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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 Lanka needs to be aware of both facts and principles in dealing with Post Conflict Reconstruction. The facts are simple, and we must recognize that the world at large is aware of them. First, we need aid and assistance for reconstruction. Second, that assistance will be more readily forthcoming if we make significant progress towards reconciliation. Third, reconciliation will be judged in terms not only of what government says, but also the responses of the Tamil community.

These three facts are I think readily recognized by government, and there is no essential difficulty about working in accordance with them. There is however a fourth fact that we need to bear in mind, which is that some elements in the international community believe that the attitude of the diaspora is the most significant element in assessing Tamil responses. This is potentially an upsetting factor, and we have to make sure we deal with it convincingly. Similar to this is a fifth factor, that assessments made in Colombo are often used by salient elements in the international community to judge what is happening with regard to reconciliation and the responses to this of the Tamil community at large. Again, this is a factor that government must take into account.

In one sense this should not be too difficult. A similar situation obtained even with regard to the conflict. We needed assistance to deal with the threat of terror, and in obtaining this we had to make it quite clear that we looked to a military solution only for military matters, ie the secessionist military activities of the LTTE. The solution to the problems of the Tamil community had to be found through negotiation as well as sympathetic understanding. We were also able to show that the Tamil community in the affected areas was not indissolubly tied to the Tigers, inasmuch as once liberated they participated actively in elections in the East, and they took the opportunity in the North (as they had done in the East, in a military campaign that saw no civilian casualties except in a single incident which the LTTE precipitated) to escape from the LTTE as soon as we were able to provide such an opportunity. The simple fact that many of the younger cadres disobeyed orders about firing on civilians, and came over willingly, makes clear the positive response of the affected Tamils.

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download (2)I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.

Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.

But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.

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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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...a massive belt of oil and gas resources.

In this series of reflections, I have looked at various aspects of Western involvement in the Middle East, and in the Wider Middle East as well. The latter term refers, as Craig Murray defines it, to ‘the Middle East as we understand it, plus the Caucasus and Central Asia, which is of course a massive belt of oil and gas resources.’ Given his stress, it makes sense to include North Africa too in any generalizations of the subject.


I realize of course that my generalizations are just that, simply points to be pondered if we are to make sense of what is going on in the region. I have looked at the moral aspects of actions and reactions, while noting that it does not make sense to expect consistency of outlook or indeed any commitment to principle in the dealings of the various nations concerned.

I have looked too at the historical record, since this is often forgotten. It is important to remember the manner in which various nation states were constituted after the two World Wars, and then how some of them changed governments through revolutions. I referred to the socialist military bent of the most notable of these revolutions, and pointed out how the West, in reacting to these, thought regimes based on religion preferable. Indeed it is worth noting here that one reason for the British desire to see an independent Pakistan (as indicated both by Narendra Singh Sarila and Jaswant Singh in their recent accounts of the struggle for Indian independence) was the view that India would be governed by dangerous socialists, and solidly conservative Muslims were more likely to continue loyal to the West.

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The Island 9 June 2011http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=27310

In looking at the Middle East in terms of the attitudes and actions of the range of countries that are involved in patronage, assistance and intrigues in the area, there is an element that needs to be addressed seriously, but never will be so long as American politics continues to blend populist democracy with brilliant manipulation of public opinion by well organized interest groups.

This is the issue of Israel, which has contributed so strongly to the bitterness of many Muslims towards the West. This is eminently understandable, because the West has not hesitated to make it clear that its primary allegiance is to Israel, and that the rights and wishes of other countries in the area count for little in comparison.

Quite simply, from the Arab point of view, the creation of Israel was an appalling injustice. We are told of the need in Sri Lanka to ensure that grievances are aired and recompense made to those who have suffered, but the West that preaches to us refuses absolutely to look into the question of the way in which Arabs were deprived of their lands to provide a homeland for immigrants from the rest of the world, predominantly from Europe.

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The Island 25 May 2011 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=26212

In the decades when the Cold War raged, or simmered, or whatever, several major countries in the Middle East turned to socialism. Except in the case of Aden this was not extreme Marxism, but as time passed the variations became more extreme and with little concern for democratic practice.

It has been argued that this is a necessary characteristic of socialism, but the practice in South Asia belies this. Mrs Bandaranaike and even more so Mrs Gandhi may have been imperious in their approach to government, but they were firmly convinced that their programmes were what the people wanted. Accordingly they held unarguably democratic elections, and were soundly defeated.

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's ousted prime minister, during his trial in the wake of the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup that overthrew his elected government in 1953. Photograph: AFP

The Middle East had no such luck. Unfortunately the first experiment in socialism through the ballot box was traduced, when the West got rid of Mossadegh in Iran, and established the autocracy of the Shah. What had been presented as a battle between free and restricted politics turned into a battle between free and restricted economies, and the West made no bones about its preference for political restrictions provided economies were capitalist. These were not necessarily free, but it took Cold Warriors a long time to realize that free economies could not really develop under authoritarian rule.

So, at the height of the Cold War, we had dictatorships all over South America, encouragement of authoritarian rulers such as Ayub Khan and Marcos and Suharto in South Asia (to say nothing of Generals Park and Chiang Kai Shek in East Asia), and the overthrow of African leaders who had achieved independence by right wing military regimes in Africa, most notably those of Mobutu and Idi Amin and the chap who got rid of Nkrumah in Ghana. Fortunately some of these characters were so preposterous that the West tired of them, but many lasted for unconscionably long period.

In the area in the Middle East carved up by the West after the First World War however, though three major countries had left leaning military regimes – which were indeed linked together briefly through the Ba’ath Socialist Party – the hereditary rulers of the other states that had been established continued to exercise authority. The most important of these was the largest, Saudi Arabia, named thus after King Saud got rid of the former Sharif of Mecca whom the British had initially installed as King.

That had been a brilliant stroke, to use someone with religious authority as the figurehead of the revolt against the Turks, but the Sharif’s family was in fact comparatively secular in its approach to politics. Not so the Saud family, which embraced the more fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam, and made Saudi Arabia a solidly Islamic state. They also used their resources to proselytize for their particular version of Islam, but doubtless this seemed to the West a good thing in those days, since it was a forceful alternative to godless Marxism.

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Island 7 April 2011 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=22621

Colonial Africa 1914

The current division of the Middle East and North Africa into different countries is largely the result of decisions made by European countries. This indeed goes for Africa as a whole, for the carve up of that continent took place when colonialism was at its height, and there could be no local input with regard to the drawing up of boundaries in the drawing rooms of Europe. The most notable example of this occurred at the Berlin Conference of I think 1888, which handed over the Congo as his personal property to that rapacious old rascal, Leopold of the Belgians. But the process had begun before, and continued well into the 20th century.

By and large however those divisions were almost accidental. It was in the settlement after the First World

Turkish Empire 1300 - 1922

War that strategic considerations dominated, with the dismembering of the Turkish Empire. While there were many reasons for that War, not all of them entirely amoral, one principal reason for fighting it to a total finish of the enemy was the urge to destroy the old land empires, the German, the Austrian and the Turkish.

The first two occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. Given all the rhetoric about freedom, as well as geographical considerations, it would not have done for the victorious European powers, Britain and France, to have carved up those empires for themselves. Instead they created a number of independent states, though these had to be large enough to withstand possible future aggression. Hence the portmanteau nature of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the relative size of Poland and Romania.

With different races in a more distant location however empire could reassert itself. Thus, contrary to the promises extended to the Arabs by Lawrence of Arabia and his ilk in the main theatre of action against the Turks, there was no question of independence for the Arabs. Total subjugation would however have been impossible, given the propaganda that had been encouraged, and so various mechanisms were devised to make control less obvious. There were Mandates which meant direct control, and Protectorates, which meant effective control, though there was a titular ruler with absolute monarchical powers, subject only to direction by the local representatives of His Imperial Majesty in London. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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