By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
The motion brought by the United National Party against the Minister of External Affairs seemed a heaven sent opportunity for the government to clarify a number of issues regarding the External Relations of this country over the last few years. In particular it made clear the erosion of what might be termed the international agenda of the principal opposition, a factor of great importance since, though the most dangerous threat facing this country, that of terrorism within our shores, has been defeated, the external threat still looms.
In Sri Lanka itself terrorist excesses were easy to identify, though this does not take away from the enormous effort needed to overcome them, and the singular contribution of our armed forces. Abroad however we were never quite sure from where blows would fall. Some of these came from terrorist supporters, a few of them still sadly incorrigible. However we can now hope that many are willing to work together with government to improve the lot of the Tamils who suffered in the 1980s from the racist excesses of the Jayewardene government, and then the worse enslavement of the Prabhakaran totalitarianism.
We also had to suffer the criticism of those foreigners, well-meaning ones as well as insidious purveyors of self-interest, who confused the Tigers and the Tamils. And then, worst of all, we had to struggle against the relentless belittling of the elected government by the opposition and its agents, a programme that at least some elements in the United National Party wish to revive, as seen by this motion.
That programme contributed a lot to the reversals this country had to suffer. Recently, in Brussels, talking to an official with some degree of responsibility for European Union diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka, I was astonished that he declared that the Leader of the Opposition was a democrat, and seemed to contrast this with the President. Since the man had just told me that he had graduated in history from Oxford University, and even begun research work there, I was horrified. A historian who had no sense of evidence, an Oxford graduate who had not been taught to check his references, a diplomat who took gullibility to culpable excess, is not someone who should be making judgments that will affect so many poor workers.
But he claimed that Mr Wickremesinghe presented himself as a democrat. This was of a piece with an anecdote related to me on the same visit, that the British EU Commissioner a couple of years back had lectured a member of the Sri Lankan Cabinet on the folly of this country in not retaining Mr Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Democracy obviously was not important to this character – and his subsequent writings have confirmed this view – in comparison with having someone who spoke the same language, of elitist occidental self-interest.
In effect then what happened to the government of President Rajapaksa, as soon as it was first constituted in 2005, was that it faced a situation in which some elements in the West gave full credence to the arguments of an opposition that played up to them relentlessly. Some evidence of this has been provided in Parliament already, but we must also keep in mind the relentless whirl of the social life engaged in by the current stars of the opposition in Colombo. Thus while those elements in the United National Party that seek reform are more concerned with developing the appeal of the party in the country at large, their elders and betters are securing political power and authority for themselves by winning and dining the gullible.
I was first made aware of this when, in 2007, when I got first involved in the pursuit of peace, I found that the strongest opposition to our efforts to free the Tamil people from the yoke of terrorism came, not from the TNA, but from a trio of diplomats in Colombo who spared no efforts to denigrate the government, one of them even using his National Day to deliver a sermon. Thankfully his successor recently delivered a speech that combined intelligence with humility in a manner that encourages us to work together with his country, instead of bracing ourselves for attacks.
Fortunately, those one might term the opposition groupies have almost all now left our shores, and we have representatives who do not feel any need to challenge the democratic will of our people. Sadly the influence of their predecessors dies hard, and we had to suffer from this with regard to GSP+ as well as the efforts of a few to convict us for war crimes. They found sustenance for this view initially in the pronouncements of the former Chief of Staff who, when he thought violence would prove popular, took credit in a speech at Ambalangoda for war crimes that seem to have been a figment of his imagination. A changing of that tune later on added fuel to the fire, which was being stoked by a Leader of the Opposition who wanted to pile pressures on the government, and believed that a military solution, to put it crudely would be his own personal salvation.
The Ministry of External Affairs had a difficult time dealing with these pressures, many of which were applied first several years ago. Despite the intensity of the pressures from 2006 to 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs managed to convince enough countries worldwide of the positive nature of the polices government was pursuing, as witnessed most obviously in the diplomatic triumph in Geneva that Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe were able to achieve in May 2009.
There are no such threats against us now, which is a tribute to the manner in which the present Minister has been able to consolidate the work of his predecessor. I should also note in this regard the excellent work of career Foreign Service personnel, the ambassador in Brussels and the Deputy High Commissioner in London, to mention those I have worked with personally, in developing positive views of this country in the last few months. We have in effect moved on now to a situation where we will be able to talk of a forward looking Foreign Policy, rather than one that has to react to the threats imposed by the opposition and the other foreign forces I mentioned.
In this regard we should note too the importance of the President’s decision to return to our Non-Aligned roots, to work together with all countries, instead of seeing ourselves as dependent simply on one set of interests. Our excellent relations with India and with China and with Japan, the solid ties with the Islamic world, exemplified by the support extended to us by Pakistan and Iran and Egypt and Turkey, the Chairmanship of the G 15 group which was offered to us a year and more ago through Ambassador Jayatilleka in Geneva, our developing ties with the ASEAN countries, our recognition of the importance of South America and Africa, which we paid insufficient attention to in the past because of our tendency to look only in one direction, all these are factors that previous administrations could not even conceive of.
Clearly now our external relations are in good hands, with a Minister with a sterling intellectual reputation to add to the conviviality he shares with his predecessors. We had that also in the days of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, but now we also have guidance from a President who will work together in full confidence with his Minister to fulfil a vision such as this country has been without for several decades.
With such reasons for confidence, it was strange that the UNP should have decided to focus on this issue. The impression their conduct left was that they were trying to stir up the old coalitions again. But this time round the main Tamil opposition party made clear its refusal to play this disastrous game, by sitting out the debate. What I would consider the more modern elements in the UNP also stayed aloof.
All this will contribute to what the UNP used to consider the only elements of the international community worth considering to realise that putting their eggs in a UNP basket will be counter-productive. The elected representatives of the majority of the people of the North, and a fair proportion of those in the East, have understood this and the message will get across too to those members of the diaspora who are concerned with the Tamils but who will have no truck with terrorism. In that light, the government has reason to thank the UNP for yet another foolhardy exercise.