Sri Lankan Foreign Policy Needs Strategic Direction

July 4, 2012, 7:55 pm ( The Island)

By Shanaka Jayasekara, Lecturer, Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT) Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

There has to be a realisation that international diplomacy is not undertaken in the same manner as domestic political theatrics. In domestic politics, the President’s endorsement will help win elections, but this strategy is futile in the international domain. Presidential advisers on foreign policy need to understand that the current approach of ‘photo-opportunity diplomacy’ is superficial and prone to debacles that re-energize the pro-LTTE lobby. On three occasions the Sri Lankan leader was ill-advised and faced public embarrassment and humiliation—the first was the Oxford Union debacle in December 2010, the second the ICC Cricket World Cup final in India in April 2011 and the third the Commonwealth Business Council meeting debacle in June 2012.

Foreign policy of a country is formulated to advance the national interest and achieve the best possible outcome. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka foreign policy is not determined by national interest but by irrational interest. If we accept the notion that the government’s blueprint for overall policy making is the Mahinda Chinthana, then our foreign policy is based on cliché phrases such as non-aligned, free and progressive (Chinthana page 98). As Niccolo Machiavelli points out foreign policy is a realist agenda to safeguard and advance the national interest of a country.

Sri Lanka has been muddling through reactionary ad-hoc policy decisions without having a strategic objective and a clearly defined goal. Sri Lanka foreign policy needs a strategic direction so that the resources invested in foreign affairs can generate positive outcomes to advance the national interest of the country.


a) Look at North India Policy

The metamorphosis taking place within the Indian political landscape needs to be better understood when framing Indo-Lanka relations. The dominant role played by national political parties is fast diminishing with regional parties holding the balance of power in most often coalition governments. The regional parties in Tamil Nadu will continue to rekindle the separatist ideology for Sri Lankan Tamils as a cheap political platform.

If we look at past political trends, Tamil Nadu regional parties will influence Union government policy including foreign policy on Sri Lanka given they command the balance of power in coalition governments. It is imperative that Sri Lanka counter balances the Tamil Nadu influence by developing political and economic relations with North Indian states. Regional political parties in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal also have regional parties with a stake in coalition governments. Other North Indian states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and South Indian states such as Kerala are not caught up in the Chola-Dravindan ancestry and tend to be far more understanding and moderate on Sri Lankan issues. It is in Sri Lanka’s interest to offer economic and trade preferences to North Indian states to build strong relationships as counter weight the Tamil Nadu influence. Sri Lanka needs to establish Consulate General offices in the above North India states and actively promote economic engagement.

b) Provide Clarity on Sino-Lanka Relations

Perceptions are important and it is necessary to understand that India has concerns over what is sees as an encirclement strategy by China known as the ‘string of pearls’. Irrespective of Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is not in a position to participate in any geopolitical adventure with the Chinese. At present there seems to be a subtle inference of a ‘Love-triangle relationship’ in which Sri Lanka feels it can benefit from the new bi-polar order emerging in Asia. The late President J. R. Jayewardene’s experience should serve as a reminder that the island of Sri Lanka, ‘for better or for worse’ is geographically located within the Indian sphere of influence. It is essential that Sri Lanka provides clarity to the Chinese relationship. While Sri Lanka has a right to maintain close economic relations with China, it must be made clear that Sri Lankan soil will never be used for any strategic purpose against India. Providing clarity to this issue will take the wind out of the sails of the irritant conspiracy theorists that tend to undermine Indo-Lanka relations on a regular basis.


a) Post-War Image Building Exercise

The media strategy of the government remains trapped in a pre-2009 mindset that associates everything ‘Tamil’ with terrorism. There has been a significant shift in global opinion on the Sri Lankan issue since 2009 consequent to an aggressive media campaign by the pro-LTTE groups overseas. These groups have redefined the narrative in the post-2009 period and the Tamil demand has shifted focus from all that the LTTE was, to an anti-Rajapaksa agenda. The pro-LTTE diaspora groups learnt lessons from the Arab Spring and the armed revolutions in Libya and Syria. The Arab Spring idealized armed resistance as long as it targeted a dictatorship. In fact, western journalists were embedded with armed resistance groups following their successes. So while the Sri Lankan government media strategy was to simply link the Tamil diaspora activity to LTTE terrorism, the pro-LTTE diaspora groups were focusing all the attention on President Rajapaksa and undermining his credibility and his international standing. The media strategy of the pro-LTTE diaspora groups was to tarnish the Rajapaksa image as a war criminal. As long as international media portrays President Rajapaksa as the primary nemesis, an armed rebellion can be justified using the revolutionary logic. The key objective of this strategy is to launder the LTTE and its violent past through the new paradigm of armed revolutions against dictatorships. Therefore, the pro-LTTE groups will continue to target President Rajapaksa’s image.

There is no doubt that the valiant victory of the Sri Lankan security forces on the ground has been impressionably reversed internationally on the diplomatic front. At present the ‘front and centre’ of our image building exercise internationally is President Rajapaksa. We are walking straight into the LTTE trap. The reality is that the President is popular at home, but internationally he is attracting negative publicity and this strategy is counterproductive. If you look at the last three years, apart from three ceremonial meetings with Barak Obama (UN General Assembly Reception), Julia Gillard (CHOGM Perth) and David Cameron (Queens Diamond Jubilee Lunch), the President has only had three bilateral summits (South Korea, Chile and Turkey) with any leader of an OECD country. If we take the G8 group the President has only had one bilateral summit (Russia). If we look at the G20 group the President has had just five bilateral summits (China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia). The only group that is receptive to this approach of image building is the Shanghai Cooperation countries with bilateral summits with most members and observers (China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan), but that’s preaching to the choir.

There has to be a realisation that international diplomacy is not undertaken in the same manner as domestic political theatrics. In domestic politics, the President’s endorsement will help win elections, but this strategy is futile in the international domain. Presidential advisers on foreign policy need to understand that the current approach of ‘photo-opportunity diplomacy’ is superficial and prone to debacles that re-energize the pro-LTTE lobby. On three occasions the Sri Lankan leader was ill-advised and faced public embarrassment and humiliation—the first was the Oxford Union debacle in December 2010, the second the ICC Cricket World Cup final in India in April 2011 and the third the Commonwealth Business Council meeting debacle in June 2012.

Sri Lanka has a success story to showcase and the fruits of peace and development are real on the ground in the North and East. It is a story of how life has truly transformed from the conflict period to an environment of peace and hope today. This story can only be showcased by experiencing the reality on the ground. The image building exercise needs to develop a structured process of sponsoring key decision-maker groups to visit Sri Lanka and experience the real difference of life today in the post-conflict areas. The structured programme should run fortnightly or monthly with government sponsored tours for key decision-makers, opinion-makers and elected members from overseas to see first-hand the reality on the ground. Sri Lanka should ditch the ‘photo-opportunity diplomacy’ and adopt a long-term and durable approach of ‘achievement showcasing diplomacy’.

b) Counter Disinformation

Briefing tours for key decision makers coveys the right information to the right people. However, decision making in diaspora active countries is not founded only on accurate information, but also influenced by electoral pressures. The ‘achievement showcasing’ strategy should also target a wider critical mass. The government should be considering a media strategy of demonstrating life in comparative periods. The best advantage Sri Lanka has is that an overwhelming number of people from conflict affected areas have a demonstrable improvement in lifestyle in comparison to the conflict period. The media strategy needs to present the past, and compare all aspects of life in the North and East and the improvements in people’s living conditions at present. It is only through a well thought out media strategy of comparative periods that the real story of the conflict can be told.

At present we are simply responding to the media agenda set by Channel 4. While it is important to correct misinformation, the media agenda should be set by Sri Lanka proactively by reflecting on the comparative periods and the transformation in lifestyle.

c) Genuine Political Settlement

The strategy of ‘achievement showcasing’ cannot be limited to bricks and mortar alone. There has to be forward movement on a genuine devolution package for the Northern Province. The international consensus is that President Rajapaksa has the political capital in the south to deliver on the promised 13++ proposals. However, there is a clear lack of sincerity in the political commitment to proceed with real devolution. At present the President is viewed as being disingenuous on his commitment to a political settlement.

It is imperative that an ‘achievement showcasing’ strategy adopts a holistic approach that includes the reconstruction and development success, as well as meeting benchmarks towards a political settlement.

d) Engagement with the Tamil Diaspora

During the reign of LTTE terror, almost all Tamil diaspora organisations were compelled to follow orders issued by the LTTE representative in each country. The new environment has provided opportunity for pluralism among Tamil diaspora organisations. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan government has closed the door on all Tamil diaspora organisations, excluding a few for political favours. While acknowledging that the overseas LTTE elements are attempting to revive a ground capability, a well scrutinised engagement process in which diaspora organisations can participate in the development efforts in the conflict areas needs to be developed.

e) Electoral Power of the Diaspora

Electoral influence and pressure in diaspora-active countries will progressively become a major impediment to bilateral relations with many of these countries. The pro-LTTE groups with growing block votes hold the balance of power in many constituencies with a high concentration of Tamil voters. The recent mayoral elections in London demonstrated how the Tamil electoral power influenced the two candidates. It is essential that other groups not sympathetic to the LTTE be encouraged to voice differing opinion on the Sri Lankan issue.

f) LTTE International Network

There is little doubt that the remnants of the LTTE international network will make every attempt to achieve a fledgling ground capability. It is imperative to develop a capacity to monitor the most potent threats to Sri Lanka from LTTE activist overseas. At present there seems to be a firewall between External Affairs and Defence Ministry amongst the midlevel officials. Irrespective of the mandate or domain, it is the responsibility of all diplomats to safeguard the national security interest of Sri Lanka.


a) Thematic Expertise within the UN

Sri Lanka being a small state needs to develop a strategic plan that can increase its visibility within UN discourse. At present Sri Lanka serves on several committees and sub-committees without a coherent approach. Sri Lanka needs to select a thematic area such as Ocean affairs or fisheries and develop a regional leadership position with a centre of excellence, topical conferences and dialogues. A more focused approach to Sri Lanka’s contribution will provide greater visibility within the UN system and influence in the world.

b) Preparedness and Early Warning Mechanism for CHOGM 2013

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2013 in Colombo can become the biggest public relations disaster unless the preparatory ground work is not undertaken early. It is important to understand that four key Commonwealth countries will be within the lead-up to Parliamentary elections at the time of CHOGM 2013 in Sri Lanka. The scheduled date for parliamentary elections in Australia is around November 2013, New Zealand (2014), India (2014) and South Africa (2014).

The pro-LTTE electoral lobby groups and the regional parties in Tamil Nadu will campaign against their respective heads of state attending the CHOGM in Sri Lanka. As with the UNHRC vote the determining factor will be the participation of Manmohan Singh. We need to learn lessons from the UNHRC experience and not underestimate the influence of Tamil Nadu parties on the Union government. Sri Lanka will have to work hard to avert a catastrophic humiliation by an Indian boycott or second tier representation.

There is no silver bullet to ensure full participation at the summit. Given that this event is a superfluous and extravagant exercise that Sri Lanka has unnecessarily committed to, we have to face the consequences. One option is to have preparatory meetings with the key Commonwealth countries and demonstrate progress on the action plan under the UNHRC resolution and the conduct of provincial council elections in the Northern Province prior to CHOGM.


a) Traditional Exports

There is a lifestyle change taking place in Western countries with espresso coffee becoming the fashionable morning/daytime stimulant. The consumer preference for tea is on the decline in western markets and Sri Lanka needs to access new markets for its tea exports in the Central Asian Republics, North Africa and West Asia.

b) Reciprocal Trade Concessions

The Hambantota Port is a valuable asset strategically located on the major sea lanes of communication. The warehousing and transhipment facilities can have a comparative advantage over other shipping options. Sri Lanka needs to utilize this advantage not only for increasing traffic to Hambantota Port but also to negotiate bilateral trade concessions. The commercial value of Hambantota Port on the shipping lanes should not be taken for granted.

The above is not an exhaustive list but indicative ideas of developing a foreign policy that can effectively safeguard and advance the national interest of the country.

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