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
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.