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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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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Seminar on

Crossed Perceptions: China, the United States, the European Union, Brazil and the Emerging World

October 22nd 2013, Rio de Janeiro

Let me begin with one of the formative myths of the Sri Lankan state. It deals with the introduction of Buddhism to the country, in the 2nd century BC. The king at the time, Devanampiyatissa, was out hunting when he came across a strange man in the forests of Mihintale. This was Mahinda, the son, or some say the brother, of the Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had converted to Buddhism after a terrible war in which, to complete his conquest of India, he had slaughtered thousands.

When the monk saw Tissa, he asked him whether he saw the mango tree before them. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked whether there were other mango trees. Tissa said yes, and then the monk asked if there were trees other than mango trees. Tissa said yes again, whereupon the monk asked whether, apart from all the other mango trees, and all the other trees that were not mango trees in the world, there were any other trees.

Tissa thought hard, and then replied that there was indeed the original mango tree the monk had pointed out. This was when Mahinda decided that Tissa was a fit person to understand the doctrines of Buddhism, so he preached to him and converted him and through him his people. Buddhism has since been the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, though, I think uniquely, we also have substantial proportions of our population belonging to the other principal faiths of the world, Hinduism and Islam and Christianity.

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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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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 2017
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