Our Leaders at the Foreign Front over the Years

Chandra Wickramasinghe, courtesy of the Island, 6 November 2013, where the title is “Some historical perspectives in the interface between Sri Lanka and its Asian neighbours and the wider international community”

With a historic CHOGM just round the corner, it may perhaps be apposite to reflect on the rather crucial manner in which the interpersonal  relationships between Heads of State, political leaders of countries in the Asian Region as well as in the West, affected the history and the destiny of this little Island of ours. Very few realize how crucially portentous these  inter-personal interactions  have been in forming individual views based often on personal likes and dislikes and cross- perceptions. These have in turn, led to the eventual evolution and the progressive hardening of mutually proffered generalized attitudes of cordiality/hostility as the case may be, which find reflection at every conceivable level, formal/informal, in the relationships between the  countries concerned. In our own case, it is well exemplified by the extreme cordiality which marked  our one time relationship with India, based on the close friendship that existed over the years, between the Nehru and the Bandaranaike families.

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Intrepidity (and at times temerity) at International Fora: One need hardly labour the home truth that the stature of  a particular country in the eyes of the world community, would depend, particularly nowadays, on the military/economic clout a country wields, combined to a large degree with the personality of the particular Head of State. This is amply demonstrated when one sees the respect and deference shown to certain countries and the undisguised disdain with which certain others are dealt with by the community of nations, depending on the level the country is slotted into in the ‘pecking order’! Oftentimes, it is the result of the obsequiousness shown by certain countries towards the more powerful nations, which encourages the latter to bully the former.

In this connection one is reminded of two striking instances in the fifties of the last century how Ceylon, as this island was then known, mellowed in one instance and riled and bemused in the other, the international community, by the statements made and the sharp reaction shown by some worthy representatives of this island, when it was still at the incipience of its newly gained independence. One would recall in this regard, the riveting speech made by Mr.J.R.Jayewardene, the then Finance Minister, at the San Francisco conference where he made an impassioned plea to the Allied powers not to deal with defeated Japan harshly, by burdening it with war reparations but to help it rebuild it’s war ravaged economy and take it’s rightful place in the community of nations.What was rare and admirable in that speech was the candour and the courageous manner in which he prefaced it, by stating in the teeth of the hauteur of the Victorious Allies, that Ceylon and other countries in the Asian Region had come to regard Japan as the leading star in the Asian economic firmament and that it would be degrading to have it’s promising potential crushed and the country demeaned and humiliated by heaping crippling war reparations on it..He implored the victorious powers,I n a unique humanistic and Buddhistic appeal (in fact, citing the Buddha in the course of his address), to be compassionate and magnanimous towards their fallen foe.This speech was widely acclaimed as a rare, courageous gesture by a small Asian country ,particularly by the other countries in the Asian Region. I wonder how many of the present generation of Japanese have read or even heard of this magnificient piece of advocacy of a humbled Japan, by a representative of a small island nation? Japan did not hesitate to acknowledge her debt and gratitude to SL by extending to this country generous aid packages and the gifting of a magnificent fully equipped 1000 bed hospital during President Jayewardene’s  period of office as President.

Sir John’s Bandung ‘gaffe’

The other instance where this island asserted it’s right to have its say was what is cynically alluded to as the Bandung ‘gaffe’ of Sir John. Sir John, who had a deep admiration of Western capitalism, launched on a sudden tirade against Communism at the Bandung Summit. Pundit Nehru, who questioned him on this, was roundly rebuffed by Sir John. Although many at that stage thought it was a huge faux pas, especially as it was made at a meeting of non-aligned countries, typically, it was Sir John’s way of making it known to everyone that Ceylon could take it’s own independent stand on international matters! Although this led to deep resentment in certain quarters and amusement in others, it was still a point made in the characteristic brash style of Sir John, taken well or badly by the countries present, depending on the ideological alignments of particular countries. However, with the Bandaranaikes coming into power in 1956, fences were quickly mended and cordiality with India restored without much ado.

There are a few other noteworthy instances where this island boldly took up its own independent stand on certain issues in the face of strong opposition of certain  countries expressing concern in regard to these decisions. A striking instance of a crucial and far reaching decision taken by this island,still in it’s infancy as a newly independent State, was the signing of the Rice-Rubber pact with China. Strangely enough, the signing of this historic pact took place during the period, a pro-West UNP Govt. was in office. To die-hard UNP members at the time, such a formal trade arrangement with a Communist country was anathema and the height of folly, as it was bound to incur the wrath of the Western capitalist powers.However,saner counsel had prevailed and the pact was successfully concluded.This is again another instance which clearly shows that when it came to the larger interests of the island, the Govt. of the time did not hesitate to proceed on a course of action which it sincerely felt, would serve the best interests of the country in the long run. This was, it should not be forgotten, at a time when there was a clear ideological polarization of the world into two distinct camps viz. the Capitalist and the Communist. A friend of one’s enemy,at that time, was no less a foe than one’s enemy ! This pact forged the strongest links and bonds of lasting friendship between the two countries, with Sri Lanka continuing to benefit immensely, even right down to the present day.

Candour combined with graciousness

Then again we had the then Prime Minister Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike, taking a very bold decision to allow Pakistan re-fuelling facilities for their aircraft during the period of hostilities between India and Pakistan. This was indeed a very courageous decision despite the extremely cordial relations that prevailed between India and Sri Lanka. Mrs.Bandaranaike indeed had the courage and the strength of character to take a decision she felt was the only right one to be made in the circumstances.This also demonstrates high leadership qualities combined with indomitable courage and the will to face any resultant adverse fall-out affecting our cordial relationtionship with India. Pakistan will not forget the courtesy extended to it in their hour of dire need.Hopefully,India would not harbour it as a rankling bad memory. Speaking of bad memories, Sri Lanka should have the worst possible one indeed, of India training LTTE cadres in Indian Army camps to fight the Sri Lankan State.But one has to be pragmatic enough,in the much embroiled  present day international scene, to treat these as ‘just some of those unfortunate incidents’ which stemmed from unique and exceptional circumstances which are therefore now, best forgotten.

President Jayewardene and India

On the flip side, we have had the implacable antagonism sparked off,  quite unnecessarily, between two hitherto friendly countries, by a most unkind analogy drawn by President Jayewardene about Mrs.Indira Gandhi and her favourite son! The fury of Mrs.Gandhi knew no bounds and quickly led to the training of LTTE cadres in Indian army camps. President J. was made to eat humble pie when the Indians bivouaced on Sri Lankan soil at the invitation of the SL Govt. However, in a dramatic turn of events following Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, which could well be regarded as a diplomatic master-stroke, President J. cleverly put the Indian Govt. into a corner and made them fight the LTTE. This was consequent on the rapprochement that occurred between President JR and Rajiv Gandhi. Yet, when the Indians were trying to entrench themselves here, President J. became increasingly apprehensive of their ulterior designs, particularly in view of the overbearing demeanour of some of the Indian officials who came to SL(often by-passing Visa formalities etc.). The Indians did not seem to be in all that much of a hurry to leave now that they were well entrenched  here.Furthermore, the unprepossessing High Commissioner Dixit, was behaving like a veritable Indian satrap! There were also noticeably, sly designs to settle Indians in Trincomalee on the pretext of re-settling SL refugees who were in Indian refugee camps.To the credit of President J., it must be said that he summarily knocked all these long term plans on the head, much to the chagrin of High Commissioner Dixit and other Indian mandarins who were sent here expressly to oversee the successful execution of these well laid out plans.

I often wonder whether President J., on later reflection, regretted ever having insulted Mrs.Gandhi or having invited the Indians to come over to fight the LTTE. President J. was inscrutable and always remained an enigma to the people.He was indeed very clever,listening impassively to what was being said at conferences and making his own decision at the end.He was also very knowledgeable, being steeped in ancient and modern history and may have undoubtedly drawn parallels between contemporary events and similar historical land- mark occurrences.In this regard,he would have had the advantage of looking at episodic events in history as well as similar contemporary developments, in the double light of  their time and his own, thereby benefiting immensely from the   valuable insights so gained. Knowing his strong personality and character, one would be strongly inclined to believe that he would not have regretted anything done by him in his political life, including the stripping of the civic rights of that venerable lady Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike.The only thing he may have regretted perhaps was stepping down from the high and powerful office of Executive President.He enjoyed wielding power and after the overwhelming mandate he received at the 1977 Election, grandly ensconced himself in near absolute power,  by amending the Constitution and creating the all powerful Executive Presidency. President J did say at an interview given later, that he had not stepped down of his own accord, which only means that circumstances would have forced his hand in this regard.

The Indian relationship.

The propinquity of India to Sri Lanka, geographically and through ethnic roots, has made ours a special relationship despite the occasional failures in  relations marring our otherwise long and traditional cordiality. India will never forgive or forget the supreme insult flung at it by the LTTE by the cowardly murder of its favourite son –Rajiv Gandhi. Despite the troubling South Indian factor which makes India act somewhat warily in it’s reactions on the terrorist issue here, it knows only too well that its larger interests lie, in not permitting a separatist solution , the ‘Ignis fatuus’ of Tamil Eelam,pursued unrelentingly and catastrophically by the crushed LTTE.

Self- interest as the underlying principle of foreign policy

Today, relations between countries are governed by individual “country interests”and by “global interests”, increasingly taking on a commercial colouration, rather than by any abiding bi-lateral ties and traditional loyalties. The basic guiding motive is sadly,unmitigated self-interest.The US is interested in our affairs not out of any genuine concern for our well-being.  Following 9/11,as one may recall, it was  acutely aware of the real risk to that country by the mind- boggling spawning  of global terrorism, of which it had already had a terrible foretaste.It was deeply apprehensive at that juncture  of the LTTE terror tactics of using suicide cadres,vehicle bombs,claymore mines and other destructive devices and strategies ,being widely adopted by other global terrorist net-works in their operations  against US interests world-wide. Hence , the Intelligence given by the US to SL via satellite surveillance enabled he latter to interdict and destroy many floating arsenals which would have otherwise, made the Northern conflict  drag on indefinitely. The China factor and the close relationship of  SL with China , have again made both the US and India view developments here, with mounting concern..

President Premadasa and the Indian presence on Sri Lankan soil

President Premadasa, although a person endowed with admirable political acumen, had in him the qualities of a veritable street fighter. Once he set his sights on a particular goal,he pursued its realisation with indefatigable vigour,giving no quarter to detractors who stood in the way of his achieving his set objective.He showed this in ample measure in the manner he rather brusquely got rid of the IPKF who had come to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Govt., to help the latter fight the LTTE terrorists.It was a bold decision taken at a time many Sri Lankans thought President P. was being foolhardy to send the Indians away without getting them to remain and fight the LTTE. Perhaps, President Premadasa was convinced in his own mind, that having a foreign army on Sri Lankan soil, over an extended period, was not in the larger interests of a SovereignState. He further,wanted earnestly to strike a deal with the LTTE by making them partners in a common endeavour to develop the country.. He had ambitions for the rapid development of this country by transforming it into one of the “tiger” economies of Asia. He was in fact,even at the time of his assassination, pursuing his dream with unremitting energy.

Getting High Commissioner Gladstone recalled.

When President P. wanted Britain to recall her somewhat wayward High Commissioner Gladstone for undue interference in the internal affairs of this country,many expected Britain to react in like manner.There was of course a strong protest registered by Britain,   but President P. stubbornly stood his ground which led to the unceremonious exit of that English worthy. Britain probably was aware of the failings of its own representative and may be, for that reason, did not press the case overmuch. Where a Head of State feels strongly and righteously that he has a conscionable right to take a certain course of action,which he in his own mind feels, is in the best interests of his country,he should have no compunction in pursuing that course of action in the teeth of whatever opposition he may encounter.Any feet-dragging vacillation on his part is likely to be looked upon by the international community as weakness and lack of character.Such negative perceptions will result in the particular Head of State being taken for granted by countries, on matters of vital concern affecting his own country, with the expectation that the latter would yield tamely to whatever is suggested to him by them.The maintenance of sang-froid in the face of pressure from external forces is indeed an admirable quality in a Head of State where the latter feels that the stand taken by him is in the larger national interest. It is indeed one of the first duties of a Head of State to protect the honour and dignity of his country by conducting himself in a principled and proper manner by scrupulously refraining from compromising the interests of his country by yielding to the whims and fancies of powerful foreign countries whose interests lie elsewhere. Such grim determination and tenacity were  displayed in good measure by President Rajapaksa ,when he defied the West, which tried to force his hand to suspend fighting and enter into a Cease Fire Agreement with the LTTE.

President Wijetunge and the terrorist problem

President Wijetunge, although no brilliant statesman,was still a person with a lot of gumption and country wisdom.He sought to solve the terrorist problem by declaring at the outset that there was no “ethnic” problem in Sri Lanka and that what the country faced was a terrorist problem created by the LTTE terrorists. Although Foreign

Relations were not a field he excelled in,with his friendly disposition ,President Wijetunge  was able to maintain a reasonable level of cordiality with the West .

President Kumaratunge and her peace initiatives.

President Kumaratunge did try her level best to extend her hand of friendship to the LTTE by offering them the most generous of terms on her assumption of the office of  President.Having studied in France where it is said that she had manned the Paris barricades  during the student revolt there in 1968,she was imbued with liberal ideas which made her offer, right at the beginning of her tenure as President, the most generous terms by way of a solution of the ethnic problem, to the LTTE. However,Prabakaran in his blood-lust, paid scant regard to these proposals and responded typically, with a sudden Pearl Harbour type of attack on Naval vessels berthed in Trincomalee.Despite the resumption of open hostilities, President K. never lost sight of the end objective she always had in mind,of forging a lasting peace settlement which would ensure a proper devolution of political  power to the Tamil minority. In her agenda for peace, this was a sine qua non..She almost achieved this through immense tact, patience and skill by getting very close to arriving at a consensus on the settlement proposals with the UNP which however, tragically fell through at the very last minute.In retrospect ,one has to appreciate her bold peace endeavours as they were attempted at a time the entire South was living in perpetual fear of bombs and claymore mines and the hapless Sinhala inhabitants of the border villages were being mercilessly slaughtered by  the blood  thirsty LTTE  terrorists.

Yielding to external pressure

If one looks back at historical developments over the past three decades ,one could surmise that the phenomenon of Sri Lanka yielding initially  to external pressure on matters of domestic as well as foreign policy, had it’s beginnings, almost imperceptibly, with the advent of the Norwegians as peace facilitators.Many feel that it was a mistake to invite these Viking “peacemakers” with their flawed credentials, to come over and play this vital role. It was known only too well at the time, that they were on the friendliest of terms with the Tiger terrorists. Be that as it may, once established here, these ‘honest brokers’,set about their task in earnest, by initially strengthening their hand by prevailing on the Western powers to back them in their endeavours.The US and the UK were much too embroiled in their own problems at the time, to pay too much attention to the Sri Lankan problem particularly ,with their obsessive involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.Later, however,the Norsemen were given virtually a free-hand by them to deal with the ethnic problem here.This served the designs of the Norwegians in ample measure and they set about accomplishing their ‘mission’ with brash aplomb.


Mr.Lakshman Kadirgamar – Foreign Minister par excellence

Sri Lanka reached the acme of diplomatic excellence during the time Mr.Kadirgamar held the portfolio of Foreign Minister. It was during his tenureship as  Foreign Minister and  with President Chandrika Kumaratunge at the helm, that SL was able to pursue an urbane foreign policy, preparing the ground for the West as well a many other countries to outlaw the LTTE  by declaring it  a terrorist organization. His sincerity of purpose, dignified demeanour, scintillating oratory combined with the deep and sincere conviction shown in the espousal of the Sri Lankan cause, won for the country innumerable friends in diplomatic enclaves both in the West as well as in the Asian region.The LTTE  just had to get him out of the way!

Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe and the CFA

The infamous CFA was thrust down Prime Minister Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe’s throat without much ado. This Agreement, one drawn up by the Norwegians, was totally one- sided, conferring distinct advantages on the LTTE while heaping a host of humiliating disabilities on the Govt. The CFA further enabled the LTTE to consolidate their authority in the areas coming under their writ and also to extend their influence in Govt. controlled areas as well.It was a colossal blunder made by Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe, in his impatience to seek ‘peace at any cost’ at a time the tide was turning against terrorists the world over after the horrendous attack of  9/11 by Islamist terrorists. The LTTE here, had to hide behind some peace façade and found it in the hurriedly devised CFA. It was typical of the LTTE to resort to such a ploy when things were getting too hot for them. Their mentors, the Vikings, drew up the infamous document and Mr. R. W. saw in this chimera, the dawn of the peace he needed so desperately, to launch on his programme of economic development which would have ensured political longevity for himself and  his party. Mr.RW  did have a euphoric spell of  peace and growth, with the LTTE,  having a huge laugh on their part, while capitalizing to the maximum on the many loop-holes in the terms and conditions of  the CFA ,which were decidedly advantageous to them when it came to strengthening themselves militarily, consolidating their authority and extending their spheres of influence virtually over the entirety of the North and the East. Ironically enough, help came to them from least expected quarters! Certain over-enthusiastic public officials, in their anxiety to keep the illusory  ‘peace process’ moving uninterruptedly, ignored or even winked at certain open transgressions of the CFA by the LTTE. In the mind of the LTTE, the CFA was no more than a mere diversionary subterfuge to be made optimal use of, in the realization of their ultimate goal. The dividends of this diabolically devised “Truce” were reaped bountifully by the LTTE and not,by any stretch of imagination, by the Govt.or the Sri Lankan people. During this short sojourn of an uneasy peace, SL’s relations with the West were, at a most cordial level

With the 2005 Presidential Election, it did not perhaps take too long for the LTTE to realize that they had  made a serious blunder in not having Mr.Ranil Wickramasinghe elected as President by depriving the latter of the Tamil vote in the North and the East. Despite the misgivings the LTTE may have had of Ranil weaving an insidious international “safety web” to effectively stymie them in their Eelamist designs, the ferocity with which they launched their terrorist attacks,coming as they did, hard on the heels of the Presidential election, makes one reach the inescapable conclusion that this was their own way of making amends for a ‘tactical’ blunder made by them!

President Rajapaksa and the ignominious defeat of the LTTE

Surprisingly, President Rajapaksa exercised tremendous patience in the face of these grave provocations and reacted only when the terrorists rashly closed the Mavil Aru Anicut, putting in jeopardy thereby, the livelihoods and the basic wherewithal for existence, of 50,000 farmers.This was the last straw and the retaliatory attacks thereafter of  the Armed Services, made the LTTE ‘tactically’ withdraw to safer areas.

The progressive shrinking of the areas over which the LTTE writ ran, coupled with the meticulous planning of the combined Armed Services thrust to capture the balance LTTE held territory ,made the inglorious defeat  of the bloodiest terrorist outfit in the world,just ‘writing on the wall’. The defiance of the Govt. not to yield to Western pressure to suspend hostilities and enter into a cease fire agreement, was treated as an unpardonable insult which was sought to be avenged by the West by trumping up nebulous and unsubstantiated charges of war crimes and human rights abuses against SL. The Tamil Diaspora in the West has since,been smarting under the decimation of their Sun God and his terrorist cadres .With the substantial  electoral clout the Diaspora  exercises in the US and in the Euro zone countries, there has been considerable, undisguised angst  directed against SL by the West despite the substantial rehabilitative and developmental programmes implemented by the Govt.in the North, since the war ended in 2009.

An abiding democratic settlement of the ethnic problem is a sine qua non

It is necessary for President R. to draw up proposals for a permanent settlement of the ethnic problem on the basis of the basic fundamental principles of Equity and Justice..From what he has publicly stated, the proposals would be based on a democratically formulated  devolutionary arrangement , within a unitary State.If a Southern consensus can be forged on the proposals,so much the better.There may be the extremist elements at both ends of the  political and geographical antipodes, whose intemperate objections are best ignored. A reasonable settlement which would stand the test of time, would necessarily have to be a democratic one. This approach appears to be the best way out of the current impasse and would hopefully be acknowledged and accepted by the newly elected NPC headed  by Chief Minister Justice Wigneswaran who seems eminently equipped to act in the larger interests of the Northern Tamil population . President R should, like a true leader,act with candour, coupled with prudence and circumspection, in forging a reasonable and equitable settlement to a problem that has remained intractable for so long. His  first priority should be  to work out a practical, reasonable and  enduring political settlement that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the minorities,without  at the same time, doing  violence to the basic democratic rights of the majority. Such a settlement is likely to receive the blessings of India and the West and improve our relations with both.

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