By Malinda Seneviratne
This column focuses on local politics. As opposed to global affairs. However, ‘local-global’ is, as sociologists would point out, a false dichotomy. What happens or rather can happen here is by and large determined by overarching global political and economic structures. Local affairs don’t always shape global processes unless the particular ‘local’ enjoys privileged position in the overall structure, but they can inform the manner in which particular countries or country-collectives engage.
Let’s start with a few examples.
The previous government was the darling of Western powers. The leaders believed that the West would help. Then came Brexit. The leaders got the jitters. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suddenly opened his eyes and saw ‘The East’. This, after seniors in that administration, before and after the January 2015 election had made many disparaging comments about China, as one would expect for their view of the world was largely a matter of echoing the voice of Washington.
So, in essence, Britain sneezed and these ladies and gentlemen caught a cold.
That’s one side of the coin. The USA-led section of the ‘international community’ spared no pains to rubbish the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is no secret that Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign was actively backed by the USA. The language of engagement with ‘Sri Lanka’ changed. The US mission in Colombo, hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka over the coals with respect to largely inflated horror stories about the war, suddenly wanted the local Tamil allies to go easy on human rights. Come 2019 November the tone changed. Now this is not strange. One does not deal with known friends in the same way that one engages with perceived enemies.
This week, the global touch was inescapable for different but not unrelated reasons. A US story and an Indian story dominated political headlines, the former on account of the assault on Capitol Hill, Washington by supporters of Donald Trump and the latter having to do with the visit by the Indian Foreign Minister Subramanyam Jaishankar. The former is distant but makes for interesting comment considering Washington’s use and abuse of democracy. Sorry, the term ‘democracy.’ So let’s start right there.
On Wednesday supporters of Donald Trump, convinced that their champion had been robbed, gathered outside the Capitol building. They forced entry into the chamber of the House of Representatives wanting Congress to discard the results of the November 3 election. Four died, one from gunshot injuries. Dozens were arrested. Congress prevailed and Trump, in a predictably roundabout way, grudgingly announced he would leave office.
Democracy is the word here. An election was held. Sorry, a selection, for that’s essentially the political process which produces presidents in that country. Some claimed that there was jugglery. Some went to court. Court dismissed these petitions. Now, in the name of democracy, a bunch of irate Trump supporters (a minuscule minority of the voting population) decided that Congress should submit to their will. Trump, remember, lost the popular vote by a massive margin.
The entire carnival showed up the farce that is US politics. First, the vast majority of these ‘rebels’ were white. The way that the authorities responded was in stark contrast to the way that the police reacted to peaceful protests against white police brutality and racism over the past seven months. Racism is what colors the ‘fabric’ and racism tore that cloth a long time ago or rather, racism ensured that the threads would never make a textile worth talking about.
Secondly, we have to measure this against the standard US narrative on democracy and democratization outside its shores. No country has prostituted these terms the way Washington has. The US has invaded countries, mis-described rag-tag agitators as ‘pro-democracy masses’ who were then funded and armed, orchestrated military coups, supported the butchering of pro-democracy protesters who had been duly called ‘insurgents’ and dropped bombs. All in the name of democracy.
As a wit put it, ‘due to travel restrictions, Americans had to invade their own country this year.’ Here’s another that’s making the rounds on social media: ‘The US has invaded the US to spread democracy.’ And here’s the plum atop the pudding: ‘The US is honestly just a comedy show to the rest of the world right now.’
If only we could laugh! It’s no laughing matter to the victims of systemic brutality and racism in the USA. It’s no laughing matter to the recipients of ‘Democracy — US style.’
The Biden administration will no doubt say ‘that’s all Trump stuff’ and maintain the Washington Doctrine on International Affairs. Washington is quiet now. That ‘little affair’ has been sorted out. Democracy, they’ll say, has won the day. It will be business as usual. The US will resume lecturing the world about democracy, peace, human rights, co-existence and reconciliation. Representatives of the nations targeted will have to swallow down the giggles, IF they do see the hypocrisy that is — let’s not bet on that!
India. That’s the other big story. In your face and all. But first a preamble. India is part of the Quad, i.e. the shorthand for the Quadrilateral Security Dialog which includes the USA, Japan and Australia. The purpose is to contain China’s rise, the ‘Asian NATO’ as some call it, never mind that the USA is not part of Asia. The big Sri Lankan story for the USA in recent times was the MCC Compact. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government didn’t play ball. The US Embassy in a statement informed one and all that the deal was off. Chagrin was written all over it. The local ‘friends’ warned of serious repercussions. The UNHRC sessions are just weeks away. And we have Jaishankar visiting Sri Lanka.
Jaishankar, a retired diplomat and former Foreign Secretary, is well-known for working out ‘friendship’ with the USA and is mentioned for his role in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Just the other day, he signed on behalf of India, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) with the USA. The two countries are the more vocal of the four that make ‘The Quad.’ India, moreover, has expressed concerns about the so-called Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka, never mind the bloodstained Indian footprint courtesy the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The IPKF left, but the footprint remained. Jaishankar even mentioned it.
Sure, he spoke of the sweetener in all the deals he made or wanted to make with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of the eminently defensible ‘India First’ foreign policy of his government. He spoke of the Covid-19 vaccine. It is, as yet, untested. It is not expensive. India will give some vaccines FoC and some on a concessionary loan, most likely. Vaccine or not, only 0.5% of the infected will succumb to the virus. What’s the price Sri Lanka has to pay, though? Why, the 13th Amendment or more!
Jaishankar, addressing the media, used Eelam-speak. ‘A united Sri Lanka’ he said. Now ‘unity’ cannot be legislated. A federal arrangement does not necessarily mean unity and neither does a unitary system. Jaishankar doesn’t know, hasn’t been told or knows and ignores the fact that the two main candidates at the last presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa both pledged to uphold the unitary status of the country. Almost 95% of the country’s voting population voted for these two candidates.
Jaishakar doesn’t care. He has a script. He reads from it.
‘Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing,as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled.that applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.’
That’s a lecture. He or rather India wants Sri Lanka to inhabit his/India’s version of Sri Lanka’s reality. What’s the reality? The 13th is a white elephant. Romesh De Silva, who heads the experts’ committee tasked to draft a new constitution said as much about ten years ago. We have not had Provincial Council elections in years. No one has complained. Things could be better but no will argue that things are worse on account of PCs remaining dissolved.
The Indian foreign minister met with the President, Prime Minister and his Sri Lankan counterpart. It might appear that his powwows with the leaders of Tamil parties and the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa were cursory affairs but one hesitates in concluding thus. After all, the proposals to the constitution-drafting committee submitted by both the Tamil National Alliance and the Thamizh Makkal Tesiya Kootani both want the unitary character of the state undone. ‘Unity’ is the word both these entities use. Just like Jaishankar.
India or rather Delhi has a political issue to resolve in Tamil Nadu. There’s opposition to Delhi’s drive to make Hindi a national language in that state. Tamil Nadu is ok with ‘One India’ but not a ‘One India where Tamil could get diluted vis-a-vis Hindi.’ Appeasing Tamils in Sri Lanka, perhaps Delhi believes, might help sort out the political problem in the southern part of the country. ‘Help’ is the key word. It won’t be enough, but it’s not a stone that they would want to leave unturned.
Any devolution that grants control of parts of the country to Tamil political formations, they might believe, would compromise the integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The US could obtain by way of price an MCC Compact without an MCC Compact, so to speak. We don’t know if Jaishankar murmured ‘Geneva’ in his discussion with the president, prime minister and the foreign minister, but certain things can be said in silence.
There would have been talk of the contentious Eastern Terminal. India’s port development operations in the Andaman Islands is not a secret. Compromise the Colombo Port and Delhi is in easy sea-street.
There’s more local play to this story. Sajith Premadasa appointed Dayan Jayatilleke as his advisor on international affairs. Dayan’s genuflection before India is legendary. Not surprisingly, in an article published immediately after his appointment, Dayan responded to an announcement by the Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, who said, ‘China will promote the alignment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” manifesto to promote economic and social engagement between the two countries.
Now, there are two ways to interpret this statement. One is to believe that whatever part of the BRI that’s promoted will be framed by what’s pledged in Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. Nothing wrong with that. Dayan worries that it’s the other way about. He asks the legitimate question: ‘If President GR’s Sri Lanka has joined hands with China to respond to challenging international and regional situations according to a consensus between the two leaders, how will it take a nonaligned, equidistant or balanced stand with regard to US-China internationally and India-China regionally?’
He is the international affairs guru of the Opposition Leader and therefore the ball is in the court of Dinesh Gunawardena. He has to respond to this question.
Dayan, in the same article (‘The Xi factor, Delhi’s deterrence, and the Pakistan model’ in the Daily FT), berates the government for postponing the PC elections. He worries about what the new constitution would and would not do, never mind that we are yet to see a draft and never mind that obtaining the two-thirds parliamentary majority to get it passed will not be easy.
‘The new Constitution will kill the 13th Amendment and the semi-autonomous PC system, de-linking the Sri Lankan state from the Indo-Lanka Accord, removing not only a counterweight to de facto military rule over the island but also a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’
All this, yes, all of it, is almost like a speech written in Delhi. Consider this part: ‘a buffer against any potential foreign presence in Trincomalee contrary to the Accord’s Annexures.’ That’s the Indo-Lanka Accord. The annexures do talk of foreign presence but entities OTHER THAN INDIA! For Dayan, India is not ‘foreign’. Her footprint is alright. Is India part of Sri Lanka? Would Jaishankar respond to this question, ‘Yes, most certainly!’? Of course not. The implication is that Sri Lanka is part of India or rather India’s plaything. Pawn. There’s Indian hegemony written all over Dayan’s and therefore Sajith Premadasa’s and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s position on these matters.
And Jaishankar, kindly, invites Sajith Premadasa to visit Delhi. Maybe he will also facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the likes of M.A. Sumanthiran and C.V. Wigneswaran, a meeting that such politicians must have requested repeatedly from Indian diplomats in Colombo who they meet with frequently.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although in desperately depleted circumstances has chipped in with a request of his own. Yes, Jaishankar covered all the bases, even those that have become politically redundant. Wickremesinghe requested Jaishankar ‘to expedite the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine to Sri Lanka.’ Yes, that’s the sweetener.
What’s the price and who pays it? No one will ask Wickremesinghe. The likes of Premadasa need not answer. The likes of Dayan Jayatilleke are not required to answer and anyway, as has been the practice of this colorful commentator, he will use one convoluted argument after another, replete with selective examples from history and convenient quotes from theoretical texts to conclude ‘it’s worth the price!’.
The Government on the other hand, cannot beat around the bush. What’s the price you want us to pay for India’s ‘amazing’ vaccine, Mister President? What was agreed on our behalf and why?
Well, folks, that’s it for this week. A week where the local was more-than-usually overshadowed by ‘the international’ and where one half of ‘The Quad’ dominated. We’ve drawn and quartered, but just in an analytical sense. We would not be presumptuous to claim anything more!