Myanmar, Sri Lanka, great powers and geopolitics in Geneva

Tuesday, 2 February 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Myanmar’s military took control of the country in a coup and declared a state of emergency following the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior Government leaders in early morning raids on Monday

“We must do the work of him who sent us while it is still day; night is coming when no one can work” – John 9:4


There’s just been a military take-over in a Theravada Buddhist country which enjoys China’s patronage and has a militant Islamophobic movement of Buddhist monks. No, it isn’t Sri Lanka. Yet. It’s Myanmar.

In a striking symmetry, the most respected ideological guru of the Gotabaya regime, co-architect of Jathika Chinthanaya, Prof. Nalin de Silva, is our Ambassador to Myanmar. 

The Myanmar military takeover totally validates the alert that the report of UN Human Rights High Commissioner has sounded on militarisation in Sri Lanka. Militarisation as multidimensional and extensive as Sri Lanka’s is usually a halfway house to military rule. The thrust of the (ex) military into civilian governance functions and the vacuuming of civilian Government institutions into the belly of the Defence Ministry headed by a retired General, already serves as an apprenticeship for the military to run Sri Lanka’s administration. The militarisation of today is already a ramp or runway that has been laid for potential military control tomorrow.

If Sri Lanka is not to become the next Myanmar (or Thailand), all our political parties and leaders, be they in government or Opposition, must concertedly stand for democracy and push back against the onrush of militarisation which can constitute a creeping military coup.



Trumpism at the UN

According to hitherto-uncontradicted reports replete with verbatim quotes, our man in New York crossed swords, unprovoked and conspicuously unsuccessfully, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN General Assembly, alleging among other things that the UNHRC and the OHCHR were ‘terrorist-influenced’ and had a ‘regime change’ agenda. Guterres did a Zorro on him. 

I witnessed the warm, even empathetic conversation between (wartime) President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, then UN High Commissioner for Refugees and now the UN Secretary-General, in Geneva in 2007 (a meeting I’d arranged). 

By contrast, the reported outburst of Mohan Peiris (always the Defence establishment’s defence attorney) demonstrates an aggressively anti-UN ‘Netanyahu-Trump’ posture under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

I look forward to reading about a (peacetime) visit by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the UN Geneva. 



National Security State

While the “deepening and acceleration of militarisation of civilian government functions” is clearly foregrounded in the High Commissioner’s report, her deeper concern seems to be the twinning of militarisation with ethno-religious supremacism. The Report’s Executive Summary defines the phenomenon as “a dangerous exclusionary and majoritarian discourse”. The High Commissioner devotes a section to the topic—Section D entitled Majoritarian and Exclusionary Rhetoric, the opening paragraph of which states her concerns: 

“29…She…is deeply concerned about the increased use of ethno-nationalistic and majoritarian rhetoric and symbols by the President and other senior Government figures, which define public policies that appear to exclusively reflect the perceived interests of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, and with minimal consideration for minority communities. Ethnic and religious minority communities are left behind and excluded in such official discourse, and often perceived and treated as posing a threat.  Such an approach has serious negative implications for reconciliation, peace building and religious tolerance, and carries the seeds of future violence and conflict.” 

The Sri Lankan Government confirms this indictment by going into Geneva this February-March devoid of a commitment to implement the 13th Amendment to address the Tamil question or any alternative political solution acceptable to the elected representatives of the Tamil people or indeed any process of political dialogue with them. 

Sri Lanka is as much a test-case as a target in Geneva. 

The belligerent discourse of the current Sri Lankan regime against the High Commissioner’s critique of militarisation, confirms the existence of the phenomenon and ethos that Michelle Bachelet (and Antonio Guterres) would recognise only too well: The ‘National Security State’, a malevolent structural phenomenon which held the Latin American subcontinent and a European peninsula captive for decades.  



Biden time

This is entirely the wrong moment in the history of world politics for Sri Lanka to depart or deviate from decades-old democratic values, commitments, practices and norms in favour of the National Security State model. Why so?

(I) Democracy constitutes the frontline of the contestation between two global powers, two ideologies and two systems of governance. 

(II) Sri Lanka, strategically located in the Indo-Pacific region, lies in the main theatre of contestation.  

(III) Despite its protestations of geopolitical neutrality, the Sri Lankan regime has manifestly tilted to the side of one of the contenders in the crucial domain of politics/ model of governance.     

The Biden administration’s pronouncements and appointments make things clear: 

(a) China is recognised as the main global challenge and the Indo-Pacific as the main arena of competition—which is a continuity from the Trump years. 

(b) Top-notch policy hands have been appointed to handle the zone and China policy—which is new, because Trump had uneven-to-poor staffing choices. 

(c) The competition and constraining of China will be smarter and multi-dimensional unlike the ‘thin’ Trump policy paradigm. 

(d) Democracy as idea, value and system is taken seriously by the Biden-Harris administration, primarily because of sincere belief fuelled by contemporary American political struggles and also because it is at the cutting edge of the contestation with China, where the latter is seen to be attacking the very notion of democracy and open societies, and promoting its own model of governance.      

Sri Lanka will be a test-case for the Biden administration and the Democrats who control Capitol Hill, as regards the terms of their equation with China. The Biden administration has a grand-strategic interest in ensuring the Indo-Pacific region remains in the main, recognisably and durably democratic. 

The US State Department Policy Planning Report on Mike Pompeo’s watch was skewed by its insistence that doctrinal Communism was an important driver of China’s conduct. In actuality ‘the sources of China’s conduct’ are powerful geo-historical-civilisational elements and drivers best identified in Dr. Kissinger’s ‘On China’. 

The Gotabaya regime’s attraction to China certainly has nothing to do with even residual Communism, which is far too rational and conceptual for it. The attractions are China’s power and wealth, one-party state and technologies of social management/control.  

In the central theatre of contestation, the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most powerful democracy partnered with the world’s most populous democracy, may take cognisance of a systemic tilt of a strategically-positioned island towards a rival model of governance archetypally represented by their main competitor. 



 Sri Lanka-China-USA

The rise of China is no threat to Sri Lanka or Sri Lankan democracy. The threat comes from a specific, concrete conjuncture; a combination of two ‘deviations’: (a) An anomalous, abnormal, moment of militarisation in Sri Lanka which is a departure from the robust civilian democracy of long-duration, and (b) an adventurism on the part of China, which in the opinion of President Bill Clinton among others, dates back to/is sourced in the changes at the last Congress of the ruling Communist Party of China.

Before I met the Indian Minister of External Affairs in Colombo (in the same hotel I had last met him 30 years back) while accompanying the Leader of the Opposition, I had run into him in Ufa, Russia in 2019. He was representing India; I was accompanying President Sirisena and arranged a meeting for him with President Putin. We were in the same room, a few feet away from President Putin and President Xi who were in warmly animated conversation. 

At the time, China was operating in tandem with Russia within a framework of the concepts and forums animated by the spirit of multipolarity and the rise of Asia: Russia-India-China (‘R-I-C’), the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the BRI and the concepts of Eurasia and Greater Eurasia. That somehow changed within months, with the friction between China and Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia in the East Asian seas, culminating in the clash with India in Ladakh. 

The clash also confirmed the view of ‘China sceptic’ specialists in Moscow, including Soviet-era friends of my father, who cautioned Third Worldist ‘China optimists’ like me that resurgent China saw itself as competing with and supplanting the US as world leader in a relatively short historical period, which went against the interests of those (like Russia) who sought to maximise strategic autonomy in a multipolar world. They also cautioned that sudden surges and swerves in China’s behaviour were unpredictable because the system was opaque even to allies and partners.     

After the shock of the India-China clash of 2020, I wrote respectfully to one of the people I most admire, historian Wang Gungwu of Singapore, a peer and friend of Lee Kuan Yew, a globally renowned scholar, historian and thinker, whom my wife and I had the good fortune of friendly acquaintance with during our year in Singapore. I reminded him of his prophetic words to me a decade back while attending Shyam Saran’s lecture at the Singapore Foreign Ministry as a guest of Dr George Yeo. 

On that occasion, while China was still practicing a policy (perhaps overly passive) of ‘great harmony’, Emeritus Prof. Gungwu already saw the distinct possibility that China, despite its study of the mistakes of the USSR, would be unable to resist the mistake of obstreperous overreach driven by nationalist overconfidence. When I wrote to him last year expressing my amazement at his prescience, he replied with typical modesty that he wasn’t being prophetic, he was simply expressing his fears.

The Sri Lankan regime’s conversion to the China model of governance isn’t primarily the fault of China. Any serious student of China knows that the recent Chinese surge, dating to late-2019-2020, is only one of many such in the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) whose official history details at least eleven ‘line struggles’ between the ‘correct Marxist-Leninist’ line and ‘deviations’ to either Right or (ultra)Left. Given the incoming ‘smart’ pushback by the Biden-Harris administration and the inevitable trials of will and wits, China led by the CPC will eventually recalibrate and adjust to a more realistic posture and behaviour reflecting its admirable, ample strengths rather than its hubristic mood and misreading. 

Far more relevant is the fact that successive Sri Lankan Governments including those headed by leaders who enjoyed a close friendship with their iconic Chinese counterparts, never allowed the influence of the international line of the Communist Party of China to shape their own views of where they and Sri Lanka belonged. For its part, China kept its governmental and state relations distinct from its Communist Party’s international political 


Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a guest at the White House at the end of 1971, the year in which Premier Zhou had extended unambiguous endorsement (and a large cheque) to Sri Lanka and the year after the 1970 election victory in which Madam Bandaranaike was perceived as the head of a left-of centre, anti-American coalition government. 

The regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been an exception to that Sri Lankan rule. China’s political influence has far greater and faster penetration in Sri Lanka today because our leadership and new power-elite do not possess the robust immune-system of democratic values that their predecessors did, however adventurist the CPC’s line was at any given time. One way for global democracy to stop the export of China’s model of governance is to deter its import by retrogressive authoritarian power-elites such as that of Sri Lanka. Logically then, the effective containment and deterrence of an aggressive regime and its peaceful electoral-democratic replacement by the sovereign people, is the most viable method of blocking the import of the China model of a one-party state equipped with ideologies and technologies of control.



Between Trump and Xi

It isn’t just China. The Biden-Harris campaign and its thinkers have been spotlighting the Trump presidency as part of, and enabling, the rise of a Global authoritarian ultranationalist Far-Right. That Steve Bannon also projected the Trump presidency as part of a Western surge and did his best to organise and spur it, buttressed the charges of the US Democrats.  

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration is part of that global far-Right ultranationalist-authoritarianism. What makes it more interesting and potentially pertinent to the Biden team is that it is a fusion of its domestic and global adversaries: the Trumpian global Far-Right and the China model of governance. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is an instructive political phenomenon, or rather a non-political, political phenomenon. Educated in ethno-religious supremacism (unlike his big brothers), then in military culture, then in the Tea Party Republican Right and later the Trump camp in California, and now sharing a ‘consensus’ on ‘regional and international situations’, ‘joining hands’ with President Xi Jinping, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the living proof that the two trends, the global/Western Far-Right and Eastern authoritarianism are far from incompatible.    

Sri Lanka is as far East as Trumpist ultra-nationalism has come, and as far West as the Chinese model of governance has come. Under the Gotabaya regime, our island is the point of intersection. 

It is not in the interest of the Biden administration to deploy the destabilising doctrine of regime-change, which in practice, effaced the difference between regime and state, and instead of deterring the behaviour of or peeling away dictatorial regimes, acted as a cover for the dismantling of states, thereby releasing fanatical anti-systemic forces. 

Nor can the Biden administration pursue the forcible universalisation of democracy as a system. 



Democracy first

The success or otherwise of the US in the world arena will depend in considerable measure on whether it imprudently continues to confront both China and Russia, or whether it restores and renovates the realist Kissingerian tripolar architecture, designed to draw Russia and China in as partners, in stabilising the world order.   

President Xi was correct when he said in his virtual address to the Davos summit that political systems will remain diverse and this reality must be respectfully recognised by all for the international order to proceed on the rails of multilateralism. This, however, must be complemented and completed by the democratic Great Powers, with the insistence that no state should engage in, enable or encourage the conversion of states from one political system to another. Such conduct should be contained through effective deterrence. 

There can be no compromise on values and ideas. The subversive subtraction of democracies from within or without, from above or below, under the cover of respect for sovereignty and diversity, must be resisted. 

The diversity of forms of state must be recognised and respected, but so too must the universality and transcendent nature of liberty, of freedom; the freedom of nations, societies and individuals from autocracy and autocrats, despotism and despots, tyranny and tyrants. 

The old Communist formula was correct: peaceful coexistence between states with diverse social systems cannot and must not be confused with the planetary political and ideological struggle. The USA will have to strive for the restoration of normality in the inter-state equation between itself and the Chinese Government and state, while the struggle of ideas, values, norms and paradigms between China’s ruling party and global democracy is also joined. “Peace is indivisible” declared Litvinov famously in the 1930s. So too is democracy.

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