Colombo Telegraph

The Price Of Folly: External Aspects Of The Ethnic Issue

By Mervyn De Silva

Mervyn De Silva

[14TH Death Anniversary June 23, 1999-2013]

(Abridged text of lecture delivered at the Marga Institute in 1985, two years before the airdrop, the Indo-Lanka Accord, the IPKF and the 13th Amendment. Full text in ‘Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva’, ed. E Vijayalakshmi, ICES Colombo 2001, pp68-78)

This evening’s topic is in fact an invitation to discuss the foreign policy issues involved in what is popularly called our ethnic problem but now, more properly termed, I think, our national crisis. The shocking events of July 1983 suddenly and rudely awakened the Sri Lankan intelligentsia to the realities of our immediate environment and the world outside. In short, we were, psychologically speaking, taken by the scruff of our necks and forced to face up to and come to terms with a host of harsh realities that constitute the pith and substance of foreign policy. Therefore, they present themselves as constant challenges to our diplomacy, in varying degrees of importance and urgency.

Quite suddenly, a generally self-confident Sri Lankan elite appeared to bear the new emotional and moral burden of what the press, in an over-worked phrase called “our tarnished image abroad”. While this left our national self-esteem deeply wounded, our material interests and well-being came under­ threat too, principally in the high-investment area of tourism, where many a hope for a brighter economic future rested. A heavily and increasingly aid-dependent country now appeared to be exposed to the danger of reduced assistance. If not from all, then at least from those governments which are (or claim to be) sensitive to the pressures of human rights groups in their domestic constituencies, and to whom the human rights issue itself is an important input in the making of their foreign policy. Soon we were being assailed by atavistic fears, and words like ‘intervention’ and ‘invasion’ became common expressions in the media and in our own everyday conversation. It was not just our territorial integrity and sovereignty, which were threatened but our secular, pluralistic democracy, and social fabric. The Sri Lankan elite, hopelessly confused, helpless, beleaguered, saw their country as isolated and friendless in a hostile world.

Did all this add up to a gross over-reaction? Was this a grotesque exhibition of hypersensitivity of the notoriously insular elite of an island that had lived so long under the blessings of benign deities which had protected it from the ravages of war, famine and other disasters? Or, was it also a historic and a monumental failure in foreign policy? A failure of both our opinion-framers and our rulers? Is it because this world turned upon us so sharply and roughly that we had to witness the callow, frenzied collective behaviour of our elite?

My flippancy I trust will be excused when I raise a fairly serious question arising from this otherwise absurd and aberrant foreign policy gesture. How could a nation of educated people, proud of its 2,000 year civilisation, seek to establish its identity in the world outside, blithely unmindful of who we are, what we are and where we are? The answer may tell us something about the making of foreign policy, not so much about the known, easily recognized formative factors, but the less tangible.

What Sri Lanka’s national crisis – and it is clear that the unresolved ethnic issue is the core of that crisis – has ultimately achieved is that it has compelled us to come to terms with our identity. Questions like who we are (the products of a history of migrations from India, what we are (a multi-ethnic society), and where we are (an island separated from continental landmass by a 25 mile expanse of water), have been raised and answered. So it was not nonalignment that left us naked. It was the gradual rejection of all the basic premises of that traditional nonalignment, of which the cornerstone was the relationship with India, that left us naked to our enemies, real or fancied, internal or external.

By definition, an open economy is more open to the world outside and therefore more dependent on external circumstances, and thus vulnerable to external pressure. The fact of external dependence, which in turn conditions and sometimes determines political and foreign policy choices is then undeniable in Sri Lanka’s case. And nothing illustrates this more strikingly than the Sri Lanka aid group, which met yesterday in Paris.

In his concluding remarks last July, the World Bank’s Vice President for Asia, Mr David Hopper not only lectured us on the budget and sound economic management but warned Sri Lanka that unless political stability and business confidence was restored, the cordial relationship between Sri Lanka and her donors may have to be reconsidered.

The Minister correctly anticipated two questions; when are you negotiating a political reconciliation with the Tamils (the US State Dept. phrase) and when are you mending fences with India?

One may well ask whether the World Bank, or the donors, have the right to discuss anything but aid and economics; whether their behaviour was not a gross interference with the internal affairs of this country. Of course, it is interference but we must suffer it, since the paymaster calls the tune. This stark fact touches on a crucial question about foreign policy.

To amend Orwell, all countries are equal and sovereign but some more sovereign than others. While in principle all nation-states enjoy equal sovereignty, the effective exercise of such sovereignty is contingent on several factors, some permanent and unalterable. These include the size and population of a country, its economic resources, its industrial and military strength and most of all, its geographic location and therefore the geo-political environment.

A poor country can discover oil or uranium and become rich. The radical transformation of an economy can make a country self-reliant while an economically weak nation can have a strong army, like Israel or North Korea. Geo-political realities, which cannot be changed, may aggravate political and ethnic conflicts in a given country. For instance, Cyprus, which is divided between the Turkish minority and the Greek majority. The Turkish minority looked for and received support from nearby Turkey while the Greek Cypriot majority also had Greece close by. But that is not the case with Sri Lanka. If this island were located next to Papua New Guinea, the Palk straits and Tamil Nadu’s fifty million people would not be a source of anxiety. So any sensible Sri Lankan foreign policy has to be centred on an axiomatic factor: the nearness of our huge and powerful neighbour.

Does this mean that a small nation must necessarily be subservient to its big neighbour, that it cannot pursue a policy independent of its big neighbour, or even hostile to its neighbour? Not at all. It can. But it must recognize and be ready to face the consequences of such a hostile relationship.

We have a perfect example in Cuba, with whom we can draw parallels. Cuba is not just hostile, it is defiant. What is the logic behind that, one may wonder. A popular answer but a false one would be the economic and military support from the Soviet Union. But no Soviet soldier will die for Cuba in the case of an US invasion, which will probably result in the capture of Havana, the capital, in two or three days. So what is Cuba’s strength? Castro gave the answer to American reporters last year, the 25th anniversary of the revolution. “In the event of an invasion”, he said, “five million Cubans are ready to die, and the revolution will take to the Sierra Maestro mountains”. That is not just bluff. The US believes him, and believing him, every American president knows that he will not survive a week if several thousands of American soldiers are killed in the invasion. That is Cuba’s policy of deterrence, its defence, and it is founded on self-reliance, the total confidence of the people in the leadership and the total commitment of the people to their country’s defence.

Nicaragua is an in-between case. Under tremendous US pressure of all kinds – economic, military via contras, sabotage, and blockage – Nicaragua had to compromise. The regime still survives, but with great difficulty.

Sri Lankan foreign policy must be centred on a non-hostile relationship with India. This was so, from the mid-’50s to the late ’70s. For reasons, which had little to do with us, we drew large dividends.

First, varying degrees of unfriendliness and tension marked India’s relations with all her neighbours, including the Bangladesh it liberated. Sri Lanka was its only friendly neighbour. Second, Sri Lanka was not part of what Indian analysts call ‘the strategic schism’ of the South Asian sub­system; that is, India is closer to Moscow than to the US, while the rest of South Asia, is closer to the other Superpower. Thirdly, India’s threat-perceptions are focused on its land borders – China in the east, Pakistan on the west. But it had a friend on the southern flank, Sri Lanka, and this flank is the Indian Ocean. If you read Indian writers on strategic affairs from Pannikar to Admiral Kaul to K. Subramanyam and others, you will note that the Indian political and military establishments share what one might call an imperial vision, a British legacy. The Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after a country and hence, the sea-lanes, entrances and exits must be guarded. All external naval powers are intruders. This is India’s unwritten Monroe Doctrine based on an undeclared Manifest Destiny, the destiny of a nation that, like China, will be a Great Power in the 21st century. Lastly, Sri Lanka had the same democratic political system as India, the other neighbours being military dictatorships or monarchies.

Sri Lanka had two disputes with India, one regarded by all governments as a major irritant, and a cause for deep concern – the ‘alien’ presence of a million persons of Indian origin. India accepted the repatriation of 600,000 under two agreements, and conceded sovereignty over Kachchativu. Each took place under the rule of Mrs Bandaranaike. Two Tamil youths espousing separatism who escaped to India were sent back, tried and jailed. Yet, Sri Lanka did take a stand different from India on the Bangladesh war, proving that friendship does not always mean subservience.

Indian attitudes however hardened from around 1980. Mrs Gandhi was displeased about the return of the Asian Foundation and the Peace Corps; trifles, really. She was deeply suspicious of American designs on Trinco and infuriated by Sri Lanka’s position on Diego Garcia, in particular, and the Peace Zone Conference in general. She was also troubled by the VOA agreement and gravely worried about the Israeli interests section. From 1983 she flatly denied Sri Lanka’s allegation about the existence of separatist rebel training camps in Indian soil.

The new Indian perception of a hostile Sri Lanka led finally to the moving of India’s Southern Command to Trivandrum. Whether this perception was right or wrong, justified or not, is immaterial. Policies and strategies are based on such perceptions.

A small country can run the risk of pursuing a hostile policy towards a big neighbour if it has a countervailing protection power, a reliable one. I stress reliability because during the Bangladesh war, a US task force led by the USS ‘Enterprise’ did move into the Bay of Bengal, evidently to help Pakistan in her hour of distress, but the ‘Enterprise’ did nothing.

As in other fields of policy-making, choice is the essential question; not only the choices open to us, but the choices likely to be taken by others. If by our pro-American policy we had fondly imagined that the US would take our side against India, that has proved a grand illusion. After the advent of Mr Rajiv Gandhi‘s government, the US is even keener on improved relations with India as his recent visits show. Even a marginal improvement in that relationship would enhance the possibilities of an Indian foreign policy more equi­distant between the superpowers. And for that, the US is almost ready to grant India recognition of her regional pre-­eminence, a fact accepted by the USSR since the mid-fifties. The US’s response to Mr Gandhi’s initiative on Sri Lanka is a tacit acceptance of India’s regional responsibilities, and this would imply an admission of the prerogatives of pre-eminence.

Firstly, an ally of the Congress rules Tamilnadu. After the early March state elections, it is the Congress party’s only ally in the South of India where state leaders are trying to form an anti-Centre alliance. So Sri Lankan policy ignored geo-politics, the implications of the geo-strategic importance of India vis-a-vis the superpowers, and the significance of internal politics in India, especially in the South. Now we are paying the price of this folly.

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