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The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.

This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.

Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.

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At the inauguration of the MA Course in Development run by the Marga Institute with the Open University, I was asked about a matter that had recently created some interest in the media. It was on the lines of the alleged Norwegian funding for the Bodhu Bala Sena and the questioning of the head of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung with regard to funding opposition meetings.

The way the other matter had been presented in the press suggested it was more serious, in that the suggestion was that United States funding was being provided surreptitiously to the Trincomalee Urban Council. In fact reading what was actually happening (if I have got it correct), namely the funding of American sponsored social and cultural activity in the Urban Council premises, I did not think there was any great problem.

However there is an important issue of principle, namely that this agreement seems to have been entered into without the knowledge or consent of the Ministry of External Affairs. Again I do not know if this is correct, but it would certainly not surprise me. The incapacity of the Ministry of External Affairs to enforce the norms which should govern the relationships of external funding sources with Sri Lankan bodies is nothing new.

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I have been intrigued recently by a couple of reports about how other countries have been providing funding to various organizations in Sri Lanka that engage in political activities. First there was the allegation, made prominently by Wimal Weerawansa but expanded on elsewhere, about Norwegian funding to the Bodhu Bala Sena.

On the same day on which I asked the Norwegian ambassador about this, I was told that Sagarica Delgoda, head of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung in Sri Lanka, had been questioned about support she had provided to a conference organized by the UNP. The FNS is the foundation of the German Liberal Party, the Free Democrats, and they had provided the Liberal Party, or rather our think tank, the Council for Liberal Democracy, with funds in the old days for various seminars.

When I was inquiring about the story, I was told, by Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu who had long ago been one of my Vice-Presidents in the Liberal Party, that before the lady was questioned there had been attacks on me too, in various newspapers, on the grounds that I too was receiving funds from the FNS.

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My worries about where America is leading us were increased by a recent visit to Tunisia, which I found fascinating. I also found it extremely sad, because tourism has suffered tremendously, since the Arab Spring, which it will be remembered began in Tunisia just 2 ½ years back.

What happened in Tunisia seemed to me welcome, because the regime there had undoubtedly been a dictatorship. Ben Ali, the President who was finally got rid of after over 20 years, had in fact abolished the Presidency for Life when he took over from Bourguiba, the hero of independence. Bourguiba had become President for Life, and then got increasingly incapable so he had to be deposed.

But though Ben Ali restored elections, he ensured that he was always re-elected, and himself grew increasingly out of touch with reality. And, unlike Bourguiba, who had affirmed valuable ideals at the time of independence – including a determination to release women from the restrictions traditions imposed on them, a litmus test I feel as to whether a society is progressing – Ben Ali seems to have been interested largely in benefits for himself and his family.

This did not mean that Tunisia did not develop. It has an excellent road system, and agricultural productivity is high, in the areas that can be cultivated. It also developed a thriving tourist industry, given the excellent amenities on its extensive coastline, and the fact that it is a relatively small country with easy access to the main tourist areas. Sadly, as is generally the case with the type of package tourists such countries attract, there was not so much concern with the fantastic range of historical buildings the country possesses, but these too were readily accessible to keen visitors.

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One of the sadder aspects of Tissa Jayatilaka’s celebration of American values and conduct with regard to Sri Lanka is his suppression of the change that took place in American policy with the change of government at the beginning of 2009. While many of us thought that, in the interests of the world as well as the majority of the American citizenry, a change would be good, we knew that things would be worse for Sri Lanka if the Republicans were defeated.

We were relieved, given the manner in which the diaspora with its ties to the LTTE had cultivated Hilary Clinton, that Obama was the Democrat candidate, but we still knew things would be tough. When Obama then appointed Hilary as his Secretary of State, we had to prepare for a very different approach. Unfortunately no one in the Foreign Ministry seemed to either understand or care.

I am astonished though to find Tissa too of such a myopic mindset, and asserting that the United States along with India ‘supported us to the hilt from 2002 onwards in our battle against the LTTE’. He has obviously not read Wikileaks, which makes it clear that in 2009 the US attitude had changed, and they were fully behind the European resolution against us.

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The relationship between the two themes I have been looking at in this series came home to me vividly when I read an article by my old friend Tissa Jayatilaka about the current situation. He too was once a leading member of the Liberal Party, though he left the Party even earlier than Dr Saravanamuttu, when he thought the party was being led, as he memorably put it, by its ‘Light Brigade’. He was referring I believe to the decision to work with President Premadasa, though in fact that was principally the decision of our Founder Chanaka Amaratunga.

Before that Tissa had been fully on board with the general ideas of the Party, so it was surprising to find him now praising the diplomatic failures of the Jayewardene government, which led up to the Indian intervention of 1987. He seems to have forgotten the manner in which the Indians ensured that the then Human Rights Committee in Geneva expressed itself forcefully against Sri Lanka. They were helped in this by Jayewardene’s support of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, which he assumed would set the seal on his position in the Western Alliance, the then equivalent of the Coalition of the Willing that has decimated Iraq.

The Americans, sensibly enough, did not however back us to the hilt. I am told that, when Jayewardene asked whether that they would stand with us against India, the then special envoy – I have the name Richard Boucher in my head, but I am not sure that he was prominent then – sidestepped the question and said that he advised us to maintain good relations with India.

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With regard to the collapse of relations with India in the eighties, the reasons are clear enough. If anyone doubted the corrosive effect of President Jayewardene’s Cold War adventurism, the Annexe to the Indo-Lankan Accord makes crystal clear what India feared. At the time the Liberal Party regretted the fact that we should have acknowledged Indian supremacy over our foreign relations, but we also said that, without spelling this out, we should always have acted on the assumption that we could not afford to alienate India. We have also always pointed out that, for its part, when it did not feel threatened, India had usually displayed towards Sri Lanka a generosity and understanding that were not always a feature of its relations with its other neighbours.

Why then have we found India ranged against us at the UN Human Rights Council, in 2012 as well as in 2013? How has it happened that, whereas in 2012 there was no certainty until towards the very end as to how India would vote, in 2013 India was under pressure to make the resolution brought by the US even more stringent?

All this happened despite the fact that, in February 2012, India assured us that she would vote in our favour. Unfortunately, contrary to her request that this be kept confidential, this commitment was promptly trumpeted aloud. There is some uncertainty now about who actually let the cat out of the bag. When I told Mahinda Samarasinghe that he had made a mistake in announcing the fact, which I thought was so that he could win brownie points, in the ongoing battle between him and the Minister of External Affairs, he assured me that he had not been responsible. This is not unlikely, given the massive numbers the Ministry had decided to send to Geneva, all of them generals convinced that they knew best how to conduct foreign policy.

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I had initially intended to continue with trying to show how we can get the nastier elements in the West off our backs, by working in terms of the ideals the nicer ones I think genuinely uphold. Instead of allowing them to be coopted by the nasties, we should try to get them on board to pursue a rights based agenda for our own people. As it stands, rights are used by those who are ruthless in pursuing their own political agendas to excuse continuing interference based on neither principles nor consistency.

I was diverted however by a letter sent to the Secretary of Defence and then widely circulated by someone in Canada who did much for Sri Lanka when efforts were being made to rescue the Tigers from the consequences of their own intransigence. I was dubious however about what he now has written to the Secretary, since he thinks the Secretary should not be surprised that India has not supported us recently in Geneva.

He claims that India has consistently opposed Sri Lanka, and adduces several instances in which India worked against us. Most of these relate to the early eighties, and then he adds the recent votes at the UN Human Rights Council.

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In talking critically of those who now believe that we need to fall in line completely with the West, following the defeat in Geneva, I realize that there are those who think that I myself am a fervent proponent of a Western perspective. I would like to believe that they do not really think this, but use it as a stick to beat me with. However, given the way people trust their emotions rather than reason, it is quite possible they genuinely believe I too am in thrall to the West.

The reasons for this include my familiarity with Western philosophy, and particular Western political thought, as well as my facility with English and the fact that this makes it easy for me to get on well, whether I agree with them or not, with Western interlocutors. Ironically those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs which are committed to a purely Western agenda claim that I have in fact alienated the West. This is obviously not true, except for characters such as Paul Carter who tried to subvert our army officers into betraying their country. But people generally believe what they want to believe.

I suppose I should take comfort from being attacked on both sides as it were, but I have to accept that the criticism from the other side, misplaced as it is, can be quite damaging. Some of it springs from the confusion that prevails in Sri Lanka about Liberalism, which is generally confused with the Neo-Liberalism that dominated Western thinking when it finally triumphed in the Cold War. The privileging of market forces alone, without the provision of safety nets and welfare measures that enhance opportunities, is not Liberalism at all. Unfortunately, when excessive statism led to the Thatcherite reaction, the grand centre ground of British Liberal thinking was overwhelmed.

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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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