25 June, 2022


The ‘Ugly Sri Lankan’: How Sri Lanka Is Losing The Legitimacy War

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

I returned from New Delhi over the weekend having spent a week there while presenting a paper by invitation at a seminar organized by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) the oldest strategic studies think tank in Delhi. I do not think the attendees at the IDSA annual conference on South Asia could be said to simply reflect the opinion of the Indian government establishment. Though the IDSA is linked to government—and here I must add, it is not only the Ministry of Defence but also the Ministry of External Affairs that supports it– it conducts independent research and the research fellows and staff are independent minded specialists of top quality who do not take their cue from the Government of India. It is no echo chamber. There were around 150 members of the audience who were basically strategic and security policy analysts and area specialists, with a sprinkling of officials. One may call it a significant segment of the strategic studies community.

From what I could discern, there is some concern and confusion with regard to missed opportunities for post war reconciliation on the part of Sri Lanka, the slow pace of delivery on promises of devolution as per the 13th amendment, the lack of progress on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations, the long term alienation of the Northern Tamils by overly large military footprint in the North, and the attitude of ‘triumphalism’ in the discourse of the regime.

My conversations left me with the impression that these strategic analysts believe that militant Tamil Nadu sentiment could have been forestalled and could still be countered by adequate devolution and implementation of the LLRC which would revive and restore better relations between Colombo and Delhi. My interlocutors were concerned about a new political culture which seemed to have arisen in Sri Lanka which was less democratic, more authoritarian, more militarized, more religious and ethno nationalist and less open minded than they recall Sri Lanka as being. What is the direction in which Sri Lanka is going, and what is the future that Sri Lanka envisages, seemed to be a question. There was some amazement that the Sri Lankan establishment seemed to think that the globalization of the Lankan issue – most visibly in the form of UNHRC resolutions and forthcoming moves in Geneva– could be countered by Colombo with only the support of China and Pakistan. I definitely got the impression that Sri Lanka has an image problem in Indian public opinion, that it had depleted its soft power and that a sophisticated new generation of young activist-lobbyists from Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora were beating Sri Lanka in winning hearts and minds.

It is important for Sri Lanka not to appear to have a breach or downgrade in its relations with its sole neighbour who also happens to be one of two Asian superpowers and the only one who has a strategic relationship with the world’s sole superpower. The global Tamil Eelam movement is trying to shrink Sri Lanka’s international space and to isolate Sri Lanka. It is seeking to widen the gap between India and Sri Lanka. It is therefore in Sri Lanka’s interest that this does not happen.

Thus it would help us if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to attend. It would be a victory for the anti-Sri Lanka fanatics in Tamil Nadu if he did not attend and a victory of good sense if he did. It would also strengthen the pragmatists –or perhaps more accurately, the rational, pragmatic tendency or impulse– in government, state and society who/which won a crucial policy battle and pushed through the Northern provincial election after a quarter of a century. A downgrade in India’s representation would discredit the pragmatists and strengthen the arguments of the xenophobic elements within the State. From the point of view of India’s enlightened self-interest I do not see how it could be beneficial to be perceived as succumbing to political blackmail by Tamil Nadu in an issue of foreign policy. Such a retrenchment would subtract from India’s soft power in the South Asian region.

The campaign against Sri Lanka in the UK and Canada and the criticism that will manifest itself at the summit and its sidelines, should be a reality check for the Sri Lankan state. India, Canada and the UK are far from insignificant states. The Malaysian Opposition has also called for a boycott. Though the boycott call will fail, the volatility in the international arena around the Colombo CHOGM shows that the Sri Lankan state has lost the battle for international public opinion. Graham Greene once wrote a famous novel called ‘The Ugly American’. Thanks to the hubristic and truculent post-war ethos and discourse of the regime, it has been possible for the anti-Sri Lanka global campaigns to project an image of ‘The Ugly Sri Lankan’, or more correctly, ‘The Ugly Sinhala State’. We have almost lost our soft power, while Burma/Myanmar has regained hers! We have a chance to re-grow our soft power if we change our political culture and behaviour once we take over as Commonwealth chair. If we don’t we’ll be a propaganda, political, diplomatic and even economic target, a veritable dart board, as never before.    

There was a clear sense at the seminar in Delhi that the states—and certainly this includes Tamil Nadu—would have a greater salience in domestic politics and perhaps even foreign policy, than before. In a speech significantly enough in Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi has called for a greater role in foreign policy to be given to India’s states. This is something that Sri Lanka will have to factor in and reckon with. The Tamil Diaspora is stronger and more in touch with Tamil Nadu than ever before, there is more anti-Lankan fanatical sentiment in Tamil Nadu than ever before, Tamil Nadu is more influential at the Centre (Delhi) than ever before and India is a closer strategic partner of the USA than ever before. It is a great and complex challenge to Sri Lanka. The regime’s strategic policy planners are out of their analytical league, out of their conceptual depth.                                  

There was no fear of China, because India is a self confident power which considers itself a marathon runner as one participant described it, due to the presumed systemic superiority in the long term of democracy and democratic values. India’s self confidence also stems from its new and growing partnership with the US and the West, cemented by those common democratic structures and values.  It also rests on India’s naval power which can use the Andaman and Nicobar islands to make China’s supply routes less than invulnerable. It was noteworthy that the country that had made most headway in South Asia in economic relations with China is none other than India itself. So there is a strong element of cooperation with China. There is however a discernible element, not of hostility, animosity or antagonism, but competition.

Within the conference, those of us – all ex-ambassadors- from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh maintained a common posture of refusing to budge from our nonalignment between China and India and to engage in any unfair or one-sided criticism of China. We defended China against any such criticism. Outside the formal conference proceedings there was a bit of irritation that Sri Lanka seemed to think unrealistically and irrationally it could sustainably countervail India and its Western partner by clutching at a distant China.

I urged against a role in foreign policy for Tamil Nadu that smacks more of a confederation rather than a quasi-federal India, and that if such a role were perceived to have been accorded and if India’s Sri Lanka policy seems unduly influenced by an anti-Lankan pan-Tamilian nationalist, pro-Tamil Eelamist Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka would act or react as any state would under the circumstances anywhere and at any time in history, when there is a threat on a vulnerable periphery from a neighbouring landmass. It would seek out whatever allies it can get—and here I quoted Kautilya’s Arthashathra, to the effect that one’s neighbour’s neighbour is one’s natural ally. I also argued that undue external pressure would cause devolution to a vulnerable periphery would be scrutinized under a security microscope for its centrifugal and irredentist potential, and that within the state and ruling bloc there would be hardening and a shift in the centre of gravity.

There must be no illusions that our problems will cease or abate with a change of administration in Delhi. In fact a Modi administration will not be like the earlier BJP administration of Atal Behari Vajpayee. A Modi administration will be more robust and tough-minded in its reactions to perceived Chinese and Pakistani influence in India’s neighbourhood. It will regard China as more a rival than a mere competitor, especially in the South Asian region. A Modi administration will also have a far greater role for Jayalalithaa. Both these factors cannot but impact adversely on Sri Lanka. Lord Buddha recommended that the searchlight should be turned inwards. We need reflection, introspection, to understand why we are losing international support, losing the international battle, while having obtained much international support a mere four or five years ago.

This is a strictly post-war deterioration and decline in our international standing. Turning the searchlight inwards is the very opposite of what the strategists and ideologues of the regime are doing– which is to blame everyone apart from oneself; to see the source of the problem in everybody other than ourselves and our own attitudes. One of Sri Lanka’s traditional strengths over decades has been our democratic political culture, the rule of law and the control of the civilian authorities over the military. We were almost a Third World exception and even a South Asian exception, together with India. Now the growing external perception is that Sri Lanka is moving towards authoritarianism, ethno-religious majoritarianism and an excessively large role for the military. This is the profile of Sri Lanka that must be changed for the better. This profile is credible, though exaggerated, because the evidence is provided by the backward, arrogant and crude discourse of the regime itself– and here I am not referring to President Rajapaksa who is a much more pragmatic and flexible personality with decades of experience in the give and take of democratic politics.  Our international vulnerability greatly increased and our international support decreased precisely in the second Presidential term, not the first one which covered the war years. In the post-war years covering the second presidential term, there has been a shift in the ratio of forces within the regime and state.

That has in turn caused a shift in the discourse and profile of the regime, which is what has made us such an easy target in the global arena. Even our external relations and foreign policy discourse has become ‘securitized’ and hawkish. In a grotesquely surrealistic turn our embassies and the practices of our diplomats have become increasingly given over to mono-religious ritual. The most influential stakeholders and interlocutors in relation to our embassies are not the best educated youth, the top professionals and persons of achievement in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, but the chief incumbents of the local temples in those countries! None of this helps our external profile or help Sri Lanka communicate with the politicians and opinion makers of those countries. We no longer know how best to communicate persuasively with the world. We no longer know how to dialogue or even to debate and argue credibly.

Instead, we declaim. We must change our profile, and here we have the excellent example of Burma/Myanmar. We have a great opportunity with CHOGM and our imminent tenure as Chairperson. All we have to do is to take our new role seriously and act according to democratic, pluralist Commonwealth values. We must be a good, exemplary Chair. More concretely, we must immediately implement of the core proposals of the LLRC with regard to accountability and the appointment of a high-powered Human Rights Commissioner, while we must have a structured dialogue mechanism with the Northern Provincial Council and the TNA leadership on the subject of implementing the 13th amendment. But we must most certainly not move in the direction of federalization of the Sri Lankan state, which is dangerous, given that we are a small island with no ‘strategic defence in depth’, and there are seriously hostile Tamil Eelamist trends across a narrow strip of water in Tamil Nadu.

*This article is based on an interview given to Lasanda Kurukulasuriya of the Sunday Times, Colombo, which appeared on Nov 3, 2013 in her column ‘From the Sidelines’ under the caption “Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora – ‘A great and complex challenge to Sri Lanka’ ”.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    DJ’s premise is that we are “perceived” as the ugly Sri Lankan.

    Does he not know that no amount of good advertising can sell a bad product?

    Sri Lanka is rotting at the core and as long as we live in denial, we will continue the decay and the perception will remain.

    The starting point is to look inwards and reflect the significant milestones on our long journey of self deceit.

    Once we understand and course correct I am sure we don’t need those watching us, be they military, or political strategists to show us the way.

    Until then we will remain the ugly Sri Lankan!

    Sin Hela

  • 0

    Why is a only a perception. Why not accept the reality of ‘Ugly Sri Lankan’.
    Modda too. As Dayan has been able to demonstrate in his illustrious political carrier.

  • 0

    Provincial council system is not suitable for Srio Lanka. Bring back district councils. Jaffna Tamils were brought in to work in tobacco farms in Jaffna by Dutch

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