An Indian View of recent SL Foreign Policy

The Special Correspondent of the Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka P. K. Balachandran has written an eulogy on the foreign policy of President Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) claiming that it has "paid off" (see below). This claim must be examined. It is interesting that the claim does not relate to the internal policy, particularly the military gains against the LTTE in the Eastern province (from Mavil Aru to Thoppigala) to which the President can rightly claim credit (though exaggerated) but to his foreign policy where his gains, if any, have been limited. This report has been much publicized by the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, With little favourable comment on the achievements of SL foreign policy it is understandable that it should seek to publicize any favourable comment, even from a journalist of the caliber of Ramachandran.

The main grounds on which Balachandran bases his claims are the following:

  1. Taking on the UN. It is perhaps to early to state that MR has neutralized the UN. This refers to the UN claim on alleged Human Rights (HR) violations. Certainly the scale of alleged HR violations is below the level at which the UN has traditionally taken action (as e.g. in Bosnia). But even with the low level alleged HR violations Sri Lanka has been accused when greater violations elsewhere has been ignored. Thus the UN not acting on this cannot be credited to the MR government and the incompetent diplomats it has employed. Dayan Jayatilleke, once a supporter of Tamil separatism has been appointed as MR's voice in the UN, but he does not seem to be doing a good job. While the UN rhetoric on HR violations has weakened of late it has not been entirely withdrawn. It still remains a fact that the LTTE has escaped the censure even though it is very blatantly violating Human Rights, especially on the issue of child recruitment. The blame still seems to be placed on the TVMP in the East which is seen as being tacitly supported by SL. The UN is merely trying to establish groundwork for a possible future intervention, which is not likely. This is not due to anything that MR and his diplomats have done. Official affiliates of the UN have been found to have rendered material assistance to the LTTE. But nothing tangible has been done regarding this.
  2. Taking on the West. Balachandran speaks of MR launching "hostile campaigns against foreign governments". This is too much to make of foreign diplomats being summoned to hear complaints against what they have done. Of course Western diplomats have openly interfered with domestic processes. But the least that a concerned government will do is to require the removal of the diplomats concerned. This has not happened. Summoning the British High Commissioner to hear a complaint is not launching a hostile campaign. The fact is the MR regime is not prepared to call any of these diplomats persona non grata.
  3. 'Rapping the knuckles' of Multilateral Bodies. Foreign NGOs have openly interfered in the country's separatist problem. The amout of work down in the Tsunami affected Tamil areas in the North and East is not in line with the work undertaken in similar areas in the South and West. In addition many foreign NGOs engage in evangelical work, usually in collusion with local Jesuhelas. Yet none of these foreign NGO have been asked to pack up and go. In fact the list of foreign NGOs entertained in Sri Lanka has been growing rapidly under the MR administration. The so-called rapping on the knuckles are merely declarations made mainly for the consumption of the local people. There is very little teeth in anything that has been done in this regard.
  4. Closeness to China and Pakistan despite India. It is well known that Pakistan and China have taken a hostile attitude to India, an attitude that has been reciprocated by the Indians. Since India is perhaps the single foreign power that has been most responsible for the rise of the LTTE as a militant organization it is not suprisiing that most governments in SL have had close ties with Pakistan and China in their confrontation with India. This is not something peculiar to the MR government. In fact the MR regime has done more than many others to placate India. The first foreign trip made by MR was to India, even though his requests to India have been rebuffed.

    It is still a cardinal plank in MR's foreign policy to placate India. India is behind urging devolution (perhaps n the Indian model) for the Tamils in SL. It has been claimed that the Indian PM has laid down as a pre-condition for his proposed visit in February 2008 for the MR regime to declare a definitive plan to make good its devolution rhetoric. What this shows is that SL does not know how to make full use of the current geo-politics in the Asian region.
  5. The stance on Iran. I the recent visit to Iran MR offered support to Iran in the face of US attempt to isolate it on the ground that it is developing a nuclear bomb. Since then the Bush administration has retreated from its belligerent position towards Iran accepting its own intelligence report that Iran had stopped work on the bomb in 2003. This back down by Bush is not due to MR's support of Iran. That support is purely rhetorical. MR's support of Iran in in line with its support its support of Muslims in SL. His regime has turned out a blind eye to Muslim activism in the East where they have acquired land endowed to Buddhist temples during historical times. Yet despite this support the Muslin party voted against the Budget in the third reading. MR's dilemma with the Muslims is simply another example of its contradictory policies both in the external and internal areas. Despite MR's support of Iran it is still greatly indebted to the US for intelligence and other material that it is supposed to be supplying against the LTTE. But US support in this area is based on the MR promise that he will give devolution to Tamils.
  6. No cutting off of aid. MR has been boasting that foreign aid has not been cut off despite certain declaration by some of the aid providers. The recent success of the begging mssion to Japan has been well touted. But this whole dependence on foreign aid is a fundamental weakness in MR's foreign policy. Even though the West and Japan may provide aid and loans there is always the string attached to such aid. When this string is pulled Sri Lanka's independence is gravely compromised.

Thus the "dividends" which according the Balachandran is flowing from MR's foreign policy, on closer examination, are rather meager or non-existent. The fact is that there is more stooging of foreign governments that in confronting them. Even they may now be doing business as usual this can quickly come to an end. Much of this is based on MR's promise to share power with Tamils.

The crunch time will come when MR has to make good on his promise to share power. This may be earlier than even before the LTTE is eliminated. The Parliamentary Committee charged with formulating the devolution package has been procrastinating for too long. This cannot continue indefinitely. The so-called International Community knows that this is not a matter for a Parliamentary Committee but for the Government of the country. So the ball will soon land in MR's court. He will then have to play it, and not hide behing a Parliamentary Committee. When this happens we will can really gauge how much dividends MR has reaped with his foreign policy.

Victor Gunasekara

Rajapakse's Nationalistic Foreign Policy pays Dividends

by P.K. Balachandran

Indo-Asian News Service : 2007-12-17

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's foreign policy based on an aggressive display of nationalism appears to be paying off. In the two years Rajapakse has been in power, the government has taken on the UN and the West and has rapped multilateral bodies on the knuckles for being soft on the Tamil Tigers. It has also demonstrated closeness to China and Pakistan regardless of how India, the only neighbour, may view it. But Colombo has been none the worse for all the boldness, even if it has smacked of adventurism and abrasiveness at times. There has been consistent and strident international criticism of the way the regime is handling the ethnic crisis, especially the huge humanitarian problem unending fighting has triggered. But foreign governments and multilateral organisations have been reluctant to translate expressions of displeasure into corrective action.

As an analyst put it, 'The international community has barked, but not bitten.' Western governments and West-based international organisations had got into the habit of making unsolicited comments on the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, often lecturing to its leaders on good governance, democracy and prudent political management. Not surprisingly, Sri Lankans find this condescending and annoying. Under the regime of Rajapakse, the popular trend here is to launch hostile campaigns against foreign governments and international bodies including those affiliated to the UN. At times, cabinet ministers and leading lights in parliament spearhead these campaigns.

Surprisingly, the responses of the affected governments and organisations have been tepid. There has been no threat of withdrawal from the country by any group. Nor has there been any significant reduction of aid, on which Sri Lanka is so heavily dependent. Some time ago, Britain and Germany had announced cuts in their aid, citing the continued conflict and slow progress in the peace process. But the amounts were small. And Japan, the single largest donor, has stated that it will continue to aid Sri Lanka despite the human rights violations, because stoppage of aid will only harm the innocent poor in the country. Although depending on the US for help to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) globally, Rajapakse recently paid a state visit to Iran, America's enemy. The visit was a success in terms of project aid, as Iran gave Sri Lanka what Rajapakse asked for.

At the Commonwealth summit at Kampala, the Sri Lankan stand on Pakistan's expulsion was at variance with that of the others, including Britain, Canada and Australia whose help too is vital to break the LTTE's global links. Sri Lanka went out of the way to tout Pakistan's case even at the risk of alienating India. But Colombo was none the worse for all that. It was made part of a group charged with the task of talking to Pakistan. Rajapakse's highly publicised support to Pakistan at Kampala was an expression of gratitude for helping out Sri Lanka with urgent military aid in 2000 when the LTTE was knocking at the gates of Jaffna and India failed to respond to cries of help.

Sri Lankans never tire of pointing out that it was to India that they had turned first but all that New Delhi offered was help to evacuate the beleaguered Sri Lankan troops. The president has cleverly made use of both Pakistan and India in his fight against the LTTE. While the Indians have been made to supply 'defensive' equipment like radars, Pakistan has been involved in the enhancement of the strike capability of the Sri Lankan Air Force. Successful air actions have helped curb the LTTE. Regardless of possible repercussions for India, Rajapakse had got China to fund a major development project with international strategic implications. Chinese help for a mega international port at Humbantota in the south did set off alarm bells in India but New Delhi did little to prevent the president's lurch towards Beijing.

The Geneva Battle

The success of Sri Lanka's aggressively independent stance was reflected in the outcome of the 6th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that concluded Friday. To the great embarrassment of Sri Lanka, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, declared that the Colombo government's human rights enforcement machinery was ineffective and urged the setting up of a UN rights monitoring office in the country. Arbour's call came in the context of the fact that, through 2006 and 2007, 290,000 civilians, mostly Tamils and some Muslims, had been displaced by the war and over 3,500 were killed. Attacks, extortions, abductions, disappearances and arbitrary detentions were going on, sometimes with state backing and aided by the tough anti-terror law made in December 2006. The delegations of the US, EU, France, South Korea, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand voiced support for Arbour's call to set up a UN monitoring office in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka seemed to be isolated, but it fought the move tooth and nail -- and succeeded in scuttling it.

Talking the battle into the adversary's territory, its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleke, said his country did not want to be 'preached' by states whose human rights record was 'far from perfect'. Sri Lanka would take advice from international bodies only when these had 'transparency of funding' and when their agendas were 'not donor driven', he declared brazenly. Sri Lankan officials had kept hammering the point that their country could not be asked to observe Queensberry Rules in a war-cum-insurgency situation in which a beleaguered state was battling one of the most ruthless and well-organised insurgent groups in the world. They accused the UN agencies and international rights organisations of not taking adequate note of the LTTE's rights violations or rapping it hard enough. To the delight of Sri Lankan delegation and disappointment of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the UN council concluded its deliberations without passing the expected resolution castigating Sri Lanka. Japan, India and the Philippines had thrown their weight behind Sri Lanka at the council.

Clearly, the LTTE's behaviour since the Norway-sponsored ceasefire agreement in 2002 had helped the Sri Lankan government bolster its case against censure. The LTTE had scuttled peace talks, provoked the government to take military action, bombed civilians outside the war zone and assassinated political leaders by using suicide bombers.

The international community was indeed concerned about the suffering of the Tamils and Muslims in the war zones of the north and east. But this concern could not be translated into concrete support for these communities because the LTTE would not play ball. The LTTE was also using forms of violence like suicide bombing which are deplored in the present day world. India shared Sri Lanka's views on the LTTE as it had discovered, over years of close interaction, that it could not have any meaningful interaction with that militant group. The LTTE was too narrow minded and intransigent for that. As for Japan, it had turned hostile to the LTTE after its repeated efforts to get it to the negotiating table failed. The LTTE had also spurned Japanese offers of development aid if it took the path of peace. No wonder then that both New Delhi and Tokyo stood by Colombo at Geneva.

While Colombo's case at the Human Rights Council may have some merits, the persistent attacks against UN organisations and international NGOs seem to be needlessly confrontational. But here again, there has been no backlash of any kind from the affected parties. Unicef has come in for much flak both in parliament and outside for having, in its offices, 'Ready to Eat' food packets supplied by a French military contractor. It was alleged that the packets were meant for the LTTE's fighting units! Unicef explained that such packets were routinely distributed among its offices in conflict areas across the globe as part of a survival kit. But the government remained unconvinced and police sleuths were told to probe the allegation. International NGOs working in the conflict zone routinely face hostility, both in word and deed.

British High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott appealed to Sri Lankans not to demonise UN organizations, but this fell on deaf ears. At any rate, Chilcott had spoilt his case by saying that the LTTE's demand for an independent 'Eelam' was not 'illegitimate'. The government not only summoned him for a dressing down but also announced that it would complain to the Foreign Office in London.

Earlier, in August, cabinet minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle called the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, a 'terrorist who had taken money from the LTTE'. Holmes had said that Sri Lanka was a 'risky' place for aid workers. When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described Fernandopulle's remark as 'unacceptable and unwarranted', the minister made it plain that he did not 'care a damn.' The UN's response to this was silence.