By Sonali Wijeratne
Once in a while, albeit at least a state minister tells the explicit truth. Dr. Nalaka Godahewa quoted in The Island of 06 August said: “There are over 1.4 million public sector workers. There are a large number of pensioners. Annually, we need about Rs 1.2 trillion to pay salaries and pensions. In 2020, our annual income was Rs 1.4 trillion. We are left with Rs 200 billion to provide health services, education, transport et al.” It is a fact that the annual public service wage and pension bill has surpassed the trillion-rupee mark for the first time in history with the budgetary outlay for both public sector salaries and pensions showing a significant rise from 2019 to date.
It is ironic that these extraordinary revelations are made in the context of the current government continuing to burden an already overstaffed top heavy public service of over one million with yet more massive injections of 150,000 public servants! This programme to offer jobs to 50,000 unemployed graduates and another 100,000 so called ‘poor’ applicants with educational qualifications below the GCE Ordinary Level was first mooted as a pre-election promise in 2019. However, the Chairman of the Elections Commission directed its postponement due to the declaration of the general election in 2019. The expectation of employment opportunities would no doubt have supported the poll in favour of the incumbent government which has now commenced the said programme without work study, or needs assessment, but presumably purely on the basis of amassing support for future victory at the elections! But where will such short term manoeuvrings, by politicians to keep themselves in power at the expense of the country’s steadily depleting resources, lead us the citizens of Sri Lanka?
The recruitment of unemployed graduates and others into the public service outside the required cadre cannot be healthy or useful when most of them find themselves in an overstaffed environment with little substantive work to do. The relative lack of challenging work occupations and inadequate training to go around leads to a gross misallocation of resources with a superfluous workforce engaged in repetitive replication of tasks. Sooner or later this huge multitude of public servants will find itself with no real opportunity, ideal or goal to make a worthwhile contribution. Their only recourse then is to latch on to the privileges of the public service such as security of employment, shorter work hours and extensive leave entitlement, pension and less work.
Many castigate the bloated public sector in Sri Lanka as generally lethargic, corrupt and parasitic. What else could one expect when politicians of every hue continuously use what was once an elite meritocracy as a job bank to get more votes for themselves to win in the short run to the next elections! Even the most enthusiastic, qualified youth selected to the public sector is bound to encounter demoralisation, and dissipation of his or her talents when faced with such self-defeating and destructive manner of recruitment often imbued with politicisation and nepotism to boot. We no longer have Permanent Secretaries heading Ministries which was the hallmark of the previous era of the Ceylon Civil Service. Even the Constitution was changed in the 1970s to facilitate all Secretaries of Ministries to be hand-picked for appointment and changed at will by the political authorities irrespective of their ability, seniority or official experience and qualifications! Therefore, in order to safeguard their prized privileges, position and perks of office, most Secretaries of Ministries are apt to take the easy way out by appeasing political authority and not taking a stand against irregularities.
Moreover, it is no surprise that in recent times, the government seems quick to placate a group of vociferous public servants in the education sector who take to the streets, howling vengeance on the State if their so-called demands for wage increase are not met without ascertaining whether there is a genuine justification or need for such a pay hike! It is a fact that these teachers wilfully neglect their helpless students in a crisis situation, virtually holding the people and government of this country to ransom and taking undue advantage of the pandemic situation by denying online education to innocent schoolchildren already bereft of a normal education. At the same time, they have become super spreaders of COVID-19 in public demonstrations disregarding all norms of curtailing the pandemic which is at its highest. All the while, it is a fact that after bringing formal online education to a standstill, they are engaging in the lucrative practice of private tuition online and earning a mint owing to increased demand for such services.
Since placating the teachers at any cost seems to be the intention of our politicians, even the simple fact whether there is any truth to the so called allegations of anomalous salary in the education sector is not the focus of the government or that giving an undue salary hike to teachers will upset the delicate equilibrium of the salary structure across the entire public sector and result in further anomalies and require an all-round increase of salaries to the entire public sector.
The previous so-called Yahapalana regime too had in turn feted the entire public service with more than 100 percent pension and salary increase between 2016 and 2020. It is now the turn of the present government, already saddled with a huge economic crisis replete with debt burden, intractable budget deficit and balance of payments woes, to promise another round of public sector salary increases with the next budget in November this year. Anything and everything to survive in power on the horns of the populist vote.
Such cynical callous disregard for economic imperatives seems designed to win the confidence of the masses in the short term in time for the next general and presidential elections. No matter that it may lead to galloping inflation when you feed the public service with paper money due to a myriad of problems facing one of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crises. The nature of government related services in public sector salary and pension expansions leading to rising recurrent expenditures is bound to increase aggregate demand without a commensurate increase in manufacture/supply. This will in turn result in an inflationary spiral owing to an increase in prices eroding the purchasing value of increased salaries and pensions. Once the aggrieved workers and unions start demonstrating for higher pay hikes on the streets, the government will no doubt start printing money amidst other short-term un-economic manoeuvres and accede to their various demands for yet another salary rise. The one million public sector is an all-important voter base for any prospective government. So, to hell with rational responsible governance and sound economic management for sustainable development since the deciding factor for politicians appears to be to stay in power at all costs.
The negative effects arising from unbridled increases in excessive public sector employment expenditure have not been met by reducing recurrent government expenditure by way of rationalizing or downsizing the swollen public sector employment or increasing revenue. Instead, we have nonsense solutions such as non-sustainable recourse to additional borrowings, reliance on futuristic outputs from capital expenditure on a profusion of urban beautification projects, construction of gymnasiums and non-tradable flyovers and the acceptance of unsolicited tenders sans competitive bidding processes.
The case for public service reform to tame the monster of a hugely rotund and moribund public service devouring the nation’s resources sans a worthy contribution has been ably argued by veteran Public Servant, Deshamanya K. H. J. Wijayadasa, former Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka as well as a host of management gurus in the media, journals and other forums. First on the list is the need for de-politicisation, downsising, closure of non-profit making state owned enterprises, ridding the State of over-institutionalisation, duplication of tasks, that has resulted in the lack of coherence and fragmentation, the sheer scale of lack of professional integrity, discipline, accountability and resultant corruption and nepotism.
But it is questionable whether such rationalization is of any value to the politicians in government or those awaiting to form government, whose appeasement, at any cost, of the valuable voter base of over one million public servants is vital to their victory at periodic elections.
Irrespective of political differences, in general one of the first requirements of a politician in charge of a ministry is to find out how much recruitment, whether necessary or not, could be made. Often, the politician in charge of a ministry will single out compliant officers who will do his bidding, even those instructions that flout regulations and go against the best interests of the country. He will then call these officers and give instructions directly ignoring the Head of Department under whom they serve. There are instances where even officers, against whom there are well evidenced serious disciplinary matters pending, will be treated with kid gloves by their political masters and senior officers as Secretaries of Ministries and allowed to continue in privileged status without any inquiry.
The sad truth is that in a land of Lotus Eaters, there are significant numbers of ordinary people, as well as the businessmen and academia, who will lick the feet of politicians to get whatever benefits, privileges, opportunities for themselves and their kith and kin. The so-called Advisors, Consultants, and the hierarchy of senior officialdom surrounding the political authority will rarely utter a word against the dictates of their political masters even in matters of professional subject matter since they wish to hold on to their comfortable posts and enjoy the perks and privileges of office. Despite the fact that the state has given them free education and training both locally and abroad, these so-called professionals are seen flocking like veritable servant boys in their droves, round political authorities often aiding and abetting in deal-making and commissions or leading them down the garden path of policy blunders and national catastrophes. This is apparent, where some have diverted from their own field of qualifications and training and become pseudo authorities on every other conceivable subject!
Some recent examples bear the truth to this parlous state of affairs. For instance, the drastic decision to stop import of chemical fertilisers and replace it overnight with organic fertilizer when the country does not have immediate capacity and supply to service the same. The purported reason of chemical fertilizer being a causative agent for Chronic Kidney Disease and Cancer remains unproven in the international scientific community. Nor have our local pundits adduced scientific evidence in proof of the supposed correlation between ingestion of chemical fertiliser through food leading to carcinoma. The decision has been supported by some sections of the medical fraternity, not the agricultural scientists and growers! Now the farmers are up in arms predicting a poor harvest with food security gone to the whims of unprofessional decision making and implementation.
When import duty for sugar was slashed last year, the benefit was passed neither to the consumer nor the government, which lost revenue to the tune of Rs 15.9 billion. But insider information on the proposed reduction of commodity levy duty from Rs 50 per kilogram to 0.25 cents per kilogram enabled one specially favoured M/s. Pyramid Wilmar Pvt. Ltd. to sell more than 2000 metric tons of sugar, imported under the Rs. 0.25 levy to state-owned Sathosa for an exorbitant price above Rs. 125, per kilogram. The State owned Sathosa then sold the sugar to the consumers at a reduced rate of approximately Rs. 85 per kilo. Therefore, Sathosa purchased sugar at a higher price and sold it at a lower price. It is apparent that this is either due to negligence or official blundering for the purpose of defrauding the state for enrichment of certain vested interests. It was pitiful to see the mandarins of the Finance Ministry making feeble apologies over the media for such blatant debacles.
The heat seems to have died down on Sri Lanka’s most destructive environmental disaster of the X–Press Pearl and the previous New Diamond ships affecting marine life, livelihood of fisher folk, and most importantly the coastal and oceanic environment of a small island state. Questions remain as to why the Sri Lanka Ports Authority allowed an already compromised leaking ship to enter the port of Colombo with tons of toxic substances. Investigations have revealed deleted email communications, and a general delay, inaction, malaise, on the part of a number of state regulatory organisations responsible for this sector. The removal of the politically appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority does not seem to absolve the responsibility for this great national disaster which also rests on several marine environment, merchant shipping regulatory organisations in the public sector as well as its political leadership.
As for the performance of the public health sector, we are in the fourth wave of the pandemic reporting approximately 200 official deaths per day, many hundreds under wraps or undocumented, a dire warning from World Health Organization of a holocaust of deaths to come! The ‘Bubble Tourism’ and great economic resurgence expected to be ushered in by the new normal of carrying on ‘business as usual’ with all public servants requested to report to work on a daily basis now seems to have evaporated into nothingness! Thanks to the mayhem policy prescriptions of blowing hot and cold on regulating movement, the peniya (decoction) which received a temporary approval without adequate plan on bona fide data of COVID-19 spread, the relative absence of consistent implementation of restricting large crowd gatherings, inter district travel and Sinhala and Tamil New Year travel. Except for the still small voice of truth of the Sri Lanka Medical Council and a few upright academics, the pitch seems to be full of the blame game, some professionals casting cheap accusations of sabotage against other professionals for lack of data when all the while the truth is plain to see. Over 75 percent of approximately 8,000 deaths recorded due to COVID-19 are those above the age of 60 years with comorbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney dysfunction. Why was this group not given priority in vaccination since the beginning of this year? Who is responsible for such manslaughter and criminal negligence? When the Sri Lanka Medical Council recommended a lockdown during the April New Year period, and subsequently, why was such informed recommendation rejected by the Government? When the admirable performance of the former Health Ministry Secretary, Dr. Anil Jasinghe showed a controlled management of the COVID-19 last year, why was a ‘push-up-and-kick-out’ strategy followed when he was moved as Secretary to an entirely different sector foreign to his medical training and experience as Environment?
The sad truth seems to be that behind every public servant stands the shadow and spectre of the politician. His is the desire for continued electoral victory, by hook or by crook, power and desire for personal wealth creation during term of office. The 1972 Constitution has ensured that the public service is at his disposal and command to achieve such objectives.
There are exceptions no doubt, but the brave and the honourable few who take a principled stand and try to work for the good of the country are invariably sidelined, undermined and ignored. These are the faceless public servants, quiet heroes and heroines who still serve and give their best, striving to make a difference for the better: They are those who trust in God and do their best for their fellow citizens despite all odds and being wearied and harried in the extreme! It is they who experience the ultimate bliss of certainty and quiet joy of knowing that come what may, their exertions have not been in vain and even in extremely limited and circumscribed circumstances and terrain, they have been able to deliver for the common good.
(The writer is a retired Public Servant with 34 years service as an executive in varying capacities in Colombo State Sector and Diplomatic Service.)
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.
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