he inordinate interest shown by Western states and their Colombo-based diplomats in Sri Lanka’s political imbroglio, sparked off by the President Maithripala Sirisena’s sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct. 26, formed an interesting side-show to the actual political developments as they played out in the country. The actions and statements of these emissaries, even as events continue to unfold, offer much food for thought about the motivation behind this unnatural focus on an internal
Sri Lankan conundrum.
Following the proroguing of parliament by the president, and then its dissolution, there was a raft of statements from diplomats of the US, UK, Canada and the EU demanding that Sri Lanka’s parliament should be reconvened. In moves that raised eyebrows, a group of them met with the ousted PM, and a delegation, accompanied by the UN resident representative for good measure, met the Speaker of parliament to influence him to this end. They warned of inimical consequences. The EU threatened to withdraw GSP+ concessions; a former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power even suggested ‘targeted sanctions.’ Two outspoken former Sri Lankan ambassadors to the UN - Tamara Kunanayagam and Dr. Palitha Kohona have described this behaviour as unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, alleging the Western envoys’ conduct is in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
One only has to reverse the situation and imagine how one of these Western countries would react if a diplomat from a lesser power on the world stage took similar liberties, to understand the imperial arrogance at play here. If a Sri Lankan ambassador in Washington publicly made gratuitous judgements on political controversies in the US – whether they be allegations of Russian meddling, Trump’s immigrant policies, unilateral sanctions against third parties trading with US’ enemies, or whatever - how would the US react? There is established diplomatic protocol for envoys to observe while serving in their host countries, but it appears what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander.
Sri Lanka’s judiciary has ruled on the clash between executive and legislature that was fast spiralling out of control and, for now, a semblance of order has been restored. There may be subterranean currents of discontent and intrigue in an underlying structural crisis that is yet to unfold in full. Instability is likely to persist till people have their say in a parliamentary election that reveals the true balance of forces.
Western diplomats who were the subject of some media interest as they sat, all agog in the gallery of parliament and in the court houses, tracking Sri Lankan events at micro-level, have breathed a collective sigh of relief with the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa and reinstatement of Western-friendly Wickremesinghe as PM. Their statements this time around referred to readiness to ‘support sustainable and accountable reform and human rights’ (UK), support for ‘national reconciliation and prosperity for all’ (EU), calls to “deliver on accountability, constitutional reform and reconciliation” (Canada). One may ask what the connection is, between accountability, constitutional reform, national reconciliation etc. and a court ruling on the legality of a move made by Sri Lanka’s president to dissolve parliament.
It is not without reason that the ‘human rights-accountability-reconciliation-constitutional reform’ refrain has surfaced again, and at this moment in time. In order to see the full picture, it is useful to take note that these statements come from countries lying outside the geographical area where claims are nowadays being voiced, to being stakeholders in the Indian Ocean. It may be noticed that countries that do assert themselves in this maritime region, in their comments all mention ‘Indian Ocean’ or ‘Indo-Pacific.’ Sri Lanka is described as a ‘valued partner in the Indo-Pacific’(US); a ‘longstanding friend and partner in the Indian Ocean’ (Australia); and commitment is expressed towards achieving ‘peace, stability and prosperity in Sri Lanka and the Indo Pacific’ (Japan). Both categories of countries – those making claims in the Indian Ocean and those who have less maritime presence, have the same strategic focus – a geographic location at the cross-roads of vital sea lanes, the control of which may determine who rules the world in years ahead.
Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour India, whose concerns about what goes on in Sri Lanka are historical, and more understandable, made no mention of the Indian Ocean or ‘Indo Pacific.’ It said “As a close neighbour and true friend, India welcomes the resolution of the political situation in Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka’s internal affair was not a preoccupation for most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
"Instability is likely to persist till people have their say in a parliamentary election that reveals the true balance of forces"
Western countries that cannot make direct hegemonic claims in the Indian Ocean, but need to make common cause with those that do, have a Sword of Damocles in the form of the Geneva resolutions to rein in Sri Lanka and make it an obedient client. It may be recalled that the Canadian High Commissioner in his initial reaction to the events of Oct 26, made reference to the Geneva commitments when he said (to the puzzlement of many): “The Government of Sri Lanka needs to take concrete steps to meet its commitments to its own people - and the international community - with respect to accountability, transitional justice and ending impunity.”
The desire to assert dominance in the geopolitical ‘great game’ in the Indian Ocean goes a long way to explain the over-the-top reactions of Western states to Sri Lanka’s political in-fighting. The most candid admission of the real reasons for the Western need to protect Wickremesinghe, and be rid of Rajapaksa, was made by former US ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake. In an article published in the Daily Mirror of Dec 7. Blake made reference to the likelihood of a Rajapaksa (Gotabhaya) victory in a possible upcoming presidential election, and issued a veiled warning of consequences a future SLPP government might suffer on account of losing favour with the US. While the usual references to ‘democracy and good governance’ were made, he soon got to the real reason for preoccupation with this Indian Ocean island. Shedding crocodile tears for the difficulties that Hambantota port project ran into, he suggested that Sri Lanka, among others participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, would be better off with the US’s counter-funding mechanisms such as Millennium Challenge and International Development Finance Corporation “… as Xi Jinping doubles down on BRI and continues projects that will give Beijing the capacity to exert control over international waters in the South China Sea.”
In a world order moving towards multi-polarity, and in which western dominance is increasingly challenged, is this an example of how the US deploys an insidious combination of carrot and stick to cling to its slipping status as the world’s superpower? What is important for Sri Lanka is that Western motivation needs to be seen for what it is (not what they SAY it is). It is the Sri Lankan people who must decide whether a Wickremesinghe or a Rajapaksa (or someone else) will be Prime Minister.