By Kath Noble
The cancellation a month ago of another overseas speech by Mahinda Rajapaksa due to protests by the Tamil diaspora has intensified debate on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
Does it need to change? Or is it just being poorly implemented by the country’s diplomats?
The President’s spin doctors tried to present his UK visit as ‘extremely successful’ and ‘a substantial advance in bilateral relations’, but not even Lalith Weeratunga can really believe that – shaking hands with the Queen is only significant for people who have blown up her cousin, and David Cameron was so impressed by his meeting with the President that his office immediately felt the need to clarify that it was no more than a short discussion on the way to lunch of which the main content was the usual reminder of the need to investigate war crimes allegations.
Now even the Government appears to think that something is amiss. It is reportedly organising a workshop for its heads of mission this coming weekend, to educate them on the direction it wishes to take henceforth.
The moment of realisation should have come with the lost vote at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which resulted in a critical statement being issued calling on the Government to do better in its efforts at reconciliation and even accept the help of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Navi Pillay, sometimes very undiplomatically referred to by ministers as a Tiger sympathiser. Given that the Government won in Geneva in 2009, not just fighting off censure but actually getting members to praise its military campaign, when memories of the bloody end to the war were still fresh, the 2012 defeat was pretty spectacular. The ‘score’ went from 29:12 in favour of the Government to 15:24 against.
This was followed by the very public dumping of the unfortunate Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, and the more or less simultaneous attempt by the Foreign Ministry to (once again!) get rid of Dayan Jayatilleka.
However, this time the Geneva vote had nothing to do with the capacities of the representative but everything to do with the behaviour of the administration being represented. It was the result of the Government’s apparently tireless efforts to alienate India, a country that had protected it from interference by the West throughout the final stages of the war, at quite some cost to the Congress domestically – while neither Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa nor her predecessor and main rival Karunanidhi are at all serious about their advocacy in support of Sri Lankan Tamils, they make a lot of noise, and Tamil Nadu is full of people with Vellupillai Prabhakaran bumper stickers (really!).
It seemed to me at the time that India might even have encouraged the United States to put up the resolution against Sri Lanka, to create an opportunity to demonstrate its displeasure. Too many of its ministers and officials had been made to look complete idiots. Throughout the final stages of the war, the Government had promised India that it would work out a political solution that went beyond the 13th Amendment. Yet three years on it has still not happened. Worse, it has now become commonplace for the Government to reiterate its commitment to ‘13 Plus’ to each and every visitor from India and then deny it as soon as they are on the plane home. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna suffered this fate in January.
It is easy to imagine nuclear-armed India, on its way to getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thinking, ‘How dare they!’ That insufferable Mahinda Rajapaksa has fewer people in his whole country than we have in one of our cities! We probably lose more money in one of our scams than his economy even generates!’
Indeed, some weeks before the Geneva vote, I attended a seminar at a Ministry of Defence-funded think tank in Delhi at which participants said more or less exactly that, albeit rather more diplomatically. They were trying to understand how the Government had ‘managed’ India so effectively, and what India should do about it.
Amusingly or bemusingly, top of the list of explanations was ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning’. I must admit that I had expected a more practical evaluation. Still, the proposals for action were eminently practical, ranging from pulling out of reconstruction work in the North and East and forcibly repatriating all Sri Lankan refugees to pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Canal, demanding the return of Kachchativu Island and easing up on controls on radical elements in Tamil Nadu. Pumping in aid and investment to make Sri Lanka more economically dependent on India was also put forward as a long term strategy. Short term, there was of course a suggestion to withhold support in forums like the UN Human Rights Council.
Geneva 2012 could be just the beginning, in other words.
It would not be possible to revisit the arguments for and against ‘13 Plus’ here, nor do I care to. What is more relevant is that ‘13 Minus’ – which even the JHU accepts as an interim measure, making it an eminently practical way forward – has not been implemented and does not look like happening any time soon.
Indeed, arguments are now emerging to suggest that elections to the Northern Provincial Council had better be postponed indefinitely, since the West may try to use a TNA-led administration to break up the country. Suspicion of their intentions is quite natural and sensible – they do indeed employ such divide and rule tactics against states they perceive as ‘targets’, as Sri Lanka seems to be for them at the moment. However, they are not the only players in this game. There are other powers who don’t take kindly to regimes who refuse to fall in line as ‘client states’, and they too have a history of intervention.
At the risk of being called well-intentioned (or worse!), I must say I think there’s been more than enough delay already. As the Opposition said last week, let’s have polls in the North before anywhere else. Let’s also rebuild the relationship with India, I might add, since it is the one country that is definitely committed to a united Sri Lanka.
The alternatives that have been floated in the last few months since the Geneva vote are not very convincing. Some are keen on abandoning both India and the West, now seen as lost causes, and pushing forward in the relationship with China. These people are very happy with decisions to close Western embassies and particularly delighted when the Government unleashes its ministerial attack-dogs like Wimal Weerawansa for a bit of their trademark anti-West grandstanding – effigy burning is so much fun, it would seem.
They say Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West, although of course the West has the capacity to totally destroy the economy, dependent as Sri Lanka is on Western markets for its exports – note how systematically the West is currently going about the much more difficult task of bringing down Iran by getting all other countries to stop buying its oil.
Sri Lanka doesn’t need India either, apparently, since it is China’s new best friend. Never mind how many other countries are competing for that title, or how only one of the pair is located a mere 30 kilometres away.
Others want Sri Lanka’s new best friend to be the West, to take advantage of their ever growing interest in Asia. There is much talk of the island’s strategic location, and enthusiasm for anything even vaguely resembling military cooperation – these people are perhaps dreaming of converting Sri Lanka into another Diego Garcia, in case Diego Garcia proves too small for the West’s ambitions.
Fortunately, the Government isn’t quite that stupid. Depending on any one power is a strategy that has been proven to be short-sighted – balancing several is vital.
The problem isn’t actually Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its implementation, although there are certainly many deficiencies in the details – why was Mahinda Rajapaksa even at the UK Jubilee celebrations? It is more of a challenge than that. Diplomacy can do many things, but it cannot change the facts on the ground. Indeed, diplomacy has to be based on them.
David Cameron and other leaders may bow to pressure from the Tamil diaspora from time to time, but they will not be able to mobilise the world against Sri Lanka so long as it is clear that the Government is more in the right than in the wrong. This is what the President achieved during the war, and what he must do again if he wants to ensure that his difficulties don’t go beyond the occasional cancelled speech.