Sri Lanka’s foreign policy: clash of ideologies and realpolitik
By Uditha Devapriya
Colombo, Jan 21 (newsin.asia): Historically, Sri Lanka’s relationship with the world has been determined by a number of factors. The country has moved from one position to another, allying itself with different interests at different points. While politics was largely shaped by the principles of non-alignment, that did not prevent him from seeking friendships that went beyond those imperatives. Indeed, whenever it needed help, the government of the day turned to anyone it could turn to. More often than not, he got the support he wanted and put it to good use.
Foreign policy flourished under the first three administrations of the SLFP (1956-1959, 1960-1965 and 1970-1977) and became heavy under the first three administrations of the UNP (1948-1956, 1965-1970 and 1977-1989 ). This does not mean that all was well under the SLFP and all was bad under the UNP. But on a balanced note, the SLFP has attempted to implement a more coherent and far-reaching set of policies, an endeavor in which it has largely been successful.
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The UNP, on the other hand, tends to define itself in relation to British economic domination over the country, particularly in the plantations. This forced him to favor continuity over change. So, in the same period, he antagonized China, India, and Russia, convinced that Whitehall and Washington would come to its aid.
When this did not materialize and after being rejected at the polls, he began to formulate a foreign policy negatively, in opposition to any position taken by the SLFP; to give an example, from its initial position of hostility towards India, the UNP sided with our northern neighbor after Sirimavo Bandaranaike became involved in the Sino-Indian war.
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Perhaps the most tumultuous period for our external relations was the JR Jayewardene administration. Turning away from its brief truce with India, Jayewardene’s UNP continued to antagonize that country, hoping its alignment with the West would make up for the loss of what was clearly a crucial friendship. Here too, the underlying principle seems to have been that of opposition to the position of the SLFP: the Bandaranaike government having moved closer to India, the UNP saw nothing wrong in alienating itself from it.
Jayewardene’s biographers, KM de Silva and Howard Wriggins, have attempted to blame what followed on the machinations of Indian intelligence services and South Indian politicians. But their version of events ignores the actions of the UNP regime, including its abandonment of the principles of non-alignment and its mess in the 1983 riots. Nor does it give enough weight to the fact that Indian intelligence services reinforced their support for Tamil militants after these riots, and that by reducing the country’s presence in the Non-Aligned Movement, the UNP was exposing it to the pressures of regional power rivalries.
Different scholars give different explanations as to why the UNP behaved the way it did in the country’s foreign relations. Many agree that its policies were less successful than those of the SLFP, but almost all suggest that this was due to factors beyond the party’s control. For example, one scholar, citing Jayewardene, argues that the country opposed the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union vetoed the island’s entry into the United Nations, while another argues the distinction between a pro-Western and “Western-oriented” policy – whatever that means – claiming that the Senanayake government has touted the latter line, supposedly out of pragmatic considerations.
Almost none of these accounts note what is, to me, an intriguing paradox. How is it that the UNP, a party which today prides itself on its “internationalist” vision, failed to build a truly internationalist foreign policy? How is it that this task could have been fulfilled by the SLFP, a party that the bourgeoisie allied to the UNP portrays today as an insular entity?
To ponder these questions, I think, is to assume that to be an internationalist requires being Westernized and a member of the Westernized elite, or even holding political office consistent with such an upbringing. But is this necessarily the case?
The Westernized bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, on the whole, has not cut itself off from the sources of the country’s past. Being westernized did not necessarily mean being immune to the country’s historical developments. Local elites may have been indifferent to the plight of the poorer masses, but that has not blinded them to the practices and beliefs of those masses. Therefore, in the same vein with which the DS Senanayake government could subjugate the defense establishment and the foreign service to British interests, it could also stoke lingering fears of Indian domination to win the election.
If ever a cosmopolitan outlook entered the country in the 20th century, it was not through the colonial elite. It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Opposition to colonial rule and lack of official patronage combined to politicize popular religion, entrenching a revival among the Sinhalese middle class. Aware of these developments, the bourgeoisie drifted from the Anglicanism of its youth to Buddhism, seeing no gap between its comprador economic interests and the populist inclinations of its new faith.
With the entry of the left, a cosmopolitan outlook finally made its way into the country. Well-educated and resolutely radical, stalwarts of the LSSP and the Communist Party sought to transform the country into a modern nation-state through a socialist program. But the comprador elite, fearing the dangers these formations posed to their interests, plotted to stir up popular ethno-religious sentiment against them.
That these developments extended to the country’s foreign policy hardly needs mentioning. As Hector Abhayavardhana has noted, despite its “formal secular character”, the state of Ceylon “has succumbed to the urge of its ruling politicians to exploit the religious sensibilities of the masses for political ends”. So long as the ruling class felt they had satisfied these sensitivities, they could pursue policies that perpetuated the island’s status as a semi-independent plantation colony tied to the imperial master, Britain.
For the most part, the Sinhalese bourgeoisie has acquiesced to this state of affairs. They failed to realize that while the comprador elite could satisfy their cultural demands, they could not transform the country into a modern nation-state. It was the left that took on such a task and emphasized the link between cultural and political independence, the latter being defined in terms of declaring Ceylon a republic, leaving the Commonwealth and wresting control of the means of production from foreign ownership. .
The foreign policy of the UNP during its first 10 years in power was more or less the policy of a party learning to deal with the world for the very first time. Tied to the capitals of the West, she could not think beyond allegiance to the West. It was perhaps to be expected that he used cultural rhetoric to define his relations with other countries: we have it from JR Jayewardene, for example, that DS Senanayake believed he would be reborn “to help the struggle against communism. Such doctrinaire thinking could not last long: after the UNP finalized the rubber-rice pact with Beijing, its officials drew a line between the Soviets and the Chinese on the grounds that ignoring the latter “would be unrealistic”.
After joining the SLFP, the left succeeded in shifting the country’s foreign policy towards a more progressive direction, basing it not only on non-alignment but also on an acute perception of political developments abroad. Mervyn de Silva and Hector Abhayavardhana worked on the foreign policy of the United Front manifesto of 1970. This policy was not based on an abstract friendship with everyone, but on a recognition of our place in the world and our obligation towards the world at large: a position that Dayan Jayatilleka has described as “the culmination of an independent international perspective” in Sri Lanka. .
Such a perspective could not emanate from the ranks of an elite imbued with a compradorist and colonialist ideology. It had to come from a more internationalist mindset, the kind that the left had. This may surprise those who associate modernity with cultural or political westernization, but it is true: this is why, in most former colonies and dependent states, be it India or Cuba, the elite dependence has not produced true artists, scientists, thinkers, intellectuals – or, for that matter, diplomats. This is also why Fidel Castro understood the need to maintain his country’s profile abroad and chose not to close his diplomatic service even after the country stopped receiving Soviet aid.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the UNP and SLFP, as well as the SLPP, seem to have succumbed to the insular leanings of the dependent bourgeoisie today, in part because the left as it once dominated does not no longer exists, but also because the education policies of the last four decades have managed to take us back. The situation is so bleak that, while looking towards the West, we also consider ourselves superior to all others: a phenomenon that Rajiva Wijesinha dissects well in his book on Sri Lanka and Geneva.
As surprising as it may seem to some, there is no contradiction between these mindsets, just as there was no contradiction between the cosmopolitan veneer of the elite and their insular cultural conditioning. In any case, whatever the case, these attitudes have prevented the formulation of a Sri Lankan foreign police. We clearly have a long way to go to accomplish this task. The sad thing, of course, is that we haven’t even started.
The author can be reached at [email protected]
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