Colombo, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy: Missing the Woods for the Trees

Sri Lanka’s decisive military victory over the LTTE owed much to a robust foreign policy as it did to a strong military and political leadership with the resolve to defeat the enemy. The results are evident. At the Security Council, it was the steadfast position of permanent member China that the sovereignty of a member-state cannot be imposed upon through a resolution against it. Even a resolution blocking an IMF loan to Sri Lanka was denied. At a regional level, it was India , who took the position that the LTTE could be militarily defeated, provided a political solution that recognized Tamil self-determination within a united Sri Lanka followed. On foreign aid, it was once again China and India . The former pledged $1 billion for a southern port and agreed to finance a power plant on the west coast, while the latter will build a similar plant on the east coast along a shared littoral with the strategic harbour at Trincomalee. An undersea power cable with India has also been negotiated. Taken together, these projects would help overcome the acute energy crisis Sri Lanka is expected to face next year. Similarly, Japan , for whose techno-industry mineral deposits on the northeast coast assume great significance, continued its role as one of the largest bilateral donors to Sri Lanka . Given its dual role as a donor co-chair along with the US, EU and Norway, Japan’s steadfast if low-profile support for Colombo helped stave off pressure from the West, which demanded a ceasefire, unfettered access to the war-zone and negotiated surrender for rebel leaders. With credible strategic alliances abroad that included India ’s Congress Party, Colombo moved swiftly to defeat the Tigers, before counting concluded on a decisive Indian parliamentary vote.

Sri Lanka ’s Asian allies too had much to gain. Political philosopher Kishore Mahbubani has argued that Asia’s giants China and India will assume greater significance in international affairs in “an irresistible shift of global power to the east” (Mahbubani, 2008). Indeed, he maybe right. The two states have stamped their authority on the strategic island of Sri Lanka . China ’s new presence at Hambantota, taken together with port projects in Gwadar ( Pakistan ), Chittagong ( Bangladesh ) and Sittwe ( Myanmar ) is part of a String of Pearls expansionist strategy that will see extended influence from the South China Sea, through the Straits of Malacca, into the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf . The foreign office in Colombo , for its part, counter-balanced India (power plant at Sampur) well and vis-à-vis the war, reaped great results.

These alliances, together with a long-term presence within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) served Sri Lanka well even after the war. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva , Western states sponsored a resolution against Sri Lanka demanding investigations into war crimes. But the move was hampered once again by China and member-states from the Global South. Instead, the African and Asian blocs helped table a counter-resolution that favoured Colombo with instant success. For certain, one may argue, the illegal invasion of Iraq and a prisoner scandal at ‘Gitmo’ had left the West bereft of the morality to challenge others in the conduct of war. On this note, from a Sri Lankan perspective, the foreign policy pursued by Colombo was a resounding success.

But now that the war is over, emphasis must shift to recovery and reconstruction. Sri Lanka ’s flagging economy, war-affected for decades, needs urgent attention. And military victory must be reinforced at both the political and ideological levels. For certain, it must be noted, any belief that “Tamil ethnic politics or identity politics died on the banks of the Nanthikadal” is simplistic at best (Jayatilleka, 2009a). If anyone believes otherwise, multiple protests in London , Toronto , Geneva , Paris , Sydney and Melbourne should awaken a consciousness that the Tamil Eelamist project abroad is still alive. It is thus that the newest battle for the Sri Lankan state will be one of ideas fought on the international theatre, primarily in the West. A true defeat of Eelam at this level will call on the soft and smart power resources of the Sri Lankan state. (Jayatilleka, 2009b). It is this, and not the gun battle by the Nanthikadal, that will be the final battle of the Ealam War.

This is the context in which revisiting Sri Lanka ’s approach to the West in the final phase of the war (as we know it) becomes an absolute must. There were two glaring errors. Colombo rejected Britain ’s appointment of Des Brown as envoy to Sri Lanka and went on to deny a visa to Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden . The fact that the latter was also a member of the EU troika, at the time, the president-in-waiting, was no deterrent to the foreign ministry in Colombo . Further, it did sweet nothing when Britain ’s High Commission in Colombo was egged and stoned, while an effigy of its foreign secretary was burnt and thrown into the compound. It was a diplomatic faux pas of sorts.

Insulting the West and loosing its goodwill is unashamedly antithetical to Sri Lanka ’s pressing security interest of neutralizing Eelamist activism abroad. The sooner key policymakers take note of the fact, the better for the national interest. Given that many Western lawmakers have considerable support from a naturalized Tamil vote base, it will take a far more innovative approach to relations with the West if Colombo is serious about defeating the Eelamist project on an ideological level. Thus far, its commitment to this effect is found grossly wanting, in contrast to its brute-force-like determination to win a martial war.

The political leadership must also note that Sri Lanka still has an abiding trade interest in the West, neglected at the peril of a floundering economy. In ruffling feathers at the EU, Sri Lanka ignored the interests of its USD 3 billion apparel export industry that has its largest market share in the US and Europe. Specifically, it ignored the GSP Plus concession granted to developing countries based on human rights treaty obligations, an aspect cast with a cloud of doubt during the conduct of Eelam War IV. It is the USD 150 million GSP Plus facility that has thus far enabled Sri Lankan exporters to compete with the Chinese and the devalued Yuan. But clearly, Colombo was unconcerned. Instead, it promised a subsidy to the equivalent, disregarding an acute balance of payments crisis at home, staggering national debt and diminished foreign reserves. Further exacerbation of Sri Lanka ’s balance of payments crisis is plainly unwise. The gesture smacked of arrogance and incompetence. This administration must note that sanctions from the West would undercut the very process of post-war reconstruction and development it now sets out to achieve.

Key policy makers of the populist government have surely missed the woods for the trees. Billboard upon billboard greeted hard-line Iranian president Ahmadinejad but Western diplomats that wished to visit were treated with unbridled contempt. The contrast was astounding, simplistic at best, abhorrently injurious to the national interest at worst. The actions merely pandered to voters at home and did little to work towards Sri Lanka ’s interests abroad. If Colombo is serious about a foreign policy based on realism that would foster the best interests of the Sri Lankan state, it would separate petty politics from the wider national interest and ground its foreign policy firmly in the tenets of non-alignment that it has long championed. Until such time, post-war Sri Lanka ’s best interest at home will lie precariously in the uncertain hands of its devil-may-care approach abroad.


  • Dayan Jayatileka, 2009a, “Post-war reconciliation and nation-building in a global context”, Groundviews, 12 July, available at
  • Dayan Jayatilleka, “Seven lessons on how to fight the globalised Tiger”, Transcurrents, May, available at
  • Kishore Mahbubani, 2008, The New Asian Hemisphere, New York : Public Affairs.