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img_5858The third country I visited in June 2014, in that period of quietude when nothing was moving in Sri Lanka except for an increasing sense of decline, was Jordan. I did not count it as a new country, for I had stayed overnight there in a hotel, when I was traveling to Turkey early in 1989 to join the SS Universe, for the University of Pittsburgh Semester at Sea programme. It was for a long interport stint, to cover the whole of Asia as it were, even though the ship was not coming to Sri Lanka. So I was able in that year to visit the pyramids of Egypt for the first time, and in India Tanjore and also Kerala. I also swam off Cape Comorin, and lost my spectacles in the waves, which meant I had to make do with contact lenses for Trivandrum and Cochin and the long train ride back to Chennai, where I had a spare set on board the ship.

It had proved very difficult to get a flight to Turkey. I had set off for Thailand, from where I was to fly back after finally disembarking in Penang, and in Bangkok I had got the Turkish visa without difficulty. But the airlines going to Istanbul were very wary of a Sri Lankan passport. Even the Romanians, and that in the days of Ceausescu too, would not allow me even to transit in their capital. The embassy staff in Bangkok obviously thought their regulations silly, and agreed that it was hardly likely I wanted to stay in Bucharest (this was the year in which Ceaucescu was finally overthrown), but they would not budge. Finally the Jordanians did give me a ticket, and provided me with a hotel for the overnight layover, but they took away my passport at the airport and ensured that I did not stray.

In Turkey I was able to explore to my heart’s content, taking advantage of their fantastic network of buses that enabled me to get to Ankara and even to Trabzon, a place I have always thought of as magical, ever since reading Rose Macaulay’s wonderful novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which begins with perhaps the maddest opening line in English literature, “Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’) The city lived up to expectations, with its fantastic monastery up in the snow covered mountains, and so did the rock houses of Cappadocia and its extraordinary underground city. I went too to the remote East, the Kurdish area which proved more peaceful than I had thought, and Antakya in the south, the old Antioch, tropical weather even in January and wonderful mosaics. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP at the  Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on
Transitions to Democracy – Managing Burma’s Political Transition: The Challenges Ahead
16-19 November 2012, Bangkok, Thailand

The news from many parts of Asia has been full recently of ethnic or rather sectarian conflict. In Thailand and the Philippines, there have been southern insurgencies, with Muslim populations asserting a separate identity from Buddhists and Christians respectively. Indonesia has recently found places of worship being closed by a fundamentalist dispensation in Aceh. In both Bangladhesh and Burma, there have been riots, of Buddhists again Muslims or vice versa. And in Pakistan the struggle between Shias and Sunnis seems to be endless, a phenomenon we see in many countries of West Asia too.

In Sri Lanka we could say we were used to this, as we emerge from a thirty year long civil war, often characterized as being between Sinhalese and Tamils. Yet that would be erroneous, for though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam presented themselves as the champions of the Tamil people, Tamils were amongst their prominent victims. In setting themselves up as the sole representatives of the Tamil people, they destroyed moderate Tamil forces, killing several leading politicians and browbeating others into submission.

But it would also be misleading to claim that there was no ethnic tension in the country. The Tigers became prominent precisely because there was no harmony and no union within Sri Lanka. Since our democracy was based on a British model, we did not have checks and balances built in, as had occurred with the United States, which had to build up a constitution in the context of conflicting claims, from states with different priorities.

Our democracy was majoritarian, which meant that it could be taken possession of by whoever obtained a majority in Parliamentary elections. Since we had the first past the post system, and since most constituencies were what the British would describe as marginals, on several occasions we had massive majorities in Parliament on the basis of small majorities in the popular vote. And so we had measures that were in theory democratic, ie were based on increasing the power of the people, but which took away power from minorities. Thus we had language policies that made employment more difficult for minorities, we had educational policies that made higher education less accessible, and we had land distribution that favoured the majority.

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Welcome address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Chair – Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats

At the Workshop on Climate Change

Setting CALD’s Climate Change Agenda

Bangkok, November 28th – 30th 2011

I am happy to welcome all of you here to the first of a series of discussions on Climate Change, which the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats has embarked on. We are particularly grateful that the Hon Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party of Thailand and former Prime Minister, has graced the occasion to deliver the keynote address. The recent floods in Thailand seem to me a clear example of the Climate Change that can have such adverse consequences and which needs to be address.

However I should note that, reading in the Thai papers about your debate in Parliament on this subject, we should bear in mind that perhaps Climate Change had little to do with the catastrophe, and that it was due more to bad management by the government that took over from the Democrats earlier this year. Indeed I gather there is yet another interpretation, namely that Khun Abhisit deliberately lost the election and then called down floods from heaven to show up the inadequacies of the successor government.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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