Defending and protecting Sri Lanka

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

It was just weeks ago that I raised with ‘policy wonks’ in Paris, the possibility that Western over-assertiveness in North Africa, chiefly Libya, would carry the price tag of heightened threat perceptions in Russia and impact upon domestic politics there. I may have been right. Prospects of a greater assertion of multi-polarity and greater resistance to ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ have been enhanced with the ruling United Russia Party unanimously approving a proposal moved by President Medvedev that Vladimir Putin would be its Presidential candidate at the elections scheduled for March 2012. The tandem will almost certainly remain with President Medvedev reverting to the post of Prime Minister.

That sliver of Sri Lankan opinion and that swathe of Western opinion about Sri Lanka that cannot understand the citizenry’s option for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, should understand the ingredients of the popularity of Mr. Putin, a triad of a strong re-assertive Russian statist patriotism after the confusion, disintegration, unilateral concessions and ‘national humiliation’ of the Yeltsin years, political stability and security and rapid economic advance.  

While the Putin prospect overlaying Russia’s consistent support (most recently at the UN HRC sessions in Geneva) make the world a little safer for Sri Lanka, no country must place its eggs in any single basket.

Take the issue of Palestine, in support of whose independence President Rajapaksa spoke prominently and unambiguously in his address to the UNGA. The militarily powerful state that is simultaneously its occupier, adversary and peace partner enjoys an open-ended relationship with the world’s sole superpower but finds it dangerously isolated and vulnerable. Why so? What are the lessons to be learnt? Chiefly, that playing for time must not become a strategy when time is not on one’s side and that digging in and tightening one’s grip on territory and people in the name of security actually enhances one’s insecurity if the factor of time has led to an erosion of sympathy and support in one’s strategic surroundings and in the wider world, especially in the intangible territory of world opinion. 

Any analysis and strategy for Sri Lanka in the face of external pressure must recognize and act on the pivotal role played by the emergent intermediate powers, notably the BRICS –Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa –plus Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and Iran. 

If one has to identify a single critical or crucial variable for Sri Lanka, it is India, but our strategy cannot be reduced to Indian support. The Indian factor must neither be overlooked nor oversimplified. Sri Lanka imperatively needs her neighbour’s friendship and support. India was and is an indispensable factor in a successful defense of Sri Lanka in any international forum, but it is not a sufficient factor to guarantee victory. A few weeks after we fought and won our battle in Geneva in May 2009, Myanmar lost in the same forum though it had the votes of India, Russia and China. So the secret of our victory in 2009 was not simply and solely India, but India AND China AND Russia– and not only these. There was not a single Asian vote against us. We had Asia AND Africa AND Latin America. In short we constructed, by convincing others, a broad, global bloc; a broad united front. We will find it almost impossible to win without India’s support, and we cannot win if India ever turns against us, but we cannot win only with India’s support.   We must always remember that many Asian, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American states will take their cue from India. India has a wide presence and is widely respected among Sri Lanka’s friends. We must rally our neighbourhood in our support. We must have the solid support of our continent, Asia. We must balance the South against hostile sections of the North and the East against hostile sections of the West. India is pivotal in all these defensive moves and it is difficult to implement any of them if India is against or conspicuously on the sidelines. If, as some critical commentaries assert, India’s position has changed, or is changing, or might possibly change, from that of our May 2009 UN HRC victory, we must seek out the reasons and rectify them jointly.

We must certainly strive to countervail the mounting anti-Lankan opinion in Indian civil society and the media, militant opinion in Tamil Nadu and the lobbying of certain Western elements. We must secure Delhi’s support and swing Indian public and political opinion firmly over to Sri Lanka’s side. This cannot be done by purely verbal means but by policy reforms. As a UN based top official of Sri Lanka’s firmest, most powerful international friend told me once, “short of capitulating on or compromising its vital security interests, Sri Lanka must do what it takes to help its friends to help it”.    

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