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Sri Lanka and Turkiye: Renewing an old friendship

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By Uditha Devapriya

The Sri Lankan government has reportedly tasked the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute to conduct a review of the country’s foreign relations. While officials have not yet come out with details, the review is set to include a reconsideration of Sri Lanka’s ties with various countries, in light of recent international developments. The Executive Director of the LKI, Dr D. L. Mendis, has emphasised the need for a more robust foreign policy, observing that while “Sri Lanka comes first”, relations with the region, “especially India”, will have to be “a bit better.” In other words, while maintaining the country’s tradition of being a friend to all, it must prioritise its relations with its neighbourhood.

This is timely and important, both for Sri Lanka and its people. For too long, we have, as Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda once noted, been made to feel like a junior partner. What the country needs is a foreign policy that is multidirectional: a policy which takes into account the big players as well as the small. Such a policy can be accused of being vague, obscure, and unrealistic. But Sri Lanka’s priority must be to engage with countries with which it has cooperated for so long. Instead of latching ourselves on to one bloc or another, it has to be more concrete, specific, and certainly forward-looking.

When assessing its relations with South Asia and its immediate neighbourhood, the country should thus be as ready to mend broken ties with traditional partners, like Japan, as to seek new friendships or consolidate friendships that have never been allowed to grow. Over the years, numerous delegations have been sent to regions like Central Asia. These have never been followed up. To quote Arshad Cassim, Sri Lanka’s pursuit of new bilateral relations has been “momentary in approach” and “driven by circumstances.” Far from winning friends, this has only served to distance us from them. It is in light of these developments that Sri Lanka needs to expand to other countries. Among them, Türkiye.

Türkiye is a complex country. It is also a growing giant. Though beset by various economic and political tensions, the country is picking up speed: its economy grew up 7.6% in the second quarter this year, driven by an expanding financial sector, strong domestic demand, rising exports, and burgeoning tourism. A year ago, it was assailed by inflation and a steep depreciation of its currency. Today, Goldman Sachs has raised its growth forecast for 2022 from a meagre 3.5% to a respectable 5.5%. This has been buttressed by a strong industrial base: manufacturing accounts for more than 20% of the economy, and its key industries include not just chemicals, but also motor vehicles. The country just unveiled its first electric car, the TOGG, with plans to increase annual production to 175,000 units.

Sri Lanka’s relations with Türkiye go back decades and centuries. Even though Ankara opened an Embassy in Colombo in 2013, formal diplomatic relations were established in as early as 1864. Trade between the two countries remains low if not negligible, running into around USD 150-200 million, but plans are underway to build on them. Tunca Özçuhadar, one-time Ambassador to Colombo and the Director General of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, has described Türkiye’s relations with the island as “completely friendly.” Türkiye is one of the few countries with which Sri Lanka has enjoyed warm times throughout. In a number of sectors – not only trade, but also industry, defence, people-to-people, and cultural – there is scope to deepen these common interests.

Türkiye’s shift to Asia, and specifically to South Asia, is one of the more fascinating foreign policy developments of the last 25 years. The country’s economy is growing by leaps and bounds, and it has made this the centrepiece of its foreign policy. According to Temmuz Yigit Bezmez and Selma Bardakci of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey, its outreach to the Asia-Pacific has become “a crucial part of its foreign policy diversification.” This marks a significant rupture in its external relations since the 20th century. On its founding in 1923, the country initially looked to the West. It sided with the US and Western Europe during the Cold War and joined NATO. These commitments guided its external relations for the next 50 years, gaining a new lease of life after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In the 1970s, however, it realised the limits of these engagements and began seeking new alliances and friendships. In 1978 Türkiye signed a “friendship agreement” with the Soviet Union, affirming “principles of good neighbourly and friendly cooperation” while remaining in NATO. Six The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled it to cement relations with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Snubbed by its European partners and frustrated in its bid to join the European Union, Türkiye looked at other regions. Among these was Asia. By the beginning of the 21st century, the continent’s prospects seemed limited. But by 2003, the year Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister, Türkiye had recognised the importance of Asia, especially China, South-East Asia, and South Asia.

The country had reached out to South Asia before. In 1968, Foreign Minister İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil visited India. On his arrival Çağlayangil highlighted both countries’ commitment to democratic values. The joint declaration that led from the delegation highlighted India’s and Türkiye’s desire to form relations with as many countries as possible, “regardless of these countries’ social and political regimes” (Aslan 2022). However, Cold War geopolitics made it difficult for Türkiye to pursue these relations. The 11 September 2001 attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan pushed the country to revisit these countries. A series of engagements with India hence followed. It was in this context that Prime Minister Erdogan visited Sri Lanka, two months after the December 2004 tsunami.

Erdogan’s visit was reciprocated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008. Negotiations to establish formal diplomatic relations immediately ensued. Türkiye had been one of the first countries to recognise Sri Lanka upon its independence in 1948, yet it was only five years after Rajapaksa’s visit to Ankara that Türkiye established an Embassy in Colombo. These developments had a positive impact on bilateral trade: from USD 139 million in 2015, trade volumes between the two countries rose to USD 219 million in 2018. This was a period of expanding ties with South Asia as well: Türkiye reactivated relations with Bangladesh and Pakistan via areas such as defence, industry, and people-to-people ties. While ambitious in scope, these engagements have widened the potential for industrial and infrastructural cooperation: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent proposal to include Türkiye in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a case in point.

All these were captured in Türkiye’s official announcement of its shift to Asia, the Asia Anew Initiative, in 2019. Coming in seven years after Hillary Clinton’s declaration of the US’s Pivot to Asia and six years after China’s declaration of the One Belt One Road Initiative, the Asia Anew Initiative signals not just Asia’s geostrategic importance for major powers, but also its potential for up-and-coming players like Türkiye.

Sri Lanka is obviously playing a part here. Over the last few years, it has pursued a number of avenues to deepen bilateral relations, including a double taxation avoidance treaty. While these have been justly commended, their limits too have been recognised. Türkiye’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for instance, has admitted that while trade between the two countries is low, relations should be bolstered through sectors such as tourism. Sri Lanka’s exports to Türkiye consist predominantly of tea; as former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris has acknowledged, if trade is to be meaningful for both sides, Sri Lanka needs to move away from commodity exports. This point has been echoed by his counterpart in Ankara, who has argued that it is pointless to base economic ties on “specialised products.” This calls for cooperation in sectors like agriculture, construction, and pharmaceuticals.

For the last 25 or so years, Sri Lanka has been pushed back by the notion that its relations with the world should be limited to its neighbourhood. Yet a country like Sri Lanka cannot be restricted to this region or that. It must seek new ground and establish new friendships. But to cement ties with the world beyond South Asia, it must employ professionals who can look into other regions and territories. Türkiye has been a reliable ally and a faithful friend. As Türkiye’s Ambassador in Colombo Demet Şekercioğlu recently put it, “Sri Lanka requires her friends more than ever before.” Sri Lanka has for far too long been at the receiving end of major power rivalries. Countries like Türkiye can help us diversify our foreign relations. As the island embarks on an overhaul of its foreign policy, then, it would do well to remember who its friends are, and what it should do to cultivate and keep them.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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