by Sudharshan Seneviratne
(Emeritus Professor. University of Peradeniya. Sri Lanka’s former High Commissioner to India)
Foreign Policy (FP) represents the long arm of the State protecting and imaging its national interest and projecting overseas all aspects of an independent sovereign State. As such, Foreign Policy is essentially based on a fundamental principle – that is to protect the country, State and people thereby reserving its “Right to defend”. Recognizing and contextualizing Sri Lanka’s historical, physical and strategic location in the central Indian Ocean Rim, its Foreign Policy needs to be situated within a trajectory – the State, its citizens and the global world. While the country has now reached the tipping edge of its very survival as an independent and sovereign State under the Yahapalanaya regime, the history of its foreign policy in the past five years is punctuated with a volatile potpourri of compromises, betrayal and above all, “missed opportunities”.
This needs to be placed against the foreign Policy envisioned by President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his tenure of office as President. It is a narrative little told. Yet it unfolds his vision, hopes, ideas and ideals, both, within the country and beyond borders. It is about HE’s vision plan regaining Sri Lanka’ social, political and economic integrity, its lost dignity and self-esteem and how he redefined and crafted Foreign Policy against many odds that were stacked against Sri Lanka at critical moments.
History has it that memories are often transmitted to us as positive, negative, pleasant, unpleasant and even as neutral sentiments. The Yahapalanaya regime represents an era of dissolution, hopelessness and darkness. In a nutshell, the economy currently is in shambles, security almost nonexistent and the future a scary void while the regime prostrates to global powers. We lived through a near 30-year carnage of terrorism compounded by a destructive tsunami. It left the country bleeding and people deranged. Then came the dawning of liberation and hope ushered upon our island in total terms – political, economic, social and cultural.
Invariably we become nostalgic and turn back to our immediate past as a point of reference – a past that gave us leadership, hope and achievement. The individual who made that possible is President Mahinda Rajapaksa. My first encounter with him was in Kandy while he was yet Prime Minister and in the company of the late Monty Gopallawa. It was an eventful meeting and that day I decided to work with him as a professional, the way he recognized me for what I am and not with any political trappings. During his terms of office as president, I had the privilege of working with the President and his government as Director General (2007-10) of the UNESCO – Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund (the Custodian Organization to UNESCO Declared World Heritage Sites) and later as High Commissioner of Sri Lanka to India (2014-15).
Challenging terrorism and Centrifugal forces
The bench-mark of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime was based on the successful termination of 30-year-long terrorism. Terrorism is often perceived as an internal factor though its roots may be found within our own history and society. He inherited a confrontation that was not his making. Following a near four hundred years of Colonial occupation, thirty-years of terrorism, problems of globalization, INGO subversions including aggressive evangelical movements’ – Sri Lanka had inherited a historical problem that consequently gave vent to centrifugal forces. With the expansion of the LTTE backed diaspora (the cursed gift given to our country by the Jayewardene regime) and growing internal involvement and interference of the Global power blocks, terrorism was externalized and posed prospects of fragmenting the country as a reality.
With his ascend to power, President Rajapaksa changed the existing status quo and the fate of the nation. He was the catalyst that thrust the Sri Lankan State from a defensive to an offensive mode and took the battle to the LTTE terrorists. Behind him brigades of military specialists, including administrators and professionals. An appreciative nation rallied around him with a vote of confidence that transformed the national psyche to combat LTTE terrorism. The statesman he is, HE entrusted multiple functions to individuals chartering a road map towards victory. He had brothers Gotabaya and Basil Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga, PB Jayasundare and several other competent professionals and administrators engaged in the national task of defence and security, diplomacy, ground level administrative and infrastructure development and the economy of the country. I was privileged to be entrusted with the task of revitalising and globally presenting the Inclusive Heritage of Sri Lanka through the UNESCO – Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund and the Sustainable Heritage Tourism Plan.
Inclusive Sri Lanka nurturing centripetalism
President Rajapaksa gauged the pulse and sentiments of the people and he also assessed international sentiments and took an uncompromising stand with a view to eliminating terrorism. Choice before him was – triumphalism or build emotional bridges with a people-friendly path of healing, reconstructing and developing a fallen land by making all citizens stake-holders in a win- win situation. Being the seasoned statesman, he settled for the latter. Western regimes, international media, diaspora myth factory and INGO misery merchants conveniently branded him as a parochial Sinhala-Buddhist. Contesting this myth, he placed a heritage programme of inclusivity hitherto not witnessed in Sri Lanka and yet unmatched so far. His long arm on inclusivity was launched by The UNESCO – Sri Lanka Central Cultural Fund (CCF) in 2007, two years before the war ended.
Given below are some of the remedial strategies of that vision plan applied through government agencies leading to inclusiveness. This vision plan was activated by the Central Cultural Fund and carried out with the knowledge and directives of President Rajapaksa. These activities were augmented by the Sustainable Heritage Tourism Plan (SHTP). Such multiple activities ensured that our UNESCO declared World Heritage sites incorporate all stakeholders while presenting an inclusive Sri Lanka to the world.
Showcasing Inclusive Sri Lanka
One of the opening events in 2007 was the completion of the Multi Religious Museum at Kataragama. At its inauguration the President emphasized the significance of Kataragama as a place of convergence for different cultures and religions enhanced further by the Pilgrims Route or Pada Yatra, a medium of connectivity and shared culture originating from the north reaching Kataragama.
One of the largest projects undertaken by the CCF was the Southern Belt that included the Galle Dutch Fort World Heritage City and the Matara Dutch Relics. This conservation was done with Netherlands funding.
In 2009 a secular museum, the Maritime Archaeology Museum was established. It is the first of its kind in the SAARC region showcasing the oceanic heritage of an island society. Its unique display presents three thousand years of trans-oceanic connectivity and the cultural plurality of Sri Lanka. At the inauguration the President emphasized Galle as a window to global inclusivity that gave this city the identity of a Dual Parentage where the East and West met in harmony. In addition MR also inaugurated a secular museum at the Sigiriya World Heritage site and the CCF revitalised the Polonnaruwa museum with its multi religious flavour.
Other Inclusive Heritage Initiatives
In 2008, the Cabinet of Ministers passed the mandatory rule to display all three official languages in government notices. Based on that directive, all display panels at Museums managed by the CCF since 2007 came to be presented in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. (Until then most of the panels were only in the Sinhala language). The Cabinet of Ministers also gave a directive to list all heritage sites important to every religious groups and prioritize their development for the pilgrims and tourists. The CCF initiated cultural (digital) mapping and commenced data gathering from the Provincial Councils.
As the campaign against terrorism was nearing its completion he wished places of worship in the North and the East damaged during conflicts (irrespective of religious affiliations) to be listed and conserved. His sentiment was all those who return to their homes will need a place to pray and find solace. Diaspora tourism initiative was taken up by the CCF to receive all Sri Lankan origin visitors at the World Heritage Sites and the plan to publish additional books in Sinhala, Tamil and English with children arriving from overseas as the primary target group. An illustrated catalogue of all Hindu monuments, art and sculpture found at the World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka was published by the CCF.
The CCF engaged itself in the completion of the report on North East Coastal Development Project in 2009 (overlooked by Basil Rajapakse). It recorded all heritage sites and multi-cultural communities and their cultural practices (both tangible and intangible heritage) for tourism development and socio-economic revitalizsation. The CCF stood with the Kandy Municipality Council nurturing UNESCO School Clubs for programs on cultural diversity and shared heritage. These school clubs were made up of different denomination and government schools and they joined together for programmes understanding diversity, heritage conservation and peace education. In addition, the CCF was directed to train young undergraduates in Jaffna on heritage conservation and management while providing gift books to the reconstructed Jaffna Public library that was burnt down during the UNP regime.
President Rajapaksa realized the pivotal importance of this island heritage representing its internalized heritage beyond vertical boundaries and values peculiar to our history, culture and identities as an outreach dynamic rebuilding trust, peace reconciliation and reconstruction. That was the message he transmitted to the global community as well.
Dialects of Internationalizing Exclusivity: SAARC and IORC
President Rajapaksa’s tenure had two contending challenges. One, the internal war and second, negotiating external relationships. Foreign relationship posed unseen challenges. We evidently had valued friends globally who stood with us admiring the success story defeating the LTTE and launching a massive development program. There were others – the more powerful global bloc – who viewed us with apprehension and through a negative prism. Neutralizing terrorism itself created a strange contradiction. The US and some of its allies and even India during the latter half of the confrontation provided intelligence and logistical support defeating the LTTE. Support from the USA came under the Republican regime and in India under the Congress government. The second tenure of President Rajapakse also coincided with regime changes in the USA (Democratic) and in India (BJP).
He had to take stock of new dynamics and mind-set over possible challenges and threats that were thrown at Sri Lanka from different countries and at various levels. This situation was compounded by the intense competition within the Indian Ocean by contending powers.China’s active engagement in the Indian Ocean and in Sri Lanka’s economy and infrastructure development were moot points for a polarization of competing forces within the Indian Ocean. India’s concern over China’s presence in Sri Lanka, our strategic importance to the West and also impending UN strictures on “Human Rights” supported by the hidden hand of the Tamil diaspora, INGOs and Evangelical movements – all worked in unison for a long term strategy taking shape towards a regime change in Sri Lanka.
Seeing these challenges, he had to craft his international policy placing and projecting Sri Lanka from its own exclusive base. He outlined his vision and philosophy at the SAARC Address in New Delhi on April 3rd 2007. In November 2008 I featured some of these aspects at the DA Rajapaksa Memorial Lecture titled “Heritage For Coexistence: Situating Sri Lanka’s Role in the SAARC region”. While recognizing our island and its regional base of the SAARC and yet maintaining a neutral policy, he commenced navigating through a mine-filled external affairs journey.
To him the SAARC is nurtured within a legacy of a shared heritage for over three thousand years and is a classic representation of diversity and commonalities. Its heritage is essentially inclusive and not exclusive. In his view, the shared heritage of the people of South Asia is a key to understanding that diversity and the bench-mark of commonality in our society for a united action on sustainability, peace and economic development.
President Rajapaksa then looked at the region beyond South Asia recognizing the pivotal importance of the Indian Ocean Rim Countries (IORC). Sri Lanka is situated on the central trans-oceanic routes that connected countries within the Indian Ocean Rim and the eastern and western World Systems. It is from this vantage point that he understood Sri Lanka’s geo-political reality within the Indian Ocean Rim and the strategic role our island played in the past and is destined to play in the future. He also realized our limited carrying capacity to face challenges posed by external powers intruding in to the region, especially in the political and economic fronts. He drew inspiration from history on the pivotal role this island played due to our geographical location that endowed us with the unique advantage of being a point of convergence for economic, religious, social and political groups. He attempted to balance economic diplomacy and cultural/soft diplomacy. He aspired Sri Lanka to provide a portal of convergence and act as an entrepot of economic and cultural hub. In doing this, in return he expected all external powers to respect our sovereignty and identity as an independent and sovereign nation. His continued faith in Non-Alignment was based on this reality.
History has it that his apprehension regarding interference within the region became a dangerous reality. He reiterated this sentiment more explicitly after four years at his concluding address as Chairmanship of the SAARC. He conveyed his message on November 26th 2014 at Katmandu. He stated, “While SAARC practice has been to abstain from involvement in bilateral issues of a political nature, we must resist external manipulations,” President Rajapaksa further reiterated that “It would be morally correct in keeping with the SAARC spirit to join forces against external threats on member states.” He in fact pleaded for the SAARC to maintain its solidarity in face of growing external threats and intrusions that will eventually undermine our unity. Quite prophetic indeed! Unfortunately, contending powers within the SAARC itself did not hear this message.
President Rajapaksa’s long arm of diplomacy transcended the India Ocean Rim reaching out to the African continent in the West, the Middle East and Australia in the East. Our relationships had reached a high water mark with the African continent and Australia during his tenure of office. Many even did not understand the strategic positioning of the Bank of Ceylon branch in Seychelles as a spring board for investments in Africa.
India as nearest neighbour
It was my privilege to be invited by President Rajapaksa in 2014 to represent his vision and mission as his representative to India with a focus on the SAARC region as well. With Narendra Modi ascending to power HE needed to balance our relationship vis a vis India, China and also the West. He needed to consolidate the good will we had globally enjoyed. Based in New Delhi we were required to engage ourselves on Good Will initiatives and mutually beneficial economic engagements. All activities that were undertaken were done with the blessings of President Rajapaksa in an effort to maintain India’s goodwill, mutual respect and also with an eye on the large number of foreign missions located in New Delhi. Our initiative underpinned HE’s own sentiments and message of exclusivity of Sri Lanka’s uncompromising position over its dignity and identity as an independent sovereign nation and also on our ideals on Non- Alignment while reaching out to the neighbourhood with goodwill. He considered South Asia outreach as a dialectical process. On the one hand he placed a premium on the international fraternity of the SAARC (and IORA). Conversely, he did not yield or compromise the dignity and independence of his country and people. This was the duality of HE’s dialectic.
President Rajapaksa asserted himself at international forums, his bilateral and multilateral connections placing Sri Lanka at the helm of acceptance. In less than three months in New Delhi I came to realize the warmth and respect a multitude of envoys acknowledged his commitment on fraternal bonds of friendship and goodwill. He envisioned global realities and never under estimated the significance of the SAARC, IORA and NAM. Ambassadors from those nations (even Latin America, East Europe) battered by Colonialism and neo Imperialism openly conveyed to me that President Rajapaksa “always stood by us and spoke on our behalf at international forums”. Unwavering support he extended towards the Palestinian cause and its people, even under pressure from more powerful countries, was gratefully acknowledged. In 2015 when the regime change was executed by interested governments, that very day, there was a stream of personal visits by New Delhi based Ambassadors at the High Commission expressing their dismay over the regime change engineered by a collective of external powers.
Both, metaphorically and in reality India indeed is our nearest neighbour. We had experienced changing levels of connectivity with India. Indira Gandhi’s regime witnessed a low ebb while it had somewhat volatile situations during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime as well. When Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, India’s mind set had changed somewhat and was willing to support the anti-terrorist effort of Sri Lanka, a reciprocity that was jointly coordinated by the two countries. The troika from Sri Lanka was represented by Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapakse and Lalith Weeratunge who acted on behalf of the President, opening a new phase in Indo-Sri Lanka relationship.
President Rajapaksa had a special place in his heart for India. He understood India and embraced its history, culture and people with affection. He also expected India to reciprocate while understanding the realpolitik that drives India and its policy decisions even after the new BJP regime under Modi. Attending Modi’s swearing-in ceremony HE look forward to a renewal of preexisting cordiality and mutuality taking care of each other in the region. He also understood Modi’s priorities, ideology and action plan encompassing India and beyond. Such were internal and global imperatives including realities faced by India conditioning its mindset. It is with that reality in mind he measured Sri Lanka’s own national interests to establish a balanced dialogue with a friendly India and maintain good neighbourly relationships while securing our sovereignty, national integrity, neutrality and self-respect.
President Rajapaksa’s outreach effort in India was partially done by himself and the rest through our High Commission in New Delhi and its regional offices. He undertook pilgrimages to Buddhist sites and participated at ceremonies in Buddha Gaya and Sanchi not forgetting Hindu sacred spaces such as Varanasi and Tirupati. We had unreserved support on such ventures from the Indian High Commission in Colombo headed by Yashvardhan Sinha and by India’s former External Affairs Minister, late Smt. Sushma Swaraj. He, in fact, engaged himself launching the Buddhist University in Sanchi located in Smt. Swaraj’s constituency. Similarly, he also had an eye over Buddhists at Nagpur, in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
With his blessings we also unfolded the Outreach Programme in India touching India’s Centre, States and its people. We then went on to strategise an India Policy, which was an ad hoc niche in our foreign affairs policy. In his own way, he was working towards reversing this situation. We had to take cognizance of India’s over-arching physical scale; its ability to mobilize resources; wield striking power (at will if necessary) and capacity to dominate; our volatile proximity of location to India; shared socio-cultural connectivity; economic synergy and India as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Our action plan in the next five to ten years needed to be conscious of the above imperatives and craft a short, medium and long term India Policy and not some half-baked reactive parochial “anti-India” response or be the Fifth Column to the West as done by the Yahapalanaya regime. We needed to engage India on a one on one basis with proactive strategies and an open mind while not under estimating our own strengths, though small in scale never to display a dependent psyche.
With his blessings we unfolded the India Policy during my tenure of office as High Commissioner, supported by our teams in New Delhi and Chennai. States with potentialities for socio-cultural interaction were identified and documented for investments; inter-faith synergy; knowledge dissemination; wellness; middle scale industries; diverse tourism promotion; aviation and shipping routes etc. One area of discussion we had was with its Chambers of Commerce and Pharma Industry on the potential Sri Lanka holds as a primary port of convergence and portal for collaborative processing/assembling centers and to re-export products. Discussions were extended to collaborative ventures of state of the art hospitals, Universities and tourism initiatives the latter incorporating a novel concept of Spirituality and Leisure ventures. This concept was unfolded in Orissa, Kerala, Assam and at Chandigarh in Punjab. In the case of Assam we identified tea, tourism and Buddhist tourism. In Punjab and Haryana potentialities were discussed on light industries, education and pharma industries. Holy Guru Nanak’s trail in Sri Lanka was to be combine with Golf tournaments promoted by the diaspora Sikh community arriving from the West. Kerala was pleased to discuss and place on track shipping, tourism plan (luxury cruise), hospital, heritage initiatives and middle level industries. Multiple initiatives were also discussed with Orissa ranging from tourism, heritage, education, ports and shipping. This was complemented by our engagements with Think-Tanks and the vernacular media, goodwill missions engaging cultural communities, dialogues and participation at awareness programs, seminars and conclaves, exhibitions and religious sector connectivity.
President Rajapaksa also understood the need to resolve issues with India that could not be swept under the carpet. The fishermen issue, energy policy, SAARC transportation action plan, SAARC – SAT, Comprehensive economic policies, Sri Lanka’s right to cultivate and nurture international friends are some of these areas that needed to be discussed with an understanding and respect for each other. He was confident that India appreciated the importance of Sri Lanka’s security and neutrality as an asset to India’s own security in addition to being a valued good neighbour. Our neutrality and shared policies based with impartiality, HE believed, would cushion stress and challenges confronting India and may come half way. He wished for an inter-dependent outreach treating each other with respect and affection and not based on a patron – client relationship.
The impending March 2020 Geneva UN Resolutions on Human Rights is a test run i.e. the extent to which Sri Lanka will gauge India’s stand on external interference on Sri Lanka’s internal matters. Conversely, it also has a direct relevance to India as to how external forces will measure India’s internal affairs when it suits them and in the long run that may undermine India’s neutrality and independence.
South Asia must rediscover itself as an “Archipelago of Hope” (after Amartya Sen) in the larger world where we are challenged by questions of social and environmental cost. Humanizing social, economic and cultural interactions within a sustainable environment is seen as the responsibility of South Asia to its resident community.
On a larger canvass, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a mere politician but a statesman in the real sense. Such statesmen are those who passionately love their country and do not compromise national interest. History will one day vindicate his ideas, ideals and commitment to his country, people and to the world. This is the world Rajapaksa understood and how he engaged himself internally with his people as an affectionate national leader and externally the world at large as a statesman and patriot!
(Author note: This is a condensed version of a longer article written in June 2019 to be published on an edited volume on Foreign Policy Initiatives of President Mahinda Rajapaksa)