by Dayan Jayatilleka
It is, in equal measure, ironic and amusing that the UNP has chosen to move a motion of No Confidence in Parliament, against the newish Minister of External Affairs, Prof GL Pieris.
Antonio Gramsci notes that in an intellectual argument one must strike at the opponent’s strongest point, while in war and politics, one strikes the weakest spot in the defences. One certainly does not strike at a stronger point of a strong adversary when one is at one’s weakest. Yet, this is precisely what the UNP, under the “cool, JR-like strategist” Ranil Wickremesinghe and spearheaded by his acolyte Ravi Karunanayake, has signalled its intention of doing.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strong suit is not exactly foreign policy. JR Jayewardene appointed him Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and soon made it clear that when it came to foreign affairs they had ‘no confidence’ in him, by removing him from the post in one year flat. The reason seems to have been that while Sri Lanka was still the Chair of the Non Aligned Movement, and Mr Jayewardene had succeeded Madam Bandaranaike as Chairperson of NAM, Mr Wickremesinghe as Deputy Foreign Minister was pushing an unbalanced, anti NAM agenda which the President and the Foreign Minister, ACS Hameed (the UNPs Shadow Foreign Minister in ’70-’77) found disturbing.Possessing the highest academic attainments of any Sri Lankan parliamentarian and indeed any Sri Lankan politician today (and here, the contrast with our post-Kadirgamar pair of former Foreign Ministers could hardly be more striking!), the new Minister of External Affairs is not exactly the weakest link in the administration’s armour.
On the occasions that Prof Pieris’ passed through Geneva when I was serving as Permanent Representative, I would eagerly arrange for him to address audiences of ambassadors and academics, and our team would watch with pride as he delivered his remarks, without a note, on almost any subject. In terms of civility and intellect, of the many who came to Geneva (since it was a hub of UN and multilateral organisations), GL Pieris was in a class by himself. Yet it is precisely against him that the UNP has chosen to move.
This is a UNP that was rightly accused by a fellow Opposition MP belonging to the TNA, of lacking “the guts” to be present in parliament during the debate on the 18th amendment and vote against it.
The SLFP is generally better at ‘doing’ defence and external affairs while the UNP is usually better at modernisation and economic development. The three worst fiascos of Sri Lankas external relations occurred when the UNP was at the helm: Bandung (“Booruwa”) ’55, the ‘dhal’ drop ’87, the CFA ’02. The UNP administration’s deliberate deviation from Nonalignment (fairly soon after President Jayewardene relinquished his duties as NAM Chairman) and the enormous damage to relations with India, resulted in the worst collapse of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations in 1987, with the Indian airdrop and the conspicuous silence of almost the whole of the world.
When Mervyn de Silva, writing in the Lanka Guardian and as columnist ‘Kautilya’ in The Island, defined the war as it was fought by the UNP administration of the 1980s as “unwinnable”, he referred to the gross mismanagement of relations with neighbouring India and the latter’s own axiomatic compulsions over the Tamil question (Tamil Nadu), which meant that the war would not be allowed to be won on Colombo’s terms. Mervyn contrasted the UNP elite’s foreign policy fiasco of 1987 with the triumph of the SLFP’s Non aligned foreign policy in 1971 when India and Pakistan, Russia and the USA, UK and China and Yugoslavia were the most prominent of 21 states that came to Sri Lanka’s aid and assistance.
The UNP that was not motivated into a motion of no confidence against the professor’s predecessor, the most abysmally ignorant and atrociously unintelligible Foreign Minister Sri Lanka ever had, has sprung into action now. It has chosen to do so, not after a decent period of testing like a year or two, but mere months after Professor Peiris has been appointed and is doubtless still grappling with the legacy he was left by a man whom the voters tossed out without a second thought at the last election.
The text of the UNPs imminent motion of No Confidence accuses Prof Pieris of having failed to secure the support of the Non Aligned Movement against the Ban Ki Moon panel. That process started rolling well before GLP was appointed Minister and consequent to an ambiguous reference to accountability conceded when his predecessor held the post. The UNP did not feel motivated to indict the failure to mobilise the Non Aligned, when Sri Lanka lost the vote held in New York for re-election to the Human Rights Council. Mr Bogollagama flew to New York to lobby support and flunked. Perhaps unsurprising, when one considers the fact that in a three way telephone conference in the run-up to the Special Session against Sri Lanka in 2009 with the same Minister and his top official, the Minister dismissed my suggestion of securing a supportive statement from the Non-Aligned Co-ordinating Bureau in New York with the incredible observation that the Non Aligned Movement was split in three and therefore of little use to us!
The UNP is so solicitous of the support of the Non Aligned that Mr Wickremesinghe, addressing the UN General Assembly, tilted in favour of George Bush’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, strongly opposed not only by the NAM, but public opinion in the West. The Opposition leader’s nominee for managing a ‘mass media campaign at the grass roots’, Mangala Samaraweera as Foreign Minister, assumed a position on Israel/Palestine and Iran in multinational forums, that can only be described, in relation to the NAM stand, as deviant.
The UNPs motion charges the Minister of External Affairs of having “overstayed” his invitation to China by two days, which is bound to raise a chuckle or two, coming as it does from Mr Wickremesinghe who seems to have overstayed his stint as leader of his party and the Opposition, by well over a decade!
Why then is the UNP moving this No confidence motion at this time? There are three discernible reasons in ascending order of importance. Firstly the “tall poppy syndrome” (as the Australians dub it): the semi-spontaneous collective attempt motivated by petty jealousy, to level down. Secondly, the same reason that made the LTTE murder Lakshman Kadirgamar: deprive Sri Lanka and the administration of the most sophisticated communicator and best possible bridge with the world system, thereby isolating Sri Lanka. The third motive is the most serious. When viewed in a global perspective the ‘no confidence’ manoeuvre clearly takes place in a particular context and forms part of a specific strategy. It is part of a ‘pincer move’ against Sri Lanka as a state; a country.
Sri Lanka is in serious danger from an attempt to (a) project the State and the Sinhalese as proxies of Beijing in a grand strategic contest between the West and India on the one hand and China on the other, and (b) on this score, to leverage India and the West against Sri Lanka. This pernicious effort comes from three sources: anti-China Cold Warriors in the West who are attempting as in the 1950s and ’60s, to ‘contain China’ and in fact thwart and reverse the rise of Asia; the pro-Ranil Wickremesinghe neo-comprador elements of the UNP, its supportive journalists and civil society ideologues; and the anti-Lankan ultra-nationalists of the Tamil Diaspora and Tamil Nadu. This bloc of forces is not new, and indeed dates back to the Sri Lankan political polarisation of the Cold War decades.
In the same week as our civil society cosmopolitans and the international media focused on Sri Lanka, the latter was saying virtually the same thing about two other places at least: Russia and Rwanda.
The Financial Times (UK) editorialised as to why the West should oppose Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s possible plans to stand for re-election as President in 2012. For his part, Mr Putin deployed the argument of Franklin D Roosevelt’s fourth term argument—which should be familiar to Sri Lankan readers. In the same week the Western media mounted pressure on President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, with chatter about a UN report on possible ‘war crimes’ and ‘genocide’, allegedly committed by this man who saved Rwanda from its situation of a genocidal hell on earth. He is a wildly popular (elected) president who has not only brought peace and victory to his country but greatly modernised it, exponentially improved standards of public administration and vastly enhanced the presence of educated women in government.
There is a clear trend of the displeasure of the opinion making elite in the West and their favourites in Eurasian societies and those of the global South, against strong, independent–minded, often populist leaders who strive to build or re-build strong sovereign states. This does not mean that everything those leaders do is right or defensible, but that this external dimension of prejudice is also present, must be demarcated and defended against.
Take for instance the new article by Sonali Samarasinghe, currently a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, which has this to say: “Why must the world take action now?... Rajapaksa has now aligned his formerly westward-looking country with China, Iran, Pakistan and Libya...” (‘Why The World Must Stop Sri Lanka’s Decline’, Global Post, Sept 10, 2010). Samarasinghe does not specify that golden age when this country was “westward –looking” but one may safely assume these were years under UNP administrations, (barring of course, that of President Premadasa, who far-sightedly looked to East Asia from the 1960s, declared David Gladstone persona non grata and whose favourite political leader contemporary with his own presidency, was Malaysia’s outspokenly West-bashing Mahathir Mohammed). Never was Sri Lanka more “Westward looking” than under the short, unhappy Prime Ministership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is the “fall” from this ‘golden age’, the deviation from the “westward –looking” orientation resulting in or occasioned by Sri Lanka’s alleged alignment with China, that is the problem for some sectors of our society as well as for certain elements of the world order.
Thus, the motion of No Confidence against Minister Pieris and the recent external (metropolitan) criticisms of Sri Lanka’s domestic politics must be located and understood in this wider, North-South, West-East context of the long battle for national sovereignty and a multi-polar world.