Oceans of (dis)trust

Saturday, 24 September 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a lecture at the Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo, on ‘Sustainable Peace and Achieving Sustainable Development Goals’. Referring to the lack of UN intervention in Sri Lanka, the Secretary General said, “Had we been more actively engaged, we could have saved much more, many more human lives.”

On a recent visit to Singapore, Harvard University scholar Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam’s son spoke about the death of his parents by the LTTE over false promises on unattainable goals. Dr. N. Tiruchelvam was a peace loving man who wanted nothing more than a political settlement, but he was assassinated by LTTE leader Prabhakaran, like late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Tamil lawyer and former Foreign Affairs Minister. 

The institute where Ban Ki-moon delivered his lecture was named after Kadirgamar and the irony of his statement, under the late statesman’s photograph, was not to be missed. The Sri Lankan situation was clearly different to Rwanda or Serbanica or another place – and this has to be established and understood. 

“The Sri Lankan Army lost 5,600 officers and soldiers with over 25,000 battle field casualties during the last two years of the battle, thousands of soldiers are still lying on beds like vegetable. All Sri Lankans are happily and peacefully living today because of the sacrifices that they made to bring about a future with no bombs and blood,” says Maj Gen Kamal Gunaratne, who fought the 45-minute final battle that killed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, in an interview for his book released recently titled ‘Road to Nandikadal’. 

He further says: “I wrote this book for the poor parents who sent their sons to fight with the ruthless LTTE, the elite people in Colombo and abroad and the human rights activists who were misled by a wrong picture.”

On 4 September, a few LTTE sympathisers and supporters attacked the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Malaysia, Ibrahim Sahib Ansar, at the Kuala Lumpur Airport. This clearly demonstrates how certain LTTE sympathisers have forgotten the struggle that they subscribed to in past. The disgraceful act of attacking Sri Lankans, including the Buddhist priest in South India, cannot be ignored. 

On 2 September 2016 the two day conference organised by the Sri Lankan Army concluded. The central theme for this Colombo Defence Conference was the importance of using soft power as a powerful tool in post-war Sri Lanka. To combat this rise in radical elements, soft power strategies need to be implemented on an urgent basis. 

Soft power as a tool has been used extensively in Sri Lanka and has been an inherent part of Asian culture for many years. As a nation we have used soft power positively and there are times we have failed to use. Kadirgamar used soft power to ban the LTTE, and to promote art and culture, he commissioned the book ‘The World of Stanley Kirinde,’ however he was killed a few days before the book launch. Soft power was used by Sirimavo Bandaranaike to position Sri Lanka in the global sphere. 

Another example of a different use of soft power is when Michael J Delaney, Assistant US Trade Representative for South Asia, at the last minute, turned down the lecture at the Kadirgamar Institute. There was a time when the Monitor overruled Principal. These small waves of displeasure and disappointment ended up creating a narrative surrounding the negative image of Sri Lanka.

During the Indian Ocean Conference in Singapore, 1-2 September, with 250 delegates from 21 nations, US Assistant Secretary of State, Nisha Biswal explained the importance of soft architecture for the Indian Ocean nations and referred to Sri Lanka’s ports with their impressive performance as an example. 

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who made the keynote speech made some important points starting from a geopolitical view: “Single power and duopoly appears to be a thing of the past and for the first time in five centuries economic power in the world is moving again towards Asia” to the “US is proposing the furtherance of a single combined security strategy for the two Asian oceans – the Indian and Pacific,” warning of implications for Asian security. 

For the Indian Ocean countries, many scholars highlighted past heritage and unique contributions owing to the geographical locations. Asian soft power and our Asian foreign policy did exist in the past and rediscovering the same is essential. It also brought forth cooperation is essential to bring human capital together to develop the Indian Ocean agenda. 

In understanding a polycentric Asia with no uniformity in terms of geopolitics and culture, each country is a separate world to itself, according to Fukuyama. It is important to understand the multiple layers of dispute, historical backgrounds and strategic mistrust before commenting and drawing parallels with other nations. 

[The views expresses here are personal and do not reflect those of the Government of Sri Lanka or the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL). Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a visiting lecturer in International Political Economy (IPE) and the Director General of INSSSL. This article was initially published at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) New Delhi, India for“Dateline Colombo” http://www.ipcs.org/article/south-asia/oceans-of-distrust-5126.html.]