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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 »

In discussing, as suggested, recent American moves on Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan reaction, I am struck most of all by the failure of those in theory responsible for foreign policy to understand those moves. After the recent visit by Bob Blake, who had been ambassador here during the conflict period, and had a relatively positive if patronizing approach, I was assured by a senior External Affairs official that relations between Sri Lanka and America were excellent. He claimed that the negative reports in the papers were exaggerated.

Similarly, I was assured by those who claimed to have the ear of both the President and the Americans that there would be no American resolution against us in Geneva this year. Now it is conceivable that the Americans deliberately misled us, but I do not think that was the case. Not only from the pronouncements Blake made, but also from the comments made by both his successors, it was evident that criticism was the order of the day.

Why was this not understood, and why were we lulled into complacency? After all, there were several things we could have done that would have dealt with the more reasonable criticisms that were made, while also ensuring that the Americans would not find it so easy to build up a coalition against us. But we did nothing, and then affected surprise when not just the Americans, but a large majority in the UN Human Rights Council, came down on us like a ton of bricks. Read the rest of this entry »

When I was in Delhi last week, I was privileged to meet the Indian Minister of External Affairs who turned out, though he looks old and distinguished, to have been at Oxford while I was there – and to have succeeded Ravi Tennekoon as a Lecturer at Trinity College, before heading back to India to better things. I still recall Ravi telling me that he was giving up the position at Trinity – which seemed to my undergraduate enthusiasms all one could hope for – to get back into real life. Well, he is a barrister in London, when I believe he could have contributed much more either to Sri Lanka or to academia, or to both – as did his predecessor as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Professor Peiris, before ambition turned him sour. Salman Khurshid meanwhile is the Minister of External Affairs in India, and still extraordinarily mentally agile, as befits a lawyer turned novelist turned politician.

Our meeting was to present him with my latest publication, ‘Mirrored Images’ a collection of English and Sinhala and Tamil poetry from Sri Lanka. Published by the National Book Trust of India, as a companion to ‘Bridging Connections’, a collection of short stories, it shows the common themes explored by writers in different languages in Sri Lanka. It would be an ideal showpiece around which our ambassadors abroad could show the reality about this country, and combat the divisive propaganda of those trying to destroy Sri Lanka. Needless to say, our Foreign Ministry will do nothing about this, as they did nothing about the wonderful film, ‘Common Differences’, made by a Croatian who showed the essential unifying features of this country. It was only after I had screened the film myself that, under prodding from the Ministry of Defence, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre finally had a screening on April 3rd. Thankfully, they took a leaf out of my book, and instead of engaging in the othering that so many of those who think themselves patriotic engage in, they asked Jehan Perera, along with other participants in the film, to contribute as discussants.

This concept of othering, which we seem to have adopted from the West instead of sticking to our cultural traditions of inclusivity, recurred in my mind as fundamentally destructive, when I heard Mr Khurshid talking about the close links India had with Sri Lanka. His view was that, whatever other links India would build up, with the region, with Asia, with the world, there was something special about the relationship with Sri Lanka. Read the rest of this entry »

There is a very strange game being played out in Geneva, the implications of which decision makers in Colombo have not understood – or else, having understood, they simply do not care.

Though the motivations of those attacking us vary, their aim is clear, namely to undermine national sovereignty. The mandarins, or perhaps I should say the rickshaw pullers, in our Ministry of External Affairs were sanguine earlier about what they saw as a bland US resolution. The fact that it requires monitoring of our activities, in particular with regard to accountability, should worry them, but I suspect they no longer understand the basic principles on which the UN should operate.

I say this because of the behavior recently of one of our delegates in Geneva – not the ambassador, I should note, for he is one of the few sharp and independent minds amongst the English speaking elite that now runs the Ministry, and keeps down bright youngsters who are more intellectually astute. There was an attempt, spearheaded it seemed by Sri Lanka, to the astonishment of our old allies from the Non Aligned Movement, to undermine the very foundations of the Right to Development by introducing conditions to national ownership of natural resources. I cannot imagine that the President would have approved such a move, but I can understand him not being consulted on the matter.  What is frightening is that probably the Minister too was not consulted, but he has I assume learnt now that no one takes him seriously, except his publicity unit. If he was consulted, and concurred, I can only imagine that he is getting ready for the regime change that his behavior has done much to precipitate.

How should we be dealing with the threat to the country and its government? Firstly, we should look at the motivations of those now acting against us, and try to assuage those worries that are reasonable. After all, many of those supportive of the resolution genuinely think that we have behaved badly. If we believe they are wrong, as I do with regard to the matters on which they seek to condemn us, we must convince them otherwise. This should not be difficult, now that at last we are beginning to get our act together with regard to the LLRC Action Plan, but there too I was informed that the Foreign Ministry thinks the President’s Secretary is not able to deliver, and wants to take over the responsibility.

Given the hash they made of the President’s directive in December 2011 to prepare an Action Plan, which only emerged because the President’s Secretary set up a sensible team of bureaucrats, it is ironic that the Foreign Ministry wants to take over now, when those bureaucrats are in charge and have begun to move in a manner that was unthinkable when they had been sidelined.    Read the rest of this entry »

I had been asked to speak on the votes of the Ministry of External Affairs during the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, but was subsequently told that there was no time for this.  Since I had prepared a text, which I felt discussed urgent issues in the current context, I thought it would be useful to make this available instead of forgetting about the points raised. the current context, Mr Speaker, it is an urgent necessity to register the importance of budgetary provision for our Ministry of External Affairs, and I am honoured to have been asked to speak on this subject. I should add that I am surprised that the opposition has not taken the opportunity of proposing an amendment to increase the amount we should be spending. The General Secretary of the main opposition party noted recently that the failure of the government to rebut formally many allegations made against this country, as well as against the UN officials who helped the Sri Lankan people while we were struggling against terrorism. While his criticism was misplaced, he certainly had a point in that we should be doing better in presenting internationally the actual situation in this country. But instead of engaging in blind condemnation he should help, as some members of his party have done, in subscribing to the excellent memorandum prepared by young Members of Parliament of all parties, to develop a more constructive policy.

The key to such a policy, Mr Speaker, is training, as the President made clear in many parts of his budget presentation. Though specific mention was not made of the need for better training within the Ministry of External Affairs, we must realize the importance of developing coherent policies and youngsters able not only to implement them, but also to explain them. As it is, we seem to be torn between conflicting predilections, as was graphically illustrated when the most successful diplomat of recent years, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, was attacked in the media after the debacle in Geneva in March this year. The claim then was that the conservative elements in the Ministry of External Affairs were now able to reassert themselves, and carry out the policies of President J R Jayewardene, as against the traditional policies of the party of the current popularly elected President of the country.

What is that traditional policy, and how do we make it clear, not only to the world, but also to officials of the Ministry who are still stuck in the mindset of 1987, that this is what must be promoted? At a recent seminar on Indo-Sri Lankan relations, for which the Adviser to the President on the subject had nominated me, we were reminded by a distinguished Indian scholar of how some Sri Lankans were still obsessed by resentments against India born of the events of 1987, just as there had been Indian bureaucrats obsessed by resentments against China because of the events of 1982. Thus, after the debacle in Geneva, we had attacks on India, with those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs who still hanker after the antics of the eighties trying to prejudice the country against India.

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The more extreme elements in the Ministry of External Affairs have at last put their cards on the table in the form of an article by the wife of one of its rising stars. The same young lady kindly gave me an opportunity to engage in a strong critique of the viewpoints she represented, when she gratuitously attacked me some weeks back.

What is astonishing is that this article is based on the premise that countries like Cuba and Venezuela are anathema at present to Sri Lanka. I suspect it will be news to President Rajapaksa that Cuba is a  failed state and that a positive view of Chavez ‘fundamentally undermines everything Sri Lanka has stood for since it inherited a liberal democracy post 1948’.

Certainly those countries have weaknesses which is why they should not be absolute models for us. But the same applies to the countries to which we are supposed to subscribe without question, if the article is accurate in suggesting that Sri Lankan policy will now focus on its ‘relationships with its traditional liberal democratic allies’, ie the West. It is claimed that this new departure is the reason that Tamara Kunanayakam and Dayan Jayatilleka are being sidelined, while ‘a career diplomat with proven ability to engage the West’ is now being sent to Geneva.

Oddly enough, the article completely ignores the fact that the attack on us as developed by the United States focused on what were seen as inadequacies precisely with regard to what Tamara and Dayan also noted. Their commitment to a pluralistic society with greater attention to Human Rights has never been questioned. It should also be noted that they have both consistently stressed the need for both Reconciliation and truth telling. It was not they who attacked me when, three years ago, I noted that there had been civilian casualties, a position about which supposedly more ‘liberal democratic’ colleagues were in a state of denial.

What this latest policy statement of the Ministry of External Affairs suggests is that its denizens have no understanding at all of foreign policy. The West basically has three reasons for its continuing assaults on us over the last few years.

The first and the one publicly proclaimed was the argument that Sri Lanka was violating Human Rights consistently, and this had to be prevented.

The second was the pressure applied by the diaspora, which exercises a disproportionate amount of influence on some governments.

Finally there was the desire to bring Sri Lanka into its sphere of influence, and in particular prevent China from gaining a strong foothold here.

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The above observation, which Minister Dilan Perera made at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Liberal Party, was exemplified recently following an interview I did in Delhi with IANS, the agency that one associates with distinguished journalist Narayan Swamy. This time it was a younger man who interviewed me, for a very long time, though what was ultimately sent out was a relatively short piece, reproduced below.

I found out about it from the BBC, and thought it basically fair when I read it, except for a couple of misrepresentations. I inquired about the main one from the journalist, as follows – ‘The BBC rang about your piece, which had appeared in the Daily Mirror in Colombo.  Generally fair, but I was wondering about the headline – Don’t seek exclusive rights to Sri Lanka, India told – – which was not at all what I said (my point was that India and China never had, and the concept of exclusivity is a Western notion based on oppositions, whereas India was ok with our connections with Pakistan etc over the years, and the same goes for China). I wondered then if the headline was a Mirror idea, since the article itself did not give the idea of the headline. The only other point to make is that the micro-credit idea is mine, and I don’t think government will approach India in this regard, given all the other projects that are in train.’

Dr Dass responded immediately as follows – ‘It was wonderful interacting with you ysty. The headline was given by a very senior colleague who liked your interview. As far as the story goes, it is really nice of you to consider it to be generally fair.’

I did not think the point needed to be labored, except that I thought an opportunity had been missed, given the very different point raised by the BBC – ‘Thanks – though I fear (do tell your colleague) that the headline was misleading. Entertainingly, the BBC Sinhala Service rang about it, but wondered why I did not worry about India, given that the JVP thought India was hegemonic.  I do not blame the JVP which has to try to gain votes by whatever policy pronouncements come to hand, but can you imagine the BBC employing people still stuck in that mindset? In that regard I would have liked some reference to my point that exclusivity was a Western desire, as exemplified in Cold War days, might have got the BBC to think in a way more suited to the current context!’

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1. Why do you believe a number of Western nations are so determined to pursue a resolution against Sri Lanka at the HRC meeting?

I don’t believe a number of Western nations are determined, it seems this time round to be largely the United States (whereas in 2009 it was mainly Britain, with France tagging around – though Kouchner later I was told granted to his much more sensible Ambassador here that the latter had been right). Though the British will end up supporting any American initiative as they generally do, and other Europeans will probably follow, I believe that most of them are not too enthusiastic, and in at least some cases such a decision would I believe be contrary to advice given by ambassadors on the ground here. You can see the difference in the initial reactions to the LLRC report, where the Americans were really quite preposterous, given their own record, while others, including the British, were much more nuanced.

As to why the Americans are in an extreme position on this one, I believe there are several reasons involved, beginning with what a Republican friend told me, that the Bleeding Hearts in the Obama Administration had to do a volte face on Afghanistan and Iraq etc and so they salve their consciences with Sri Lanka. Then there is the essentially Manichaean American view of the world, which is why for instance during Cold War days, when they found a willing warrior here in the form of President Jayewardene, they encouraged his anti-Indian postures. Now, given their fear of China, they are trying to suggest that they are supporting India by pressurizing Sri Lanka, whereas the Indians know perfectly well that, if they got a better offer, they would sell India down the river, as happened with Pakistan earlier on.

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Text of a presentation on January 10th at the Observatory Research Foundation – Delhi, by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Adviser on Reconciliation to the President

The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation is now public. It has been generally welcomed, and the exceptions that prove the rule sadly confirm the distinction between those who seek reconciliation and those who have other motives in the extraordinary campaign that has been conducted against Sri Lanka over the last two years.

The vast majority of local and international observers have welcomed the Report, though many have noted that a positive report will serve little purpose if its recommendations are not implemented. This is an understandable caveat, for Sri Lanka has not always acted as swiftly as it should, and it has also often failed to publicize its actions. This latter shortcoming is unfortunate, not just because it allows critics to claim that nothing is being done, but more seriously because it prevents the analysis both by government and by concerned persons with no axe to grind of achievements, and thus, as importantly, understanding of deficiencies that need to be corrected.

This inadequacy has been startlingly illustrated by the failure to work coherently enough on the interim recommendations submitted by the Commission. Initially these were not adequately publicized. This was not because of any commitment to confidentiality, since they were soon enough readily known by anyone who was interested, but simply because government did not seem to realize the importance of the recommendations and of, not only acting, but being seen to act. Though a committee was set up to ensure implementation, the lack of transparency in this regard, and what can only be described as a concomitant absence of any sense of urgency, allowed for the feeling that government was not really serious. The views of the Commission, that many current problems might have been avoided had their recommendations been implemented coherently, is quite understandable.

I say this with a slight but not overwhelming sense of guilt because one of my functions, as Adviser on Reconciliation, was supposed to be to ‘Monitor and report to HE the President on progress with regard to the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and promote appropriate activities for this purpose through the relevant Ministries.’ In mitigation I can plead that, though my appointment was made in January 2011, my terms of reference were only received in May. And I finally received an office only in October, with one operational staffer in December. I have no budget for work, though since December I have been supplied with fuel for visits to the North.

Why such incoherence? Whilst I have no illusions about the slowness with which government moves, in general, and find this culpable, I should also note that the more vociferous members of the international community, those who now criticize the LLRC Report, were not really concerned with reconciliation, as opposed to their own sometimes agendas. With a stunning ignorance of history, and exemplars such as South Africa and Chile where the country moved forward without bruising animosities, they confused reconciliation with retribution. Even more absurdly, they thought it was the democratically elected government that should be punished, not terrorists or those who hijacked power and used it brutally as the Pinochet government in Chile or the apartheid regime in South Africa, both of which were allowed to go away quietly as it were.

... worried about the electoral power of the Tamil diaspora ...

What is the reason for this? On the one hand there were countries such as Britain and other European states that were worried about the electoral power of the Tamil diaspora, and assumed that its more vociferous members were decisive factors. Fortunately that populist perspective has now diminished, and perhaps one of the most heartening developments in recent months has been the impression Britain has given of wanting to move on, instead of dwelling in the unprincipled wickedness of the Miliband years.

But, conversely, the United States of America seems to have got more intense, as was exemplified by its efforts to suborn military personnel to give evidence against the Sri Lankan state. The recent efforts of its political affairs officer to pressurize government with regard to Sarath Fonseka, whom earlier the Americans had fingered as a possible war crimes suspect, is only explicable in terms of a sense of guilt about the garden path up which he was led.

I should note that one should not of course generalize about the Americans. Even more than other countries, they seem to suffer from schizophrenia with regard to foreign policy, as was exemplified by the positive approach of their Defence Attache in Colombo, who was promptly rebuked for his pains. But, in addition to the endemic tussle between foreign affairs and defence perspectives, America also suffers from a strange combination of ruthless self interest, as their performances in Iraq and Pakistan over the years have shown, and a desire to be seen as decent guys. For Sri Lanka this has led to astonishing levels of persecution since, as one forthright Republican observer put it, the bleeding hearts had to keep quiet about Guantanamo and everything else they had shouted about before, so they transferred their attention to Sri Lanka.

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The following is the text of an interview given to Lakbima News with regard to the impact on Sri Lanka of recent changes in Libya.

  1. Libyan Leader Mohommad Gadaffi’s regime was ousted a few days ago and although it was the ‘rebels’ who did that, we cannot deny that it was western powers who made it happen. Doesn’t this mean that it is still western powers that still have the ability to make regime changes despite all the talk of emergence of Russia and China?

I don’t think it has ever been doubted that it is the West that thinks of regime change and suchlike and has the power to do it. The old Soviet Union also thought in such terms but, after the Cold War ended, it has not been able to replicate this. China is still very much an emerging power in this regard, and has been content to exercise influence in different ways.

  1. Although Gadaffi isn’t even captured and his loyalists taking rearguard action in Tripoli both Russia and China have accepted rebels as the new rulers of Libya and are trying to make new business deals regarding Libyan resources. What does this tell about Russian and Chinese allies and depending on them against the West?

You must remember that neither Russia nor China vetoed the original UN Security Council resolution, which suggests they were even then in two minds about Libya. While I suspect they did not anticipate the intensity with which the West conducted its military campaign, the support the rebels seemed to have amongst other Arab nations may have influenced that decision.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2019
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