ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday April 27, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 48
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Eggshell diplomacy

The impending State visit of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the resolution passed this week in the State Assembly of neighbouring Tamil Nadu requesting India's intervention may not be that unrelated as it would first appear to be.

Not that there is a direct co-relation, but it manifestly has a bearing on Sri Lanka's new thrust in diplomacy, and the Government's view of the world.

Clearly, the Government has come to the conclusion that the Western world is ganging up on it and arm-twisting it with the aid weapon. The government genuinely feels that the Western powers, especially the US and the EU, are insensitive to the need to militarily crush the bloody insurgency in this country. It feels that allegations of human rights abuses are duplicitous coming from the West which is adopting a holier-than-thou approach to combating terrorism while committing some of the most heinous human rights abuses themselves when fighting terrorism in their own backyard.

That they are using the human rights stick and the garment quotas carrot to rein in recalcitrant governments like the one you get in Colombo, is also galling.

The result has been a government inclined to tilt towards countries that have been more understanding and ask no awkward questions. They include Iran, Pakistan and China. Japan and India are largely supportive but keep pontificating with sermons on 'political solutions' when such solutions are a pipe-dream in the context of what is happening on the battlefield.

In an ideal sense, Sri Lanka may be viewed as taking a non-aligned stance. A classic case in recent times was the visit of the country's Prime Minister to Israel, one of the suppliers of armaments to the Security Forces, and to Palestine, a country-in-waiting whose long struggle for nationhood has been supported for decades here, especially considering the wishes of Sri Lankan Muslims.

The timing of the resolution passed unanimously in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly by all political parties, is a case in point.

Coming as it does in the wake of yet another seemingly unrelated incident -- the meeting between the daughter of assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and a member of the LTTE hit-squad that blew him up, might require some analysing.

Are the Indians complaining? Are they complaining that Sri Lanka is not listening to them? Are they concerned that Sri Lanka is getting too cosy with China for their liking given China's increasing influence in and around these areas and extending to Africa?

Then, is India orchestrating some of the latest events unfolding in that country vis-a-vis the Sri Lankan issue?

While all this is part and parcel of the cloak and dagger of international relations, it is high time Sri Lanka got its act together, especially where our closest neighbour is concerned.

Ever since the northern insurgency broke out 25 years ago and the problem had a direct bearing on Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka has failed to grasp the importance of Tamil Nadu politics. Very few political leaders have made it a point to visit and make friends with the establishment there. At the beginning, the Foreign Ministry abdicated this part of the world to the Ministry of National Security.

Greater emphasis was paid to New Delhi's political elite, very often almost paying pooja to them, whilst ignoring the sentiments of Tamil Nadu.

Today, not one of the Cabinet Ministers who globe-trot at every conceivable opportunity, can be bothered with Tamil Nadu. The Foreign Minister has yet to pay an official visit to Chennai.

The West, especially the US, cannot be over the moon with the Iranian President Ahmadinejad's state visit here to launch the Iranian-funded Uma Oya hydroelectric project in Wellawaya. The Indians cannot be happy with China's funding of the Hambantota Port project. And the LTTE propaganda that Iran is to train Sri Lankan Intelligence officers would not sit comfortably with the Israelis from whom we have asked for arms and ammunition.

While there is always the danger of putting all your eggs in one basket so to speak, juggling them is always fraught with danger. But non-alignment in the modern world is like walking on egg-shells, and the President must be mindful that he should tread delicately. Sri Lanka has paid the price for both adopting pro-West postures and anti-West postures; and reaped some benefits too.

There's a kind of laissez-faire foreign policy adopted by the Government, with several personalities doing as they please. While a dogmatic foreign policy is not what is desirable by any means, there seems to be a need to have a more cohesive and measured approach than the knee-jerk reactions by all and sundry that is being witnessed all too often today.

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