One of the positive features of the regime change that took place in January 2015 was the restoration of Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world. As a result of the over three decade civil war and the related fallout, particularly in the field of human rights, the country was fast gaining a [...]


Time for Sri Lanka’s friends to step up and be counted


One of the positive features of the regime change that took place in January 2015 was the restoration of Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world. As a result of the over three decade civil war and the related fallout, particularly in the field of human rights, the country was fast gaining a reputation of drifting towards authoritarianism.

The changes ushered in after President Maithripala Sirisena and the Government of National Unity assumed office saw the increase in democratic space and the freedom of expression restored. With Sri Lankans beginning to breathe more freely the country has now been able to regain its place as a respectable member of the international community.

During the reign of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka reached its zenith in foreign relations with the country’s prestige very high, resulting in its being conferred the leadership of the then powerful Non-Aligned Movement in 1976. As a result of the implicit trust and confidence that the international community had in Sri Lanka Mrs. Bandaranaike was called upon to play a mediatory role in the India-China dispute in 1962.

When the Indo-Pakistan war leading to the creation of Bangladesh took place in 1971, India banned Pakistani airplanes carrying its troops from flying over its airspace to East Pakistan. At the request of the Pakistani Government, Sri Lanka granted refuelling facilities to planes carrying Pakistani troops to East Pakistan but was able to do so without creating a dent in Indo-Lanka relations because of the close bonds of friendship that existed between the two countries.

Pakistan to this day has not forgotten Sri Lanka’s help in its time of need while the Sirima-Shastri pact which resolved to a large extent the status of the stateless persons of Indian origin was a testimony of the goodwill that continued to exist between Sri Lanka and India. Since independence, Sri Lanka has taken an active part in international affairs and never hesitated to voice its opposition to injustice on international forums whenever necessary to do so.

In 1951 D.S. Senanayake in an important foreign policy speech broadcast over the BBC London, advocated a middle path in foreign affairs for Sri Lanka and condemned the play of power politics and emphasised the need to mobilise the moral power of the world in search of lasting peace
At the UN General Assembly in 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike clearly spelt out the concept of non-alignment. “We are supposed to be uncommitted nations. I strongly object to the word. We are committed to the hilt. We are committed to preserve decency in dealings between nations; we are committed to the cause of justice and of freedom as much as anyone is.”

In 1970, the first Cabinet decision taken after Mrs. Bandaranaike took office was to close down the Israeli interests section in Colombo in line with Sri Lanka’s support of the Palestinian people. While taking strong positions on issues of injustices against oppressed peoples we have never hesitated to talk and act in furtherance of our national interest even against the most powerful nations. In 1961 Mrs. Bandaranaike went ahead with the nationalisation of foreign owned oil companies despite the threat of a possible suspension of economic assistance to Sri Lanka by the United States under the terms of its Foreign Assistance Act and criticized what she called the “rapacious designs of the West.”

In relation to China it is noteworthy that Sri Lanka was one of the first Asian countries to recognise the Peoples Republic of China in 1951 and continues to enjoy the most cordial of relations with the new powerhouse of Asia.During President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s watch Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was able to use his persuasive diplomacy to gradually win back the friendship of Sri Lanka’s erstwhile friends and turn the tide against the LTTE despite the relentless international campaign against Sri Lanka.

In the heyday of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations it enjoyed remarkable success in its policy of winning friends and influencing nations. Since then the world has undergone many changes and there are many new challenges being faced by countries in the field of foreign relations.In this context it is useful to reflect on some recent events impacting on our relations with our friends in the international community. The first is the issue of the Khapra beetle and the ban imposed on the export of Sri Lanka tea to Russia by the Russian authorities.

Considering that 20 percent of Sri Lanka’s tea exports are sent to Russia and that Sri Lankan tea was just beginning to enjoy better prices in the world market after a period of slump it was only natural that alarm bells rang and the Government quickly swung into action.President Sirisena wrote to Russian President Vladmir Putin urging a reconsideration of the ban. Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake announced at a press briefing that there were reports that the ban on tea imports from Sri Lanka may have been due to Sri Lanka’s ban on imports of white asbestos from Russia which was to take effect from January 2018.

The Cabinet met and immediately decided to suspend the ban on white asbestos from Russia. Sri Lanka quickly followed up with a delegation of officials visting Russia and at the very first meeting were able to persuade the Russian Government to lift the ban on import of tea from Sri Lanka. All’s well that ends well for Sri Lanka from the tea exports perspective.

There however remains uncertainty as to what actually prompted the Russian Government to impose the ban on tea imports from Sri Lanka in the first place. The Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka Yury B Materly was quoted in the Island of December 29, 2017 saying that there was no connection between Sri Lanka’s ban on white asbestos from Russia and the ban on import of tea from Sri Lanka to Russia. He also disclosed that it was not the Khapra beetle that had been found but its larvae.

He stated that following assurances given by the Sri Lankan authorities to take precautions to ensure non recurrence of the beetle issue, Russia had taken steps to lift the ban on the Sri Lankan tea. Undoubtedly whatever the reason the good relations between Sri Lanka and Russia has helped to resolve the issue expeditiously although there are many unanswered questions such as whether the ban on white asbestos imports from Russia will be re introduced.

However, another perspective on the issue was provided by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke on Vantage Point a TV interview on MTV. Basing his comments on two news reports in the Sunday Times and his own understanding of Russian strategic interests he stated that Russia may have been peeved at the attempt to arrest an alleged Russian computer hacker by the Sri Lankan authorities at the request of the United States.

In the absence of confirmation from Russian authorities or any official Sri Lankan source it is difficult to come to a conclusion on the matter.
Another important event that took place last month was the passage of the UN General Assembly resolution on the Status of Jerusalem which Sri Lanka supported despite the Trump administration’s threats against all those who voted for it. Explaining the vote, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry stated that “The vote is in favour of the resolution was on the basis of Sri Lanka’s long held traditional and principled position, which is in keeping with the international understanding that Jerusalem is a final status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties on the basis of the relevant UN resolutions , taking into account the legitimate concerns of both parties –Palestinians and Israelis and that Jerusalem should be the shared capital of the Israeli and Palestinain States.”

Thus Sri Lanka is still pursuing its long standing policy of standing by the oppressed peoples of the world and will not be daunted by the threats of any country even if it is a powerful friend . Whether the United States will carry out the threats uttered by President Trump remains to be seen.
Another area which is of concern to us tis he increasing Chinese footprint in the country. While it is true that the present Government is faced with a fait accompli in the face of the previous Governments massive foreign loans and its overdependence on China for infrastructure development such as the Hambantota Harbour, the Mattala Airport and the Colombo Port City, one is forced to ask the question whether China is the only girl on the beach where infrastructure development and investment aid is concerned.

A recent report that the Ruwanpura Expressway contract too is to be awarded to Chinese companies further corroborates this view.
The problem with Chinese companies coming into the Sri Lankan market is that they are in fact Chinese Government owned companies and therefore it amounts to the entry of the Chinese State into the business scene unlike for instance Japanese companies which are private companies in the true sense of the word.

Further the entry by Chinese State owned ventures creates unease among other Sri Lankan friends who seek to counter such extension of the spheres of influence of the Chinese by themselves entering the scene. Indian Press Reports suggest that India’s interest in the Mattala Airport is more to counter China’s influence than any special benefit to India.

Besides China’s assistance are purely of a commercial nature without much concessionary terms leaving Sri Lanka with very little room to manouevre.
A practice that Gulf States used to follow in recruitment was not to employ personnel from only one country but rather to distribute such recruitment among several countries in order not to create overdependence on one country. This is a process that Sri Lanka may be well advised to follow and look for investment from countries other than China.

Already the Chinese investment in Sri Lanka has reached its peak and it may be advisable to put a cap on such investment and to seek out investment from other sources. It is time for Sri Lanka’s friends in the International community to step forward and provide the necessary assistance. A well planned strategy by the Government to target our friends is the need of the hour. And as far as our friends in the International community are concerned it is time to step forward and be counted.  ( )


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