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Sunday, 28 February 2016

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A question of 'honour'

In the recent decade, we, Sri Lankans, had learnt to live in a world of make-believe when it came to our self-esteem. The discourse of 'greatness' and 'civilisation' so regularly expounded by politicians and their allies had begun to sound so hollow that one needed the mental gymnastics of pretence and self-delusion to continue believing in any semblance of national 'honour'.

Despite that election promise of 'peace with honour' on which many Sri Lankans voted in the presidential election of 2005, the subsequent tenure of the Rajapaksa regime only saw the country's name dragged in mud. The internal war may have physically ended in terms of actual armed confrontation, but, having experienced the bitter and sometimes bloody civil confrontations between communities that have occurred since then, we all know the social reality of a divided society. And if the 'peace' achieved can be seen to be brittle and incomplete, the question of 'honour' is something many Sri Lankans, till recently, avoided facing up to, knowing full well how the antics of the regime of the time had brought shame and dishonour to the country. Many were thankful that Sri Lanka was so little known in the world that, while travelling outside the country, there was little need to defend the stained national escutcheon.

The country which, at one time, was known and respected as the chair of the once-great Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), was barely able to retain its membership in the Commonwealth and was beginning to lose its advantages in global trade structures such as with the European Union and the United States of America, our biggest export markets. This was directly due to the uncivilised mess inside the country, with inter-community relations shattered by mob violence, rights violations, ethnic minority families fleeing the country for safety and prosperity abroad, and, the rigours foreign investors and traders experienced at the hands of plundering politicians and their bureaucrat henchmen. The ending of that regime of dishonour in 2015 has revived the country's image globally and slowly drawn the country back into the family of nations. If the last CHOGM - held here - is now only a bad memory, the recent string of visits by world leaders from both the East and the West marks the welcome by the world community to our return to the fold.

Last week, Sri Lanka hosted the executive committee meeting of the International Democratic Union (IDU), yet another global forum - this time, on the political plane - among the many that are of strategic value to nation-states 'on the make' in the global scene. The United National Party, a longstanding member of the IDU, was the hosting member organisation and, consequently, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as party leader, chaired the meeting.

The IDU, headquartered in Oslo, Norway, has 71 member political parties and associate member parties from 63 countries, and brings together political movements of the western liberal-conservative tradition across the globe. At present the IDU has member parties in government (including in Sri Lanka) and also in opposition. The holding of the executive committee meeting in Colombo must be seen as another gesture of 'welcome back' by the world community. New Zealand's Prime Minister chose to combine his attendance at the meeting - as chair of the IDU - with an official visit to Sri Lanka, bringing prospects of greater friendly relations and good business between the two countries. Significantly, the Colombo meeting was the occasion for confirming IDU membership for the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) of India, the party currently heading the coalition government in Delhi. Colombo's gesture of inclusion of an Indian party in the IDU will surely be appreciated by Delhi.

The BJP and its ideological allies are known for their strident form of Indian nationalism, a nationalist discourse that is seen by the Indian ethnic minority communities (and many Indian democracy monitors) as tending to favour the majority Hindu and Hindi-speaking communities and, consequently, being not so friendly toward the other religions and cultures making up the Indian nation. At the same, the BJP and its ideological circle has a history of ethno-centric disdain for the 'foreign', especially, the West. That this same BJP, despite its overly Indo-centric world view, sees fit to join such a western-originated international body as the IDU, indicates the careful calibration of the Indian ruling party's outlook on foreign policy and global political culture to gain the maximum leverage for its country on the world stage. The BJP's nationalism, unlike the nationalism espoused by the Rajapaksa regime and currently by its ideological fellow travellers, does not see the world outside as a threat. The BJP surely knows that becoming part of any larger community - be it official global bodies like the UN or, international political movements like the IDU - will require the joining member, whether a nation-state or an organisation, to submit to the norms and regulations of that community. That is a necessary discipline that is observed when one joins others in any venture that brings mutual benefit. That is what Sri Lanka experiences within all such international structures of which this country is a member.

After years of being told that the 'international community' is a threat to the nation, Sri Lankans are now discarding those ideological blinkers. To think that we can do anything we like and get away with it in a world that is peopled by many and not just ourselves is to suffer from a narcissism that, in turn, is a symptom of avijja and thanhaa. 'Honour' is something won within a community and, bestowed by that community and, not something achieved in isolation.

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