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Introductory remarks by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

at the Panel discussion during the Seminar

‘Afkar-e-Taza: Rescuing the Past, Shaping the Future’

Lahore, April 1st – 3rd 2016

I will be very brief since I presume discussion, and responding to questions that are raised, will be a more useful way of dealing with this question. To introduce the topic however I will paraphrase some remarks I made at a seminar on working Towards an Asian Agenda also held in the Punjab, in Chandigarh just six months ago.

I noted then the need for more concerted Asian inputs in what current dominant forces believe is a unipolar world. This belief has led now to greater terrorist activity that threatens all of us, including the horrendous attack in this very city, less than a week ago.

One of the problems about concerted action from a South Asia perspective is possible worries about India taking a leading role. That seems essential, for reasons of geography as well as the size and wealth of India in comparison with its neighbours. But I recognize that this point may be challenged, and most obviously by Pakistan.

Personally I regret this, and I regret too the manipulation of the post-colonial situation in South Asia from the time in which the then dominant world powers realized the independence of their colonies was inevitable. The dispensation put in place then led to an othering confrontational situation, as opposed to the more civilized inclusive approach that should have been normal for the East.

All that however is water under the bridge, and we have to recognize that the suspicions that were engendered during the Cold War years will not be easy to overcome. Instead of engaging in wishful platitudes therefore, we need to think of ways in which the rest of South Asia will worry less about domination by one of our number. I was impressed then by the fact that the seminar in Chandigarh included participants from Central Asia, because that is a region which has ancient cultural and trade connections to the South, but it was cut away because of the dichotomies of the colonial era.

Strengthening links is vital, but I believe this may also contribute to resolving the South Asian problem, on the model of what Paul Scott suggested when he wrote of a stone thrown into a pond leading to ever widening ripples that then connect with the ripples of another stone. At its simplest, the overwhelming threat, that India’s size can be interpreted as by one or more other countries in South Asia, diminishes in the context of a larger group which will involve countries with greater economic leverage too, such as the energy rich nations of Central Asia.

Future discussions should focus then on how regional cooperation can be expanded, so as to avoid possible perceptions of security threats. The model of the European Union, which could not be replicated in an unbalanced situation as obtained in South Asia, can be more easily replicated in a larger grouping.

At the same time the problems that now beset Europe can be avoided, by greater mutual respect for the different cultural and social perspectives in the South and Central Asian region. For while we need to focus on what we have in common, we should also celebrate differences and seek out what we can learn from each other. In particular we all need to know more about the astonishing achievements of different elements in Islam basSouthed civilizations, that move beyond the monolithic vision of Islam that leads to confrontation such as many Islamic countries – but not those in Central Asia – are suffering from now.

Such educational initiatives should also include a cohesive programme in all our countries to increase awareness of the cooperation of the past, and the cultural connectivity that flourished. The way in which civilizations built on each other, and the role of trade in promoting personal interactions even in times of political hostility, needs celebration. That may also help to reduce prejudices, as has happened through for instance the Erasmus programme in Europe.

I should note too that, in addition to increasing cooperation with Central Asia, we should as a body move also towards better relations with ASEAN. That too will I think help to kick start SAARC again since – to return to Paul Scott’s metaphor of stones creating wider circles – success with other bodies will help to get over the distrust within SAARC that I have noted.

For this purpose I believe it would be helpful if there were regular meetings of senior administrators in our countries to work out not just common approaches, but also structures that would facilitate cooperation. At present SAARC centres hardly function, though I did find, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, that the SAARC Disaster Management Centre was an exception – and largely I think because of the excellent understanding between the Indian and the Pakistani heads of the relevant institutions, both professionals of the highest calibre.

More cooperation in such fields would I think help to bring us closer together, and also help countries like Sri Lanka, which no longer has as good civil servants as India and Pakistan have, to develop greater professionalism that would help to overcome the predilections of politicians. These can be destructive at times, for obvious reasons, but a bedrock of professional understanding would I think help us to work together more productively.

qrcode.30319581In the last few weeks I have looked at the way in which several of the pledges regarding reforms in the President’s manifesto were forgotten or subverted by those to whom he entrusted the Reform process. In addition there are some fields in which reforms have been carried through, but in such a hamfisted fashion that the previous situation seems to shine by comparison.

One area in which this has happened is that of Foreign Relations. The shorter manifesto declared that ‘A respected Foreign Service free of political interference will be re-established’. This was fleshed out in the longer version, with the following being the first four Action Points –

  •  The country’s foreign policy will be formulated to reflect the government’s national perspectives.
  •  Within hundred days all political appointments and appointment of relatives attached to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganised using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications. Our foreign service will be transformed into one with the best learned, erudite, efficient personnel who are committed to the country and who hold patriotic views.
  •  Cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia, while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea without differences.
  • Our Indian policy will take into due consideration the diversity of India.

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I write this in Shillong, capital of the state of Meghalaya, while attending a Conference on ‘India’s North-East and Asiatic South-East: Beyond Borders’. It has been arranged by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, which has an impressive array of full-time staff as well as Consultants. One of them, a retired Colonel who had worked for many years in the North-East when it was a hotbed of insurgency, delivered a fascinating paper on the subject. In addition to his many ideas for improving the situation, I was fascinated by the interchanges between him and academics from the area, who deplored his use of the term ‘misled brothers’ to describe the former insurgents. They thought it patronizing, whereas the Colonel had thought it a less divisive way of describing those who had previously taken up arms against the State.

Regardless of the merits of the case, what was illuminating was the manner in which such debates took place. CRRID is supported by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, but the participants represented different views, and even the personnel from CRRID, including several former MEA dignitaries, made no bones about what they thought could be done better by the Indian government. This should be normal practice, but sadly it is unthinkable in Sri Lanka. I was reminded then of the absence of Tamil politicians when the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute finally got off the ground, with a Seminar on Reconciliation. Not one of them had been asked to present their views, and consequently they did not attend.

In passing I should note that that prompted the workshop which the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies arranged, at which we had a wide range of views. The proceedings culminated in a decision, suggested by Javid Yusuf, to formulate a National Reconciliation Policy, which soon got underway in the office I then had, as the President’s Adviser on Reconciliation. This was discussed with a wide range of stakeholders, politicians and religious leaders and media personnel, at gatherings kindly arranged by solid supporters of Sri Lanka as well as Reconciliation, the Japanese Ambassador and the Papal Nuncio. After finalization the Draft Policy was sent to the President, where it got lost.

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Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

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In considering the crisis that has hit our education system so comprehensively in the last few months, I have begun to wonder whether we have not been the victims of our own success. We were doing extremely well with regard to mass education when we got independence 64 years ago, in part because of Kannangara’s visionary reforms, but also because he had a high standard to aim at through the private and public schools that were flourishing at the time – thanks to Anglican missionaries, Catholic educationists, and determined Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim social visionaries led by Colonel Olcott.

So we rested on our laurels, and thought the percentages in the education system, and our literacy rates, fantastic, and particularly so with regard to girls. We were far ahead of not only other South Asian countries in this regard, but of most Asian countries too. And though many have overtaken us, and the others are catching up, we still feel complacent.

The effect our initial success may have had came home to me when, in Islamabad recently, I was given a presentation on the system they have developed by the Pakistan Army Public Schools & Colleges Secretariat. They started by telling me that the army had decided to set up schools way back in the seventies because, in may areas in which they had stations, there were no good schools. Indeed in some areas there were no schools at all.
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I referred some weeks back to the games being played by various individuals and institutions in Colombo with regard to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the political foundation of the German Free Democratic Party. This is a member of Liberal International, though its Liberalism is generally more concerned with free market economics, and does not have the same commitment to social equity as say the British Liberal Party. Still, there are enough people in the FDP, and also in the FNS, who understand our commitment in Sri Lanka to a more Gladstonian version of Liberalism, though sadly they have been in comparative short supply in dealings with South Asia.

I suppose this is understandable in that South Asia tended, at the time the FNS established itself here, to be committed to social equity from a more socialist standpoint, and it was free markets that needed nurturing. However this led to at least some personnel neglecting other aspects of Liberalism, as with the official who said he saw nothing wrong with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that democracy could be delayed, as in South Korea and other East Asian countries, until development had reached a satisfactory level.

This mindset has contributed to a generally hostile attitude to the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, though there have been honourable exceptions, including the Regional Director who encouraged my conducting workshops on Liberalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sadly he was soon sent away from Delhi, though he has since contributed immeasurably to Liberalism in South East Asia, where the command model of an open economy held sway, and it was necessary for Liberal parties to argue for the restoration of democracy and social equity.

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I am grateful for the request to write about India and the 13th Amendment because, while I have referred to the subject in different contexts, it would be useful to assess precisely what Indian priorities are, and how we should respond to these. In doing this, we should be clear about the principles involved –

  1. As Sri Lankans, our own national interest must come first. This includes both safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and also ensuring that all our citizens can dwell contentedly in their country, with access to equal opportunities and full participation in politics and development.
  2. As South Asians we must also recognize the important role India plays in the region. This means that, without any violation of our own interests, we must ensure that India does not come under undue pressure from any quarter because of us.

It is clear that we got into a conflict situation with India because we violated the second principle. While India could have reacted less aggressively, I believe the Jayewardene government must be held responsible for allowing India to come under pressure from two quarters. The first was pressure from Tamilnadu, because of what was perceived as, not just discrimination, but also violence against and oppression of Tamils.

Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people, 1984

President Jayewardene presents a baby elephant to American President Ronald Reagan and the American people – 1984

The second set of pressures however was more worrying for India, as is clear from the provisions of the Indo-Lankan Accord. The Sri Lankan agreement then to ensure that foreign policy decisions took Indian interests into account (as spelled out with regard to Trincomalee and its oil tanks as well as broadcasting facilities to other nations) made it clear that Jayewardene’s flirtation with America in the Cold War context had worried India deeply.

We must remember that those were days in which America saw India as a hostile element, and had no scruples about engaging in activities calculated to destabilize the country. Salman Rushdie’s brilliant account of language riots in India in the fiftes, in which Tamilnadu hostility was the most aggressive, has a brilliant cameo in which he suggests the American contribution to street violence. And while obviously no direct causal connections can be diagnosed, there is no doubt that America would have been quite happy in those days for India to split up – and the obvious instrument of this would have been Tamil Nadu, with the longstanding American connection to the area, through missionaries in particular.

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Presentation at a meeting of the Pakistan Liberal Forum – Islamabad, 11th September 2012


I am grateful to the
Pakistan Liberal Forum for having invited me to speak today at your seminar on Challenges for Democracy in the upcoming Elections. Though you have suggested I present a regional perspective, it would be more practical I think for me to talk about democracy in Sri Lanka and the challenges we have faced, which may perhaps have lessons for you in Pakistan too.

Sri Lanka has been a functioning democracy for 80 years now, with Universal Adult Franchise bestowed on us by the British in 1931. That they gave us a privilege you in the then united subcontinent did not receive for over a decade longer is not a tribute to us, but rather a function of our small size and the perception that, whatever happened, we would not be a threat to the Empire. We were given not only the opportunity to select a legislature, but also an approximation to Cabinet government with seven Ministers chosen from amongst the members of the Legislature. Needless to say, though, there were three appointed Ministers, for Law and Finance and what was termed Chief Secretary, while Defence and External Affairs were kept in the hands of the Governor.

We followed the classic Westminster model which, as you know, does not separate the Executive from the Legislature. All members of the Cabinet were chosen from the Legislature, but unlike in Britain this soon turned into membership of the Legislature being seen as the main qualification for becoming a Minister.  Ability was not considered important, and seniority seemed a sufficient claim.

There were a few exceptions, and I can also think of one case where a man of recognized ability was brought into a safe seat, a practice that the British had, so as to bring in people of talent. More importantly they also had a House of Lords to which proven talent could be introduced, which India for instance still continues with, in the form of the Rajya Sabha. As you know, several of the most distinguished Ministers in the Indian cabinet have not faced the hustings, but are in effect appointed.

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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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...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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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2017
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