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.
"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"
"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"
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 were (or claimed to be) sensitive to the pressures of human rights groups in their domestic constituencies, and to whom the human rights issue in itself was 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.