by Shanaka Jayasekara
Sri Lanka has a success story to showcase and the fruits of peace and development are real on the ground in the North and East. It is a story of how life has truly transformed from the conflict period to an environment of peace and hope today.
This story can only be showcased by experiencing the reality on the ground. The image building exercise needs to develop a structured process of sponsoring key decision-maker groups to visit Sri Lanka and experience the real difference of life today in the post-conflict areas. The structured programme should run fortnightly or monthly with government sponsored tours for key decision-makers, opinion-makers and elected members from overseas to see first-hand the reality on the ground. Sri Lanka should ditch the ‘photo-opportunity diplomacy’ and adopt a long-term and durable approach of ‘achievement showcasing diplomacy’.
b) Counter Disinformation
Briefing tours for key decision makers coveys the right information to the right people. However, decision making in diaspora active countries is not founded only on accurate information, but also influenced by electoral pressures. The ‘achievement showcasing’ strategy should also target a wider critical mass. The government should be considering a media strategy of demonstrating life in comparative periods. The best advantage Sri Lanka has is that an overwhelming number of people from conflict affected areas have a demonstrable improvement in lifestyle in comparison to the conflict period. The media strategy needs to present the past, and compare all aspects of life in the North and East and the improvements in people’s living conditions at present. It is only through a well thought out media strategy of comparative periods that the real story of the conflict can be told.
At present we are simply responding to the media agenda set by Channel 4. While it is important to correct misinformation, the media agenda should be set by Sri Lanka proactively by reflecting on the comparative periods and the transformation in lifestyle.
c) Genuine Political Settlement
The strategy of ‘achievement showcasing’ cannot be limited to bricks and mortar alone. There has to be forward movement on a genuine devolution package for the Northern Province. The international consensus is that President Rajapaksa has the political capital in the south to deliver on the promised 13++ proposals. However, there is a clear lack of sincerity in the political commitment to proceed with real devolution. At present the President is viewed as being disingenuous on his commitment to a political settlement.
It is imperative that an ‘achievement showcasing’ strategy adopts a holistic approach that includes the reconstruction and development success, as well as meeting benchmarks towards a political settlement.
d) Engagement with the Tamil Diaspora
During the reign of LTTE terror, almost all Tamil diaspora organisations were compelled to follow orders issued by the LTTE representative in each country. The new environment has provided opportunity for pluralism among Tamil diaspora organisations. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan government has closed the door on all Tamil diaspora organisations, excluding a few for political favours. While acknowledging that the overseas LTTE elements are attempting to revive a ground capability, a well scrutinised engagement process in which diaspora organisations can participate in the development efforts in the conflict areas needs to be developed.
e) Electoral Power of the Diaspora
Electoral influence and pressure in diaspora-active countries will progressively become a major impediment to bilateral relations with many of these countries. The pro-LTTE groups with growing block votes hold the balance of power in many constituencies with a high concentration of Tamil voters. The recent mayoral elections in London demonstrated how the Tamil electoral power influenced the two candidates. It is essential that other groups not sympathetic to the LTTE be encouraged to voice differing opinion on the Sri Lankan issue.
f) LTTE International Network
There is little doubt that the remnants of the LTTE international network will make every attempt to achieve a fledgling ground capability. It is imperative to develop a capacity to monitor the most potent threats to Sri Lanka from LTTE activist overseas. At present there seems to be a firewall between External Affairs and Defence Ministry amongst the midlevel officials. Irrespective of the mandate or domain, it is the responsibility of all diplomats to safeguard the national security interest of Sri Lanka.
PART 3- MULTILATERAL RELATIONS
a) Thematic Expertise within the UN
Sri Lanka being a small state needs to develop a strategic plan that can increase its visibility within UN discourse. At present Sri Lanka serves on several committees and sub-committees without a coherent approach. Sri Lanka needs to select a thematic area such as Ocean affairs or fisheries and develop a regional leadership position with a centre of excellence, topical conferences and dialogues. A more focused approach to Sri Lanka’s contribution will provide greater visibility within the UN system and influence in the world.
b) Preparedness and Early Warning Mechanism for CHOGM 2013
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2013 in Colombo can become the biggest public relations disaster unless the preparatory ground work is not undertaken early. It is important to understand that four key Commonwealth countries will be within the lead-up to Parliamentary elections at the time of CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka. The scheduled date for parliamentary elections in Australia is around November 2013, New Zealand (2014), India (2014) and South Africa (2014).
The pro-LTTE electoral lobby groups and the regional parties in Tamil Nadu will campaign against their respective heads of state attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka. As with the UNHRC vote the determining factor will be the participation of Manmohan Singh. We need to learn lessons from the UNHRC experience and not underestimate the influence of Tamil Nadu parties on the Union government. Sri Lanka will have to work hard to avert a catastrophic humiliation by an Indian boycott or second tier representation.
There is no silver bullet to ensure full participation at the summit. Given that this event is a superfluous and extravagant exercise that Sri Lanka has unnecessarily committed to, we have to face the consequences. One option is to have preparatory meetings with the key Commonwealth countries and demonstrate progress on the action plan under the UNHRC resolution and the conduct of provincial council elections in the Northern Province prior to CHOGM.
PART 4 – TRADE, INVESTMENT AND LABOUR MARKETS
a) Traditional Exports
There is a lifestyle change taking place in Western countries with espresso coffee becoming the fashionable morning/daytime stimulant. The consumer preference for tea is on the decline in western markets and Sri Lanka needs to access new markets for its tea exports in the Central Asian Republics, North Africa and West Asia.
b) Reciprocal Trade Concessions
The Hambantota Port is a valuable asset strategically located on the major sea lanes of communication. The warehousing and transhipment facilities can have a comparative advantage over other shipping options. Sri Lanka needs to utilize this advantage not only for increasing traffic to Hambantota Port but also to negotiate bilateral trade concessions. The commercial value of Hambantota Port on the shipping lanes should not be taken for granted.
The above is not an exhaustive list but indicative ideas of developing a foreign policy that can effectively safeguard and advance the national interest of the country.
(The Writer is Lecturer, Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT) Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)