President Sirisena reiterates Govt.’s core goals

Tuesday, 14 June 2016 01:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Democracy, HR, reconciliation: keystones of Govt’s foreign policy engagement says President
  • Dayan praises President, lambasts Mangala over ‘special court’
  • High praise for Sirisena for his skill at building consensus and coalitions
  • Uyangoda urges President not to forget the ‘tripartite’ coalition that brought him to power

BUP_DFTDFT-2-01President Maithripala Sirisena addresses the gathering; Ambassador H M G S Palihakkara, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, Dr. Ram Manikkalingam and Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando are seen on the Panel. Pic by Upul Abayasekera


By Dharisha Bastians

Strengthening democracy, freedom and human rights and healing the wounds of war have been the key focus of the Government’s foreign engagement over the past 18 months, President Maithripala Sirisena told participants at a somewhat controversial foreign policy discussion held in Colombo yesterday.

“Our Government is criticised for betraying the country and allowing foreign powers to invade or dictate terms. But I reject all this. The fact is there is no influence, directives or threats from any of Sri Lanka’s international partners. The one common idea in our all discussions with foreign governments and international organisations is the need to strengthen democracy, freedom and human rights,” President Sirisena told a hall filled with diplomats, civil society representatives, journalists and government officials.

Sri Lanka in Global Affairs, a wide-ranging panel discussion on the country’s foreign policy since January 2015 was held at the BMICH in Colombo last evening, strangely coinciding with the opening of 32nd Session of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.

The discussion was moderated by former Foreign Secretary and ex Governor of the Northern Province H.M.G.S. Palihakkara and controversially featured Rajapaksa ideologue and former Ambassador to Geneva and France, Dr. Dayan Jayatillake. Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando and Political Scientist Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda were also panelists at the discussion. 

Ram Manikkalingam who is a board member of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) was the keynote speaker at the event.

Interestingly, several key figures in the Rajapaksa administration’s ‘foreign policy wing’ were present at the panel discussion, including Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha and former Consul General to Sydney and Toronto, Bandula Jayasekera. 

President Sirisena criticised the regime of his predecessor, saying they were compelled to call elections two years ahead of schedule because of the disastrous state of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations and the debt crisis that was looming under their stewardship.

Sirisena underscored that his decision-making was not coloured by aspirations to return to power for a further term in office. These difficult decisions, President Sirisena said, often dissatisfied some, who might be concerned the Government was going too far or that relief was not coming fast enough. “People must understand where we are economically. And where we are internationally. They must understand the difficulties of this task of reconciliation. And how crucial it is for Sri Lanka’s progress,” President Sirisena appealed during his brief address.

President Sirisena said his Government was working to strengthen international friendships and relationships to bring about reconciliation and justice, to prevent a recurrence of war.

Manikkalingam who was full of praise for President Sirisena said during his keynote that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy going forward required agility and an ability to work with others. “If you have demonstrated anything politically,” Manikkalingam said directly addressing President Sirisena, “it is your ability forge and lead disparate coalitions. And you have done it with minimum disruption and maximum impact.”

Dr Jayatillake who was the first panelist to take the floor, immediately launched into praise of President Sirisena, who he said was pursuing an ‘Asia-centric realist’ foreign policy that was the need of the hour. Jayatillake, who has been a staunch proponent of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa since the latter’s defeat in January 2015, and a scathing critic of what he calls the Ranil-Mangala-Chandrika triumvirate that is running the country, continued in predictable vein, to explain to President Sirisena who was seated in the front row that sections of his administration were pursuing a foreign policy agenda that was against the national interest.

“This dualism in the approach to foreign policy is the realism as represented by President Sirisena and another aspect that deviates from the President’s foreign policy vision,” he said, careful throughout his speech to heap praise on the President while harshly criticising positions advocated by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by extension.

“Your correct position on the 2015 Geneva resolution has not been implemented by your administration,” Jayatillake told the President.

The former Ambassador strongly critiqued the Foreign Minister for advocating an independent prosecutor and a special court to try allegations of war crimes. “Which country in the world has set up a special court to try its own military? Aren’t our courts sufficient? Aren’t our prosecutors independent?” he charged.

Jayatillake advocated ‘smart patriotism’ as an approach to foreign policy making, a phrase he coined months ago that paved the way for much caricature and satire. His use of the phrase in the speech raised a few smiles in the audience during last evening’s discussion.

Summing up Dr. Jayatillake’s presentation skillfully, Moderator Palihakkara said his speech expressing different views spoke to the essence of the Sirisena Administration that believes dissent to be a part of democracy and not an act of treason.

Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda inserted much needed rationalism into the proceedings, stating outright that he would not be praising the President during his speech, and making it clear that he represented no political power base. “I have nothing to lose and nothing to gain from what I say here. I am only a student of political science and look at things from a purely academic point of view,” the university professor said.

Dr. Uyangoda said that foreign policy decision making was infinitely more complex than people in opposition realise. “This is a crucial lesson that the leaders of this Government have had to learn. That is why foreign policy decisions of this Government are in a continuous state of flux,” he explained.

He said that avoiding an ideological identity in its foreign policy strategies was a key defining feature of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government and a clear contrast to Governments that have gone before, and especially its immediate predecessor. “There has been a degree of flexibility allowed by this lack of identity that has permitted the Government to take a pragmatic approach to foreign policy,” Dr. Uyangoda explained. He said the key factors shaping the Government’s foreign policy since January 2015 was the determination to shed the foreign policy orientations of the former Government and the continued central role played by the civil war and ethnic conflict in bringing together Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs and its international engagement. The March 2015 UNHRC session, when the UN decided to defer its damning investigation report by six months, was a clear indication of the reconfiguration of the international engagement.

Dr. Uyangoda struck a warning note at the end of his presentation, saying that President Sirisena was an adept coalition builder, made apparent by his coalition to create the January 2015 revolution, consensus building for the 19th Amendment and the international consensus emerging on Sri Lanka.

“President Sirisena, your victory was enabled by a tripartite coalition – a coalition of a majority of opposition parties and groups, an inter-ethnic coalition of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and a coalition between political parties and democratic civil society,” he said.

This tripartite coalition had created the political space that enabled Sirisena to cross over from one political coalition to the other, Dr. Uyangoda explained. “Political expediency necessitates new coalitions. But I appeal to you – don’t forget the tripartite coalition that was the founding stone of your path to power, as you build new ones.”