By Charitha Ratwatte –
Good fences make good neighbours – Robert Frost
Robert Frost, American poet, four times Pulitzer Prize and Congressional Gold Medal winner, in ‘Mending Wall,’ a poem published in 1914, used this line, which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations originates in the 17th century. Frost could not see the need for a fence between his farm in New England and his neighbour’s land. But his taciturn neighbour insisted on a wall and only said, “Good fences make good neighbours,” in response to Frost’s query on the need!
In the context of CHOGM going on in Colombo, it is useful to contextualise this concept in international relations. In most situations, e.g. where you live or where you sit in a restaurant, it matters who your neighbours are. Poet Robert Frost’s neighbour was correct, it really matters that you have good relations with neighbours and the most important issue is demarcating limits of territory.
Consider the current conundrum, regarding fisher-folk from Tamil Nadu allegedly poaching in Sri Lankan waters off the northern Sri Lankan coast. When during the conflict Sri Lankan fishermen’s access to these waters were restricted, Tamil Nadu fishers accessed these waters at will, subject only to the concerns of the Sri Lankan Navy, since some of them were considered to be smugglers, smuggling in tradable goods and offensive material into Sri Lanka.
In the meantime in South Indian coastal waters, Indian fishers using trawler bottom scraping nets which completely destroyed the bottom of the ocean, dragging up every living thing, most of which cannot be used. This converts the sea into a virtual desert. The Tamil Nadu fishers had no other economic choice, they say, other than to poach in Sri Lankan waters.
This has been a hot political issue between the Governments of India and Sri Lanka for some time. It has been focused on much more after the fighting ended, as Sri Lankan fishers have been permitted to go out and fish, to find thousands of Indian fishing boats allegedly poaching in our waters.
The issue featured in the Courts of India, and the Judiciary raised a very important question. How does an Indian fisherman know when he leaves Indian waters and enters Sri Lanka’s territorial sea? Is there any indicator? This is very pertinent question. Good fences! Solutions such as marker buoys moored in the open sea have been put forward, but these are not practical. These can break free and float away, or even be removed.
One technological solution is using the mobile phone, which is ubiquitous in both Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Can the mobile phones of the fishers pick up a signal when the border line is crossed? This would be the easiest solution. Other options include equipping fishers with GPS location devices which allow them to fix their location at any given time. They already use these for navigation purposes. But not all and it is a costly option.
The poaching issue goes on and until and unless a permanent solution is arrived at, it will continue to be a thorn in Indo-Lanka relations. Now with Indian Parliamentary elections due in 2014, and the pivotal importance Tamil Nadu will have in forming the inevitable coalition which will assume power in New Delhi, both the Congress and BJP are jumping overboard into the Palk Strait to create a splash about protecting the rights of Tamil Nadu fishers. The Sri Lanka Sea Fish Exporters Association has estimated the loss to Sri Lanka due to this poaching at Rs. 97,500 million per annum.
The word Finland-isation is important in this aspect of relations between neighbouring states. It entered the international lexicon of International Relations, in the context of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the common border with Finland, 1,340 kilometres long.
The USSR was a huge monolith ‘Gulag Archipelago,’ stretching from East to West and North to South. Finland was economically and politically in a literal USSR ‘bear-hug’. Finland was in a very precarious position during the halcyon days of the USSR. Finnish politicians had to ensure that the Soviet Bear was kept in good spirits all times. But although they publicly seemed to be very compliant to Soviet arrogance and demands, privately they had to ensure Finland’s survival and independence.
This status of having to be being overtly docile to a neighbour was labelled the ‘Finland-isation’ of an independent country. Older Finns remember that at that time, a major component of their compulsory military service was securing that forested and freezing 1,340 kilometre border.
After Gorbachev’s Glasnost and the USSR’s break up, the Finns exhaled a sigh of relief, thinking that the travails of with their bullying bearish neighbour were over. But current events bear out a different picture. The grip on Finland’s economy by Russia, the successor to the USSR, to the disquiet of Finns, is slowly tightening. Recently the Russia State-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation declared an interest in purchasing a Finnish company, Arctic Helsinki, a Finnish shipyard specialising in making ice-breaking ships.
The opening of Arctic shipping routes due to the effect of global warming brings into sharp focus the need of large number of operational ice breaking tugs to escort convoys, which would use this Arctic shipping route to Europe from Russian and Asian ports. This is a much shorter route and would be much faster than the Southern Oceanic Route, which passes, Sri Lanka’s Dondra Head and the Hambantota harbour. Ice-breaking capacity will be critical for the operational viability of this Arctic Route and clearly the Russians are thinking way forward.
For the Finns, this comes hot on the heels of the Russian investment by Rosatom, a Russian atomic reactor builder, to rescue Finland’s troubled Fennovoima nuclear plant by investing a one-third share and also selling a nuclear reactor to the Finnish company. This Eastern influence brings back painful memories of bygone Finland-isation, to the Finns.
The USSR was a huge trading partner, when it existed, of Finland, not necessarily by Finland’s free choice. But when the USSR collapsed, the Finnish economy plunged into a massive recession in the early 1990s. Memories of World War II also linger in the minds of older Finns, when guarding the Russo-Finnish border was of strategic significance.
However, Finland’s Prime Minister is giving outwardly positive signals. At a recent Nordic Council meeting in Oslo, Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish PM, said of Russia: “I wouldn’t say they were tightening their grip. We are very satisfied if there is more Russian investment into Finland. We need foreign investment into Finland.”
Nordic nation’s economy
Finland is the only Euro zone country which has been given an ‘AAA’ credit rating with a Stable Outlook by all of the three main rating agencies. But the recent declines in the paper and pulp industries and the sale of the flagship Finnish corporation Nokia to the USA’s Microsoft have made the Finns increasingly worried about what will provide the impetus for economic growth in the Nordic nation.
One Helsinki-based business executive commented: “I understand why people are cautious about the Russians coming to Finland. But with the forestry industry and Nokia suffering, we need all the help we can get.”
To ice hockey crazy Finns, the most culturally symbolic transaction was the sale of one of the nation’s main ice hockey clubs Jokerit, to a consortium of Russian businessmen, close to the Russian PM, Vladimir Putin. To the Finns it is disconcerting that Jokerit, will from 2014, play in the higher-powered Russia-based Kontinetal Hockey League.
In the same way, Finland’s trade with the EU has been decreasing, while at the same time, trade with Russia has increased. The Finnish PM has publicly stated: “The economies are integrating.” Finnish exports to Russia have almost tripled, with Finnish companies such as tyre maker Nubian Renkaat and retail giants Kesko and Stockmann showing strong growth in trading with Russian corporates, mainly in the State sector.
Over and above business, a record number of Russian tourists arrived in Finland in 2013 – 1.3 million tourist visas were issued to Russian travellers by Finnish authorities. The demand by Russians for Finnish tourist visas is so high that the Finns are opening up new visa offices in southern and central Russia as well as Siberia.
Today, Russian is the most spoken foreign language in Finland. The head of Finland’s Institute of Migration has predicted that Russian speakers in Finland could displace Swedish speakers as the largest number of foreign language speakers in Finland, by 2050. Swedish is the official second language of Finland by 2050. Katainen, the Finnish PM, explains: “Because of our history there are people who have negative memories form the war time. But there are more and more people who tend to think it’s only good that our people are reintegrating.”
The PM has expressed disappointment that too few students are learning Russian. He also points out to a larger number of Russian businessmen coming to Helsinki, which is one of Europe’s best performing starts up capitals. The PM says: “Previously it was industrial. Now it is entrepreneurial too and that is good.”
However, some Finns are worried about nuclear project Fennovoima. The Finnish Finance Minister has stated that she wanted Finland’s Parliament to reopen its debate on the permit granted to Russia to build the Fennovoima nuclear power plant. So among Finnish society, Finland-isation, even in the post-USSR era, is still a live issue. Good fences – metaphorical, physical, fiscal, trade, tourism policy and legal measures – are in fact and deed, a prerequisite for good neighbourly relationships.
What of Bhutan-isation? The word was coined in the context of political, security and economic relations between the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and its giant neighbour India.
Recently the King of Bhutan decided that he must give up absolute power and empower a Parliament. An election was held and a Government was elected. That Government, while holding on to the traditional dependant relationship with India, also broke new ground in initiating a dialogue with the People’s Republic of China, the Himalayan neighbour to the North.
The democratic Government also strongly promoted the concept of Gross National Happiness – a concept originally articulated by the Bhutanese monarch – as an indicator of development as against the traditional economists’ GNP.
Bhutan is a virtual hydro power reservoir for India. India builds the reservoirs, damns and turbines, installs the power lines and pays a negotiated price. India supplies Bhutan with subsidised petroleum products, among others things.
It also guides Bhutan’s foreign relations. There is an Indian Army Brigade garrisoned in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. The only golf course in Thimphu is run by the Indian Army, and the control of access to this facility and the Officers Mess/Club House, gives a whole new meaning to the words “domination” and “influence” of the Indian Brigade Commander over the Bhutanese golfing elites, UN, diplomatic, INGO and expatriates resident in Thimphu!
Labour from the neighbouring Indian state of Bihar migrate to work as daily paid labour on Bhutanese construction projects, as the Bhutanese themselves have land and are primarily agriculturalists. They have no need or wish to work as labour on road on hydro power construction projects. This is reminiscent of the British having to import indentured Indian labour to open up Sri Lanka’s coffee, tea and rubber plantations, as the Kandyan Sinhala villagers worked on their land and had no wish to work as plantation labourers. Bhutan has an ongoing problem with encroachment by settlers from neighbouring Nepal, another manifestation of lack of ‘good fences’. The induction of Indian migrant labour compounds this problem. When Bhutan scheduled its second general election, recently, the existing Government was challenged by a more pro-Indian party.
Inexplicably, just a few days before the voting at this election, the Indian Government suddenly announced it was withdrawing the fuel subsidy given to Bhutan. Fuel prices in Thimphu and the rest of Bhutan, went through the ceiling. The sitting Government crashed to a resounding defeat. The winners declared that relations with India will be improved and that Gross National Happiness is not such a wonderful thing, when all aspects of development are concerned! Bhutan-isation in practice! It is reported that the fuel subsidy has since been restored.
India and Nepal
India’s relations with Nepal could also be analysed in the context of Finland-isation and Bhutan-isation and the fact that ‘good fences make good neighbours’. Relations with the powers-that-be in Kathmandu, both when Nepal was an absolute Monarchy and later when it became a Constitutional Monarchy, have always been rocky. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once closed all border crossing points between Nepal and India, creating a huge crisis for the Nepalese.
According to bazaar gossip, although many seemingly rational ostensible reasons were trotted by the South Block in Delhi for the draconian measure, it said to be was all over the Nepalese King refusing to attend a reception hosted by the Indian PM, at some obscure international conference held in some equally obscure African country, because there was a protocol issue. The Indian PM was only a Head of Government while the Nepali King was a Head of State! All hell broke loose, it is alleged, for the poor Nepalis, over this perceived slight!
Furthermore, the fact that the Maoists in landlocked Nepal for years sustained a terrorist ‘liberation’ war against a Nepali King and Government which India claimed to support, all the time in close contact with Indian Maoists and communists, is also disconcerting.
Dealing with powerful, bullying neighbours
Dealing with powerful, bullying neighbours requires ‘good fences’. Canada, Cuba and Mexico have realised this truth is dealing with the USA. So also Singapore and the rest of ASEAN, including Malaysia. Singapore spends humongous amounts on defence procurement and has compulsory military service for all males.
In Africa, South Africa and Nigeria try to dominate their neighbours, in Latin America, Argentina and Brazil and in the recent past, upstart Venezuela is also trying to play Big Brother. The Bangladeshis and Burmese live with Finland-isation on a daily basis in their neighbourly relations.
Britain in its dealing with Europe historically and the European Union today has realised the importance of that virtual alternative ‘fence,’ the moat that is the English Channel! It kept out the Spaniards, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler!
In this context, how can one ever forget that classic line from the TV comedy ‘Yes, Prime Minister,’ in which the Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, to the PM (the PM supports the European Union), explains very condescendingly, patiently, with blatant contempt and exasperation, that the first principle of Britain’s European policy is “to keep the Huns (Germans) and the Froggies (French) at each other’s throats,” and that therefore the European Union was a very bad idea for Britain! A classic combination of ‘divide and rule’ and a ‘good fence’!
Sri Lanka and India
Sri Lanka has been sensitive to Finland-isation. Throughout history we have had to be very nimble in dealing with India. The fishing issue in northern coastal waters has already been referred to. Some of our Raja Rata and Kandyan kings developed this to a fine art – sometimes invading India, taking on the Chola Empire; at other times obtaining ceremonial traditional coronation requirements from
Indian emperors, and sometimes queens and concubines too. Or sending emissaries to hold out undeliverable promises to Indian rulers, the South Block in Delhi and the Indian PM’s office, only to come back to Colombo and renege wholesale!
The Indians have realised the hard way that not for nothing was the first Sinhala film ever made named ‘Broken Promise’! Diplomacy has for good reason been defined as ‘lying for your country abroad’! In the past Sri Lankan governments have warned of domination by India and China of the Indian Ocean and the Southern Seas.
The JVP famously had a lecture, one of only five in their indoctrination course, on ‘Indian Expansionism’. Prime ministers and presidents have had to at various times kowtow to and/or grandstand against India in various ways, pushing diplomatic strategy to its virtual limits. Indian tourists also visit in large numbers. The recent successful launch of the space exploration to Mars has the Indians on a jingoistic high, especially as they have done so before China! So we need to set up a ‘good fence’ in real terms with India, as Robert Frost’s neighbour said.
Sri Lanka and China
The same issue arises with China. China is flooding Sri Lanka with grants, concessionary and commercial loans. It is going to dominate infrastructure development. Chinese tourism is being heavily promoted.
Analysts have pointed out that the Hambantota Harbour, Colombo’s South Harbour, Trincomalee’s proposed ‘Gateway’ port development and Mattala Airport have the potential to be an integral part of the Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ strategic defence facilities built with the potential to dominate the Chinese raw material lifeline, the Southern sea route, in the future.
If the Chinese buy back Norochcholai and sell power to us, they will have a stranglehold on our economy. Remember India and Bhutan-isation with hydro power? No wonder India is pushing the Sampur coal power plant! We have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India.
The Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), once promoted by both India and Sri Lanka, seems now to be on indefinite hold. We are supposed to be negotiating an FTA with China, which according to one worthy was going to be signed before the CHOGM!
Analysts have pointed out that what is happening in microcosm in the Maldives at present is what Sri Lanka will have to face if India and China compete over the Finland-isation of us. Governance in Maldives is in a god-awful mess, with the poor, hapless Maldivian people helpless. Good fences are needed not only for good neighbourly relationships, but also even for good relations with erstwhile friends located even further away – a useful thought for the heads of government currently in town!