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download (1)A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.

However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.

Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –

Sri Lankan relations with the different regions of Asia present a fascinating prism through which to examine our changing position in the world. The subject also suggests areas in which we might develop our position further, in terms of defining more clearly our objectives, and endeavouring to fulfil them more coherently.

Though the field requires constant attention and care, there is not really much need of further definition with regard to three areas. South Asia, the SAARC Region, and in particular India must remain our main focal point. The attention government pays to ensure that we are on a similar wavelength to India is a feature we should never have allowed to lapse, while continuing of course to ensure positive relations with Pakistan and the other countries in the region.

With regard to East Asia, similar principles apply. Our friendship with China has been a cornerstone of our approach to other countries, and this obtained even in the era soon after we obtained independence, when the Soviet bloc considered us a satellite of the West. From the time of the Rubber-Rice Pact, negotiated by R G Senanayake, we made clear our determination not to let the formulaic approach of other countries adversely affect our relations with the most populous country in the world. During the last years of the Cold War, friendship with China accorded with the predilections of the West, but now that the latter is wary of increasing Chinese capabilities, we should not let ourselves be stampeded into a less affectionate relation.

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As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2019
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