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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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US President Barack Obama, right,and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi pictured during the G8/G5 summit in L'Aquila, Italy Thursday July 9, 2009.

The double standards endemic in international reporting of conflict is apparent in the manner in which Sri Lankan officials are turned into witnesses against the Sri Lankan state whenever they say things that go against the standard view of Sri Lankan officials. We are co-opted as it were into temporary membership of the network of informers the nastier elements in the international community have set up, if we declare that there were civilian casualties during the conflict.

This is never treated as a statement, but is rather almost always described as an admission. This makes no sense except in terms of a discourse redolent with preconceived prejudices. In itself the existence of civilian casualties in modern warfare is not something surprising, but what occurs in Sri Lanka has necessarily to be accompanied by finger pointing.

When it happens In other theatres of war, it is considered quite acceptable. When American drones strike civilians in Pakistan, when NATO bombs hit civilians in Libya, this is something quite natural, to be accompanied by perfunctory regrets, more often than not involving suggestions that the fault lies entirely with the enemy. There is no suggestion whatsoever that such actions, the taking of targets even though there might be risk to civilians, is an intrinsic part of  Western policy.

Personally I do not believe that Barack Obama would actually subscribe to a policy of multiple civilians casualties. I would like to think that – unlike perhaps some of his predecessors, who saw themselves as the scourge of God in dealing either with infidels or communists – he would even suggest that maximum care should be taken to avoid civilian casualties and that targets should always be military ones on pretty good if not always foolproof evidence. But the continuing saga of civilian deaths in all theatres of conflict in which the West is involved – in which the West indeed began conflicts for a range of reasons that often went against United Nations policy – suggests that there has been no policy of avoiding civilian casualties at all costs.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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