By Dinouk Colombage –
Sri Lanka has for the past several years boasted a love-hate foreign policy with the West and our Big Brother to the North, India. With two US sponsored resolutions being passed at the United Nations, Tamil Nadu’s continued assault on the government over allegations of war crimes and Canada’s Prime Minister’s, Stephen Harper, decision to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2013 appears to justify the hate section of our foreign relations. Of course a declaration by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, that he saw nothing wrong in Sri Lanka and continued support at the UN from nations including Uganda have seen an outpouring of gratitude.
Unfortunately, foreign policy dictates the standings of a country on the global stage and in the case of Sri Lanka the impression continues to falter. When Sri Lanka was scheduled to host CHOGM 2013 the government leapt at the opportunity to showcase to the world that our country is progressing beyond the three decade long civil war. The decision by the leaders of Canada and India to boycott the event appeared to leave the government unfazed. Prince Charles, the King in waiting, and the Prime Ministers of Britain and Australia were still on their way and so our Ministry of External Affairs spun the story that India and Canada stood to lose out. Rather than attempting to offer an olive branch, the regime went on the offensive suggesting that one of the leading regional powers stood to lose out from boycotting a glorified holiday to Sri Lanka.
Tamil Nadu has proven to be a thorn in the side of Indo-Lanka relations since the war ended in 2009. CHOGM 2013 was the perfect opportunity for our Foreign Ministry to begin repairing the cracks by offering India unrestricted access to the North of Sri Lanka. Instead the government was forced to wait until the Tamil National Alliance sent a separate invitation to Manmohan Singh requesting he visit the former war zones.
Having missed a golden opportunity there the government welcomed the news that David Cameron would be visiting the North. Unfortunately the love part of our foreign policy went no further. Cameron’s visit to Jaffna, and his subsequent meeting with the TNA and family members of those who have disappeared, left him with a sour impression of the supposed reconciliation efforts. In fact he chose to break protocol and publicly announced in Sri Lanka that he is giving the country till March to organise a credible investigation in to the allegations otherwise the UN would do so. His comments followed on the heels of his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who also called for an independent, international investigation.
Sri Lanka, who so readily welcomed the British delegation, quickly turned on them through the use of state media and respected diplomats. A day after Hague’s comments the editor of the state owned Daily News, Rajpal Abeynayake, accused him on state radio of “pandering to the Tamil Diaspora”. Chris Nonis, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UK, in an interview with CNN made it clear that the Sri Lankan government did not welcome interference in internal matters. The day after Cameron’s comments A.H.M. Azwer, Member of Parliament for the government, mysteriously entered a CHOGM 2013 press conference for accredited journalists and berated the Commonwealth spokesperson accusing them of double standards.
Nonis’ eloquent response to CNN’s questions regarding international investigations was met with widespread approval among the public. His sentiment that Sri Lanka was a sovereign state and as such was capable of looking after its personal matters was shared by all. Unfortunately, his comments also highlighted quite clearly the see-sawing nature of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Cameron’s and Hague’s criticism over the reconciliation efforts were rejected in one collective voice, Abbotts accolades over our reconciliation efforts were welcomed with open arms.
If the government is convinced that reconciliation is an internal matter, and one that does not warrant international interference, then it is time they take the tough decision of refusing all assistance. Currently in the North housing projects are being completed by the Australian, German and Indian governments. The housing schemes will go some distance in alleviating the issues faced by those displaced during the war, a key factor in the reconciliation efforts. Obviously no opposition has been raised among the government ranks over the involvement of the international community in these projects. However, in keeping with the government’s insistence that reconciliation is “a private affair” should they not be refusing aid from outside groups?
For any nation willing to donate aid to another country, it is only natural that they will want to ensure it is going to a worthwhile cause. Ironically the government has shown itself capable of accepting handouts from nations that they are more than ready to accuse of double standards.
Foreign policy around the world is riddled with double standards. Days leading up to CHOGM 2013 saw an Australian Senator and New Zealand MP detained by Sri Lanka’s customs authorities over accusations they had violated their visas in attempting to hold a press conference. Rather than Australia’s Prime Minister questioning the government over this unusually hostile treatment to foreign dignitaries he chose to commend a country devoid of freedom of speech. At this point in time, with the number of boat people arriving in Australia from Sri Lanka rising, it proved more valuable for Abbott to portray the country in a positive manner.
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy does not have the diplomatic muscle behind it to play the game of good cop/bad cop. However, more importantly the country is in a position where a stance can be taken and our foreign policy be shaped. Opening the doors to an international investigation, and proving the innocence the government continues to plead, will provide the country with a new found respect on the global stage. If the regime chooses instead to refuse all aid on the basis of reconciliation and rebuilding being an internal matter, then the close all avenues for international criticism.
Unfortunately, neither path seems a likely one and so Sri Lanka and its people can continue to look forward to the government’s continued love-hate relationship with the rest of the world.