Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 14 February 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

From Malé to Pyongyang

First, barely a year into a new government, Sri Lanka was actively lending its 'good offices' helping in the collective international effort to nurse a jittery government in the Maldives into more carefully handling a complex internal political battle involving, especially, the fate of a previous head of government in Malé. The discreet role played by Sri Jayawardenepura in tandem with moves by Delhi, London, Washington DC and other international facilitators seems to have eased some political tensions in that tiny Indian Ocean nation for whom Sri Lanka is a 'big sister' given historic and even demographic ties over a millennia old.

Then, last week, Sri Jayawardenepura looked far eastward and made a formal - if brief - pronouncement about activities by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) that may endanger the stability of the north-east Asian region. To some Sri Lankans, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry statement 'condemning' a rocket missile launch by North Korea would have sounded uncomfortably like statements by foreign governments and global bodies in the past that criticised certain internal Sri Lankan actions and policies.

'Sovereignty!' some Sri Lankans screamed at the time, some even pretending at 'death fasts' in their ultra-nationalist posturing. 'Sovereignty', originally a Euro-Christian theological formula used in the medieval 'Protestant' revolt against the Vatican, is today virtually local ultra-nationalist theology used to whip up political opposition to current attempts to rationally manage our nationhood without further communal fracturing. What irony that a Christian formula of an entirely different region is embraced here by non-Christian activists for quite mundane political purposes.

Sri Lankans do not need any lectures by foreign experts to understand the limited meaning - if at all - of 'sovereignty' in terms of polities and states and relations between states of any kind. South Asia's great and complex civilisation has its own rich political experience and heritage from the time of the Buddha and even before - the Mahabharatha - to learn that political entities, whether a Mauryan empire or a city-state or a princedom in the Ruhuna, survive and flourish in relation to their neighbours in complex balances of power.

From the Arthashastra to the Ain-I-Akbari (The Constitution of Akbar) we have a dense South Asian discourse that teaches us that state craft and inter-state relations are never simple or bound purely by ethics or fixed principles of any single era or tradition. And it is this healthy understanding of complete flexibility, but a flexibility and fluidity based on a realism of knowing the contours of actual geographical, economic and social location, that gives us the solid grounding for creative and enlightened foreign relations.

This is how Sri Jayawardenepura retains close and friendly ties with Beijing even as ties with Delhi are brought back on course and even as our good friends in Islamabad and Dhaka are kept within our regional 'family' circle.

This is because we know the importance of 'community' both regional and global. Once we are members of the UN and numerous other multi-lateral global bodies, then, to that degree, we are bound by extra-national laws and norms and procedures to which we must adhere, if we wish to be part of the community.

Sri Lanka's new international relations posture under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime is refreshingly outward-looking, after nearly a decade of frog-in-the-well navel-gazing during the Rajapaksa years with that regime's pretensions about 'sovereignty'. The navel-gazing was such that the serious geo-political implications of allowing the country to blithely host naval movements by an extra-regional power at the very door-step of the regional power were not understood by the government of the time. Fortunately, the voters moved decisively before such navel outlooks actually brought down severe geo-political reactions that would have further undermined an already fragile national stature on the global stage.

The current government is already equipped with expert capacities to better manage foreign policy, even without having to learn from some bitter lessons of the past. And such bitter lessons are there to be learnt even during previous eras of government when similar attempts were made to play off the regional power against extra-regional powers whether East or West.

Now that pronouncements have been made about developments in north-east Asia, the world may look to see how Sri Jayawardenepura perceives even more volatile hot spots like the terrible injustices in Palestine, the multiple insurgencies in the Persian Gulf region and, the instabilities in South Asia as well.

Of course, both Kautilya of the Shastra and Abu'l Fazl of the Akbari teach us not to rush into things and we should not. What is important is that such international engagement as expressed in heartfelt concerns about the fates of communities and peoples around us will lead us out of our navel-gazing. Such engagement with the world community provides us with a better perspective of ourselves within the various contexts of our national existence in the world. It is only then, with such a comparative outlook, that we can better ourselves and our nation.


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