Many who supported Maithripala Sirisena during the last presidential campaign felt that handling of foreign relations by the previous government had been inept. In particular, it seemed that relations with India had deteriorated, sadly so given how solidly India had supported us during our war against terror. Though the then president seemed positive about India, those around him seemed to sidestep any commitments he made, while there was clear evidence of an active effort to destabilize relations.
This happened when he was almost persuaded to cancel a meeting with the leader of an Indian parliamentary delegation, Sushma Swaraj, now India’s foreign minister. That disaster was averted but the anti-indian lobby in the foreign ministry managed in the media to blame India for the debacle that had occurred in Geneva. A resolution critical of Sri Lanka, introduced by the West, had passed, with India voting in favour. But we were told that we should now go back to our traditional foreign policy of friendship with the West, since others were unreliable.
This policy was not at all traditional and only dates back to the aberrations of the eighties, when then president J.R. Jayewardene became an enthusiastic Cold Warrior and thought his alliance with the West was secure enough to withstand Indian displeasure. He even tried to invoke the 1947 Defence Treaty with Britain – and I am told Mrs Thatcher, whom he supported over the Falklands, was inclined to agree – but the British Foreign Office refused.
What happened in 1987 made it clear that we could not ignore India. In turn India, after its understandable worries about American encirclement in those dark Cold War days, proved a tower of strength. The former president understood this, but others around him, with a dichotomizing mindset, thought that since China was a more obliging friend, we could afford to neglect India.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto however made it clear that he intended to return to the traditional Non-Aligned Policy of the party to which he belonged, with stress on good relations with our neighbours. This does not preclude China but his intended priorities were clear from what the manifesto said – ‘Cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia, while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea without differences.’ He added ‘Our Indian policy will take into due consideration the diversity of India. I would act to have closer relations with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependent.’
Of course this does not preclude friendly relations with the West. The last government made a mess of these, whereas a few simple measures, which were as much in the interests of our own people as of the diaspora which has been such an effective pressure group, would have overcome the worst hostility. But what has happened now seems to be a return to the eighties, with an assumption that keeping the West happy allows us to neglect everyone else.
So we see what seem potshots at China and even Australia, while the centrality of India to any rational Sri Lankan foreign policy is ignored. Our current High Commissioner has done much in terms of the manifesto to develop depth to our relationship, but he has been suddenly recalled, only it seems because he was appointed by the last government. And little is being done to cement relations through investment or educational and cultural exchanges, which would benefit Sri Lanka enormously.
Though even the United States has now acknowledged that we need still to fear the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), we have failed to register that it is India and India alone that will help us avoid a political division in this country. Though the current regime, in line with the ideas of president Jayewardene who was known as Yankee Dicky, feels secure with the marks of affection it receives from the current American government, it must realize that the United States is a democracy, volatile in election years, and subject to manipulation by rich interest groups. In addition there seems to be a mindset in some American policy makers that views dividing up countries as an effective policy to escape possible threats.
We have however to realize that American policy is dogged with both ignorance and incompetence, as its regime change escapades in Libya and Syria have shown. It has no judgment as to the scope and intensity of terrorists it thinks can be used. And it can well change priorities, as we know from the use made of China during the Cold War.
I fear therefore that unless we make a solid understanding with India a priority, we could well become a tool in the hands of countries that have no intrinsic commitment to Sri Lanka.