Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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President Sirisena at the G7 Summit – The Yahapalanaya Foreign Policy

Posted by harimpeiris on May 30, 2016

President Sirisena at the G7 Summit – The Yahapalanaya Foreign Policy

By Harim Peiris

 

President Maithripala Sirisena, together with a team of senior ministers, including Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrama, Ravi Karunanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera and Navin Dissanayake, participates by invitation at the G7 Summit, that elite collective of the world’s richest and most economically powerful nations which drive the global economy and whose economies together comprise a significant part of global economic output. This is the first time ever that a Sri Lankan head of state has by invitation, participated in the G7 Summit and it marks a remarkable turnaround in Sri Lanka’s international standing and honour among the community of nations.

 

It is no secret that under President Rajapakse, during his second term of office, Sri Lanka’s foreign relations and place in the world, stewarded by the good Professor GL Peiris (no kinsman, I hasten to add), sank to new lows, with deteriorating relations with Sri Lanka’s largest trading partners from the US, India, UK and the EU. With regard to relations with the latter, Sri Lanka lost its GSP plus preferred trade status, with an estimated annual loss of over half a billion Euro. With regards India, Sri Lanka so antagonised our giant neighbour, that it reversed a long standing policy on country specific resolutions at the UN, to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. This despite President Rajapakse’s jumbo delegations to all international fora and ultimately unsuccessful prestige exercises like attempting to host the commonwealth games in Hambanthota. The short sighted, adversarial and confrontational attitude adopted with the UN, especially in Geneva, did not serve Sri Lanka’s long term interests and only resulted in our slowly descending to near international pariah status in the company of other controversial and barely legitimate rogue regimes around the world.

 

Sri Lanka was often spoken of, in the same breath and in the same vein as such international hot spot trouble areas as Syria, Sudan, Libya and North Korea. In tandem with our relative international isolation, Sri Lanka’s balance of payments became hostage to large scale Chinese white elephant projects, mostly in Hambanthota, financed with commercial loans at extremely high interest rates, including an empty convention centre no one uses, an airport that no airline found commercially viable to fly to, a port which few ships wanted to berth at, among others. The Chinese cannot really be faulted for not looking a gift horse in the mouth, it is the Rajapakse Administration’s capriciousness, which the voters ultimately and rightly held accountable.

 

The silent, democratic revolution of January and August 2015, is no more visibly successful than in the area of foreign policy. On many other fronts, civil society partners and allies of the rainbow coalition’s national government may be impatient at the slower than expected pace of reforms, though the politically savvy leaders, opinion makers and dignitaries in the international community, all grant the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration, due credit for the policy and political changes that have been wrought. While the pace of reform may be less than many hope or wish for, there is little doubt about the new direction of the country, or that Sri Lanka is democratizing after a disastrous slide to authoritarian totalitarianism post the 18th amendment to the constitution together with the dubious jailing of the defeated presidential candidate and war winning army commander Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka and the impugned impeachment of Chief Justice Shiranie Bandaranaike. It is a testament to the domestic policy, political and governance changes wrought by the Yahapalanaya Administration, that President Sirisena has been invited to participate in the G7 Summit and that Sri Lanka has been given a seat at the table with the world’s elites, once again a proud, valued and equal partner in the international community of nations.

 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration, guided and directed by Minister Mangala Samaraweera, has shifted from the Rajapakse Administration’s frantic search for international allies to support its cause, to a situation where the allies have been won and the goodwill towards Sri Lanka and her peoples has been created. Sri Lanka’s past desperate search for friends abroad, a la Rajapakse style was to replace our foreign service officials with political appointees, substitute public relations firms for the work our embassies normally do, engage in foreign jaunts of dubious value with jumbo delegations and a so called “pivot to Africa” which resulted in nothing much beyond some very expensive new embassies in African nations. From such a disaster, Sri Lanka has recovered under the current Administration, but the challenges remain.

 

Sri Lanka needs to progress on domestic mechanisms and processes of dealing with the human losses, tragedies and pain of a near three decades long civil conflict, in a manner which inspires both local and international confidence with a guarantee of non-reoccurrence and adequately provides redress and closure to the many direct victims of the conflict. Further, not only in the former conflict theatres of the North and East, but also in the rest of the country, Sri Lankans need a clear economic peace dividend, with a war and violent conflict, no longer reasons which a government can blame for low economic growth. As Sri Lanka consolidates as a middle income nation, it is increased exports or international trade and foreign investments, rather than foreign aid, which will be the drivers of our future economic growth on a sustained basis. Real challenges for the long term remain and President Sirisena’s and Sri Lanka’s unprecedented seat at the G7 Summit, is a real boost in addressing those issues.

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