“May you live in interesting times.” is a saying that is believed to be an ancient Chinese curse. Many writers and speakers often use this expression or phrase and attribute Chinese origins to it. In spite of the widely held belief about Chinese links, recent studies by Etymologist scholars and linguistic researchers have revealed that there is no evidence of this saying having a Chinese origin. Fred R.Shapiro the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” has stated “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found”. Furthermore Ralph Keyes has noted in “The Quote Verifier” that “nobody has ever been able to confirm the Chinese origin claim”.
Despite these doubts about the Chinese origins of this saying how did this expression and belief first enter the English language realm? It was Sir Austen Chamberlain the brother of former British Prime minister Neville Chamberlain who reportedly alluded to this so called “Chinese curse” first. As is well -known Neville Chamberlain with all good intentions entered into a concessionary agreement with Adolf Hitler in Munich and returned to London triumphantly proclaiming “Peace in our lifetime”. Hitler did not honour the accord and World War two broke out. The umbrella carrying Chamberlain had to quit as PM carrying the disgrace of trying to “appease” Hitler.
Sir Austen Chamberlain himself was a politician and had served as MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Conservative Party leader at different times. Researcher Bonnie Taylor -Blake has uncovered a news story pertaining to Sir Austen Chamberlain that appeared in March 1936 in “The Yorkshire Post”. According to the news report Sir Austen addressing the annual meeting of the Birmingham Unionist Association had stated as follows – “It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us.We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”
Notwithstanding the discovery that the so called Chinese curse is not Chinese at all, the fact remains that the saying “May you live in interesting times” has become increasingly popular over the years.It has gained wider currency. It is of particular relevance to Sri Lanka at the present juncture. Sri Lanka’s long standing links with China have been greatly beneficial to the Island nation in the past and could be termed a blessing. But in recent times some have begun to wonder and ponder whether the very same Chinese blessing is in some ways turning into a Chinese Curse ( No , I don’t mean the Coronavirus/COVID 19).
Uncle Sam’s Valentine’s Day Gift
As the so called Chinese curse says Sri Lanka nowadays “lives in interesting times”. What Sir Austen observed so aptly then applies to Sri Lanka too now as “ We move from one crisis to another,” and “ We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.” One such shock to Sri Lanka was the Valentine’s Day Gift sent to Sri Lankan army commander and acting chief of defence staff, Lt.Gen. Shavendra Silva by “Uncle Sam”. On February 14th the US secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued a statement. The press release was under his own name.The heading and contents of the press release were as follows –
Public Designation, Due to Gross Violations of Human Rights, of Shavendra Silva of Sri Lanka Under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act
“The Department of State has designated Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, current Commander of the Sri Lanka Army and Acting Chief of Defense Staff, as required under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, due to credible information of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th Division of the Sri Lanka Army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s Civil War in 2009.”
“Section 7031(c) provides that, in cases where the Secretary of State has credible information that foreign officials have been involved in a gross violation of human rights or significant corruption, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States. The law also requires the Secretary of State to publicly or privately designate such officials and their immediate family members. In addition to the public designation of Shavendra Silva, the Department is also designating his immediate family members.”
“The allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible. His designation underscores the importance we place on human rights in Sri Lanka and globally, our concern over impunity for human rights violations and abuses, as well as our support for promoting accountability for those who engage in such acts. We urge the Sri Lankan government to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation.”
“We deeply value our partnership with the Sri Lankan government and the long-standing democratic tradition we share with the Sri Lankan people. The United States remains committed to strengthening the bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka and helping reshape its security forces to tackle current and emerging threats. Security cooperation will continue to emphasize respect for human rights as a fundamental component of our training, assistance, and engagements.”
“The United States will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them. Today’s actions underscore our commitment to support human rights, promote accountability for perpetrators, and encourage reconciliation in support of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous Sri Lanka.”
Secretary Pompeo’s Public Designation of Shavendra Silva
Secretary Pompeo followed up with a tweet. Twitter and Tweeting have assumed great importance and significance in the US after the advent of Donald Trump. Here is what Pompeo tweeted “I am designating Shavendra Silva making him ineligible for entry into the U.S. due to his involvement in extrajudicial killings during #SriLanka’s Civil War. The U.S. will not waver in its pursuit of accountability for those who commit war crimes and violate #humanrights.” US State dept Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus also posted a related tweet –“SecPompeo’s public designation of Shavendra Silva underscores the importance we place on #humanrights in #SriLanka and globally. The U.S. will not tolerate impunity for human rights violations and abuses.”
The US action in the form of Secretary Pompeo’s designation of Army chief Gen.Shavendra Silva shocked and rocked the country. Even though it was possible to designate privately, Secretary Pompeo had chosen to go public.There was widespread condemnation and criticism of the move. Many could not understand why this was done. One reason for the aggravated anger and indignation was because such action by a Donald Trump administration was most unexpected to many Sri Lankans. Many including Govt bigwigs had lulled themselves into a false sense of complacency that the USA of president Donald Trump would not pursue its human rights initiatives vis a vis Sri Lanka diligently.
This is because there is a school of thought in Sri Lanka which believes that the concern showed by the US over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka was due to Barack Obama and Samantha Power who served as the former president’s Human Rights director on the National Security council and later was the US envoy to the United Nations. It was the US which took the lead in sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on Sri Lanka in 2015. Subsequently after Donald Trump became President the USA withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council over issues unrelated to Sri Lanka. Trump described the UNHRC as a “Cess pit”. In the absence of the US in the UNHRC, it was Britain and Germany who took the lead in passing resolution 40/1 on Sri Lanka in 2019. Sri Lanka was among the co-sponsors of both resolutions. This of course happened under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Govt.
The US withdrawal from the UNHRC and President Trump’s visible ignorance of and disinterest towards Sri Lanka made this school of thought feel confident that the US would no longer take an active interest in the Sri Lankan human rights situation. This line of thought exerted tremendous influence on the decision made by the new Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to disassociate from the co-sponsoring process of 30/1 and 40/1 resolutions at the UNHRC. Though the official announcement by the Govt was made after Secretary Pompeo’s sanction against Gen Shavendra Silva, the basics of the decision about withdrawing from the co- sponsorship had been made earlier.After the Pompeo sanction the decision making process was expedited , finalized and publicly announced.
Lt.Gen Shavendra Silva Maintained Dignified Silence
It was against this backdrop therefore that the US Secretary of State’s order forbidding the Sri Lankan Army commander and his family from entering the US was made on Valentine’s day. There was much resentment against the US designation in the country.This was manifested clearly by the statements made by politicians from both the Govt and opposition. The Leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa who has been conspicuously silent on major issues affecting the country found time to tweet his solidarity with Lt. Gen Shavendra Silva. His UNP fellow MP S.M. Marikkar grabbed the attention of the nation by calling upon “patriots” to boycott the US embassy by not applying for US visas until Washington rescinded the travel ban on the Army chief. The social media warriors also had a field day in bashing the USA. Lt.Gen Shavendra Silva maintained dignified silence on the issue. When the media contacted the army commander about the matter, he dismissed it lightly saying he had no intention of travelling to the USA.
The Govt too reacted strongly to the US move. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not made any public statement so far but Foreign Relations minister Dinesh Gunawardena summoned the US ambassador in Colombo Alaina B.Teplitz to the ministry on Feb 16th. Significantly enough it was a Sunday. The summoning on a Sunday illustrated the importance and urgency of the issue from the Govt perspective. The minister observed that the matter had complicated Sri Lanka’s relationship with the US and expressed his Govt’s strong objections to US action. Pointing out that the charges against Lt.Gen Shavendra Silva were mere allegations that were unfounded and unproven. Mr. Gunawardena urged the US to review and retract the order against the Army chief. Ambassador Teplitz dutifully assured the minister that she would convey the views expressed to Washington.
Former president and present prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also issued a statement in which he referred to the US designation of Gen. Shavendra Silva. Prime Minister Rajapaksa in the statement dated Feb 19th observed thus –“The United States of America has prohibited the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva or members of his family from entering that country. Even though we are now in the 21st Century, even members of his family who have not been accused of any wrongdoing have been subjected to a collective punishment reminiscent of the practice in medieval Europe.”
“The people should be the judge of how fair this is. Even though this collective punishment has been meted out on the grounds that the Army Commander had committed violations of human rights, no one knows what these allegations are. Even though the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that until a person accused of a crime is proved guilty according to law, he should be deemed innocent, this principle does not seem to apply to Sri Lanka’s Army Commander or even to members of his family.Our government has already conveyed our displeasure in this regard to the government of the United States in the strongest possible terms.”
US Dep Asst Secy of State for South Asia,Thomas Vajda
Though the Sri Lankan Govt seems to have been taken unawares by Secretary Pompeo’s designation, an influential segment within the global Tamil Diaspora was not very surprised. This was because of a high level meeting that had taken place at the US state dept in January this year. A cross section of representatives from Tamil associations within different states in the US along with others from Canada, Britain and Australia participated in the meeting with US officials. It was chaired by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Thomas Vajda.
The 140 minute long conclave discussed several issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. It appeared that the US officials were somewhat “cheesed off” at the new Govt in Sri Lanka and examined options available to pressurize Colombo. Among the measures considered was Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. Subsequently it was under this section that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo designated Gen Shavendra Silva. Under these circumstances the order against the army chief did not surprise the Tamil representatives concerned as they anticipated some future action. None of them however knew when action would be taken or who would be targeted.
Alice Wells, Lisa Curtis and Alaina Teplitz Meet President Gota
Even though the US may have been contemplating some course of action concerning Sri Lanka , what was it that could have precipitated or triggered off action by Secretary Pompeo?A western diplomat with “insider” knowledge opined that some happenings in January may have had some bearing on the issue.
One was the visit to Sri Lanka on January 13th and 14th by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells and Lisa Curtis the deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and Senior Director for South and Central Asia on the U.S. National Security Council. Both Alice Wells and Lisa Curtis met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Relations minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Members of the opposition including the TNA and civil society representatives. They were accompanied by Ambassador Alaina Teplitz. During the meeting with the president Lisa Curtis handed over a letter from President Donald Trump to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and conveyed a message to him.
The second happening was the visit by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Jan 14. The Chinese foreign minister met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The press release issued by the Presidents Media division provided a detailed description of the meeting. It is reproduced in full here because of its importance and relevance . The press release stated as follows –
“Sri Lanka is a small country. Fortunately or not, it is geographically placed in a most strategic location. As a result, the country has to face many political challenges. The only way to overcome them is to be economically strong. The economic independence will ensure political independence”, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the visiting Foreign Minister of the Peoples’ Republic of China Wang Yi who called on him at the Presidential Secretariat this morning (14).
“Minister Yi in his response said that China, as did in the past, would be Sri Lanka’s longtime partner in prosperity and growth. He noted that China’s policy towards Sri Lanka had always been consistent and China would continue to be Sri Lanka’s reliable friend.”
“The Foreign Minister of China commenced the cordial conversation with the President conveying the warmest greetings from the President of China Xi Jing Ping. He congratulated “China’s old friend” President Rajapaksa for getting elected to office. Minister Yi said that after the in-depth discussion he had with President Rajapaksa he was confident that already existing strong bilateral relations could be further strengthened.”
“President Rajapaksa warmly reciprocated the visiting Minister’s goodwill and warm wishes. The President revealed that he was an admirer of President Xi Jing Ping and that he had followed his speeches and statements closely. He also stated that some of President’s Xi’s policies especially on poverty alleviation were incorporated into his own mandate. He also thanked Minister Yi for the invitation to visit China.Recalling his many visits to China, President Rajapaksa said “China is not a stranger to me”.
China Wont Allow Interference by Outside Influences in Sri Lanka
“As Sri Lanka’s strategic partner China will continue to standby Sri Lanka’s interests. China stands for the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. We will not allow any outside influences to interfere with matters that are essentially internal concerns of Sri Lanka”, Minister Yi pledged.
“Referring to President Rajapaksa’s commitment to make Sri Lanka economically independent, the Chinese Foreign Minister said that during the President’s visit next month all arrangements would be made to meet with necessary parties that can help Sri Lanka in the areas of technology, tourism, infrastructure and other related fields. The visit, he promised will be most productive.“Sri Lanka may have less landmass, but will soon be strong economically. China will be with Sri Lanka in its striving to reach this goal”, Minister Yi assured.
“The Ambassador of China to Sri Lanka Cheng Xueyuan, Vice Minister of Commerce Qian Keming, Vice Chairman of China International Development and Cooperation Agency Zhou Liujun, Secretary to the President Dr. P. B. Jayasundara, honorary adviser to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Additional Secretary to the President on International Relations Admiral Jayanath Colombage were also present during the discussion.”
The Chinese Foreign minister’s assertion that China as Sri Lanka’s strategic partner would “not allow any outside influences to interfere with matters that are essentially internal concerns of Sri Lanka” created a huge controversy. To Which country or countries was the Chinese Foreign minister referring to when he said “outside influences?”. More importantly to what extent would China go in not allowing these outside influences” to interfere with internal matters of Sri Lanka? India had for long been regarded as the “pivotal” and “pre-eminent”power in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka was part of that region. Was India being depicted as an “outside influence” in the region now? Consequent to Wang Yi’s visit India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval made an unannounced “flying”trip to Sri Lanka on Jan 19. He had a cordial meeting with President Gotaya and reportedly discussed many matters of mutual concern and interest.
Interviews With Suhasini Haider and Padma Rao Sundarji
Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi’s statement about not allowing outside influences to interfere with Sri Lanka’s internal matters continued to “rankle” with India’s political analysts and opinion makers. The issue came to the fore in early February when Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa embarked upon a four day visit to India.
In an interview with “The Hindu”, Suhasini Haider posed the following question to the Sri Lankan PM.
“During a visit to Colombo, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China will ensure that there is no outside interference in Sri Lanka….…What did he mean? Was it an indication to the US, or to India or some other country?”
Mahinda Rajapaksa replied “I don’t know, you will have to ask him that (laughs). We didn’t take the statement too seriously, as no one has yet tried to interfere in our matters… other than during the last elections . Then, all the countries got involved in [the elections]. But now we would like to have good relations and work with all the countries.” Mahinda’s reference to interference in 2015 was of course due to his belief that India and the US had conspired to defeat him then.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was also interviewed by Padma Rao Sundarji for the “Hindustan Times”. The question relating to the Wang Yi’s comment and the answer given were as follows –
Q;“But the Chinese foreign minister also said that China will ‘not allow outside influences to interfere’ in Sri Lanka. That is open to interpretation. How will you assuage India’s apprehension on this front?
A; “Since India is not interfering in our domestic matters that statement is not meant for India. India has never interfered. In fact, even India has made similar statements, that you will always protect us. And I am absolutely sure you will. Look, that is China’s view; ultimately, we Sri Lankans have to decide on what is interference and what is not.”
Prime Minister Mahinda’s responses to queries by Indian journalists indicated clearly that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement about not allowing outside influences to interfere in Sri Lankan internal affairs did not refer to India. Therefore the logical conclusion was that it referred to the US. What it meant was that Beijing was telling Washington to not interfere with Sri Lanka and that China would not allow it.
It is well -known that the US is extremely concerned about China’s growing influence in the South Asian region in general and Sri Lanka in particular. Washington is perturbed over China expanding its presence in Sri Lanka through economic pressure which the US describes as a “debt trap”. On the other hand the US too is trying to co-opt Sri Lanka in its efforts to contain China. Furthermore Washington keeps pressurizing Colombo over the SOFA and MCC agreements. Now it appeared that the US was being warned not to interfere in Sri Lanka and that China would not allow it. This could be seen as an affront. If so the cutting edge of US diplomacy being exercised would become inevitable.
Big Power Rivalry Places Sri Lanka In Unenviable Situation
This kind of big power rivalry places a non-aligned small country like Sri Lanka in an unenviable situation. Lanka can be undermined in areas of vulnerability. In a sense therefore Lt.Gen Shavendra Silva is caught up in this geo-political powerplay. The implications and ramifications of this state of affairs and other related developments would be discussed further in the second part of this article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of February 22, 2020. It can be accessed here: