Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan met Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday.
In 1996 Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup. The internet was in its infancy at the time. ‘Social media’ wasn’t a household term. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and such. There was www.cricinfo.com and, just as now, there was commentary. There was no room for outside comment though. ‘Online’ comments were restricted to what now seems a rudimentary facility called soc.culture.cricket which was where the ‘fandits’ pontificated and argued with one another.
India faced Pakistan in a quarterfinal. Not surprisingly, in that forum the Pakistanis and Indians, who had for a long time argued over who was better, Sunil Gavaskar or Zaheer Abbas, went at each other. The Sri Lankans observed. India won and the Indians crowed. The Pakistanis went silent.
Next, India had to face Sri Lanka in one of the semifinals. The Indians, by dint of superior numbers drowned the Sri Lankans who anyway didn’t seem interested in the prediction game. The Pakistanis, however, backed Sri Lanka, possibly less on account of perceptions of relative strength than the desire for a consolation prize. Sri Lanka won. The Sri Lankans were obviously pleased. Some whooped. Most just looked ahead to the final (against Australia). The Indians went silent. The Pakistanis were noisy.
Next, the final. Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans all discovered a common voice. They wanted Sri Lanka to win. Sri Lanka won. Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis rejoiced. Together.
Of course it is dangerous to extrapolate from the above and come to conclusions about general perceptions of the citizens of these countries. As inappropriate would be to conclude that Pakistan and India are sworn enemies that the friendship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan is way stronger than relations either country has with India.
We see signs and we read them. We can but shouldn’t over read. On the other hand, we have Imran Khan (first a cricketer loved by all cricket fans regardless of nationality and now the Prime Minister of Pakistan) visiting Sri Lanka even as a resolution on (read, ‘against’) Sri Lanka is being debated at the 46th sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva. His visit follows a straining of relations between Sri Lanka and India on account of the East Container Terminal issue and multiple power projects with Chinese involvement.
Some talk of the ‘traditional status quo of Sri Lanka’s relations with the West, especially America (sic)’ as though it was some kind of endless honeymoon. It was not. It is not. There’s bullying
India, given its frayed relations with Pakistan and with China, can’t be overjoyed. India can blame Sri Lanka, but India would do well to reflect on her foreign policy prerogatives and ask itself one question; having got cosy with the USA (the country with the most horrendous human rights track record by the way), which has taken a strong anti-Sri Lanka position in Geneva, is it surprising that Sri Lanka sees China as a better friend?
Now some believe that the USA still loves Sri Lanka because Mike Pompeo visited Sri Lanka. Pompeo was essentially on a whistle-stop tour in the middle of a larger exercise — giving China the collective finger (the others in the collective being India, Australia and Japan). Some think that India has been amiable and that’s utter nonsense. India, which reneged on the Indo-Lanka Accord, has continued to talk of the 13th Amendment, a document that has lost all credence. Indian leaders are back to using ‘Bhutanization’ rhetoric (the term was coined by Rajiv Gandhi). That’s not amiable. That’s not being ‘amenable’. That’s bullish.
Some talk of the ‘traditional status quo of Sri Lanka’s relations with the West, especially America (sic)’ as though it was some kind of endless honeymoon. It was not. It is not. There’s bullying. There’s little outside of the USA (ab)using economic and military power to coerce successive governments to bend and twist so that US strategic and economic interests are obtained. As for EU largesse, it must be remembered that despite US saber-rattling over the rise of China, the EU has adapted to changing realities of global power balance. Sri Lanka was an early bird, one might say, except that Sri Lanka had less choice in the matter, thanks to the machinations of the USA, UK, some countries in the EU and the foreign policy choices of India.
The bottom line is Sri Lanka is not in Pick-and-Choose Land. It would be silly to say Sri Lanka has picked China over India or China over the USA. Those choices were made by India and the USA. They were also influenced by global power balance realities. It is not that Sri Lanka alienated itself from the USA and Europe. Only those who are oblivious to the vexatious persecution of these powers can make such claims. We are not seeing incorrigibility on the part of the government’s policy. Well, we could say that if we buy the hogwash that the USA/Europe or the Quad is made of virtue and nothing else or if ‘choosing the inhabit their versions of Sri Lanka’s reality’ is deemed a virtue, but that’s just the product of a mind with a penchant
So, if we return to the cricketing metaphor, Sri Lanka is batting on a pitch viciously doctored AFTER the other side has bullied her on a flat track. The umpires in the middle and those making DRS calls are co-opted creatures bent on deciding against Sri Lanka regardless of what happened in the middle.
Sri Lanka is essentially pushed out of the ground. If that’s the case, then Sri Lanka has to play cricket somewhere else. Imran Khan is a good cricketer and an astute politician. He knows these things. He won’t say ‘your foreign policy is incorrigible.’ He won’t say ‘corrigible’ because that assumes error. He might say ‘well, you have to read the pitch, read the opponent, play the percentages.’ He might say ‘under the circumstances, you are not doing too badly, brother.’
[The author is the Director of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. The views expressed here are his own.]