With news of COVID deaths and infection inundating our daily lives and the collective grieving of our customary funeral rites not possible, the mental health and well being of the nation is compromised. Speaking to the Sunday Island, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer at the Kotelawala Defense University, Dr. Neil Fernando, discusses the need for emotionally supporting each other and fostering positive thinking to brave these hard times.
by Randima Attygalle
Q: Although social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing have become the norm, there is hardly a public discourse on mental well being during this pandemic. How important is it to promote such dialogue?
A: Health is defined by the WHO as the ‘complete physical, mental and social well being of a person.’ Mental health is therefore very much an integral part of overall health, but unfortunately like in all other situations, mental health is neglected during this pandemic too. The mind comprises three important components: cognition (this includes your thinking, your memories, mental images- mainly how you think), emotion (how you feel) and your behaviour. These three components are interrelated and interdependent. For example, how you think will affect how you feel and how you feel will determine how you act. So this principle applies to the COVID pandemic – how people think, how they feel and how they behave. Wearing the mask, hand sanitization and physical distancing are all behaviours and behaviour is part of mental health.
Exposure to too much negative news affects your emotions and your behaviour. Initially when the pandemic broke here, the approach to it was more military than health-induced creating apprehension and fear in people. The initial impression given of the illness was more from a ‘criminal’ angle with media bulletins flooded with news of infected people and their first contacts being chased after. Later when people were exposed to COVID deaths, the scenes of coffins being put into crematoriums and personal protective gear-clad health workers everywhere traumatized many.
The world at large too made a blunder by using the term ‘social distancing’ when it ought to have been ‘physical distancing with social connectivity’. In a culture where social interaction is a norm, the term ‘social distancing’ became a double burden. When one house in a neighbourhood was quarantined, people feared a lockdown of an entire area and fault-finding came into forefront. Those who were responsible for the coining of terms such as ‘Peliyagoda cluster, Minuwangoda cluster etc.’ never thought of mental health implications they would trigger and accompanying discrimination and stigma. Apparel workers who were earning dollars for the country were shunned and were looked at as carriers of the virus.
While the importance of mental health and well being was not promoted, people were exposed to factors detrimental to their mental health. Media too has a responsibility of sending out messages of positive mental health instead of sending ‘news alerts’ with death tolls and the number of infected cases. More positive messages can be sent to the public.
Q: With reports on infected cases and deaths flooding in and anxiety levels of people rising, even among those not directly confronted by death, what coping mechanisms do you propose to foster ‘positive thinking’ in such a backdrop?
A: We need to apply the concept of ‘positive psychology’ promoted by Prof. Martin Seligman, a clinical psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. Positive Psychology is relatively a new area in psychology where the focus is on well being. Rather than looking at the negative aspects of an illness and what is wrong, this concept looks at the stronger side. Up to the turn of this century, psychology was looking at means of filling deficits – when a person is ill, how he/she can be made well. In Seligman’s own words, “it was bringing a person at minus two to zero.”
Positive Psychology on the other hand, looks at a way of taking a person from zero to plus two. It looks at features a person has rather than looking at features a person has lost. It looks at character strengths and promotes those strengths to make a person better. Promotion of well being as Seligman says, rests on five pillars called PERMA. ‘P’ stands for positive emotions, looking at your past, present and future in a positive way and to find something positive even in your setbacks.
‘E’ is for ‘Engagement’ or flow- to be actively involved in some useful activity. Children not being able to go to school is a drawback; however, they can learn household work or a craft during this time. Even in a lockdown situation, people should be engaged in something, even observing nature is a kind of engagement
‘R’ is for relationships. Social connection promotes well being. Social isolation is the reverse. Even in a quarantine situation, one must be socially connected with family, friends, work mates and neighbours despite physical distancing.
‘M’ is for ‘meaning’- to have a purpose in life. This pillar is connected to your spiritual life as well. Caring for others can give a lot of mental satisfaction and promotes your own well being as well. There are many who have lost their livelihoods, friends, neighbours struggling to survive and those who are more comfortable can help such people in need.
‘A’ is for accomplishment, to have goals and achievements in life; to be proud of what you have achieved.
Using this PERMA model, we can encourage people to think about the best scenario possible and not the extreme. One needs to take a middle path. Otherwise people will be overwhelmed by statistics, because statistics emphasize largely the negative side.
Q: With the rise of elderly deaths, there is apprehension among senior citizen.’ How best can they be supported?
A: It is essential that they keep negative news at bay. Watching and reading too much about COVID and deaths can be detrimental. People should also be encouraged to keep in touch with their loved ones and engage in positive conversation outside the pandemic. Engaging in an activity that interests them such as listening to music, gardening or reading can also help them to get distracted from negativity.
We should also support them psychologically with what we call the ‘Two-Es and I’s’: Emotional support of love and care, Esteem support (showing respect and giving value to a person), Informational support (providing correct information and knowledge to counter myths and misconceptions) and Institutional support (offering practical help).
Q: How vital it is to ensure the mental well being of our health workers?
A: It is of utmost importance to ensure their moral well being as it could affect their productivity. Unlike in the first and the second wave, in this third wave of the pandemic, health workers are facing what is known as ‘moral injury’. That is, with limited resources, they are unable to cater to each and every patient. For example, while there may be two patients who need ventilators, only one machine may be available. So it is the health worker who has to decide who gets it. Of course there could be protocols and guidelines but it is another human being who has to implement these guidelines. Therefore health workers can experience ‘moral injury’ or a kind of guilt that could haunt them later that a decision had to be taken at the cost of another patient’s life. The trauma of the pandemic and its mental health impact will be enormous and could last for years to come.
However, on the brighter side, there is a new concept associated with Positive Psychology called ‘post-traumatic growth’ where people can actually make use of traumatic events as a learning opportunity and be empowered.
Q: Sri Lankan funeral rites enable shared grief with community involvement. The pandemic has deprived our people even of religious rites. How does this impact their mental health?
A: When a death occurs in normal circumstances in our culture, it is referred to as a mala gama or an avamagula, the very terms connoting that it is a community affair where ‘grief reaction’ is a shared one. Almost all our funeral rituals are psychologically very sound. The social and religious customs which follow a funeral support the sharing of grief, so that the bereaved family can come to terms with it.
Sadly this communal exercise is now replaced by solitary grief. You cannot even see the body, there is no funeral ceremony, no rituals performed. The psychological buffer provided by our culture is now being taken away. Some people have lost several family members. There is a lot of silent mental suffering going on right now as survivors also have a ‘guilt feeling’ that they couldn’t even give their loved one a dignified funeral. Hence talking and listening to those who are mourning, sharing of grief should be done using other means while keeping the necessary distance.
Q: We are a nation which went through a civil war. Pandemic is a ‘war’ of a different kind. As a senior professional who dealt with combat-related mental issues/depression etc. do you see a difference in human response to the war and the pandemic from a clinical standpoint?
A: Yes, there is a difference. Compared to war where the majority of Lankans were not directly affected, in this pandemic situation everyone is affected. Right now you don’t see the enemy but only destruction. While war and its impact were ‘structured’ pandemic is a different phenomenon.
In times of war, even when a sealed coffin was sent home, there were funeral rites performed and military funerals accorded with the respect of a nation demonstrated by draping the national flag over the coffin. All these interventions helped families to overcome grief. Today with solitary suffering, people are finding it hard to come to terms with death.
Q: Organizations have lost employees and some employees have lost their loved ones. In such challenging times, what can be done at organizational level to keep people motivated?
A: Organizations can make use of available resources and promote the well being of people. They can make use of virtual platforms to share ideas and grievances and be supported by professionals. At the same time it is important for organizations to maintain proper communication channels with their staffers and support them through difficult times.
Q: With children being home-bound, what tips would you give parents to keep their children optimistic?
A: If parents have a negative attitude, children invariably will be negative and even when schools reopen, some children may fear associating with some of their friends. Parents should encourage children to remain connected with their friends, grandparents and family through other means while maintaining physical distance. Association is very important at this point. They can also be encouraged to make use of this time to learn a new craft, household chores etc.
Online education itself has created problems. Children who are unable to connect due to different reasons can feel sidelined. This could be psychologically traumatic because at the end of the day, all children will have to face the same examination paper. Policy makers should be conscious of this factor.
Q: Do you see a rise in depression in your clinical practice since the onset of the pandemic?
A: Yes I do. There is what is called post-viral depression. Any viral infection can precipitate depression. COVID too began as a viral disease and it is natural to expect people who recover from it to develop symptoms of depression. Loss of a loved can also precipitate depression in certain people.
Q: How can family and friends support someone who is at risk of depression?
A: Grief is a natural reaction to loss, but it could turn into abnormal grief especially when death is sudden and unexpected. When grieving is prolonged (beyond six to eight months), a person can develop depressive illnesses and in order to help we should be conscious of the three Cs: Connect, Communicate and Care.
It is important that you listen to a person grieving because listening itself is therapeutic. For this, one need not necessarily be a mental health expert nor does one need to have solutions to all problems. What is important is to encourage a person to talk taking his/her own time and listening in an understanding, non-judgmental manner. Empathetic listening is vital and this entails communication – showing your understanding and most importantly, acknowledging and validating a person’s emotions.
Q: With lifestyles turned upside down, working from home arrangements interfering with domestic chores, socializing in office and outside being a thing of the past, and visiting loved ones being restricted, the ‘new normal’ has become stressful to many. How best can we navigate these challenges?
A: The pre-frontal lobe/cortex or the front most part of the human brain is well developed enabling humans to adjust to new situations. This is the reason why man is ahead in terms of evolution. It is true that the new normalcy has created its own set of problems but it is imperative that we make changes and adjust accordingly rather than trying to persist with what we were once used to. A good example is working from home – this concept was not heard of before COVID but people are getting adjusted to it. This shows that on the whole humans are capable of adjustment, although some may be quite comfortable and others may be less comfortable with adapting to new situations.
The Gem and Jewel of Pohottuva governance
What a gem of a minister he is!
Who else, State Minister Lohan Ratwatte, the gem and jewel of today.
He resigned from his Prison Portfolio, not having done anything wrong, as he says it. He has gone beyond the stuff of any politician. He truly deserves to be given the highest regard by the Saubhagya Strategists. Just think of any politician of today, especially from the Pohottuva Team, who will resign from a portfolio for not having done anything wrong, when those who have done so many blatant wrongs, keep glued to their portfolios?
What do you think should follow?
Surely, it is so simple. Get promoted to the Cabinet. Take the “State” off his ministerial title and swear him in as the Minister of Prison Reforms, etc,, and Gem and Jewellery Industry.
Do you think that is the strategy of the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour of the Gotabaya Politics?
Why not? Promotion, elevation or unearned freedom is the very stuff of today’s Rajapaksa governance. We don’t forget the pardoning of former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, convicted with death sentence, for the murder of eight Tamil civilians inlcuding three children, affirmed by the Supreme Court.
Come on. That is just one Saubhagya move.
OK. The next Saubhagya move was the pardoning and release of Duminda Silva, sentenced to death along with four others, over the murder of a rival politician and three others. He has also been appointed the Chairman, National Housing Development Authority.
Keeping with that trend of Saubhagya-Rajapaksa politics and governance, is it wrong to soon promote Lohan Ratwatte as a Cabinet Minister, giving him back the power over all prisons and prisoners, and the gem and jewellery industries, too.
But what about all these complaints about this Lohan man? Flying to the Anuradhapura Prison by helicopter, getting Tamil prisoners held there to kneel before him, holding this revolver against two of them ….
He says he has done nothing like that. He has visited the prison as the minister in charge, and never even touched a Tamil prisoner … Shouldn’t we believe such Ratwatte words? Should we not forget that the first public report on this came from a Tamil MP, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. Should we forget how the Ponnambalams have opposed the Sinhala Only politics of Sri Lankan progress?
Then what about all this talk of this Lohan minister’s visit to the Welikada Prison?
C’mon, why must you believe such gallery nonsense, when there is no report from the Prison authorities?
It is not gallery nonsense, but the Stuff of the Gallows, with a beauty queen or cosmetics queen in his company.
Just remember that he went there too as the Minister of Prisons. As he says, he could go there at any time. That is the power of even a State Minister. The man who stopped the prison from burning, as he says it!
But, what about the gallows, of wanting to show it to his beauty/cosmetics queen?
I’m sure that Lohan R would have seen the opportunity to use the Welikada Gallows as a new tourist attraction.
What tourist attraction?
We are now in the process of reviving tourism, especially from Ukraine and Russia. They may like to see real gallows, and how it functions too. He may have been thinking of adding the Welikada Gallows as a special tourist attraction – where persons sentenced to death could be really hanged. There are many who applied to be hangmen when President Sirisena wanted the gallows to function again. They remain unemployed. Shouldn’t the gallows be revived to give more employment to future hangmen?
Just see the Saubhagya opportunity if the Welikada Gallows is promoted as a tourist attraction. How much would a ticket cost in dollars? Think how this would help Ajith Nivard Cabraal in his new plans to bring in more foreign exchange. This surely is the stuff of Lohan Ratwatte, apart from his continued interest in gems and jewellery.
But, surely didn’t he know that the UNHRC is now in session in Geneva. Has he not known anything about Michelle Bachelet, who is raising questions about Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka?
Now, now, don’t move into unwanted terrain. Human Rights and the Prevention of Terrorism Act are all being handled by Foreign Minister GL Peiris, with punditry of increasing question. You mustn’t try to put Lohan Ratwatte to the same rank of political and diplomatic punditry.
Just remember that Lohan Ratwatte is an elected SLPP – Pohottuva – politician. He is certainly one who likes both Gems and Jewellery. He was ready and fast in giving up Prisons and Prison Reforms, with no charges framed against him. There were only allegations about him, made by a Tamil and other Opposition MPs and such persons. Our system of governance and justice is far removed from what is known as the Rule of Law. It is the Rule of Power.
Let’s forget detainees in prisons (for many years), the so-called reports of a drunken minister with friends and beauty/cosmetic queen, just think of the Rule of Power – just now it is the Power of Lohan and Gotabaya.
When the President received Lohan’s letter of resignation from the Prison Sector, he was not asked to leave the Gem and Jewellery Sector too. He could look after and promote Gems and Jewellery, and remain the stuff of Pohottuva.
This is the Gem and Jewellery line of Rajapaksa Governance. Lohan Ratwatte has displayed his love for gems and jewellery. With his promotion to Cabinet status, will he be known as the “Muthu-menik Lohan Amathi, Sir”? The true Gem of Pohottuva Politics and Governance!
The wonder of youth
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
The wonder of youth was best on display in the evening of 11 Sept., when two hugely talented teenagers, both unseeded, gave an amazing display of tennis in vying for the US Open title. Of course, I wanted Emma Raducanu, who represented GB, to win but had lingering doubts as her opponent, Leylah Fernandez was more experienced and had defeated players ranked 3, 16, 5 and 2, to reach the final. This was only the second Grand Slam Emma has played in, having to withdraw during the fourth-round match in Wimbledon due to breathing difficulties which made some wonder whether she had the mental grit to stand the rigours of tough competitions. She proved them wrong in a spectacular manner, reaching the final in an unprecedented way. She had to win three rounds to get into the tournament as a qualifier, and won the next six rounds, reaching the finals without dropping a set in any of the matches. By then, she had missed the return flight to the UK which she had booked as she never expected to be in the competition so long!
Sports are so commercialised that many Brits without Amazon Prime subscription were going to miss seeing the first British woman to play in a Grand Slam final after 44 years. Fortunately, in one of its rare good deeds, Channel 4 paid for screening rights and we could join over 9 million Brits on the edge of their seats for two hours. It was well worth it, as Emma won the final again in straight sets, creating yet another record by being the first qualifier ever to win a Grand Slam! In another rare gesture, Amazon had agreed to donate the fee for advancement of tennis for girls.
Emma Raducanu’s spectacular win was witnessed by Virginia Wade, the first winner of the US Women’s title in the open era in 1968, Arthur Ashe winning the Men’s. She was also the last British woman before Emma to win a Grand Slam; Wimbledon in 1977. Fortunately, Sir Andy Murray was able to break the even longer drought in Male Tennis by winning the US Open in 2012, 76 years after Fred Perry’s 1936 Wimbledon win.
It was very sad that Emma’s parents could not be there in person at the proudest moment of their lives due to quarantine regulations. Whilst shedding a tear of joy for Emma Raducanu’s ‘impossible’ victory, I was saddened to think of the wasted youth in Sri Lanka. How things changed for the worse in my lifetime continues to puzzle me.
We belong to a fortunate generation. We had excellent free education which we made full use of. We had good teachers, not ‘private tuition masters’! We could plan our future as we knew we could get a place for higher education as long as we got the required grades. Our progress in universities was not hampered by student’s unions controlled by unscrupulous politicians with warped thinking. I started my practice of medicine a few months after I turned 23 and was a fully qualified specialist by the time I turned 30. I was not one for sports but did writing and broadcasting. Therefore, I can look back at my youth with a sense of satisfaction.
Unfortunately, we lacked a political class with a vision. Perhaps, this happened because most of the politicians except those at the time of independence took to politics by exclusion than by choice. Lucky politicians got ministries, not because of competence or education, but on the basis of caste, creed, religion, etc. There were no shadow ministers in the Opposition and with the change of government another set of misfits became ministers. For some time, the status quo was maintained by senior administrators who were trained for the job after being selected following a highly competitive examination.
Anti-elite campaigners succeeded. Permanent Secretaries became secretaries and Ministers became permanent as long as they did not upset their bosses! No proper planning was done and the slippery slope started. Then came the terrorists; the JVP destroyed a generation of Sinhala youth and the LTTE destroyed a generation of Tamil youth. Now, there is a greater danger affecting some youth the world over––Islamic extremism.
When I started training postgraduate trainees from Sri Lanka in Grantham Hospital, the first thing I noted was their age and started diplomatically finding out why it had taken them so long to get into PG training. I was shocked at the unwarranted delays they faced which were not due to any fault of theirs. All of them were brilliant but the system had failed them. We need to reinstall discipline so that we have schools and universities functioning properly, ensuring valuable years in life are not wasted.
Perhaps, we need to get out of our insular attitudes. There may be some lessons to learn from studying the background of these two talented players. Leyla Fernandez, born in September 2002 in Quebec, Canada has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino mother. Emma Raducanu was born in November 2002 in Toronto, Canada but moved to the UK when she was two years, with her Romanian father and Chinese mother. Three months before winning the US Open, she got an A star in Mathematics and A in Economics, in the A level examination whilst attending a state school.
These two teenagers, 23 years old Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese and 25-years-old Ashleigh Barty, whose father is of indigenous Australian descent and mother is of English descent, joined to form a ‘fab-four in women’s tennis, dawning a new era in tennis as the era dominated by the fab-four; Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic of the men’s game is drawing to an end. Considering their dexterity, women’s tennis may become more popular than men’s. Who knows!
It is well known that mixing of genes has an enhancing effect. It is also well established that inbreeding leads to many genetic defects. Perhaps, this is another reason why we should get rid of artificial divisions like caste. Although one would have expected that we would have a more enlightened attitude, the matrimonial columns of any newspaper give enough evidence that archaic institutions are still strong.
It is high time we stopped protecting archaic systems and moved forward. This will give an opportunity for the talents of our youth to be displayed and it is our duty to harness the wonder of youth for the advancement of the country.
A neutral foreign policy in current context
By Neville Ladduwahetty
During a recent TV interview, the Host asked the Guest whether Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy is in “shambles”. The reason for the question was perhaps because of the lack of consistency between the statement made by the President and the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry relating to Foreign Policy. For instance, the first clear and unambiguous statement made by the newly elected President during his acceptance speech delivered in Sinhala in the holy city of Anuradhapura in which the only comment in English was that his Foreign Policy would be Neutral. This was followed during his address to Parliament titled: The Policy statement made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka at the inauguration of the Fourth Session of the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka on January 3, 2020, in which he stated: “We follow a neutral foreign policy”.
However, the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry has on different occasions stated that Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy is “Neutral and Non-Aligned”. Perhaps, his view may have been influenced by the President’s Manifesto, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, that stated that out of 10 key policies the second was “Friendly, Non-Aligned, Foreign Policy”
The question that needs to be addressed is whether both Neutrality and Non-Alignment could realistically coexist as policies to guide Sri Lanka in the conduct of its relations with other Nation-States. Since neutrality is a defined policy that has a legal basis and has a history that precedes Non-Alignment, there is a need for the Neutral State to conduct its relations with other States according to recognised codified norms with reciprocity. On the other hand, Non-Alignment was essentially a commitment to a set of principles by a group of countries that had emerged from colonial rule and wanted to protect their newly won independence and sovereignty in the context of a bi-polar world. The policy of Non-Alignment therefore, should apply ONLY to the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Thus, Non-Alignment, being only a set of principles adopted by a group of like-minded sovereign States to protect and preserve their common self-interests, its conduct in respect of States outside the Non-Aligned Movement becomes unstated and therefore undefined. Neutrality instead is a clear policy that defines how a neutral country such as Sri Lanka conducts its relations with other countries, and how other countries relate with Sri Lanka primarily in respect of the inviolability of its territory.
NON-ALIGNED and the NON-ALIGNED MOVEMENT
A statement dated August 22, 2012 by the External Affairs Ministry of the Government of India on the historical evolution of the Non-Alignment Movement states:
“The principles that would govern relations among large and small nations, known as the “Ten Principles of Bandung”, were proclaimed at that Conference (1955). Such principles were adopted later as the main goals and objectives of the policy of non-alignment. The fulfillment of those principles became the essential criterion for Non-Aligned Movement membership; it is what was known as “quintessence of the Movement until early 1990s” (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “History and Evolution of Non-Aligned Movement, August 22, 2012).
“Thus, the primary objectives of the non-aligned countries focused on the support of self-determination, national independence and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States; opposition to apartheid; non-adherence to multilateral military pacts and the independence of non-aligned countries from great power or block influences and rivalries; the struggle against imperialism in all its forms and manifestations; the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, foreign occupation and domination; disarmament; non-interference into the internal affairs of States and peaceful coexistence among all nations; rejection of the use or threat of use of force in international relations; the strengthening of the United Nations; the democratization of international relations; socioeconomic development and the restructuring of the international economic system; as well as international cooperation on an equal footing” (Ibid).
These commitments did not deter countries such as India from violating the very principles India committed to in Bandung. To start with, India undermined the security of Sri Lanka by nurturing and supporting the training of non-state actors in late 1970s. Having made Sri Lanka vulnerable, India proceeded to coerce Sri Lanka to accept the Indo-Lanka Accord under which India was committed to disarm the militants. Having failed much to its shame, India violated the principle of the right of self-determination when it compelled Sri Lanka to devolve power to a merged North-East Province. All these actions amounted to a complete disregard and the mockery of the lofty principles of NAM undertaken to protect India’s self-interest. What is clear from India’s actions with regard to Sri Lanka is that when push comes to shove, self-interest overrides multi-lateral commitments.
In a similar vein Sri Lanka too, driven by self-interest, voted in support of UK’s intervention in the Falklands because of the debt owed by Sri Lanka to the UK for the outright grant given to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme, although conscious of the fact that by doing so Sri Lanka was discrediting itself for not supporting the resolution initiated by NAM to oppose UK’s actions. These instances demonstrate that Non-Alignment as a Foreign Policy is subservient to self-interest thereby underscoring the fact that it cannot be a clear policy to guide how a State conducts itself in relation to other States.
Commenting on the issues of limitations imposed by being a Member of NAM Shelton E. Kodikara states: “For Sri Lanka as indeed for many of the smaller states among the non-aligned community, membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and commitment to its consensual decisions implied a widening of the institutional area of foreign policy decision-making, and collective decision-making also implied a limitation of the area of choice among foreign policy options…” (Foreign Policy of Sri Lanka, 1982, p. 151).
Therefore, arrangements with common interests such as those by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or any other group of countries with common interests, are mechanisms whose support and solidarity could be sought when needed to advance causes, as for instance when Sri Lanka advanced the concept of making the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, and later in 2009 did so in Geneva. Notwithstanding such advantages, the hard reality is that Non-Alignment does not represent a clear statement as to how a State conducts its relations with Nation-States outside the Non-Aligned Movement. Therefore, it follows that Non-Alignment cannot be considered a statement of Foreign Policy by a State.
THE CURRENT CONTEXT
The statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of India cited above that the “quintessence” of the principles of the Non-Alignment lasted until early 1990s, was because the bi-polar world that was the cause for the formation of NAM had ceased to exist with the territorial break-up of one of the power blocks – the USSR. Consequently, the USSR lost its influence as a global power. In this vacuum what exists currently is one recognized global power with other powers aspiring to be part of a multi polar world. In the absence of recognized power blocks the need to align or not to align does not arise because Nation-States are free to evolve their own arrangements as to how they conduct their relations with each other. Consequently, the concept of Non-Alignment individually or collectively is a matter of choice depending on the particularity of circumstance, but not as a general Foreign Policy to address current challenges.
With China attempting to regain its lost territory and glory as a civilizational State following its century of shame, the geopolitical matrix has changed dramatically. The economic gains of China the likes of which are unprecedented alarmed the Western world to the point that the US deemed it necessary to adopt a policy of Pivot to Asia thereby making the Indian and Pacific Oceans the focus for great power engagement. This shift of focus has caused new strategic security alliances such as the Quad to emerge to contain the growing influence of China among the States in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With the Maldives joining India as the latest members of Quad, Sri Lanka has become isolated; a development that has brought Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean into sharp focus as being of pivotal strategic interest to great and emerging powers.
It is in this newly formed geopolitical context that Sri Lanka has to formulate its Foreign Policy that necessarily must be fresh if Sri Lanka is to equip itself to meet the new challenges created by a coalition of States to contain the rise of China. One option is to join the Quad. This could mean Sri Lanka distancing itself from engaging with China. The other option is to engage with China to the exclusion of the Quad. Either of these options would cause Sri Lanka to lose its independence and the freedom to protect its core values and interests. Therefore, the choice is not to settle for either option.
These unprecedented circumstances and challenges cannot be countered by harking back to the glory days of Non-Alignment, because major influences of the movement (NAM) such as India, have recently abandoned the original principles it subscribed to when it became a part of Quad. Therefore, although NAM still represents a body of likeminded interests with the ability to influence causes limited only to resolutions that further the interests of its members, it is not in a position to ensure the inviolability of the territory and the freedom of a State to make its
own hard choices. It is only if a Nation-State proclaims that its relations with other Nation-States is Neutral that provisions codified under the Hague Conventions of 1907 that would entitle Sri Lanka to use the inviolability of its territory to underpin its relations with other Nation-States. Therefore, the Foreign Policy statement as made by the President to Parliament should guide Sri Lanka in its relations with States because it is relevant and appropriate in the geopolitical context that currently exists.
The Foreign Policy of a State is greatly influenced by its History and Geography. Historically Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy has been one of Non-Alignment. Furthermore, Sri Lanka participated in the Conference in Bandung in 1955; a date recognized as the beginning of the Non-Aligned Movement. Thus, although the geographic location of a State is well defined, the significance of its location could dramatically be transformed by geopolitical developments. The staggering economic revival of China from early seventies under the leadership of President Deng Xiaoping whose philosophy was to hide capacity, bide time and never claim leadership, was perhaps the reason for China’s tremendous transformations both economic and social, to proceed relatively unnoticed.
It was only with the announcement of President Xi Jinping’s policy of the Belt and Road Initiative announced in 2013, that the world came to realize that the power and influence of China was unstoppable. This policy resulted in China establishing its footprint in strategically located countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans by funding and constructing infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka happened to be one such country. The need for the U.S along with India, Australia and Japan to form a security alliance to contain the growing power and influence of China in the Indian and Pacific Oceans was inevitable.
India’s alliance with the US has shifted the balance in Asia causing China to be the stand alone great power in Asia. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned this new dynamic compels Sri Lanka to make one of four choices. One is to align and develop relations with the US and its allies. Second is to align and develop relations with China. The third is be Non-Aligned with either. The fourth and preferred option is to be Neutral not only with the Quad and China, but also with all other States, and develop friendly relations individually with all States.
The policy of Non-Alignment by a State is an external declaration of intent that a nation would not align itself with either a collective or individual center of power such as the Quad or China, in the conduct of its relations. Neutrality by a State, instead, means not only a statement that it would be Neutral when conducting relations with collective or individual centers of power and other States, but also how such a State expects all States to respect its Neutrality; a policy that would be in keeping with Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location in South Asia. Thus, while the former works outwards the latter works both ways. More importantly, how Neutrality works is governed by internationally codified laws that are in place to guide reciprocal relations.
President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer
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