is the moral high ground. You cannot ascend, occupy and remain in occupation of the moral high ground unless you stand for a broader and higher principle than that of your own nation’s causes and interests. This is the difference between Israel and Cuba. Israel, even with the fullest support of the USA, keeps losing votes in the United Nations—which reflect its standing in the world– and Cuba keeps winning such votes massively—which reflects its own standing in the world.
Vietnam is another classic case in point. Vietnam prevailed over the awesome military machine of the US not only because it fought better, but also because world opinion, including the opinion of the educated youth of the United States itself, and later of returning Vietnam veterans including much decorated ones.
Unless Sri Lanka learns to communicate its case in an internationalist and indeed universalist discourse, which the Sinhala ultranationalists do not, cannot and will not, the interests of the Sri Lankan and indeed the Sinhala nation cannot be successfully represented and defended in the global arena against the West, the INGOs and the Tamil Diaspora which is global positioned and electorally so influential. It is all a matter of persuasion. The Sinhala ultranationalist discourse which is a culturally circumscribed one of parochialism and neo-tribalism, can never persuade others, and therefore can never defend the national interests of Sri Lanka.
This is why Sri Lanka resisted and prevailed successfully in the Geneva arena (2009) when it was able to persuade a majority of member states through its fusion of patriotism, internationalism and universalism in its discourse and diplomacy (2007-2009). For instance our strong, principled stand at the UNHRC (with the green-light form President Rajapaksa) on Israel’s aggression in the Gaza war in late 2008-early 2009, secured for Sri Lanka a few months later, not only the large vote of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) but also that of the broad cross-regional coalition which voted against Israel on Gaza.
However Sri Lanka kept losing in Geneva when it switched to an imitation of Israel and a truculent narrow nationalism (2012-2014), which serial defeats paved the way for the abject and needless capitulation by the successor government in 2015. Unless and until Sri Lanka internalizes those lessons and returns to that perspective which is capable of persuasion through appeal to reason and identification with broad principles, it will remain in the Geneva trap and be unable to prevail in the UN in general.
Meanwhile in national or more correctly, ‘intermestic’ politics (Kissinger’s term for domestic politics that interface with the international), the Sinhala Far Right is doing exactly the same damage that Champika Ranawake’s JHU and later, the deadly BBS virus, did to the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and the image of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Far Right fringe is out of control and has gone the way of the Rajarata Rifles, so to speak. Gotabhaya will have to do what was done to the Rajarata Rifles, the dissolution of which was the way the elite Gajaba regiment which he served with distinction, emerged.
Gotabhaya can best serve the nation as a combination of JRJ and Premadasa, of Putin and Mahathir. A man who brings stability and incarnates Chinese model modernity; the meritocratic future, not the parochial past. He must represent the ultra-modernist meritocratic mainstream led by the best and the brightest in their fields; a patriotic elite which is part of or can communicate easily and fit in the regional, Asian and global elite. GR must not be surrounded by the loud lunatic fringe which is not accepted even as part of the Lankan elite and is rejected as tribalist. Currently the optics are all wrong.