Keeping the West Out

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 11 2022
Columns Keeping the West Out

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

If one commonality stood out through the past week, when the much-delayed Trinco oil-tank farms deal with India was signed, and in the same vein the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was received, it is this. That the ruling Rajapaksa family is still sticking to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s foreign policy formulation from his days as President (2005-15): China is a good friend, India is a relative, and there is no place in it for the ‘over-bearing’ and ‘self-righteous’ West.

The forgotten ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ set out the Rajapaksa foreign policy as aligning with Asia (to the exclusion of the West?). That was long before the West had occasion to throw their own book at Sri Lanka, in the name of human rights violations and war crimes. The Rajapaksas thus do not hesitate in working with India, China, Singapore and Japan. Yet, they want it bilateral and not multilateral. Hence, the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa threw out the tri-nation ECT involving India and Japan, and haven’t opened up any talk on the four-nation Trincomalee development plans, where Singapore’s name also got mentioned under the predecessor regime.

Whether it is the right approach when exports are also directed at the West is a different issue worth a detailed discourse/debate. The Rajapaksa-centric ruling SLPP’s hesitancy in dealing with the West is a legacy issue inherited from the left-leaning SLFP parent. Rather than seeking to open their eyes to the post-Cold-War geo-political and geo-economic realities, which also coincided with the post-reforms era on the economic front, the West took umbrage under their new-found whip meant for selective use – namely, human rights.

From an impartial Sri Lankan perspective, the West does not apply or deploy their own norms to their own dealings and conducts, as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and leave alone Vietnam and the rest during the Cold-War period. The Indian neighbour, from a Sri Lankan perspective, is the world’s largest democracy, and seem wanting to protect the pro-active human rights record in the neighbourhood. Sri Lanka was a victim of the Indian approaches at the UNHRC, or even earlier, starting with its political position on the ethnic issue.

China does not have such qualms and hence self-designed impediments, so it suits post-colonial Third World nations like Sri Lanka. The Chinese veto vote in the UNSC and its economic muscle to be able to muster a few votes in the General Assembly are a bonus. Looked at it from this broad-spectrum approach, Sri Lanka, especially under the Rajapaksas, cannot feel comfortable with either Quad or AUKUS, both drawn up to protect and promote America’s geo-strategic and geo-political position in South and South-East Asia after the bloodied-nose withdrawal from Afghanistan, and earlier Iraq (though not with as much damage).

Hidden consensus?

There is an urgent need for all friends and well-wishers of Sri Lanka, including the self-appointed ones, to understand first and acknowledge later that there is a national consensus in the country that favours China and India as allies, political, economic and strategic – the last one purportedly reserved for the immediate neighbour - to the near-exclusion of the rest of Asia and certainly the rest of the world.

In the post-Cold-War era, the Big Two politico-electoral players were sophisticated enough to high what looked like a consensus approach. When the Rajapaksas with their earthy approach to politics and political administration took over, they were frank to the point of being blunt. It included their approaches and propositions on what otherwise was/is the most sophisticated of all administrative initiatives and encounters: foreign policy and diplomacy.

It is also here that the Rajapaksas, post-war, came to be criticised by the West for shifting the goal-post all the time. It was true, but then the Rajapaksas were not exposed to the nuances of diplomacy, nor were those that they had put in charge of the department, especially as envoys and mission-heads outside the country. This continues to be so on crucial and critical occasions.

Unknown to have taken pains to study and understand the ground realities in individual nations, just as the Rajapaksas did not do nearer home, the West especially has always fixed a nation within their template models since at least the end of the Second World War and more so after the end of the Cold War. It meant that those that did not understand or did not want to adhere to their template models alone are in the wrong.

Under this scanner, the Rajapaksas’ crude expression of the national truth was unfriendly to the point of being inimical. The same decision packaged differently by CBK in her time and Ranil Wickremesinghe in his was well received as they spoke the lingo of the West. Yet, they too said and did precisely the same things as the Rajapaksas. They were so very sophisticated that even their western mentors continued to be fooled about their geo-political inclination and electoral intent nearer home.

Over the past decade and more, it became abundantly clear that the UNP-SLFP rivals, since mutated as SJB-SLPP opponents have hardly criticised each other when in the Opposition on major foreign and security policy issues. Be it Hambantota in its time or the Colombo Port City (CPC) now, the UNP-SJB combo did not criticise a bean of either. Their shared criticism of the CPC project last year was only over the management committee that the ruling Rajapaksas had designed.

If anything, throughout the parliamentary debate on the CPC management committee bill, and outside as well, the SJB and the UNP continually wanted the nation and the world to know – to be heard in Beijing, too – that their opposition was only to the bill and not to the project or Chinese funding. Neither discussed the kind of threats to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and security that those like then US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz had flagged and in public.

In comparison, the Rajapaksas were far open in their criticism of the then Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government for converting what was a concession-cum-construction contract under their rule on Hambantota into an outright 99-year-long leasehold in China’s favour. This even in the midst of the leaders of the incumbent regime, especially then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his UNP colleagues blaming the predecessor Rajapaksa rule for pushing the nation into a ‘debt-trap’.

Likewise, when the previous Government was said to be negotiating operation rights for India over the China-built Mattala International Airport, which was hardly receiving any aircraft, Namal Rajapaksa, now Cabinet Minister protested outside the Indian consul-general office in Hambantota, nearby. That was possibly when many Sri Lankans too got to know there was an Indian consulate for southerners to obtain visas and the like for travelling to India, especially on Buddhist pilgrimage. The protests stopped when Mahinda Rajapaksa, then in the Opposition and then overseas, reportedly intervened.

It remains to be seen how the SJB-UNP opposition is going to react to the much-delayed and recently-concluded bilateral agreement with India on the Trincomalee oil tanks farms. The chances are that they would silently welcome the same. If there are public protests, if any, then they might find some technical flaw in the agreements but not the spirit of the same. For now, the Bhikku Front and the JVP have opposed the same – as they are expected to. The former has also moved the Supreme Court.

Lesson for the West

There is a lesson in it for the West. They cherish what virtually has become a two-party ‘guided democracy’ in their own countries, where there is commonality in foreign and security policies, tweaked to particular political and electoral constituencies. Their real fight is on domestic issues, such a corruption, nepotism and lawlessness. They have kept it that way.

The difference and distinction between the two is only in the execution of the same ‘national position’. Thus, the Rajapaksas, addressing their traditional rural, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist constituency, have stood their ground, boldly on war crimes probe and the UNHRC. The then UNP leadership of PM Ranil Wickremesinghe now transmuting as SJB under Sajith Premadasa since, achieved the same results without any compromise, but in a sophisticated way, appealing to their domestic urban/urbane constituency.

At the end of it, the Wickremesinghe leadership too kept talking about a political solution for the Tamils, had Tamil leaders draft relevant provisions in a promised new Constitution, but also ensured that it did not at all see the light of the day, when it came to presenting the final draft to Parliament and obtaining its passage.

In doing so, they also made the hapless leadership and their followers within the Tamil community believe that it was all because of the Rajapaksas, then in the Opposition. The truth was that the constitution draft never ever was presented to Parliament also acting as the constitution assembly, for the Rajapaksas to oppose the move.

Today, after having promised a new constitution that includes a political solution for the ethnic issue by the previous year-end, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa leadership has not brought out the draft document. The country is tied down by the unprecedented forex crisis with daily economic consequences. The Tamils were busy fighting their own internal battles, over drafting a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that they seemed to have forgotten the New Year had dawned and there was no draft constitution in sight.

In all this, the lesson for the West is this: The ‘Big Two’ Sinhala political majors have to contest and win elections in Sri Lanka, counting on and competing for the southern votes. The more the West leans towards the Tamils, especially than is acceptable by even the right, liberal urban constituency, greater will be the alienation from the mainline political parties, which express their alienation in different ways, but to the same end.

This extends to foreign and security policy. Whoever is in power in Colombo, he may choose to play India and China against each other, to presumed economic and strategic benefits in the long run. They do not want to entertain the West, starting with the US for the country’s very own reasons and justifications.

Looked at from another hemisphere, those justifications may sound unjustifiable, but no one nearer home cares. Maybe, the political right while in power would promise a project here, an action plan there (including on the human rights front), but they would remain precisely that, until after the other side had retuned to power, and threw them into sea – and are ready to take the global blame for it!

The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.   email: [email protected]

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 11 2022

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