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On ‘Asia’s Political and Security Environment: Avenues for Inter-Regional Cooperation’
At the 6th meeting of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
On ‘Global Power Shift: Implications for Asia-Europe Relations’
November 9th 2013
Two weeks ago I was at a seminar in Rio de Janeiro, arranged by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, on the topic of responses to the emergence of bipolarity, in terms of the United States and China. I was there when I got details of this discussion, and it struck me that the different ways in which the topic, essentially the same topic, was phrased represented two different views of the world, or rather of how we relate to each other in the same world.
This factor was indeed the subject of my presentation at that seminar, the difference between the oppositional view of the world, in terms of Western philosophy, and the more inclusive Eastern one. That first perspective, discussed by Tagore a century ago, when he advised Japan against adopting the Western ‘selfish separation of exclusiveness…in the name of false patriotism, it engenders hatred against other countries at times leading to conquest by war’ was conceptualized by Nirmal Verma when he spoke of ‘the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire’.
The alternative view of the world is one based on circles, concentric and overlapping, which encourages inclusive perspectives. That is the view which should inform our discussions, given their basis in our shared visions of and for Asia and Europe, those large and heterogeneous entities. We should be seeking what we have in common, and how we can expand areas of shared objectives rather than seeing things in terms of absolutes and of zero sum situations.
Central to our discussions of course is China, as the President of Liberal International, Hans van Baalen, just indicated, in beginning his presentation with its significance. But I would also stress what he said later, that our discussions should be about China, and they should be about Democracy.
This is a vital factor, but I am old enough to remember how the latter was considered totally unimportant in the bad old days of the Cold War, when China’s discovery of the free market was considered enough, and its authoritarian political dispensation considered almost an asset. Indeed, one of the saddest statements I have heard from a representative of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which we look to as a celebrant of freedom, was the assertion that it was not at all worrying to claim that economic development was a priority and political freedom could wait. This was in the context of a Sri Lankan politician suggesting that what had happened in China, and in South Korea under its military dictators, and more recently in Vietnam, should be a model for us too. To find that acceptable seemed to me a betrayal.
Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on
Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World
October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro
Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.
When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.
Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.
Text of a Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
At the Conference on the
Changing Scenario in South Asia: Leveraging Economic Growth for Collective Prosperity
Held at the Centre for Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh
March 30th-31st 2013
I am grateful to the organizers of this Conference for this timely initiative to discuss leveraging economic growth to promote collective prosperity. As the concept note indicates, the discussion is intended to go beyond economic growth and, as befits a Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, it is concerned as much with changing mindsets as with promoting prosperity.
This paper then will look at Security and Ethnic Issues in Sri Lanka in the context of both internal and regional cooperation. In terms of the sub-text of the Conference, the changing scenario in South Asia, I will look particularly at enhancing relations with India in the context of current concerns. I fear that there are a number of forces striving to drive India and Sri Lanka apart and, given the close cooperation we have enjoyed in recent years, and the support we received from India to deal with a grave terrorist threat, we must do our best to overcome these. I trust that, despite recent events in Geneva, decision makers in India feel the same.
The greatest threat to security in the region is internal dissatisfaction which can be used for political purposes by national and international players aiming at destabilization. Whilst usually the reasons for dissatisfaction are economic, they are exacerbated by perceptions of discrimination based on class and caste and ethnicity.
This last is of crucial importance in Sri Lanka, understandably so given policies that seemed to militate against minorities. Unfortunately agitation has now gone beyond practical issues and has led to emotional dogmas that threaten security. Such threats can also affect India, given the current practice internationally of encouraging small national units that are more easily managed for economic as well as strategic purposes.
It is essential then for us, throughout South Asia, to ensure that separatism receives neither encouragement nor excuse. I should add that we also need now to be conscious of the danger presented by what is termed autonomy too. Changes in the world scene have made that a very different kettle of fish now from what it used to be. In the old days indeed, those of us who believed that majoritarian policies in Sri Lanka had led to very understandable grievances amongst Tamils felt that regional autonomy was a solution. We argued that even Federalism was preferable to a highly centralized state that had no mechanisms to look at and overcome local problems. Read the rest of this entry »
Of the proceedings of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Synthesis - Managing Burma’s Political Transitions: The Challenges Ahead
Producing a synthesis of the various interesting and instructive papers we heard today is not an easy task. Understandably, almost all speakers looked at the issue under discussion through the prism of their own experiences, but unfortunately very few made any clear connection between the problems they discussed and those of Burma, which is supposed to be our primary concern.
Nevertheless the issues they raised suggest what I hope will be productive lines of thought. I will look at these in terms of a formula suggested by a former President of Sri Lanka who had to deal with the aftermath, in the early nineties, of not only the ethnic conflict and the settlement brokered by India, but also a Sinhalese youth insurrection that used dissatisfaction with that settlement as a focus to rouse armed opposition to government. His argument was that we must have consultation, compromise and consensus, and I was reminded of this when Cambodia raised the question of the possibility of talking with the devil, and Hong Kong talked about dancing with wolves.
The answer to what might be a conundrum was outlined in the very first presentation we had on Burma, which fleshed out the position put to us by Aung San Suu Kyi when I was privileged to lead the CALD delegation that met her way back in January 2011. Earlier we had been to the NLD headquarters where some of the party elders seemed to suggest that no compromise was possible. But her position was clear, that she was prepared to talk and to aim for consensus, but she would not compromise on basic principles. Compromise I believe is generally a good thing, when it is based on sensitivity to the positions of other individuals. It should not involve abandoning principles, but one should be prepared to be flexible with regard to other people in trying to reach a common understanding.
Dr Aung this morning, in a moving description of the approach taken by his party now, mentioned that they engaged in talks with all parties based on mutual respect. Their aim was long lasting peace and reconciliation, and this clearly required understanding of what the different parties wanted, what they needed, and what they stood for.
Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy - Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand
The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.
In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.
But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.
Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.
Text of an inaugural presentation at the Fifth South Asia Economic Summit on Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia.
Islamabad, 11th September 2012
I am grateful to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan for inviting me to this Summit, and giving me an opportunity to discuss its theme in relation to Sri Lanka. As you are aware, Sri Lanka recently came out of decades of conflict which had impaired economic development, and in particular the promotion of equity in such development.
Comparatively speaking Sri Lanka in fact did reasonably well with regard to growth, except when there were grave problems, as in 2001. However that growth was lopsided, with almost all the increase in wealth that has propelled us upward from being a low income country into middle income status occurring in the Western Province. Since it was such lopsided development that contributed to a series of youth insurrections in the last four decades, it is vital that we correct this imbalance if we are not to face further disruptive unrest in the future.
Presentation at a meeting of the Pakistan Liberal Forum - Islamabad, 11th September 2012
I am grateful to the Pakistan Liberal Forum for having invited me to speak today at your seminar on Challenges for Democracy in the upcoming Elections. Though you have suggested I present a regional perspective, it would be more practical I think for me to talk about democracy in Sri Lanka and the challenges we have faced, which may perhaps have lessons for you in Pakistan too.
Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy for 80 years now, with Universal Adult Franchise bestowed on us by the British in 1931. That they gave us a privilege you in the then united subcontinent did not receive for over a decade longer is not a tribute to us, but rather a function of our small size and the perception that, whatever happened, we would not be a threat to the Empire. We were given not only the opportunity to select a legislature, but also an approximation to Cabinet government with seven Ministers chosen from amongst the members of the Legislature. Needless to say, though, there were three appointed Ministers, for Law and Finance and what was termed Chief Secretary, while Defence and External Affairs were kept in the hands of the Governor.
We followed the classic Westminster model which, as you know, does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. All members of the Cabinet were chosen from the Legislature, but unlike in Britain this soon turned into membership of the Legislature being seen as the main qualification for becoming a Minister. Ability was not considered important, and seniority seemed a sufficient claim.
There were a few exceptions, and I can also think of one case where a man of recognized ability was brought into a safe seat, a practice that the British had, so as to bring in people of talent. More importantly they also had a House of Lords to which proven talent could be introduced, which India for instance still continues with, in the form of the Rajya Sabha. As you know, several of the most distinguished Ministers in the Indian cabinet have not faced the hustings, but are in effect appointed.
Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the session on
Clauses for a Sustainable Political Relationship in Trade Agreements: Effective Against Possible Threats to Democracy?
At the Summit of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats with the
Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Brussels, June 2012
To cite the preamble to this dialogue between Asian and European Liberals, we agree that, ‘from a liberal standpoint, it is mutually beneficial for countries to engage in trade, and free trade is one of the means to lift countries out of poverty.’ Unfortunately this ideal is under attack for a variety of reasons, and most of the attacks come, it should be noted, from powerful countries. Thus we need to worry – and I hope Liberals in the West will help us to overcome this worry, given their own ideals – as to whether, again to cite the preamble, ‘trade, instead of forging a mutually beneficial partnership between developed and developing countries, has been a mechanism to subject the latter into a dependent relationship.’
The most obvious example of this in recent times is the pressure exercised by the United States to force countries to stop trade with Iran. The excuse for this is suspicions about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but there is little doubt that there are no reasons for these suspicions, given the international mechanisms to deal with these, except intrinsic American hostility to Iran. Given that on the previous occasion on which America acted because of purported suspicions with regard to nuclear weapons, the pretext turned out to be palpably false, a process of induction suggests that now too the world is being dragooned into conflict – and in the process the ideal of free trade is being traduced, with no concern for development as opposed to vindictive dogma.
What I find saddest about such actions is the total silence of our Liberal colleagues around the world about this appalling behavior. It is true that most of Europe refused to be dragged into war in Iraq, and it was a British Labour government that proved President Bush’s staunchest ally. The British Liberal Democrats behaved much better on that occasion than the main Conservative opposition. But their failure now, when in government, to demand accountability, to pursue more carefully the appalling fate of David Kelly, to look into the strong evidence provided by the former ambassador to Uzbekhistan, Craig Murray, now a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, of collusion in human rights violations by the British and American governments, is most disappointing. In such a context, to fail to speak out loud and clear about the current American policy towards Iran seems to me culpable, and I hope our colleagues here will strive to remedy the situation.
Expanded version of closing remarks at the
Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
arranged in Ulaan Baatar by the Civil Will Green Party of Mongolia
together with the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung
May 24th 2012
I was not expecting to conclude this seminar, but it is a pleasure to do so since the interaction between liberal thought and the situation here in Mongolia has been most stimulating. I suspect that the biding image I will take with me is the comment by Mr Demirel, with his distinguished leadership of your dynamic Chamber of Commerce, that Mongolia is a nomadic country, and the essence of the nomadic life is freedom.
This freedom that we value so much is freedom not only to think and speak and act as each individual wishes, so long as they do not limit the freedom of other individuals; it is also freedom from the restrictions that limit the exercise of that freedom. For this last purpose the State is needed, which is why, though Liberals want a small state, they also require, as perhaps the most important leader of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff put it, a strong state. In that sense, to expand the sporting metaphor introduced by Rainer Adam, who has done so much through the FNS to promote Liberalism in Asia, we have to make sure that the state as referee is not also a play, but we also need the state to ensure that there is a level playing field. While pursuing equality is a mirage, we need to promote equality of opportunity, though through positive measures that expand opportunities for the deprived, not negative ones that restrict opportunities for the more fortunate.
Promoting both types of freedom can sometimes lead to tensions when different liberal thinkers place different priorities on the various freedoms we need, but perhaps for that very reason one of the freedoms we should value most is freedom from dogma. This freedom to think outside the prevailing box when circumstances require it lies at the heart of the history of liberal thought, which was so ably expounded by Lito Arlegue, Executive Director of CALD, in the first session.
Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP, Leader – Liberal Party of Sri Lanka
And Presidential Adviser on Reconciliation to the President, Sri Lanka
On ‘The Global War on Terror: How Do the Liberals Respond?’
At the Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom”
Organized by the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia
Ulaanbaatar, May 24th 2012
Let me first express my thanks to our hosts, the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia, for having invited the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats to their country, and arranging this very timely seminar. The Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which has supported CALD so graciously over the years, was established to promote freedom, and it is this core value of Liberalism that we must see as the bedrock, not only of our own philosophy, but also of equitable and sustainable development all over the world.
Freedom does not, we should emphasize, mean the freedom of the wild ass. As the former head of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff said, while Liberalism demands a small state, it also requires a strong state. Thus I believe my colleague who will talk about environmental issues will stress the need for forceful regulation, to ensure protection for vulnerable people and places. That is why true Liberalism, while being committed to a market economy, does not believe that market forces alone should dictate policy. The state must ensure that the vulnerable are protected, that a level playing field is promoted, that development is both balanced and enduring.
It is in this context that we must formulate our response as Liberals to what is described as the Global War on Terror. We are aware that terrorism is now a much greater threat than it was in the past. But we must also recognize that the world should not allow itself to be blinded into seeing terror as somehow connected primarily with Islam, following on the appalling events of September 11th 2001. That was an event that had long been brewing, and I fear that tacit encouragement had been given to its perpetrators over the years, when other priorities suggested to the West that terrorists could be a useful tool against more dangerous enemies – just as the West had believed that fundamentalism could be a useful tool against godless Communism.
The consequence was the apotheosis of the Taleban, guided by Al Qaeda, into the government of Afghanistan, a government that promoted international terrorism. Many have now forgotten that, when the US government first reacted forcefully to Taleban excesses against its own, the bombs it dropped killed personnel being trained to attack the Indian government in Kashmir. But that meant nothing, for over the previous decade, such terrorism had seemed an acceptable offshoot of support for fundamentalist terrorist against the Soviet Union – and in those days the West had seen India as an ally of the Eastern Bloc. Read the rest of this entry »