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The government’s foreign affairs



One of my favourite Archie (from the comic strip) stories has Archie Andrews trying to land a job in the summer holidays. He finds one selling subscriptions to an encyclopaedia, for which he’s promised a 10% commission. Yet selling them isn’t easy; as he fumbles from one house to another, only to be rebuffed and rejected, he grows frustrated. Finally he decides to call it a day, and in doing so offers the reader his reason for throwing it all in: “After all, 10% of zero is zero.”

Taken and modified, that pretty much sums up our recent encounter in Geneva: with 22 votes for the resolution on Sri Lanka, 11 votes against, and 14 abstentions, it was a victory for the Core Group, not so much for us. Those 11 nays shouldn’t count; paraphrasing Archie, 23% of 47 is also zero.

You can view Geneva as either of two things: a battleground of powerful states (justifiably described as “human rights imperialists”) versus the little ones, or a platform for rights, ethics, ideals, and ideas. The two are not mutually contradictory, but the tactics resorted to in each case are.

If Geneva is a battleground of “big fish eat little fish”, you don’t bother with what comes from there: you claim victory even in defeat, and call for global solidarity against the human rights imperialists. If Geneva is a platform for universal ideals, on the other hand, you do all you can to score high, winning at the table through diplomacy what you win on the battlefield through the military.

The first strategy is what this government seems to be engaged in; the second, what the government before it was. I prefer the third: engaging with ideas while calling out on the humbuggery of human rights imperialism. You don’t do that by offering your sovereignty up for sale, nor can you do that by being inconsistent in your dealings with the world. You do it by engagement, by give-and-take and tit-for-tat, by winning friends over while operating from a moral high ground.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government have not converged on most things, but despite their contrasting approaches to every other issue, their way of handling the Geneva vote has brought us to roughly the same outcome: a prolongation of the inevitable. In the case of co-sponsorship – what Sirisena-Wickremesinghe opted for in March 2015 – it involved doing what Dayan Jayatilleka called “a Jihadi John” on the country’s sovereignty. In the case of the ‘whataboutery’ the present administration is indulging in, it involved letting domestic convulsions get in the way of foreign policy imperatives. Contrary to what Dinesh Gunawardena may say, Geneva 2021 hence was no different to Geneva 2015, the exception being that while 2021 turned the odds against us, Geneva 2015 had the faintest trappings of a pyrrhic victory.

I remember ridiculing Mangala Samaraweera’s attempt at toying with the results of the 2018 Local Government polls to “prove” that while the SLPP won the election, the anti-Rajapaksa vote compared to the August 2015 parliamentary election had risen. This, of course, was a classic case of big oranges and small apples, and it’s only fair to invoke the metaphor when another Minister does the same thing in a different context. For Dinesh Gunawardena has called Geneva a victory: he seems to think that 14 abstentions prove the majority chose to side with us.

Forget the spurious logic and the linguistic theatrics here. The fact is that Sri Lanka has traditionally relied on the Non-Aligned – hardly irrelevant, even in this day and age – and the G77 vote. Given the Left’s support for Palestine, Sri Lanka has also depended on IOC countries. Ergo, the strategy should be, and should have been, to canvass support from these blocs.

Such a strategy, as it stands, is two-pronged: you convert the man in the middle to your side, and you prevent the man who once stood for you from going to the middle. It’s easier to convert the neutralist; not so the guy who has pitched camp against you. That is not to say you shouldn’t try to convince the guy who’s going to vote against you, but it does mean that in the no-vote guys should be on the top of your list. Two rules: negotiate with them from their world, talk to them in their terms.

Viewed that way, and in all fairness to Minister Gunawardena, Geneva 2021 brought home a double defeat: based on the number of countries voting for the resolution (the highest since 2009), and on the ratio between the nays and the abstentions (the highest since 2009, when it stood at 6:29).

I still believe Dinesh Gunawardena is the best Foreign Minister we’ve had in years, and that’s saying a lot given how a great many consider his yahapalanist predecessors to have been of better stock. (For the record, they were not.) Geneva 2021 therefore didn’t as much reveal his failings as it did the limits within which he had to work, both inside the Ministry and outside.

The failure to canvass support from many of our traditional allies – especially those from the Islamic world – for me tells a lot about two things: a general failure to engage with the world, and a specific failure to reflect how we deal with other countries in how we deal with ourselves.

What we have ended up with instead is what I’d like to call a “foreign policy inversion”, where how we resolve local issues runs counter to how we interact with everyone else beyond our shores. As far as the decision of many Muslim countries to desist from voting for or against goes, this inversion has stemmed from one thing and one thing alone: the burial controversy.

I’m not talking about the months-long delay over granting permission for COVID-19 burials here; I’m talking about the dithering the government engaged in after it announced to the world that it would go back on its policy of mandatory cremations. This is unfortunate. You don’t win people over by telling them one thing and doing the opposite. Similarly, you do not let domestic convulsions and prejudices get in the way of promises made to other countries.

Yet such cardinal principles do not seem to have gone into the heads of those baying for blood over petty issues. Mahinda Rajapaksa understood it, only too well: that’s why he announced the u-turn over burials in parliament. But for the ultra-nationalists, foreign relations simply do not matter; as long as their prejudices transform into policy, the rest of the world can go where it wants. If effective foreign policy involves neither total give nor total take, hence, these guys want all take no give. That strategy has a name: zero-sum. The US engages in it, in some form. We are not the US.

Foreign policy inversion works in the short term. Not the long. The previous government committed a major blunder by relying almost totally on foreign support vis-à-vis Geneva; that did not help them at the ballot box. Ranil Wickremesinghe with the ceasefire agreement and Chandrika Kumaratunga with the P-TOMS arrangement made the same mistake; Geneva 2015 showed they hadn’t learnt the lessons of either encounter. The current government has turned the other way: by substituting the local for the global, it seems to believe that support from within can compensate for opposition from outside. That is not what helped us in 2009, and that is what helped us lose in 2021.

None of this is to say that we should measure the success of our diplomatic manoeuvring on the basis of Western benchmarks. That is why I disagree with those who take the regime to task over soliciting votes from “serious human rights violators”: Eritrea and Myanmar, to mention just two of them. Such critiques fall flat on their own logic for two reasons: one, because “serious human rights violators” are on the other side also, and two, because at the final vote, a great many of these “violators” ditched us and went to the other side. If we are to chart our foreign policy based on ideals and standards decided on and validated by the guys at the top, we’ll eventually get ourselves mired up in the duplicity those guys at the top are engaging in. One example will suffice. Brazil, a country known for “serious human rights violations”, led by a right wing militarist allied with the US, voted for the resolution and against us. Now, what does that tell us about the politics of human rights?

As things stand, there is a balance that needs to be struck, between the need to assert ourselves and the need to work and negotiate from a position of moral superiority. This balance must be kept by means of another: between the need to counter duplicity vis-à-vis outfits like the Core Group and the need to come up with a coherent strategy which converts those in the middle to our friends-in-arms. That is not going to be achieved by refusing to give anything or by expecting to get everything. On two issues the government must thus meet and defeat its critics: sharing power with the periphery constructively and pragmatically, and engaging with minorities. It is regrettable that the world expects more than we seem prepared to part with. Yet without giving anything, we risk losing everything.


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Rise of Dual Power amidst Covid 



We had so many kings in our Sinhala Balaya of many centuries. There were many questionable deals on succession by members of this royalty, and others who came to those realms. But we have yet to hear of any brother of a ruling monarch rushing abroad in the midst of what may have been a national crisis, moving to a disaster.This is the stuff of Sinhala Power in the 21st Century. It is a show of the Raja Keliya – the power game, where dual citizenship is the dominant factor. The Sri Lanka, Mawbima home, is of lesser importance than the Videsha mawbima, especially if one’s health has to be handled by foreign medical sources; even if the Videsha Mawbima is the biggest affected by the Covid pandemic.

The appointment of Task Forces to deal with important issues facing the country and the people is the substance of the current Saubhagyaye Dekma – Vision of Prosperity and Splendour. Appointing a brother to head task forces of key importance is the show of dominant family power that prevails in this country today. But brotherly feelings are certainly not important when a dual citizen thinks of the greater importance of the Videsha Mawbima. The tasks of Economic Growth, Eradicating Poverty and Assuring Food Supply, as well as the more recent Green Socio-Economy must all be pushed aside, when the call of the Videsha Mawbima for healthcare is the stuff that matters.

This is the brotherly Vision of Prosperity and Splendour, or the Sahodara Saubhabyaye Dekma.

The Covid pandemic has certainly brought much contradictory thinking, especially in the government, on how the health of the people in this country, non-dual citizens, could be assured. Minister Udaya Gammanpila, a Cabinet spokesman too, is certain that mixed vaccinations of different brands and qualities, is the means to protect the people. 

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister on the subject, thinks differently, on the lines of the WHO specialists, who have stressed there is no evidence so far to authorize mixed vaccinations. The other minister of health and vaccination issues is somewhat silent on this confusion in official thinking. Is a new pandemic syrup to be promoted by the power handlers?

Thank heavens that the Cabinet Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, is so far silent on this matter. She could come up with a new Sri Lankan Deshamanya scientific solution, such as throwing some of the Sinopharm and Sputnik (Chinese and Russian) into the nearby river, and using the mixed and river blended vaccine for people of the related province. She is sure to obtain the support of Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga for such a crafty thinking of science, just as they shared her belief in the Charmed Pot Game or Mantara Kala Keliya to fight the Covid-19.

  We are now in the midst of what is known as a Lockdown. It is not a “Vasaa thabeema” in Sinhala, but a limit on travel – a ‘Sancharana Seemava’. The Police are very clear that anyone who breaks the lockdown rules will be arrested and brought to justice. We have seen the great joy that policemen showed in carrying non-mask wearers and other violaters of Covid safety guidelines, to be shoved into buses. How much more of such delights would follow when Covid increases its hold on Sri Lanka? What was the related Task Force, and its ceremonial uniformed head doing, when Indians were brought to Sri Lankan hotels for quarantine before travel to some Middle Easter countries? What foreigner from the Covid battered India was carried or courteously conducted to a place where lawbreakers are detained?

As we keep wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from others, there is much cause for concern, even beyond the Covid pandemic, on how persons arrested and detained by the police are killed by or in the presence of the  police. Two suspected and arrested persons have been killed while in police custody this week.  They are Melon Mabula or ‘Uru Juva’ and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera or ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’ These are persons with records of major crimes, possibly with much strong evidence, but not presented in court and any punishment order through the judicial process.

The police spokesperson, a person with a legal background, too, tells the people the details of all the terrible crimes these persons are supposed to be guilty of. It is a contemptible move to get public support for the killings. The Bar Association has raised concerns about these departures from justice. There must be much more protests, even with the Covid dangers.

One gets the impression that the prevailing dangerous situation due to Covid, is being used to carry out increasing violations of the law and the judicial process. This is certainly a major step back to the earlier years of Rajapaksa Power, when many such suspects were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, showing off police escape power. It also brings back memories of the killing and attacks on journalists by similar police and official forces of crooked power.

Are we moving to a new sense of Dual Power — where the judiciary is ignored and official power is the Rule of the Day? Is the power of Dual Citizenry to be the dominant force once Covid puts down the people’s power?

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Should ASEAN Free Trade Area be considered model for SAFTA?



By Dr. Srimal Fernando

Economic integration is more important today than it has ever been for South Asia’s development. When comparing the impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)s South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Free Trade Area (AFTA) in promoting trade amongst its member states, AFTA has been more effective in integrating the economies of its member states. SAFTA , on the other hand, has yet to make significant contributions to the integration of the economies of SAARC member states. The Success of ASEAN’s economic integration can be attributed to the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to embrace the tenets of regional integration. In contrast, SAARC’s model has failed to create a secure regional environment that is conducive for economic growth since its formation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) member states signed the AFTA agreement on 28 January 1992. After the establishment of AFTA, the member states of ASEAN succeeded in signing trading protocols within the organization. The ASEAN model succeeded in creating one of the most successful free trade areas in Asia as well as globally. The establishment of AFTA has been an important milestone in Southeast Asia as a factor that facilitated the economic integration of ASEAN member states.

In the case of the SAARC, the signing of free trade protocols under the SAFTA agreement has been faced with several tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although both SASRC and ASEAN member states face unique challenges that affect trading within these organizations, it can be said that, unlike the SAARC, the ASEAN economic integration model has been far successful in promoting trade amongst its member states. For the SAARC, the liberalization of the economies of SAFTA signatories has been a crucial challenge. On the other hand, ASEAN has made notable progress with regards to trade liberalization, policy alignments, and intra-regional trade among Southeast Asian nations.

The specific trade liberalization challenges faced by the SAARC member states include concerns over SAFTA revenue allocation from member states, restrictive rules of origin, and negative sensitive lists. The sensitive lists adopted by SAARC member states have proven to be a significant hurdle to exportation amongst SAARC member states. This has particularly made it difficult for exports from small member states of the SAARC to enter into large markets such as India and Pakistan. Having failed to grant the application of  most favored nation (MFN) status that would have seen a significant reduction in the sensitive lists maintained by both countries, trade between these two regional powers has been problematic over the years. Notably, the trading commodities that are in the sensitive lists of a majority of the SAFTA member states have high export potential. Despite the various commitments made by SAFTA member states, countries continue to maintain long sensitive lists hence the dismal performance of SAFTA. 

In the case of ASEAN, the establishment of the AFTA agreement has provided ASEAN member states with a platform to exploit their export potential. The AFTA agreement has boosted the economies of ASEAN countries through its trade liberalization policies. AFTA has also entered into several free trade agreements with regional powers such as Australia, China, South Korea, India, and Japan. The ASEAN countries are now focused on creating an Economic Community for their member states. Notably, several countries have shown interest in being a part of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community.

It should however be noted that the massive success achieved by ASEAN’S AFTA as opposed to SAARC’s SAFTA is not flawless. For example, although ASEAN has made significant steps in eliminating tariff barriers amongst AFTA member states, Non-tariff barriers are still a key challenge to the AFTA agreement. However, when analyzing the progress made by ASEAN’s AFTA since its formation, the achievements and evolution are undeniable. ASEAN was formed in an era when interstate relations amongst Southeast Asian countries were characterized by political mistrust and strained interstate relations. Years later, the organization has succeeded in unifying its member states for a common course, an aspect that the SAARC still struggles with. 

Way Forward

If SAFTA is to become more effective and emulate AFTA’s success, the myriad of issues mentioned above needs to be addressed. First, downsizing the sensitive lists of countries in a time-bound manner will be necessary. Secondly, the issue of para tariffs needs to be squarely addressed. A starting point could be to reduce and accelerate the elimination of para tariffs on items not on sensitive lists and include para tariffs in SAFTA negotiations. Also, the non-tariff barriers to trade facing SAFTA member states need to be equally addressed like the tariff barriers. Finally, strengthening economic relations can be used to reinforce improving political relations in the region, particularly between India and Pakistan. To an extent, the success of ASEAN in achieving effective economic integration and its experience can be used as an external driver of SAARC and its SAFTA agreement.

About the author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’

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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic



This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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