by Namini Wijedasa
There is no gainsaying that Libya has a friend in Sri Lanka. Not only do diplomatic relations between the two countries stretch back several decades, President Mahinda Rajapaksa since assuming power in 2005 has carefully cultivated ties with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that can best be described as snug.
Gaddafi first made an impression in Sri Lanka in 1976 when he blazed into Colombo for a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement. And he left an imprint that has proved indelible. The Gaddafi of that era was nowhere near being labelled a despot and legions of Sri Lankans —predominantly women — marvelled at his pinup, good looks.
Some analysts even hold that Gaddafi became a household name in this island nation after that trip. President Rajapaksa during a 2009 visit to Tripoli told the Libyan leader that the people of Sri Lanka still remembered him and he wasn’t far wrong.
Lalin Fernando, a retired major general of the Sri Lanka Army, in a captivating column published last month offered unique insight into Gadaffi’s visit. He deemed that the Libyan leader was an immediate hit because of his maverick behavior and says Gaddafi had women vying to catch a glimpse of him.
“This happened every time he moved into and from the hotel,” Fernando observed. “He had striking looks accentuated by his flashing green eyes and was dressed in flowing Bedouin robes. He in turn did not hesitate to have a good look at the ladies there and also when he moved around Colombo.”
The column amusingly revealed that the next few days saw over a hundred Libyan ‘supporters’ distributing big, glossy photos of Gaddafi around Colombo like confetti. “They also tried to buy every single parrot that was available for sale in Sri Lanka,” Fernando writes. “They were seen everywhere in trucks carrying an apparent inexhaustible supply of parrots in cages every day until they left.” What was that about?
Many years later, President Rajapaksa has resurrected and propelled ties between Sri Lanka and Libya to new heights. And as an astute politician keen on building a personality cult for himself — not unlike Gaddafi in that respect — he has repeatedly capitalized on his friendship with the Libyan leader to get some personal mileage.
In August 2009, for instance, state media trumpeted about President Rajapaksa attending Libya’s 40th Revolution Day celebrations as Gaddafi’s special guest. His spin doctors even said their president had achieved a diplomatic coup by being placed next to Gaddafi at the parade! He was shown watching the event with Gaddafi at his side, the Libyan leader’s arm draped casually over his shoulder. This image was widely circulated as proof of just how close President Rajapaksa was to Gaddafi.
It was the president’s second trip to Libya that year; he also conducted a state visit in April that was followed by a Libyan government pledge of $500 million in financial assistance towards development projects here. It was not immediately clear how much of this aid was disbursed and on what terms. The chambers of commerce of the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding while Libya expressed interest in investment.
Libya also offered employment opportunities for Sri Lankans — something many Sri Lankans took advantage of. Ironically, Colombo is now chartering special flights to Libya on President Rajapaksa’s instructions to ferry its entrapped 1,200 citizens back home.
As recently as January 2011, President Rajapaksa dispatched his eldest son, Namal, to Tripoli with a formal invitation for Gaddafi to visit Sri Lanka. An official statement in Colombo reported that Gaddafi during his meeting with Namal had referred to his “strong personal relationship” with President Rajapaksa and reiterated his desire to further strengthen bilateral ties.
We learn then on March 4 that President Rajapaksa asked Gadaffi in a telephone call to “establish peace in Libya as soon as possible and safeguard the lives of Libyan people”. What’s more, Presidential Media Director Bandula Jayasekera says it was the beleaguered Gaddafi that had telephoned President Rajapaksa!
Did Gaddafi, in the midst of all his troubles, initiate a call to the Sri Lankan leader in anticipation of a sympathetic ear? Or was he returning President Rajapaksa’s call? It remains a mystery as the president’s camp has since lapsed into silence on the matter.
When asked why no statement was issued on the situation in Libya, a senior official from the Ministry of External Affairs said on condition of anonymity that, “It has been the practice of successive Sri Lankan governments not to comment on internal developments of this nature as all nations have the right to solve their internal issues without foreign involvement.” “At the same time,” he said, “we value our friendships with these nations.”
Certainly, President Rajapaksa and Gaddafi are friends. The president likes the Libyan leader, not least because the latter embodies the former’s belief that Western interference must be rejected and defied at all cost.
And by virtue of the Rajapaksa regime’s foreign policy choices, Colombo and Tripoli are also firmer buddies than ever. (Where Libya is concerned, President Rajapaksa might also be guided by a desire to get concessionary terms on oil). So what will this portend for Sri Lanka in future?
Western nations are not pleased with some of the relationships Sri Lanka has chosen to strengthen in recent years — Libya, Myanmar, Russia, Iran and China. India is particularly concerned by Sri Lanka’s growing alliance with China that could potentially upset the balance of power in South Asia.
Some foreign policy analysts believe that India’s worries are now guiding Washington which suddenly stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate civilian deaths that occurred at the end of its war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009.
On March 1, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution that, among other things, called on the government of Sri Lanka, the international community, and the United Nations to establish an “independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka...” This is something Colombo wishes to avoid at all cost.
The Rajapaksa regime’s choices in allies are increasingly made at the expense of its ties with those nations — mostly Western — that respect democratic principles more than, say, Gaddafi does. Colombo is often seen as playing a zero sum game in the sphere of foreign policy.
Regardless of the criticisms, there is no denying that the President Rajapaksa has selected his friends on the basis of self-interest. For instance, when the West tried to stop Sri Lanka from finishing off the Tamil Tigers citing human rights concerns, Colombo looked elsewhere for assistance — and found it. When Western nations tied financial assistance to human rights prerogatives, China stepped in with unconditional aid. When finicky governments refused to sell weapons to Sri Lanka, Colombo found nations that would. In an era that is seeing the West firmly pitched against the Rest, there is always somebody willing to help.
How will Colombo now proceed with Libya? A senior diplomat pointed out on condition of anonymity that, “Gaddafi is certainly down but not out yet.” “One needs to watch a bit more to accurately gauge the extent of popular support for uprising and peoples’ commitment to pursue it to its bitter end,” he said. “Until then, voicing support to Gaddafi is not prudent diplomacy.”
“Supporting Libya and supporting Gaddafi are two different things,” he concluded. “If people really want Gaddafi out, supporting Gaddafi would mean opposing Libya.”
The writer is a senior journalist based in Colombo – courtesy: The Saudi Gazette