Thursday, February 05, 2015

Sri Lanka’s political moment (1)

A change of guard

The future of Sri Lanka’s democracy has reached a pivotal point. On the 9th of January, it awoke after decades of paralytic slumber. The nepotism, corruption and excesses of the Rajapakse regime were not unknown or unsuspected; but Mahinda himself was seen as a strong leader – especially based on his credentials as the leader of an unprecedented military success that defeated a 30-year brutal separatist movement. Their successful execution of the war effort earned his ‘family-led’ government its popular perception as the more stable and secure choice as opposed to the opposition which for 29 consecutive elections, had failed to win the confidence of a majority of the electorate.

However, the events of January 9th give as much reason for celebration as for continued vigilance and concern. The breakdown of the rule of law, broad impunity with which those close to the regime were able to abuse power and public wealth as well as the widespread nepotism and cronyism that characterised the Rajapakse regime were social cancers that had to be removed. The only democratic option for doing so was through the electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse; on whom the political capital and legitimacy of the regime largely rested. The president and his cronies had everything to lose with the looming electoral defeat and therefore had every incentive to subvert the will of the people if it threatened to change the regime. There are allegations that they planned to do precisely that. The outcome of investigations into their alleged attempts halt or annul the results of the election and remain in power with the support of elements of the armed forces are expected reveal the full extent of the threat they posed to Sri Lanka’s democratic framework and culture. It is the highest form of treason and anyone found guilty must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The other extraordinary - though not unexpected - development on the 9th of January was the swearing in of Ranil Wickremasinghe - leader of the longstanding and virtually unelectable opposition - as prime-minister. The Sirisena manifesto also made it explicit that Mr Wickremasinghe would be appointed as prime minister under his presidency. The appointment was accepted by the electorate based on the perception that Mr. Wickramasinghe would discharge the responsibilities of a prime minister more competently and honourably than the incumbent at the time. Yet, the change of government and the appointment of prime minister was done through a political manoeuvre; while Mr. Wickramasinghe’s party was still a minority in parliament; and thus lacked an explicit mandate from the electorate to govern. The process sets a precedent that is concerning and does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s democracy. Therefore, the future of Sri Lanka’s democracy and shape of the nation state it cohabits remain open to be negotiated by the political forces that this reflection intends to identify and analyse.

Politics and political movements in Sri Lanka still have a tendency to crystallize around a cultural memory of feudalism and class that is woven into the historical identity of the modern nation state. A strong democratic outcry and social conscience combined to drive the Rajapakse regime out of office. The political actors and movements that made up the broad coalition will be a main focus of this reflection. Their existence, organisation and increased political relevance needs to be celebrated and nurtured. However, it must also be acknowledged that - by all accounts - the future and very existence of Sri Lanka’s democracy hung by a thread in the early hours of the 9th of January. It was left in the hands of a few individuals to rescue and reclaim. Those events highlight the need for stronger and more independent democratic institutions that are accessible to all citizens equitably. Such reforms require political leadership - not only to design and implement structural reforms to the state and its architecture, but also to broad-base the social political conscience and its underlying sense of justice. In my analysis of the political leadership, stakeholder and elites, I will aim to highlight the opportunities and threats that the present political moment holds for the integrity of the state as well as its democratic framework.

The feudal and class-based political conscience of the island’s society manifests even today in the political aspirations and vocabulary of the ‘common man’ who is yet evolving into a ‘citizen’ in thought and action. The majority of Sri Lanka’s electorate has a rural base that has been conditioned by culture and history to cooperate with the intentions of political elites - if not be subservient to them. The presidential election of 2015 was contested on a platform which was conducive to - perhaps for the first time - shifting that political conscience away from its feudal underpinnings in a more liberal direction.

Sri Lanka - throughout its history - has been ruled by exclusive classes of political elites. From Kings whose right to the throne was based on their caste and clan and whose legitimacy to govern was based on having custody of a sacred relic, and colonial governments that were led by the white colonisers, to the handful of families that have dominated the two major political parties since independence; the common man has not been afforded access to national-level political power. The only exceptions were the Presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa from 1989 - 1993 and that of Mahinda Rajapakse from 2005 - 2015. Ranil Wickremasinghe is the nephew of President J. R. Jayawardena, and Ranil’s nephew Ruwan Wijewardene who is now the state minister of defence is the great grandson of  Sri Lanka’s first prime minister D. S. Senanayake. It is clear therefore, that political power in post independent Sri Lanka has shifted between the UNP dominated by the Senanayake-Jayawardena-Wickramasinghe clan and the SLFP dominated by the Bandaranaike clan.

Cultural memory and the political conscience of a society cannot be fixed of course - they evolve and transform with time and changes in the political environment of a country and of the world. The biblical account of the birth of the Jewish nation – in the book of Exodus – recounts how the liberated slaves of Egypt had to wonder the dessert for forty four years before they were ready to build a new nation and state. History often suggests that it takes at least two generation to significantly transform the political conscience of a society. Just over two generations after independence, the people of Sri Lanka was also ready to break-away from the established political dynasties and elect a ‘common man as our President - in Ranasinghe Premadasa. It is unthinkable that such a political figure from an ‘ordinary’ background, could have emerged democratically in colonial Ceylon before independence or soon afterwards. Indeed, it was in the late 80s that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty also began its steady decline and loss of the monopoly it held on political power in India - which it has not reclaimed convincingly since Rajiv Gandhi. Yet, in Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga would reclaim the stake of the political elites yet again in the 1990s. In the absence of a viable successor from the Bandaranaike clan to succeed her – in Mahinda Rajapaksa, someone who came from outside the Bandaranaike clan was able to become leader of the SLFP for the first time. Notably in that time, the electability and political viability of the Ranil Wickramasinghe led and middle-class dominated UNP declined dramatically to unprecedented electoral lows.

I have in the past, reflected on the demographic constitution and political relevance of the middle class of Sri Lanka, and will therefore not revisit that analysis here. It suffices to note however, that the present make-up of the UNP and its cabinet members in the current government is disproportionately weighted towards the middle-class. Perhaps there is a correlation between the repeated electoral losses of the UNP in the previous two decades and the erosion of its popular base among the masses - which Dr Dayan Jayatilake and others have characterised as the patriotic nationalist base of the Sinhalese - under the leadership of Ranil Wickramasinghe.

It is from such an unelectable proposition that Ranil Wickremasinghe has been able to expertly manoeuvre himself and his party back to government - bypassing the need to win a general election and thus without a clear mandate to govern that can only come with such a victory. The risks and opportunities that such a subversion of the electoral mandate poses for the democratic framework of the country requires closer scrutiny. Firstly, it must be conceded that the current government has a clear mandate to implement the series of democratic reforms that won broad support of the electorate at the presidential election - including the intelligentsia, civil society movements and even the opposition. It must therefore be held accountable for implementing those reforms within the promised time-frame. Secondly, it must be made clear that the electorate has not had a fair opportunity to evaluate and vote on the domestic and foreign policy frameworks of the present government. Instead what they actually voted for was the ouster of the Rajapakse regime. Therefore the government does not have a clear mandate to make wholesale changes to the domestic and foreign policy frameworks of the country apart from administrative reforms and course-corrections to re-align with accepted and long-held norms where necessary in the national interest. The new government’s West-leaning foreign policy that risks weakening or damaging ties with China and Russia as well as the potential neglect of countries of the global south is a matter of serious concern - not only for its potential implications which will be explored separately, but also because it lacks a clear mandate from the people, and thus any legitimacy to make serious changes of course and direction on such matters.

In electing Maithripala Sirisena as president, the the electorate has yet again opted  for a leader who understands the aspirations of the common man and who is able to represent their interests in policies and structure of the political machine. Yet, in the re-emergence of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe, the old political elites have regained their grip on the two main political parties that are also the power centres of the country. The emergence of the JVP as a serious third contender in the Sri Lankan political sphere under the leadership of Anura Kumara Dissanayake is perhaps the most progressive outcome in the Sri Lankan democratic process. His role, and the role of the JVP and other movements in creating the present political will be analysed in subsequent reflections. It remains unlikely at this stage however, that the JVP would emerge as a serious contender to become the leading party in opposition. Yet the possibility that they will challenge the dominance of the SLFP and UNP remains – unless credible reforms are made to the structure and representative makeup of those two main political parties. Whether the threat of being overtaken by the JVP proves sufficient motivation for the SLFP and UNP to undertake such a serious reform agenda remains to be seen.

In the course of post independent Sri Lankan politics, there is much to be said in defence of times when the middle and upper-classes were over-represented in the legislative, executive and judicial functions of the state. Yet, the promise of true democracy is the equitable distribution of power in society and the political empowerment of the economically and socially marginalised masses so that they too may have guaranteed, equal and independent access to justice and opportunity. Mr Wickramasinghe and Mrs Bandaranaike Kumaratunga may yet be the last of the elite political dynasties that dominated the first two generations of post independent Sri Lankan politics. They may also represent the last of the upper-class, pro-western, neoliberal interests in Sri Lanka’s governing ideology and foreign policy framework. On the other hand, their reclamation of the two - still dominant - power centres of Sri Lankan politics may represent a resurgence of elite interests and thinking in the country’s governance. Wickramasinghe’s stubborn hold on the UNP leadership and the re-entry of Mrs. Bandaranaike Kumaratunge into the higher echelons of the SLFP are significant events that requires more attention and scrutiny by public intellectuals and political analysts alike.

Arguably, every country, organisation and team needs elites to lead and carry them to greater heights, and Sri Lanka would not be an exception. However, those elites must be chosen based on their capabilities and performance. A culture that celebrates elite performance will inevitably grow, but one that fosters ‘elitism’ that is not based on talent and high-achievement, but purely on lineage and affiliations will be doomed to fail in a competitive world order. A highly disproportionate majority of political leaders in post-independence Sri Lanka had achieved that status through their affiliations to political families or a few prominent ‘elitist’ institutions.

Perhaps the single most significant liability of the Rajapakse regime were its brazen embrace of nepotism and cronyism and the broad social resentment that built up against it. In that light, the make-up of the new Cabinet and occupants of the higher echelons of political power in the country at present also represent a narrow and disproportionately privileged slither of Sri Lankan society who have little defence against similar allegations that could be made against them.

Yet it remains that the result of the presidential election on 9th January – allegations of a failed coup notwithstanding – not only bodes well for both the state and its democracy. There were legitimate fears – though perhaps never to be known for sure – that democracy itself would have retreated into the Rajapakse’s iron grip, in the aftermath of the alternative result. Indeed the Rajapakse campaign strategy was nothing but an attempt to securitise every conceivable political issue that the country was facing. Their projection of the opposition itself as a threat to national security, left little to the imagination about how they would have acted to ‘mop-up’ their political opponents if they has managed to retain their grip on power – and the security apparatus in particular. However, subsequent developments also raise substantial concerns that purging one burgeoning political dynasty should not pave way for two more to replace it with. It is clear that 9th January represents a change of guard in Sri Lankan politics. What is not so clear is whether the old guard was replaced with the new, or whether the new was replaced with the old.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Balancing or band wagoning?

Sri Lanka's relations with India and China

As the centre of global power shifts eastwards, competition is brewing between the great powers in Asia to define their respective roles by expanding their spheres of influence and securing their interests in the emerging order (Mahbubani 2009). While China, India and Japan remain regional great powers, the United States (US) still maintains a significant presence in Asia; pursuing shared interests through strategic alliances and economic partnerships with key countries including India and Japan (Twining 2007). The Indian Ocean bears great geopolitical significance to all stakeholders in the aforementioned great power balance. As a vital trade and communication link between resource-rich Africa, the energy-rich Middle-East, influential markets in South-East Asia and China and the population Centres in South Asia, it is heavily contested for its strategic and economic significance (Kaplan 2011).

Here I do not intend to cover the political history of the region or of individual states, but focusses on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges as a small and weak state placed in a geographically advantageous position at the middle of the highly contested Indian Ocean, vis-à-vis the great power rivalries between India and China. The focus on India and China is based on the evidence that they have assumed preeminence in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy while considerations of Western and Japanese interests have become secondary (2014a; The Canberra 2012; Wijesinha 2013). The question of whether these two countries have displaced the US as the dominant power in the Indian Ocean is beyond the scope of this discussion, but will be raised where relevant. It must be noted on the outset that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy considerations are dependent on a complex web of domestic, sub-regional, regional and global considerations (Desilva-Ranasinghe 2013). However, Sri Lanka’s relations with Russia, Japan and the West – though important factors – must be analysed in detail as a separate topic. Unlike during the cold war era where weaker countries were more explicit in declaring their allegiances or policies of non-alignment, most Asian states today are actively cultivating relations with multiple great powers to secure diverse interests (Goh 2007). Sri Lanka also has exploited the great power rivalries between India, China, Japan and even Europe to a limited extent; to maximise investment, aid and strategic cooperation during and after the end of its recently concluded civil war (Srinivasan 2004). Yet, domestic and sub-regional pressures pose serious challenges and add complexity to its foreign policy questions at present. Here, I wish to address the central research question of  whether Sri Lanka can afford to balance its relations with India and China or whether it will be forced to bandwagon with either one; and the risks and opportunities that each of these choices entail.

Sri Lanka currently faces challenges in defining a clear foreign policy direction (Yusuf 2012). These have three notable dimensions. The first two can be framed in reference to a global diffusion of power from the West to the rising population and economic centres in Asia which is creating two separate contests for power in the region. One contest is played out between the US led West which is ‘pivoting’ back to retain their relevance in Asia against rising Asian powers – led by China - which are arguably displacing Western influence in the region (Friedberg 2011). The second contest is between the rising great powers within Asia; to define their spheres of influence – if not dominance - within key subregions such as the Indian Ocean and East Asia (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2013; Srinivasan 2004). Sri Lanka as a small and weak state located at a geographically advantageous position in the Indian Ocean, is particularly vulnerable to be entangled in both these contests. Apart from these external factors, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy faces a third challenge; of defending the legitimacy of its actions against allegations of human rights violations – particularly during the conclusion of its long-running civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) (Kumar 2012; Wickramasinghe 2014). The country’s foreign relations apparatus is under pressure to fend off international scrutiny of its human rights record that may threaten to make Sri Lanka vulnerable to external interference and weaken its sovereignty.

Relations with India

Historically, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been anchored to India – its closest neighbour and regional hegemon. Geographic proximity and cultural links stemming from their shared history and colonial experience have reinforced close ties between the two countries (Krishna 1992). Sri Lanka’s position in the world has been tied to that of India since Arab traders plied the Indian Ocean for spices, then during European colonisation and independence and afterwards through the non-aligned movement and commonwealth heritage. India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner; a position further strengthened by the FTA signed between the two countries in 2000 (Look 2014). India also benefits from transhipment facilities in Sri Lanka for its trade with the world (Look 2014). However, there are two emerging trends that are straining this symbiotic relationship. The first is growing Chinese interests in the Indian Ocean that is attracting Sri Lanka closer to China (Behuria and Sultana 2013). Even though stronger ties with China need not be at the expense of the close relationship Sri Lanka enjoys with India, the great power rivalry between India and China makes India suspicious of being contained by Chinese strategic and economic partnerships with countries in its periphery. The second factor straining India-Sri Lanka relations is domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu including the Tamil National question and incursions by Indian Fishermen into Sri Lankan waters; that threatens to make India less accommodating and at times hostile to Sri Lanka’s interests (2014c; 2014d; Mayilvaganan 2007; Radhakrishnan 2013). Sri Lankan foreign policy, though pivoted on India, has shifted its stance from a West facing one to an East facing one, where relations with China have been significantly strengthened during the last two decades. Sri Lanka’s recent focus on India and China is arguably indicative of a relative weakening of US influence in the region and a perception that the US is acting via proxy through India. What is of concern however, is that Sri Lankan foreign policy has lost its emphasis on neutrality and made India cautions - if not suspicious - of Chinese dominance (Gunaratne 2013).

India has considered China to be its primary security threat since suffering a swift defeat in the 1962 war. Its relations with the West – particularly US and Japan - have strengthened during the time Sri Lanka has shifted its focus from the West towards China (2011; Majumdar 2012). This misalignment with India’s priorities make Sri Lanka more vulnerable as a small state in the Indian Ocean; to be torn between the hegemonic interests of India and China’s increasing economic and strategic interests in what India considers its own sphere of influence. Sri Lanka’s West-leaning foreign policy in the late 70s and 80s aroused similar suspicions in a pro-Soviet Indian government, which nurtured Tamil separatism in the island and then intervened in the conflict on two occasions (Dixit 1998; Rao 1988; Silva 2013). These involvements did come at a cost though – as the disgruntled LTTE assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi. From that and other historical experiences, India has recognised the value of a stable and prosperous Sri Lanka and has since provided crucial diplomatic assistance to end Sri Lanka’s long-running civil conflict and invested heavily in its post-war rehabilitation and redevelopment (2009). Sri Lanka is also sensitive to India’s security concerns and regional interests. Even while strengthening economic and strategic relations with China, Sri Lanka has often kept India informed and appeased (2013) with preferential access to major development projects and key economic and strategic assets – including bunkering facilities at the Trincomalee harbour (2005). However, issues of fishing rights and Sri Lanka’s strict enforcement of its maritime boundaries have caused problems in recent years.

Relations with China

Chinese interests in diversifying and securing its energy supply routes through the Indian Ocean and their strategy of building ports along the Northern half of the Indian Ocean rim including Hambantota in Sri Lanka is already well documented (Chellaney 2007; Holmes and Yoshihara 2008; Khurana 2008) . But Chinese cooperation with Sri Lanka’s interests in recent years extends beyond investment in infrastructure. China is one of the largest arms suppliers to most of India’s neighbours including Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh (Dutta 1998; Malik 2001). As a member of the P5, it also provided vital diplomatic cover for Sri Lanka to conclude its long-running civil war in the years leading up to 2009 (Weiss 2011). As great power competition in the Indian Ocean intensifies, China can be expected to draw Sri Lanka even closer due to the strategic and economic value of the island – much like the US have done with Taiwan.

Sino-Sri Lankan relations predate the visit of the Chinese monk Faxian to Sri Lanka in 410 AD. Sri Lanka understands that its present relationship with China will be of vital importance in the emerging order within Asia and the world; and has immensely benefited from it since the 1990s (Samaranayake 2011). China as a member of the P5 - together with Russia - is an indispensable diplomatic partner of the Sri Lankan government that is currently facing significant international pressure regarding its conduct during the recently concluded civil war (Kumar 2012). The relationship with China as a major supplier of weapons to the embattled island, is also of key strategic importance; especially when Sri Lanka’s strategic partnerships with India and major Western arms exporters have been constrained in recent years (Rao 1988). Perhaps the greatest impact of Sri Lanka’s relationship with China has been on its economy and infrastructure development. Chinese investment in major infrastructure projects including two large ports, one international airport, Coal power plants, commercial and entertainment complexes and a highway network are prime examples (Samaranayake 2011). Sri Lanka even launched a communication satellite with help from China, symbolising ever deepening ties between the two countries (Reuters 2012). In effect, China has displaced Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest foreign donor and continue to invest in infrastructure and development projects (Goodhand and Klem 2005).

Domestic and subregional factors

Sri Lanka, with a Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority is adjacent to Tamil Nadu which forms a subregion that has a Tamil majority. Therefore grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka has inflamed Tamil nationalist elements in the subregion that includes Tamil Nadu which had significant clout in the recently ousted Congress Party led government of India (Mayilvaganan 2007). Domestic pressure from Tamil Nadu have constrained the ability of successive coalition Indian Governments from deepening their natural relationship with Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government too - because of its dependence on ultranationalist parties – have been slow to respond to Indian interests and Tamil concerns; often resulting in strains on the relationship across the Palk Strait (Behuria and Sultana 2013). India’s regional rivals such as China and Pakistan have sought to exploit such weaknesses to fill the gaps left by India’s inability to engage too broadly with Sri Lanka. For example, despite the LTTE assassination of one of its Prime Ministers, India was too constrained to supply weapons and strategic support to the Sri Lankan armed forces in their final push to eliminate the LTTE which India had already proscribed as a terrorist organisation. That opened up a gap in the strategic relationship between the two countries which Pakistan and China were quick to exploit (Dutta 1998).

Sri Lanka’s increasing dependence on China and the resultant leverage it gives China in the Indian Ocean has been a matter of increasing concern for India. India’s unease of China’s growing presence in the region – though at least in part a result of India’s inability to cultivate natural alliances with its culturally homogenous neighbours – should be a matter of concern for Sri Lanka too. A cold-war like rivalry in the region will be especially detrimental to the security and economic interests of weaker states within the region. Sri Lanka and India has a shared interest in neutralising separatist movements within the respective states – particularly of Tamil Nationalists with shared identity and grievances in the North and East of Sri Lanka and adjacent Tamil Nadu in India (DeVotta 2005; Irschick 1969). The recent election of a BJG government with a clear majority in India provides a valuable opportunity for Sri Lanka to normalise and strengthen ties with India with minimal interference from Tamil Nadu, but the relationship could turn brittle given that the BJP led government is likely to adopt a tougher stance against growing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka (2014e). Some political analysts have pointed out that Sri Lanka must not compel India to annex its North Eastern regions as Russia was able to do with Crimea in recent months (Jayatilleka 2014); as a forced final solution to both the Tamil national question as well as to neutralise Chinese influence in the Island.

It is clearly not in Sri Lanka’s interest to neglect or abandon its relations with China in order to appease India or vice versa. A stronger partnership and a greater level of trust between India and China is the most desirable outcome for Sri Lanka, and therefore the island’s foreign policy should be aimed at building confidence between the two great powers. Recognising Sri Lanka’s limited capacity to influence relations between these two great powers, it should instead focus on assuring both countries of cooperation with their peaceful interests aimed at trade and development. Sri Lanka and other South Asian countries can also benefit by following the example of ASEAN (Goh 2007) in actively seeking the inclusion of India and China in regional organisations; and working with partners to enmesh them through norms and shared interests.


Despite being nuclear armed states, given their no-first-use nuclear doctrines, both India and China are rapidly modernising and broadening their conventional military capabilities partly in response to each other and in part to balance perceived external threats from the US (Gilboy and Heginbotham 2013; Jae-Hyung 2002). Evidence points to a volatile strategic build-up between the two states. Even though the growing volume of trade between China and India hints of economic integration and cooperation between the two countries, the trade deficit in favour of China remains a matter of contention for India (Holslag 2013). While China is increasingly seen to be occupying strategic and economic interests in the Indian Ocean – ranging from patrolling Somali waters against piracy, to investing in infrastructure projects in India’s periphery – India is seen strengthening its ties with countries in China’s periphery such as Japan and Vietnam (2011). All these factors point to a brewing rivalry between Asia’s two rising giants.

However this rivalry between China and India in Asia is unlikely to mirror the cold war – because China in particular as a nominally communist country – recognises the economic cost and political risks associated with such a build-up, based on the Soviet experience (Ong 2013). If Sri Lanka anticipates the emergence of India and China as primary great powers in Asia, its main foreign policy priorities should be aligned with the role that it foresees India and China playing in its own security and economic development. Distancing itself from the rivalry between China and India by taking measures to assure India that the island will not be a strategic base for China and reassuring China of full cooperation on its trade and economic interests in the Indian Ocean will be pre-requisites for pursuing such a mission. Understanding its own limitations and weaknesses, as well as regional threats to its foreign policy interests, Sri Lanka must diversify its foreign relations by strengthening ties with ASEAN, Japan and particularly the global south with whom it shares economic and development interests. Sri Lanka must work with smaller regional actors in South and South East Asia to enmesh India and China in an extra-regional framework that facilitates greater dialog between the two.

The West remains a key market for Sri Lankan exports, while historic links and commonwealth traditions offer opportunities for normalising relations that have been strained in the recent past due to the Sri Lankan government’s allegedly poor human rights record. While good relations with India is vital for peace, security, trade and its international standing, China remains a vital source of trade and investment, as well as a key P5 veto-wielding defence against external interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. Hostility from domestic elements within India must be balanced using responsive and progressive domestic policies that addresses the Tamil National question. The full implementation of the 13th amendment to the constitution would provide a platform for engaging with India and its subregional actors in good faith and help build confidence (Behuria and Sultana 2013). Sri Lanka must also recognise external balance of power considerations - such as India and its allies working to neutralise Chinese influence in South Asia - that shape India’s policy towards the island. Given that countries such as Pakistan have strategic and diplomatic clout to withstand Indian pressure against Chinese influence in ways Sri Lanka does not, the Indian government may adopt a tougher stance against Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese influence to grow in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy must therefore take these risks into account and leverage the complex balance of power considerations in South Asia to secure its interests. US and Japanese influence have already become comparatively less pronounced – though they maintain a significant presence directly and in partnership with India. Yet in a stable and norms-based world order, the emergence of the rival population centres of China and India as dominant powers in Asia may be inevitable. In the absence of a strong friendship between India and China, the regional power balance will largely depend on two main factors. The first is how smaller and weaker states in Asia such as Sri Lanka define the scope of their relations with their two giant neighbours. The second will be how those weaker states act in concert to enmesh the two great powers in a norms based order.

Internal political instability and interference by the powerful defence establishment are threatening to distract Sri Lankan policy makers from recognising, prioritising and addressing these foreign policy objectives (2014b). The misconception within the Sri Lankan policy elite that relations with China and Russia could be used to balance against India could prove to be costly.


My focus in this essay was to identify opportunities and risks in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards India and China. Much of the policy discourse in Asia with regards to China is limited to discussing the relative merits of balancing or band-wagoning. However, it is my contention that Sri Lanka as a small but geopolitically and strategically valuable asset in a highly contested part of the Indian Ocean within India’s immediate periphery, must look beyond these two options and adopt policies that enmesh India and China in a cooperative order that enhances options for greater peace and prosperity. Even though Sri Lanka’s relationships with these emerging great powers have come into sharp focus because of the vital importance and challenges associated with them, I have shown that they should not be pursued at the expense of a broader engagement with the world. Sri Lanka must maintain its traditionally strong links with friends such as Russia, Japan and Pakistan as well as countries of the global south, while improving engagement with the West.

Another important point I have raised in my argument is that Sri Lanka must pay attention to the great game being played out in the Indian Ocean region between India, China and also the US whose interests have come into focus in its pivot back to Asia. Sri Lanka must be sensitive to the concerns and interests of India, China, US and Japan or risk being embroiled in a great power contest in the Indian Ocean. China and India are conscious of how a super power rivalry like that of US and USSR can be costly; impeding economic progress and how they could ultimately undermine their great power ambitions. Therefore Sri Lanka in concert with other Asian states can help build a platform that engages India and China in particular – facilitating greater cooperation and understanding between the two traditional rivals in a way that help normalise relations over time.

Lastly, I have identified internal and external factors that threaten to undermine Sri Lanka’s foreign relations in coming years. Sri Lanka must foster strong democratic governance and independence from domestic political concerns as prerequisites for a strong foreign policy that serves regional as well as national interests of Sri Lanka. Failing to do so may imperil a weak state like Sri Lanka by making it vulnerable in a rapidly transforming regional and global political order.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How must we respond to religious extremism?

Sourced image

(As published on

 1. Do not despair. Much of the world was already broken before you were born, and parts of it will remein broken long after we are gone. It is the purpose and function of life to re-order the disintegrating world in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. So it helps to try to understand the situation as it evolves, rather than crystallise our view of it in judgment.

If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
Sun Tzu The art of war (Chapter 3:18)

Those who incite hatred and violence, their supporters, victims, onlookers, observers, those who are dismayed by communal violence and those who secretly support it, those who want to stop it, criticize it and others who don’t care as much: they all act out of their innersprings of motivation and covert or overt desires. It is almost universally true that every individual is spurred to action by any their aspirations and desires, because we all need something to aspire to. Some aspire for material wealth, others desire power. Yet others may desire fame, skill, wisdom or enrichment through service. We are also contained by our fears. The less fearful we are, the deeper our capacity for tolerance and the broader our range of choices for action. If we are not driven by fear, we are also less likely to harm or hurt others and more likely to be more accommodating generous and calm. However, people’s actions and words are fundamentally informed by their beliefs – but they are also the least tangible or conspicuous and therefore the most puzzling factor to understand. Beliefs entail not only our religious and moral inclinations but the manifestation of each person’s self-identity. So we must pay attention to all these factors that influence individuals and groups – so that we can understand why people act and speak the way they do.

Also, keep in mind that the present is not an isolated moment. As much as what transpires in this moment is a product of history, it will also shape the future in ways that we may not be able to fully understand or anticipate. Moments of adversity demands that we all become keen and humble students of history. The very existence of people whose actions are so far removed that we utterly and completely fail to understand them point to deficiencies in our knowledge of the world and how it works – that it could produce members of the same species, civilization, culture and time that yet remain incomprehensible to one another. Not everything about our anthropology and history may be immediately knowable, but it helps to be chastised by an acknowledgement of our own fallibility and imperfect knowledge before seeking to critically engage with the fallibilities of another.

Document what you see, read and hear. Especially at times when we least know what’s going on. Keep as detailed a record of what people say and do, so that our future selves and future generations may have a more detailed account of history than we do now, to analyse the actions and inactions of individuals and groups – and their far-reaching and unpredictable implications.

2. Do not discard religion. Understand religion for what it is; especially in times darkened by hatred, violence and intolerance motivated by religious sentiments, it seems not only tempting, but quite reasonable to assume that religion is the problem. While such a conclusion may be justified in many ways, it is most unhelpful – because that makes us lose sight of the fact that – for better or for worse - religion is arguably the most powerful force for social transformation that humanity has ever known. Those who argue that technology has been a more powerful transformative force than religion, ignore the fact that technology only serves to facilitate and amplify social change, while religious beliefs -and in more recent times, political ideology- inspires social change and perpetuates social norms. The greater the sanctity that people attribute to their religious beliefs, rituals and priests; the greater their power to influence the way societies function and the decisions they make collectively. Because a community of people – or even an organised mob – can have far greater power over a multitude of unorganised individuals, religious beliefs and their induced fears and aspirations can easily be appropriated by individuals who desire to gain political power.

Most religious beliefs and even political ideologies are also rife with ideas and visions for peace, justice, equanimity, tolerance and love. So, rejection of religion as a force for evil rather than good – not only misses the point altogether, but more critically deprive those who hold that view of a potent tool that can also be a force for immense good and constructive visions of influencing progressive social change.

3. Speak out, engage in dialogue and publish. Use every opportunity to discuss and debate what’s taking place in society with friends, children, parents, relatives and – within reason – even with strangers. Do so at the well, on Facebook, in your blogs, in the mainstream and mass media. Talk to people who know people, make sure that those who are responsible for social leadership, security, peace and justice know you are watching them and keeping note of their action or inaction. Also, as importantly, listen. Engage equally with those who do not agree with you as much as those who do. Gain new perspectives by paying attention to what they have to say.

Do not be distracted or discouraged by those who call you “Facebook heroes”, “armchair critics” or hurl any number of derogative remarks at you instead of – or while – engaging with what you have to say. Those who criticise free expression and critical debate online and on social media, do so out of ignorance about how technology have transformed our world. Organising online petitions and voicing our opinions in social media can be as powerful as any rally or protest at a busy street junction. They reach a broader audience, can often engage otherwise apathetic or ill-informed people in vibrant social discussions (even if only to complain about those who speak out). Social media also expose people who fail to speak out; those who avoid expression of their views either because they believe they cannot make a difference or have doubts about the moral defensibility of what they have to say.

The world has moved on and the Internet has become a public place where we can engage in civic life and discharge some of our civic duties legitimately, effectively, and relatively safely to a broad audience; though perhaps one that is limited, not representative of society at large and too homogeneous to be of critical value. It is not only a viable alternative to street protest in some circumstances, but can be more effective and channel much broader participation of an audience that is not constrained by their geography or mobility.

4. Promote social integration. Intolerance and communal disharmony are results of isolation and lack of empathy. People who are fearful or uncomfortable with the diversity of beliefs, preferences of gender, language, ethnicity and culture are - more often than not – those who have grown up and lived in isolated homogeneous clans. It is difficult – though seemingly not impossible – to hate Muslims for being Muslims if you have close Muslim friends that your grew up, shared food and laughter, and played Cricket with. Unfortunately, ethnic and religious communities remain cloistered among their own in most rural areas all over the world – unlike in some big and cosmopolitan cities. That is still a generalisation and doesn’t always hold true. But it takes time for people and entire communities to mix and integrate – and will possibly require at least a few generational shifts in our political structure as well as religious and cultural attitudes to marriage for true integration of communities to happen at a significant scale.

But much can be done in the interim. If you are a senior manager or a leader of any capacity in any organisation, you can take tangible measures to promote diversity within your organisation and teams. In workplaces and clubs, in schools and sports teams, you can lead the way in eradicating unfair discrimination of people based on their background or identity. Expose organisations that do unfairly discriminate in their recruitment and in the course of doing business. Ministers who award government contracts unfairly to members of their own clans and consumers who discriminate where they shop based on the identity of the shop owner are just as culpable for propagating communal violence and perpetuating social inequality as much as any hatemonger or militant extremist.

Even as ordinary citizens, it is ingrained in our culture to share food with people from all communities, backgrounds and walks of life, to travel, to strike up conversations with strangers and to stand up in defiance of unjust authority. Inter-faith and community dialog doesn’t require extraordinary commitment or radical change – it is something we have experimented with for well over two thousand years. Even though our tainted history of seemingly perpetual violence bear testimony to the fact that we have often failed to live amicably for long periods of times, it is nevertheless as rich in cautionary lessons as it is with sobering examples of our recklessness and fallibility. Which leave one lesson above all for us to embrace…

5. Embrace non-violence. No matter how dire the situation, how imperilled our hopes and how threatened our very own existence; bear in mind that violence can only deepen our fears and hasten our destruction. I can add but little to what has already been said about it.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


One step after another,
We'll scale this mountain high,
Two eyes to greet and gather
What even hearts may never pry
Three wishes to carry us thither
When feet and limbs are tied
Four seasons and merry weather
In this blessed life to bide
Five friends to kindle or smother
And hearts and minds that rhyme
Six strings to strum and tether
The beautiful and sublime
Seven days to carry us nether
For unknown tomorrows to prime
To grow and then to wither
In the fires of unending time


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Whither Democratic Peace?

The democratic peace proposition (DPP) is a liberal theory of peace (Oneal et al. 2003) complimented by constructivist arguments in support of it. Its central and simplest edict posits that ‘democracies do not go to war with each other’ (Owen 1994). There is a high degree of consensus among its proponents, that both statistical and empirical evidence indicates the “absence of war between democratic states comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations” (Levy and Thompson 2010). Yet, the ‘democratic peace proposition’ is - at best - an incomplete theory of peace. However, historical evidence of conflict between democracies as recently as the Indo-Pakistan and the Israel-Lebanon wars illustrate that shared democratic principles alone cannot be a sufficient guarantee of peace between nations. In critically evaluating existing literature on the subject, it becomes quite apparent that the spread of democracy is just one of many factors that have contributed to a reduction in the number and intensity of conventional wars between nations. Advancements in technology and multilateral organisations on the other hand are increasing the relative military, economic and diplomatic cost of conventional war. Therefore, states, including liberal democracies, still engage in unconventional warfare and other forms of conflict; in an environment where the global battle space has shifted into alternate arenas.


The foundations of the theory were laid by Immanuel Kant in his 1795 essay titled “Perpetual Peace” in which Kant conceives three main criteria for a peaceful world order. The first is ‘republican constitutions’ which would engender and enfranchised and empowered citizenship in every nation; secondly ‘a federation of free states’ which would bring governance and order to interactions between states; and thirdly ‘universal hospitality’ or goodwill between citizens of different nations (Kant 2008). Kant’s propositions for perpetual peace saw resurgence in the 1980s with Michael W. Doyle among its leading proponents (Doyle 1983a, b).

The DPP that emerged in the early 1980s must be understood in the context of Cold War politics, and the ideological battle that was polarising nations along pro democratic and Communist arguments. Doyle as a proponent of democracy used Kant’s logic as a basis for his argument of the democratic peace proposition. However, the criteria he specified for ‘perpetual peace’ differs from Kant’s in two out of the three elements. Doyle retains “republican representation”(Doyle 2005) from Kant’s original thesis as a criterion for peaceful relations between nations, but deviates from Kantian thinking in the next two. The “ideological commitment to fundamental human rights”(Doyle 2005) requires states to agree on values that inform their political ideology, whereas Kant merely specifies a federation of states which may or may not share the same values. Contemporary Southeast Asia is an example of a region made up of states with different political values, therefore not meeting Doyle’s criteria, but still manage to retain peaceful relations along the Kantian thesis of federation (Kivimäki 2001). Doyle’s third requirement of “transnational interdependence” is also a deviation from the spirit of Kant’s idea of universal hospitality. Liberal as well as conservative states – perhaps with the singular exception of North Korea – share a high level of interdependency with many other states through trade and shared human security interests (Farber and Gowa 1997).

Doyle further insists that his argument “rests on a simple and straightforward proposition that connects those three causal mechanisms as they operate together and only together, and not separately”(Doyle 2005). Doyle’s insistence that all three causal mechanisms must be fulfilled for the DPP to apply to a given nation, raises questions that will be addressed below - about the definitional challenge of what ‘democracy’(Danilovic and Joe 2007) itself, and ‘peace’ between nations entail.


The DPP has been advanced by many contemporary liberal thinkers, including Michael Doyle , Francis Fukuyama , John Rawls , and Bruce Russett . Other scholars have extended the core proposition to argue that democracies are less likely to start wars (Lake 1992) and once engaged in war, they are also more likely to win them (Gelpi and Griesdorf 2001). Some go even beyond to argue that democratic states fight shorter wars or that they suffer fewer casualties compared to nondemocratic states (Bennett and Stam 1996).

Various proponents of the DPP attribute it to different characteristics of democracy . Their merits and shortcomings will be reviewed below. However Lipson himself agrees that there is a lack of theoretical basis for their claims – even though he insists there is irrefutable empirical evidence supporting the DPP . The absence of a theoretical basis for the DPP and the reliance of its liberal proponents on statistical evidence to support their arguments, raise the question – if the DPP is to be accepted – whether democracy is the cause of peace or whether it is just a statistical correlation (Ray 1998).


It must be noted on the outset that any claim of Democracies never going to war with each other must necessarily ignore or disregard the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1947 and Kargil war of 1999 , Israel-Lebanon wars of 1978, 1982 and 2006 and the United States (and allies) backed coups in Iran (1953)(Abrahamian 2001), Guatemala (1954), Indonesia (1955), Brazil (1960s) and Chile (1973)(Forsythe 1992). Wars have also been waged by democracies against other functional or constitutional democracies in the name of promoting democracy and on the contention that they were in fact fighting dictatorships – such as the Kosovo war in 1999 against the Milosovic regime. The American Civil War (1861-65) was waged between democracies of United States (United 2007) and those of the Confederate States (2009).
Scholarly critiques of the DPP has been based on the realist view that nations go to war to secure their interests; where shared democratic ideology is not a determining factor for a nation considering going to war or choosing not to. Farber and Gowa argue that the statistical correlations that support the DPP are a result of cold war politics (Farber and Gowa 1997). David Spiro contests the statistical significance of the perceived absence of war between democracies, to argue that there is no significant correlation between democratic nations and peace (Spiro 1994). Sebastian Rosato attacks the causal logic of the DPP to argue that (a) there is no basis to assume that democratic institutions or citizens are biased against war or more effective in non-violent dispute resolution and (b) there are no inherent attributes in democracies that prevent them from going to war against another democracy (Rosato 2003). However the purely realist analysis of the problem also fails to sufficiently address the ideological reasons that influence political decision making, which is at the core of argument in the DPP.
The lack of a consistent definition of ‘democracy’, or of ‘peace’, may help proponents deflect empirical scrutiny of the DPP by being selective in what they consider to be liberal democracies and what constitutes ‘peace’. Filtering the statistical evidence in favour of the DPP weakens it even further and definitional issues erode its utility. It is instructional to note that in recent years, wars that otherwise would have been avoidable, have been fought for the propagation of democracy in the hope that the will lead to greater peace (Kellner 2005).

In almost every democratic nation, media, lobbyists and businesses compete with citizens for influence over government. Rule of law, accountability and individual freedoms are subjective measures at best. Democracies also do not have an impeccable record of electing honest leaders or evolving efficient bureaucracies that most DPP theorists would rely on to deter respective nations from war. According to the definitional boundaries that Doyle sets out for ‘liberal democracies’ (Doyle 2005), such ideal democracies may never exist – least of all outside of the global West.


Theorists who identify either a correlation or causation between peace and democracy overlook a host of other factors that influence political decision making and conflict. The lack of a theoretical framework for the DPP as admitted to by Lipson et al, stems from the fact that other significant global and historical factors have contributed much more to the reduction in number and intensity of conventional inter-state wars. They include (a) Nuclear deterrence and the standoff during cold war years, (b) emergence of the UN and a global governance structure (c) prevalence of multilateral organisations with effective diplomatic as well as trade tools to check state behaviour, (d) end of colonialism and international consensus against invasion and occupation of foreign lands, (e) interdependence and integration in the global economy and (f) the increase in global travel and information exchange. It is possible to argue that nuclear deterrence – particularly the US nuclear umbrella over its allies – has played a far more significant role in preventing war than the propagation of democracy in the post World War II world order. It is also telling that even nuclear deterrence could not prevent the democracies of India and Pakistan from going to war in 1999 over Kargil (Dixit 2002) – albeit briefly.

The proliferation of independent democratic states outside Europe commenced with the end of World War II and vastly accelerated to become the most common form of governance after the end of the Cold War (Thor Torfason and Ingram 2010). The spread of democracy after the Cold War was hastened more by the lure of capitalism than by democracy itself (Gartzke 2005). Indeed Capitalism has even penetrated non democratic countries such as China and Vietnam. Economic interdependence has also been a powerful deterrent of war even with rival democracies (Tang 2012). In the backdrop of a distinct shift of power from individual states to non state actors (Strange 1996) such as large and multinational corporations, NGOs and Multilateral organisations such as the WTO, World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council, the role of democracy as a factor in international peace must not be exaggerated .


The DPP has its origins with the ideological battles of the cold war in its backdrop. It may have been a potent tool for promoting the virtues of democracy during such a political climate, but by synthesising a weak correlation between democracy and peace, scholars have overlooked many exceptions to the theory on one hand and a number of significant factors that may have contributed equally or more towards peaceful relations between nations.

Given that the bulk of empirical evidence supporting the DPP are sourced from post WW II history of the world, it is worth contemplating other factors that may have prevented conventional wars between nations in that time. The advent of the United Nations and related multilateral organisations including the Security Council, the GAT/WTO, World Bank, IMF as well as other groupings of nations have brought some structure and governance to international politics. These have made arbitration and peaceful resolution of conflict possible, more effective and cheaper than the option of conventional war. The spread of capitalism has integrated global markets binding the economic interests and fate of nations – serving to deter war.

As nations become more economically integrated and dependent on technology, conflicts between them have shifted to new realms. Where nations do have unresolved disputes, trade levers and cyberspace for example have become a new battle grounds where they can and do attack, spy and extort concessions from each other in ways that escape the conventional definition and understanding of war and conflict. Therefore, the understanding of ‘peace’ as the absence of conventional war - that is attributed to the propagation of ‘democracy’ - is itself questionable.


History has consistently demonstrated that neither democratic nor totalitarian governments can survive without the implicit (or complicit) support of a majority of the population. The French revolution in 1799 and the Arab Spring of 2011 and many other historic events demonstrate that. For a government to have the implicit support of the people, it must fulfil at least two conditions. First, it must be seen to have the capacity to guarantee the physical and material safety of its citizens. Secondly, it must have influence – if not control - over the political beliefs of its citizens including their beliefs about justice. For example, a feudal system will prevail so long as the citizens believe that their society is justly organised by the class or caste system and that belonging to a noble bloodline is a legitimate claim to political power. Totalitarian regimes in North Korea and China demonstrate how the respective government’s ability to control the political beliefs of citizens and capacity to provide material safety is sufficient to retain power. Liberal democracies are no different – liberal leaders are elected by majority citizens who believe in liberty and egalitarianism. Such societies exist mainly in the Global West. Democracies in other regions may never be as ‘liberal’ due to differences in political legacies, culture and beliefs.

What compels nations at a political level, to go to war or refrain from doing so, are factors that affect their capacity to fulfil the two criteria outlined above: perceived threats to their material or physical security or to their political beliefs. North Korea threatens to attack any country that jeopardize its political beliefs for the same reasons that the words ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ are derided in the liberal democratic United States (Ceplair 2011) – because they are perceived as threatening entrenched political beliefs. Any two countries who share similar political beliefs – be they democracies or feudal states – will not have ideological grounds to go to war with each other and will only fight for reasons of material security. In a global economy of shared resources, nations may be pushed to fight other nations who threaten or stand in the way of their material or physical security regardless of shared political beliefs.

The realist view, that a nation’s ability to defend its physical and material security and political beliefs through military means depend on their relative military strength, tactical advantages and the overall likelihood of being able to militarily achieve their political objectives, has its merits. Peculiarities of individual leaders, national values and nationalistic fervour can also be major influences. The present world order offers non-military options for conflict resolution that are cheaper and less destructive.


The point is not that democracy does not engender peace. Indeed, there are attributes inherent to democratic governance that put tighter controls on nations going to war; such as political accountability, budgetary oversights and policies weighted more towards citizen welfare than government ambitions. Democracies also make desirable and trust-worthy friends – because of the collective wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki 2005) and their general bias towards justice. As argued above, nations that are perceived to have shared political ideologies have one less reason to go to war against each other. In the past and present, wherever religious belief is the source of political power, shared beliefs have kept the peace and divisions have caused war. For example, the shared beliefs of ‘Christendom’ kept Europe relatively peaceful (Hillerbrand 2007) until their theological split in their beliefs during the reformation destabilised it. Wars such as the crusades were fought against competing ideologies rather than for material or physical preservation. With the spread of democracy, more nations have shared political values than those who don’t and therefore one less reason to rally against each other. Religious terrorist groups that threaten liberal democracies also do so, on ideological grounds.

The main opposition to the Democratic Peace Proposition presented here is aimed at its singular attribution of democracy as the source of peace between democratic nations because that ignores more compelling reasons why democratic as well as non-democratic nations have often refrained from fighting each other. Neither does the DPP deal with definitional challenges that limit the scope of what ‘democracy’ and ‘peace’ means in the modern world. The material and diplomatic cost of conventional warfare has increased, causing a shift of the battle space from the conventional theatre to covert operations, political manoeuvres, economic warfare and even cyber warfare. There is no evidence that democracies are, or have ever been, immune to such attacks or backed away from using such tactics to attack other democracies.

Understanding that political and ideological beliefs of nations are as defensible as their physical and material security; not only bridges the liberal and realist views on security but also provides a platform for more comprehensive theorisation. If a democracy is threatened; economically, ideologically or on their sovereignty by another democracy, conflict will inevitable ensue. Whether that culminates in conventional warfare, diplomatic wrangling, trade disputes, cyber attacks, espionage and blackmail or covert and proxy attacks depend on the political priorities and avenues available for nations to pursue the optimal outcome.

I have outlined a theoretical framework based on national security interests and national political values that provide a more complete framework for understanding the factors that influence nations to attack one-another or fight for self preservation. The argument presented here is that these factors are common to democracies as well as others, and provide the foundation on which a comprehensive theory of international relations can be formulated.

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