Reshaping Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy after Mahinda’s Fall

Rajan Philips, courtesy of The Island, 8 March 2015, where the title is “The fall of Mahinda and the remaking of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy”

The more egregious of the blunders of the Rajapaksa regime were in the area of foreign policy. Without doubt Sri Lanka’s global reputation suffered badly under the former president. It might be an exaggeration to say that Sri Lanka’s stock has started rising after the fall of Mahinda Rajapakksa, but it is fair to say that after the change in government the slide in reputation has been stemmed and the trend is being reversed. To wit, the six-month deferral of the UNHRC report that was due this month, the speeches by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister and the US Secretary of State at the 28th UNHRC Sessions now underway in Geneva, and the statement in Colombo by the UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs following his recent visit to the island and the Northern Province. These developments are a sea change from the foreign policy confusions, tantrums and setbacks that Sri Lanka suffered under Mahinda Rajapaksa every year, during the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, over the last three years. It is not difficult to imagine the diplomatic meltdown Sri Lanka would be having in Geneva at this very present time, if Rajapaksa had won the January 8 election and the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka was also released in March as originally scheduled.


In addition to UNHRC and Geneva, President Maithripala Sirisena has moved quickly to mend fences with India. New Delhi was the new President’s first port of call and the visit was remarkable both for its diplomatic success and President Sirisena’s modest mode of travel. Gone are the long retinue and the vulgar fanfare of his predecessor’s overseas travels. Prime Minister Modi is due in Colombo, next week, and is billed to address Sri Lanka’s Parliament on 13 March, perhaps the first address by an Indian Prime Minister in over thirty five years after Morarji Desai was given that honour when he visited Sri Lanka after the 1977 election. Tamil Nadu has gone relatively quiet and the new Sri Lankan government must endeavour to keep it that way. While mending fences with India, the new government is not intending to sour Sri Lanka’s relationship with China, although hiccups will invariably arise as details emerge about the way the Rajapaksa government compromised Sri Lanka’s financial interests, development potential, natural heritage and social priorities in its multifaceted transactions with China. The point here is not to rile against China, but to expose how the previous government used commercial deals to corrupt foreign policy and how it used foreign policy to feed corruption at home.

Fusion of corruption and foreign policy: In an earlier article I have called the Rajapaksa foreign policy orientation as ‘China mania and Anglo-India phobia’, modifying Dr NM Perera’s characterization of Prime Minister DS Senanayake’s foreign policy as “Anglo mania and India phobia.” I was writing during the Colombo Commonwealth summit in November 2013, and went on to describe Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personal style in foreign policy as being ‘gregarious’ – he wanted to deal with everyone in the world but more with native cunning than principled consistency. To be native and cunning is to overestimate one’s own strengths and underestimate the strengths of others. The UNHRC resolutions against Sri Lanka are among the results of this approach. What is becoming clear now is that foreign policy under the Rajapaksas was also suffused with corruption. Recent statements by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and other government spokesmen indicate that it was not only in dealing with China that the Rajapaksas extended their corrupt tentacles into foreign policy, but also with other countries, such as in the case of Australia (using human smuggling as a foreign policy lever); the Maldives (road construction); the US (plain cash payments, amounting to US$1,285,000, ostensibly to Public Relations firms but suspiciously to others as well); and in hiring foreign experts who did nothing but were paid huge fees by the Central Bank, solely to create the impression that the Rajapaksa government was striving to conform with international standards in investigating human rights violations.

The Port City project is a telling example of the previous government’s fusion of internal corruption and external relationships. It is encouraging that the government has finally decided to suspend the project based on the recommendation of its Experts Committee. There was some concern about the Committee’s objectivity given the known association of quite a few members of the Committee with the project process under the previous government. To their credit the Committee members have collectively reconsidered the project notwithstanding the previous involvement of some of them and recommended its suspension. The Port City saga needs a separate article, but suffice it to note here the following: Port City is a private development project and not a public infrastructure project. There are fundamental differences between the two categories in regard to their processes and priorities. No one but the Rajapaksas could have blurred these differences and amalgamated the public and the private spheres so seamlessly.

Add to all of this the way the Ministry of External Affairs was run – as a department for employing otherwise unemployable political friends and family members; and run as well by an uncouth political thug with the then Minister reduced from his academic eminence to being a powerless mouthpiece. “Corruption is everywhere” is the refrain of those who cannot get over the fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa. True, corruption is everywhere, and corruption, nepotism and family bandyism have been in Sri Lankan state and politics long before the Rajapaksa brothers arrived in Colombo. But I cannot think of a time under any previous Prime Minister or President when the tentacles of corruption extended so systemically into every nook and cranny of the government machinery; and certainly not into the affairs of the Ministry of External Affairs. There is much consternation among concerned citizens that the new government is being slow and tardy, if not doing anything at all, to investigate and indict those responsible for corruption and abuse of power under the previous government. One can understand the consternation, but what is hilarious is the attitude of some commentators to summarily absolve the Rajapaksas because the new government has not been able to prosecute them in the two months it has been in office. To them all the allegations against the old regime were the opposition’s imagination during the election to dupe the public. And the Rajapaksas were no more, or no less, corrupt than any other previous government, and whatever they did is par for the Sri Lankan political course. But a good majority of Sri Lankans do not see politics that way, inasmuch as they do not like to live their lives that way.


Modi + Sirisena

Foreign policy and domestic politics: While the new government has started on the right track by avoiding everything that the Rajapaksas did, it cannot go far enough on that road without taking positive actions on its own. In the current context, new foreign policy making will have to be supplemented by internal initiatives in regard to national reconciliation. What are the short term expectations that would satisfactorily distinguish the new government from the old? After his recent visit to the country and meeting with government and Tamil political leaders in Colombo and Jaffna, Jeffrey Feltman, the UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, identified the four areas where earnest and immediate actions are expected: land, detentions, disappearances, and the military posture in civilian areas.

The government has taken some steps in regard to these matters, but the baffling question is: who is in charge of national reconciliation? Is it the President, the Prime Minister, or any other senior Minister? There has to be some correspondence between the grand speeches that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is making overseas and the allocation of reconciliation responsibilities at home. Rajiva Wijesinha had a point in calling the allocation of functions under the Prime Minister’s portfolio “absolute crackers!” Not just the Prime Minister, even other ministers have strange pairing of functions, such as highways and higher education under one minister, investments and irrigation under another, and so on. I am not at all suggesting that foreign policy and national reconciliation should be under one minister, and that would be an absolute disaster. To the extent the President is being insisted upon to be in charge of devolution and national security, he should also spearhead the more immediate task of national reconciliation – focusing on the four areas that the UN Under-Secretary General outlined in Colombo. Equally, while the government must demonstrate greater effort in its commitment to achieve the four minimum expectations, the Tamil political forces must direct their energies to the same minimum expectations without dissipating them in rhetorical politics. There is a long way to go, but there is no time to lose in starting the journey.


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