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Foreign policy shift by Sri Lanka in post - war situation

Jun 20, 2010 10:39:11 PM- transcurrents.com

By Sumanasiri Liyanage

Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution, once said that when a specific music is played, the issue is not which key is important, but when a particular key should played. The events unfolded in the past month or so have shown that Sri Lanka has made a new turn in its foreign policy. By identifying this new turn, I do not mean a paradigm shift in Sri Lankan foreign policy, but changes in emphasis and prioritization within the given paradigm.

As I have observed in my previous writings, that (1) there has been a paradigm shift in Sri Lankan foreign policy regime under Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency and (2) this change and associated policies not only satisfied the specific war-time needs but also envisioned global changes that have been taking place in the global economy since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Furthermore, I submit that the current foreign policy paradigm is the best foreign policy framework in post-independence Sri Lanka as it can be depicted as active and futuristic.

To begin with, let me list briefly the major events that have unfolded in the last two weeks or so.

(1) Following the Indian example, Sri Lanka names the foreign ministry as ministry of external affairs.Although it sounds mere semantic, in my opinion, it signifies the need of broadening country’s relations with the rest of the world.

(2) The visits of the Minister of External Affairs to European Union and the USA in order to clarify Sri Lanka’s position on multiple issues and to reaffirm the place of the West in the Sri Lankan relations with the rest of the world.

(3) Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris participated at the Shangri-La Dialogue Asia Security Summit in Singapore.

(4) President’s visit to India and the agreements signed during this visit have demonstrated key role of India in the Sri Lankan foreign policy framework. It seems that the importance of Tamil Nadu factor in bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka has been given due consideration in this visit by extending an invitation to MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) from Tamil Nadu to visit Sri Lanka in near future.

(5) Sri Lankan Cabinet has decided that the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement between India and Sri Lanka will be signed this year. India is a leading trading partner of Sri Lanka and second largest direct foreign investor in the island.

(6) Visits to Sri Lanka by UN deputy political secretary, Japanese special envoy and two key officers from Obama administration signify significant changes in the attitudes of the West towards Sri Lanka.

(7) The new Conservative-Liberal government in the United Kingdom has indicated that it is in the process of reviewing the previous Labour government’s position on Sri Lanka. In this article, I argue that these events and trends mark a significant and positive change in Sri Lankan relations with outside world and signify necessary policy adjustments required by the post-war situation that has placed priority on economic consolidation and development.

In one of his TV interviews, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the Secretary of Defence, identified the principal parameters of the Sri Lankan foreign policy after 2005. He started with the general and broader premise that Sri Lanka is a non-aligned country so that it seeks to maintain friendly and cordial relationship with all countries irrespective of their policies and ideological positions. The principle of non-alignment has been the basis of Sri Lankan foreign policy since the late 1950s. Although President J R Jayewardene was suspicious about the whole notion of non-alignment, no noticeable change can be traced in the foreign policy regime between 1977- 1987.

The foreign policy of Sri Lanka took a paradigmatic shift because of the second and third element identified by the Defence Secretary. Throughout its post-independence period, Sri Lankan foreign policy had been oriented towards the West owing to multiple factors such as its colonial past, its foreign assistance structure and trade relations. Since 2005, Sri Lanka has shifted its policy orientation to the Indian Ocean region and this marks a significant change.

One may argue that this change was pragmatic and may be attributed to the on-going war situation in the island. Sri Lanka had to ensure the supply of oil, military equipment, and military intelligence in adequate quantity and at reasonable terms.

Many Western countries indicated that Sri Lanka could not depend on their supply of arms, ammunition and training. Foreign assistance from Western nations, especially from the EU countries was cut down drastically during this period. Hence there is a truth in this argument; but this shift in orientation may also be attributed to Sri Lanka’s recognition of the current changes in the global economy. It was clear at the beginning of the 21st Century that the epi-centre of the global economy was in the process of shifting to Asia-Pacific region. In this sense, shift, in my opinion, marks a futuristic vision.

Thirdly, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa emphasised the fact that Sri Lanka in designing its relationship with the rest of the world should always take into account India’s position and interests. Hence, Sri Lanka should be careful to avoid taking decisions that would be embarrassing to India. (Ref. Interview with the ITN). India’s special and unique place is summarised well by President’s later statement that "India is Sri Lanka’s relation (big sister) while others are friends". Does the use of femininity signify a change?

Although, it was not the intention of the Sri Lankan government, an implementation of this foreign policy framework and the on-going intense armed conflict created some tension in Sri Lanka’s relations with the Western countries including its relations with Australia and New Zealand. Hence one may argue with some justification that the presence of this tension is a significant gap in the above-mentioned foreign policy paradigm. Does it mean a falsification of the paradigm?

I answer this question in the negative and submit that the ‘core’ of the paradigm (in Lakatosian sense) remains correct and well grounded. However, since war has come to a definite end, the foreign policy makers should be now concerned with filling these remaining gaps while working within the existing paradigm. In my opinion, the recent foreign policy initiatives listed above should be read from this perspective.

There is no doubt, that the style and approach of the new minister of External Affairs Prof G.L.Peiris would help the process considerably. In renegotiating terms of relations between Sri Lanka and the West, Sri Lanka is now in a better position owing to the fact that the security-related concerns that were over-emphasised and given priority during the war can be now put on the back-burner. Emphasis should be placed on three main issues.

First and foremost, return, resettlement and integration of the internally displaced people should be completed before the end of this year. Mahinda Chinthanaya 1 has promised Rs. 250,000 each to IDP family by way of compensation. I believe that the government should keep this promise without further delay.

Secondly, elected Northern Provincial Council should be set up as soon as possible and powers and responsibility of reconstruction of war-torn areas devolved to the elected Provincial Council thus breaking from the existing tradition of centre-led development programmes.

Thirdly, human rights situation of the country should be further improved with necessary institutions and practices.

External relations do not mean only relations between states although such relations are always dominant in international relations. Whether we like it or not, there are two old and new elements that have to be kept in mind while dealing with external affairs. The old element is what I call Chennai factor. Sri Lanka should maintain friendly relationship with Tamil Nadu politicians and civil society through multiple networks and continuous exchange of views. The IIFA festival demonstrated beyond any doubt the importance of Chennai factor in Sri Lanka’s international image.

If I extend President Rajapaksa’s metaphor, one may even say, if India is Sri Lanka’s big sister Tamil Nadu should be considered as Sri Lanka’s twin sister. The new element is Tamil diaspora. The government of Sri Lanka I believe should begin to reassess the diaspora and develop new methodologies to open a discussion with them.

The importance of external dimension in Sri Lanka’s economic consolidation and development cannot be underestimated. Correct development policy plus well thought-out foreign policy would be the key to Sri Lanka’s future.