Colombo, Foreign Relations

Sri Lanka’s new found friends: Looking for love in all the wrong places

Reading about GOSL’s latest foreign foray is like venturing into an oncologist’s office; you suspect that there is something wrong with your system but you hope that it’s nothing serious. But, deep down you know that you will be looking at some serious chemotherapy and at least a few doses of radiation. You try to come to terms with the impending gloom of the loss of hair; the loss of appetite and the nausea. Try to put the best spin on this situation, but you still come up short.

Since the successful end of the military campaign against the LTTE in May 2009, the GOSL has managed to alienate most of the western world and the sole super power and the 2 countries that provided it with much needed military assistance and know how; Pakistan and Israel. Guaranteed, some of these countries were not exactly effusive in their praise of Sri Lanka’s military gains, but cultivating cordial relations with them is crucial to the long term security of Sri Lanka.

I do realize that part of the blame for this bull in a china shop approach to foreign policy lies with the 2 pre-Mahinda Rajapakse administrations. The subservient begging bowl approach to foreign policy displayed by the previous administrations should also be blamed (partly) for the current regime’s reactionary foreign policy. To be hyperbolic, the country’s foreign policy during the two pre-Rajapakse administrations was basically a policy of docility to the West. One got the feeling that the country’s foreign policy was formulated at cocktail parties hosted at various western ambassadorial residencies of Colombo 7 by folks wearing tweed sports jackets with leather elbow patches, Nehru jackets and doe-eyed student interns wearing the latest Barefoot wrap-a-rounds, lungis and the requisite accessories. During this time the country became a laboratory for various INGO’s to test their latest political/sociological hypotheses in “real life” situations. I wonder how many masters’ theses and doctoral dissertations were composed by the modern day social scientist Josef Mengeles’ based on their “experiences” with the marginalized and exploited minorities of SL. I must confess it felt good to hear the GOSL take these INGO’s to task and it felt even better to hear our representatives (for once) vigorously defend the country’s interests at international and diplomatic forums. It felt good to see the various self-anointed diplomatic czars of Colombo taken to task and put in their place by the GOSL.

This aggressive and dedicated diplomatic approach served the country well when it was at war. Actually, it was probably essential to the country’s military success. Having granted that, it is time that the GOSL down shift its diplomatic speed from overdrive to cruise. The post-war international terrain is different. Post-war needs and interests of the country are not the same either. The basis of a country’s foreign policy should be to protect and expand the country’s national interests. In addition to protecting the physical security of its land mass, that foreign policy also must address the economic needs and requirements of that nation. In the case of SL, the need of the hour is to obtain the capital for post-conflict reconstruction of the country and expand the markets for the country’s products and services. In addition, the GOSL also has a daunting task to monitor and counter-act the actions of the LTTEs international organizational arm which still remains largely intact with a vast amount of financial resources at its beck and call. The LTTEs financial resources have enabled them to make inroads, via campaign contributions and other financial transactions, into many a western European and North American countries politicos and political parties.

The countries that we have cheesed off so royally, consists of large Tamil immigrant populations. In total, the number of Tamils living in these countries probably outnumbers the Tamils living in Sri Lanka. These Diaspora Tamils have been the most potent source of support for the LTTE in the past. They have raised funds, provided military hardware and the political support in the international arena for the LTTE. Many NGO’s of European and North American origin have Diaspora Tamils on their staff.

The GOSL must realize that the military annihilation of the LTTE is not the end of the struggle. It is merely the first phase. The next phase will be in the corridors of western parliaments and congresses where the LTTE supporters will pressure their representatives to block and hinder any assistance to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is going to find the international arena a very lonely place with a very few worthy allies.

I do realize that the GOSL has made some significant inroads in terms of building friendships with countries like Iran, Burma, Bulgaria, Vietnam, and Libya. Seriously, take a hard look at these friends. All these states practice various degrees of authoritarianism. They have shown scant regard for the well being of their own citizenry. They have systematically destroyed all opposition by either jailing or murdering them. Vietnam seems to be the flavor of the month due to their anti-imperial (anti-American) struggle of the 60’s and 70’s. You are flogging a dead horse, folks. Vietnam has been diligently trying to cultivate economic ties with their former enemies. Why, because it serves their national interest. Iran and Libya may assist Sri Lanka in some form but it is likely to come at a significant cost. Libya may not be the pariah state that it was 2 decades ago, but the Colonel has not changed his stripes by much; just enough to guarantee his own survival. Will the price of friendship with Iran and Libya be jihadist camps in eastern Sri Lanka? What will Iran extract from us for the cheap unrefined oil; support at the UN against Israel?

Burma. I guess we can get all the rice we need from them. Just make sure you wash off the blood before putting it out at Sathosa. Bulgaria is the mystery here. Other than rolling out the red carpet, there does not seem to be much in the offering here. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is indeed a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

I guess there is always that great den of inequity North Korea to fall back on. They will sell you their first born for a bowl of rice gruel.

Flippancy aside, these diplomatic overtures of the GOSL to marginalized international actors displays a disturbing ideological bend towards authoritarianism. The Rajapakse administration seems comfortable and even approving of the methods of governance practiced by these pariah states. While a major reason for cozying up to these states is the lack of support it has received from more traditional international centers of power in the last 6 months, SL needs to examine the long term sustainability and the repercussions of these frolics.

Sri Lankan policy makers should realize that high praise is generally only that. Rarely will it amount to more than mere words. Red carpets and flowery press releases and gala banquets aside, not much is likely to come out these dalliances with the peripheral states.

Time to wake up and act on the burning smell coming from the kitchen. It’s not pol roti on the griddle; it’s a raging fire.