Myanmarisation, ‘soft power’ crash, external affairs crisis

Thursday, 11 February 2021 00:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

An ethnoreligious military which regards itself as entitled because it defends the country successfully against secessionism, a Buddhist clergy which is militantly nationalist and Islamophobic, and the military’s belief in the Chinese backstop (somewhat overdrawn given the UN Security Council statement), are the triadic components of the Myanmar model. They are constitutive components in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s model too


“I am a Sinhala Buddhist leader and I will never hesitate to state so” 

“We reject any efforts to divide our citizens based on ethnic or religious reasons” 

– President  Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 

73rd Independence Day, 4 February  

The hardening of Sri Lanka’s self-image has shrunk its soft power. The narrowing of the mentality of its leadership has narrowed the narrative of the state, reducing its international appeal, constricting the country’s external space and constraining the practice of its diplomacy.

Geneva 2021 is the regime’s first global test; the first competitive contact of the regime’s world-outlook of Sinhala supremacism with the world. 

Ugly ultranationalism

It is perfectly in order to identify oneself as a Sinhala Buddhist or a leader who is a Sinhala Buddhist. It is rather a different matter when one identifies oneself as a “Sinhala Buddhist leader”, unless one is merely the leader of a party explicitly and exclusively dedicated to the cause of the Sinhala Buddhists—but not the leader of a country with a far from homogenous citizenry. 

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could and should have defined himself as a Sri Lankan leader who is a Sinhala Buddhist, or conversely, a Sinhala Buddhist who is a Sri Lankan leader. 

As former editor H.L.D. Mahindapala, cheering GR’s speech in the Sunday Observer notes, not even S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike referred to himself as a Sinhala Buddhist leader. 

When on Indian TV, Mahinda Rajapaksa was described by the interviewer as “you are a Sinhala nationalist”, he instantly interrupted, correcting her, saying “Sri Lankan nationalist”.

When one is the leader of a country which is multiethnic, multireligious, multilingual and multicultural, it is exclusionary, or at the least, hierarchical and hegemonistic to define oneself as a “Sinhala Buddhist leader”. 

When in the same speech the President says “We reject any efforts to divide our citizens based on ethnic or religious reasons”, he fails to understand that he has already done so himself by his self-definition which gives his leadership ethnic and religious markers. 

It is especially unwise to do so when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Rapporteurs have put the spotlight on you for your ‘exclusionary ethnoreligious majoritarian’ discourse. 

Lee Kuan Yew never called himself “a Chinese leader”. According to him that was the secret of Singapore’s developmental success and the failure of Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s. 

By defining his leadership in more majoritarian and sectarian terms than any of his predecessors i.e., by going the furthest down exactly the wrong road as identified by Lee Kuan Yew in his extensive passages on Sri Lanka’s tragedy, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has put paid to any prospect of sustainable economic takeoff and development. 

Nightmarish, Myanmar-ish

What the President chose to do was a further display of the Myanmarisation of official ideology and discourse, paralleling systemic Myanmarisation through militarisation of the state.

An ethnoreligious military which regards itself as entitled because it defends the country successfully against secessionism, a Buddhist clergy which is militantly nationalist and Islamophobic, and the military’s belief in the Chinese backstop (somewhat overdrawn given the UN Security Council statement), are the triadic components of the Myanmar model. They are constitutive components in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s model too. 

The complacent will remonstrate that Sri Lanka, unlike Myanmar and Pakistan, has no history of military rule. Then again, Sri Lanka always had a mature civilian political class and State administration as the bulwark and centre of gravity of its durable democracy—but no longer. The comforting story of democratic tradition was also the delusion in Chile and Uruguay, until the day of military (and in the Uruguayan case, Presidential-military) dictatorship.    

Striking a ferocious note unsuited for an Independence Day address in peacetime, but redolent of a Mahaveer Day address by Prabhakaran, President Rajapaksa said: 

“Traitorous elements always band together and seek to marshal domestic and foreign forces against the leadership that upholds indigenous way of life and country’s sovereignty. Such elements mislead the public through false propaganda in a subtle way.”

Distressingly, this passage perfectly fits a definition given by Yale’s Professor Jason Stanley, best known for his celebrated book ‘How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them’. Fascism, according to Stanley, entails: 

“…a patriarchal cult of the leader, who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by a treacherous and power-hungry global elite, who have encouraged minorities to destabilise the social order as part of their plan to dominate the ‘true nation,’ and fold them into a global world government.” (

When on his birthday in 2018 a ranking Buddhist monk, Ven. Wendaruwe Upali Thero, urged Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “even…be a Hitler,” he robustly defended the monk and denounced the critics. As President, he appointed the monk to the Buddhist Advisory Council.

In the very week of our 73rd Independence Day, the PM accepted the Interim Report of the Experts’ Committee appointed to frame criteria for the identification of National Heritage. The committee had sixteen members. Only one was a Tamil and one other a Muslim. Fourteen were Sinhala and included a Buddhist monk. There were no members of clergy from other religions.


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa isn’t coming in for so much stick in Geneva simply or mainly because his administration unilaterally unhooked from the 2015 resolution which the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe unconscionably co-sponsored. 

The real problem arises because the 2015 Resolution isn’t the only thing the new administration de-coupled from, and de-coupling from that Resolution isn’t the only thing the Gotabaya administration did. The problem is what the GR administration said and did before, while and after delinking from the 2015 Resolution to date, tracing what Michelle Bachelet calls a dangerous “trajectory”.

The new, important joint statement of UN Special Procedures mandate holders drills home the point:

“…as the developments over the past year have had profound negative impact on human rights in Sri Lanka and have fundamentally altered the context…” 

“…there are eight areas in particular that should be in focus…: i) threats to independent institutions and the rule of law; ii) increasing militarisation; iii) restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression; iv) discrimination against vulnerable groups, incitement to hatred and violence against minorities; v) legal safeguards, conditions of detention and prohibition of torture; vi) enforced disappearances; vii) impunity and viii) lack of progress in the transitional justice process.” (OHCHR | Sri Lanka: Experts dismayed by regressive steps)

A joint statement by UN mandate-holders should not be regarded dismissively by the Gotabaya Government. They tend to be top specialists in their fields; internationally prestigious and respected. While in Geneva, I was on the committee which deliberated on applications/nominations for Special Procedures posts, i.e., of Special Rapporteurs and Special Representatives. The committee put the applicants’ biodata through a sieve and decided by consensus.

In their joint statement on Sri Lanka, a group of such UN mandate-holders recommend (among other measures) two game-changers: 

  •  “…an impartial and independent international accountability mechanism …analysing…from an international criminal law perspective.
  •  The appointment of a Special procedures country mandate…” (ibid)

The first is transparently self-explanatory, while the latter means appointing a UN Special Rapporteur on Sri Lanka.

Their collective call for these drastic remedies derives from the 20th Amendment:

“…the adverse impact that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka may have on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, as well as on the independence of institutions which are essential to the establishment of guarantees of non-recurrence of past gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law”. (ibid)

A retired professional from the same tough-minded military background as the President, Colonel R. Hariharan, former head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987-1990), spells out why Michelle Bachelet’s “scathing” report was the predictable product of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s anomalous extremism:   

“…President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s highly militarised Government’s decisions, based on Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentric considerations, have rapidly reversed the progress on ethnic reconciliation made by his predecessors, including those of his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though many among the Sinhala majority consider their country as the last bastion of Theravada Buddhism, in politics Buddhist ethnocentric elements never occupied the central space. They seem to be calling the shots now. Even when Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to wage the ‘final war’ to defeat the Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he leveraged ethnic reconciliation, rather than ethnocentric nationalism, in his political discourse. So, it is not surprising that the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka’s accountability issues is scathing on Sri Lanka government’s conduct.”

(‘Is it payback time for reversing ethnic reconciliation process?’ South Asia Security Trends, February 1, 2021 | 

Thanks to President GR’s militarised ultranationalism, Sri Lanka now holds the moral-ethical high ground only in the eyes of Sinhala-Buddhists, not the global South or the global East, still less the world.

Causing conflict

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech placed great emphasis on national security. His policy practices have undermined the very foundations of national security. 

Tamil political leaders united in a call for international accountability for ‘genocide’; a historic four-day march from east to north (‘P2P’) was successfully completed, uniting Tamil and Muslim political and civic leaders in both provinces over existential threat-perceptions of state-driven Sinhala-Buddhist annexationism; Muslims are embittered by the mandatory cremation rule which at least 188 countries do not resort to; trade unions are restive over the sellout of strategic national assets; the upwardly-mobile middle-class JVP is testily strident over the punitive potential of the Special Presidential Commission (Anura Kumara Dissanayake publicly suggested that the President do something unhealthy and uncomfortable with its power to remove his civic rights); and India’s External Affairs Minister condemned in the Rajya Sabha, the killing of four Indian Tamil fishermen allegedly by Sri Lanka’s Navy. 

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner and the UN Special Procedures mandate-holders are focusing on accountability as a way to interdict the surge of virulent state-sponsored ethno-religious supremacism and aggressive authoritarianism, by scrutinising and neutralising the apparatuses and operators of that surge. 

Decline through delusion  

Col. R. Hariharan makes a damning critique of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration’s foreign policy: 

“…According to media reports, Sri Lanka Government’s response appeared to be to confront the international body on its findings, rather than build a consensus towards fielding an alternate resolution. Foreign affairs are one of the weakest links of the Rajapaksa government. On more than one occasion, its representatives had been found to be ham-handed in handling foreign affairs issues…How Sri Lanka fares in the UNHRC session may decide much of the international attitudes to Sri Lanka in the coming months.” (ibid)

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wartime diplomacy was superbly successful. The decline began postwar and has reached its nadir under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

There is no challenge that Sri Lanka is facing in foreign relations today that was not broadly anticipated and deliberated upon by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. 

In 2004 or 2005, Ambassador Kalyananda Godage (former ambassador to Germany), Manel Abeysekara (former Chief of Protocol) and I were on a panel on ‘Foreign Policy Challenges for Sri Lanka in the 21st Century’ at the institute now named after its assassinated founder. The symposium attended by foreign service and military officers was convened and chaired by Lakshman Kadirgamar, showcasing his friend and guest Sir Adam Roberts, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, and at the time, Michael Howard Chair of War and Peace Studies at Oxford. (Dr. Nihal Jayawickrema would recall Sir Michael Howard’s lecture at the BMICH organised by the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs and chaired by my father Mervyn de Silva.)

Around 2012 at a conclave of Sri Lankan ambassadors held at the Diyatalawa Army camp, Ambassador Godage, posted in Malaysia at the time, posed the question to top decision-makers (President MR wasn’t present) as to how he should answer when asked as he often was in Kuala Lumpur, what postwar political solution for the Tamils would be implemented and when. He was fired from his post. 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is collapsing under cumulative pressure, parametric and prescriptive, from the hawkish Defence establishment, compounded by the shameful ‘South Vietnamese puppet’ interlude under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (2015-2018) and its inevitable blowback.    

The best chance for postwar Sri Lanka to get off the US human rights ‘hook’ was the Kerry-Lugar report of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (dated 7 December 2009). It expressed willingness for a re-set on accountability in return for real progress on “political reconciliation” with the Tamils in the form of provincial devolution, emphasising that: 

“The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the underlying conflict still simmers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sri Lanka is not a post-conflict environment. While the fighting between the Government and the LTTE may have ended, the reasons for the political and social conflict …will take time to address. Those root causes must be tackled soon and with a sense of urgency to prevent the country from backsliding”.

The Defence hawks should have taken the deal. They didn’t.

They believed then and still do, that it was/is a seller’s market and the USA was a buyer with whom one could negotiate from strength; the strength of coveted geostrategic location plus the China card. 

Now they are hoping to tough it out by circling the wagons, awaiting a Republican comeback in four years, clinging to the racist assumption that America will never elect Kamala Harris as President.

A two-page Daily News disquisition (6 February) on Geneva by Prof. Rohan Gunaratna, international affairs theoretician of the Gotabaya camp, commences with a foundational falsehood of the regime’s hubristic exceptionalism and sense of entitlement: “Sri Lanka was the first country to defeat an insurgent and terrorist group in the early 21st century.” Angola and Russia scored their definitive military victories over terrorist/insurgent militias in the 21st century before Sri Lanka did. We came in third. 

Five delusions cause the crisis of Sri Lanka’s external relations: 

1. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism has an export market. 

2. Sri Lanka can be an Israel. 

3. The Tamil and Muslim minorities can be kicked around without external blowback. 

4. Soft power is irrelevant; its haemorrhage due to the regime’s image is inconsequential.

5. India has no red lines; Chinese footprints on Northern islands don’t cross any; Sri Lanka has a Chinese deterrent; Sukhoi-30s in Thanjavur don’t count.

President Biden is taking the USA back to the UN Human Rights Council. Upending Trump’s troglodyte antipathy to the UNHRC that the Gotabaya administration exultantly echoed, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted “When it works well, the UN Human Rights Council…can serve as a beacon for those fighting against injustice and tyranny.”

The UN and the democratic world couldn’t prevent what happened in Myanmar but have the chance to prevent a second Myanmar in Sri Lanka. Universal human rights and values need an Asian victory. Blinken and Sullivan must win one for global democracy.

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