The Prime Minister’s visit to Japan this week hot on the heels of the President’s to the United Nations very clearly marked a significant shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, away from what was seemingly an over-reliance on the Chinese sphere of influence. Not insignificantly, the Sri Lankan President was accommodated at the high table [...]


Professional diplomacy for new foreign policy


The Prime Minister’s visit to Japan this week hot on the heels of the President’s to the United Nations very clearly marked a significant shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, away from what was seemingly an over-reliance on the Chinese sphere of influence. Not insignificantly, the Sri Lankan President was accommodated at the high table with other world leaders at the US President’s lunch reception.

Many still ask whether moving away from China is a good move. China is the emerging power in Asia, has been Sri Lanka’s friend in good times and bad, unlike the West which hardly helped to overcome a terror campaign to split the country and which has now landed this country with a headache in the form of a war crimes tribunal.

Speaking to Japanese lawmakers, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe laid heavy emphasis on bringing Japan back as a frontline economic partner of Sri Lanka. Not long ago, Japan was Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor, but a global economic slowdown plus Sri Lanka’s eagerness to do business with ‘no questions asked’ China in recent years, pushed Japan to the sidelines.

Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership with Japan — something that will have a political input as well. This will come mainly through Japan’s interests in maritime security and oceanic issues in the Indian Ocean. It also calls for Japanese connectivity to India via Sri Lanka — the big picture being a kind of Asian Trade and Economic Cooperation Organisation (ATECO), spreading from Japan to South Asia, inclusive of South East Asia and China and making Asia the most powerful of regions in the world in the years to come.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka in September last year, he and the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed on a ‘Maritime Silk Route’, China’s strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean up to the African continent. Sri Lanka was made a ‘Dialogue Partner’ of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, China’s answer to the US/Western military alliance of NATO.

In March this year, the new Government discussed with the US an Indo-Pacific economic corridor to connect South Asia with South East Asia as part of US defence plans for this part of the world linking with their Trans Pacific Partnership while the Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India discussed defence cooperation issues. The upshot of all this is that Sri Lanka has agreed to defence-related cooperation with the superpowers with vested interests in having their say in the Indian Ocean, but the big question is who will monitor all their competing interests.

Already, the Prime Minister has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the way the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is going about its work. He has not quite given detailed reasons for this unhappiness with the local ‘Foggy Bottom’, other than for some generalised comments attributed to him via ‘inspired leaks’ to the local media. Neither has the Minister concerned responded. So then, is it the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – or think tanks like the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) that will be tasked with this onerous responsibility of keeping a tab of these developments.

It is one thing to sign cooperation treaties, but to sit tight and not keep abreast of what’s happening, merely saying we are in a strategic geographic location in the Indian Ocean so everyone will have to come seeking our support, is downright na├»ve.
Indeed, Sri Lanka is at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia. The Indian Ocean is the world’s most important commercial highway, but South Asia is one of the world’s least integrated regions. It is also the playground of piracy, human trafficking and drug smuggling. US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Colombo earlier this year, “Sri Lanka could serve as the fulcrum of a modern and dynamic Indo-Pacific region”.

For this professionalism is of the essence. Professionalism was thrown to the winds by the previous administration in positioning Sri Lanka’s own place in the scheme of things virtually mortgaging the country to China in return for economic support; a sell-out in many ways. But what plans does the new Government have to change things beyond signing cooperation treaties and navigating the new foreign policy as a friend of all and enemy of none to the benefit of Sri Lankans?

Live debate on death penalty
It is common belief that most Sri Lankan criminals are said to be afraid of only two things; the gallows – and dogs. Neither the police, nor the law, nor the courts, nor prisons deter them. The reference of course, is not to white collar criminals who fear nobody.

Sri Lanka’s Parliament took up for debate this week the issue of the death penalty and the Justice Minister said that the Government has decided to suspend the imposition of the punishment – not that it has not already been suspended: since 1976 no prisoner (and there are 1,600 on death row now), has been so punished. What was of interest is the reason given. He said the Government wanted to adhere to a request by the UN (the US still implements the death penalty) for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty largely sponsored by the EU.

For the EU to make this demand is ironic, given that these countries bomb the daylights out of terrorists – and innocent civilians are killed by their hundreds as ‘collateral damage’ in their ‘war against terror’. The Justice Minister did rightly concede that the crime rate was on the rise. Recent incidents in particular have been barbaric, targeting children. Our News Desk gives a graphic account of the rise in crime.

In Saudi Arabia, stoning to death and beheading are carried out as punishment for such terrible crimes. As much as these forms of punishment seem extreme today the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to serious crimes still has currency. Unfortunately, the Justice Minister who is also the Buddha Sasana Minister did not quote from the Buddha’s first precept i.e. the abstention from taking another’s life, to buttress his argument – something Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in his signed piece to this newspaper has done albeit in passing (page 12). While the Buddha hasn’t made a direct comment about this form of punishment, the death penalty would be incompatible with Buddhist teaching; the incident of Angulimala illustrating the point.

Maybe the Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister felt the West would say “there goes the Sri Lankan Buddhist Theological State” had he quoted the Buddha, but it is good that this controversial issue is put to a wider debate in Parliament – or a Commission of Inquiry as the Foreign Minister suggests, and broader consensus reached on what is best for Sri Lanka without overtly burdening the country with such sanctimonious advice from the so-called International Community.

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