By Uditha Devapriya
Colombo, January 21 (newsin.asia): Historically, Sri Lanka’s relations with the world were driven by a number of factors. The country shifted from one position to another, allying itself with different interests at different points. While policy was largely shaped by the tenets of nonalignment, this did not preclude it from seeking friendships that went beyond such imperatives. Indeed, whenever it needed help, the government of the day turned to everyone it could turn to. More often than not it got the support it wanted, and made good use of it.
Foreign policy thrived under the first three SLFP administrations (1956-1959, 1960-1965, and 1970-1977) and became unwieldy under the first three UNP administrations (1948-1956, 1965-1970, and 1977-1989). This is not to say that all was well under the SLFP and all was bad under the UNP. But on a balanced note, the SLFP tried to implement a more consistent and far-reaching set of policies, an endeavour it largely succeeded in.
The UNP, on the other hand, tended to define itself in relation to British economic domination of the country, particularly in the plantations. This compelled it to privilege continuity over change. Thus, in the same period, it antagonised China, India, and Russia, confident that Whitehall and Washington would come to its assistance.
When that did not materialise and after it was routed at the polls, it began formulating foreign policy negatively, in opposition to whatever position the SLFP held; to give one example, from its initial position of hostility to India, the UNP sided with our neighbour to the north after Sirimavo Bandaranaike involved herself in the Sino-Indian War.
Arguably the most tumultuous period for our foreign relations was the J. R. Jayewardene administration. Turning away from its brief truce with India, Jayewardene’s UNP went on to antagonise that country, hoping that its alignment with the West would compensate for the loss of what was clearly a crucial friendship. Here too the underlying principle seems to have been one of opposition to the SLFP’s stance: since the Bandaranaike government had got so close to India, the UNP saw nothing wrong in alienating it.
Jayewardene’s biographers, K. M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins, have attempted to pin the blame for what followed on the machinations of Indian intelligence services and South Indian politicians. But their version of events ignores the UNP regime’s actions, including its abandonment of the tenets of nonalignment and its mess-up in the 1983 riots. It also fails to give sufficient weight to the fact that Indian intelligence ramped up support for Tamil militants after those riots, and that by reducing the country’s presence at the Non-Aligned Movement, the UNP exposed it to the pressures of regional power rivalries.
Different scholars give different explanations as to why the UNP behaved the way it did over the country’s external relations. Many of them agree that its policies were less successful than the SLFP’s, but almost all of them suggest that this was because of factors outside the party’s control. For instance, one scholar, quoting Jayewardene, contends that the country opposed the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union vetoed the island’s entry to the United Nations, while another distinguishes between a pro-Western and “West-inclined” policy – whatever that means – contending that the Senanayake government touted the latter line, supposedly out of pragmatic considerations.
Almost none of these accounts notes what is, to me, an intriguing paradox. How is it that the UNP, a party that prides itself today on its “internationalist” outlook, failed to build up a truly internationalist foreign policy? How is it that this task came to be fulfilled by the SLFP, a party the UNP-allied bourgeoisie depicts today as an insular outfit?
To ponder these questions, I think, is to assume that to be internationalist requires one to be Westernised and a member of the Westernised elite, indeed to hold political positions in line with such an upbringing. But is that necessarily the case?
The Westernised bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, by and large, did not cut themselves off from the wellsprings of the country’s past. To be Westernised was not necessarily to be immune to the historical developments of the land. Local elites may have been indifferent to the plight of the poorer masses, but this did not blind them to the practices and beliefs of those masses. Hence, in the same vein with which the D. S. Senanayake government could make the defence establishment and Foreign Service subservient to British interests, it could also whip up perennial fears of Indian domination to win elections.
If ever a cosmopolitan outlook did enter the country in the 20th century, then, it was not through the colonial elite. This is not as puzzling as it may seem. Opposition to colonial rule and lack of official patronage combined to politicise popular religion, entrenching a revival among the Sinhala middle class. Mindful of these developments, the bourgeoisie drifted from the Anglicanism of their youth to Buddhism, seeing no rift between their comprador economic interests and the populist inclinations of their new faith.
With the entry of the Left, a cosmopolitan outlook finally made its way to the country. Well educated and unapologetically radical, the stalwarts of the LSSP and the Communist Party sought to transform the country into a modern nation-state through a socialist programme. But the comprador elite, fearful of the dangers these formations posed to their interests, connived to whip up popular ethno-religious sentiment against them.
That these developments extended to the country’s foreign policy hardly needs mentioning. As Hector Abhayavardhana has noted, despite its “formal secular character” the Ceylonese State “succumbed to the need of its ruling politicians to exploit the religious susceptibilities of the masses for political purposes.” So long as the ruling class felt that they had satisfied these susceptibilities, they could go ahead with policies that perpetuated the island’s status as a semi-independent plantation colony tied to the imperial master, Britain.
For the most, the Sinhala middle-class acquiesced in this state of affairs. They failed to realise that while the comprador elite could satisfy their cultural demands, they could not transform the country into a modern nation-state. It was the Left that took on such a task and emphasised the link between cultural and political independence, the latter defined in terms of declaring Ceylon as a Republic, taking it out of the Commonwealth, and wresting control of the means of production from foreign ownership.
The UNP’s foreign policy in its first 10 years of power was more or less the policy of a party learning how to deal with the world for the very first time. Tied to the capitals of the West, it could not think beyond allegiance to the West. That it made use of cultural rhetoric to define its relations with other countries was perhaps to be expected: we have it from J. R. Jayewardene, for instance, that D. S. Senanayake believed he would be reborn “to help in the fight against Communism.” Such doctrinaire thinking could not last for long: after the UNP finalised the Rubber-Rice Pact with Beijing, its officials drew a line between the Soviets and the Chinese on the grounds that to ignore the latter “would be unrealistic.”
After it joined hands with the SLFP, the Left managed to divert the country’s foreign policy to a more progressive direction, basing it not merely on nonalignment but also a sharp perception of political developments abroad. Mervyn de Silva and Hector Abhayavardhana worked on the foreign policy plank of the United Front’s 1970 manifesto. That policy was based not on an abstract friendship with everyone, but on a recognition of our place in the world and our obligation to the world at large: a position Dayan Jayatilleka described as “the high point of an independent international perspective” in Sri Lanka.
Such a perspective could not arise from the ranks of an elite steeped in a compradorist and colonial-minded ideology. It had to come from a more internationalist mindset, of the sort that the Left possessed. This may surprise those who associate modernity with cultural or political Westernisation, but it is true: that is why, in most former colonies and dependent states, be it India or Cuba, the dependent elite produced no real artists, scientists, thinkers, intellectuals – or for that matter, diplomats. That is also why Fidel Castro appreciated the need to maintain his country’s profile abroad, and chose not to close down its diplomatic service even after the country stopped receiving Soviet aid.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, both the UNP and the SLFP, along with the SLPP, seem to have succumbed to the insular inclinations of the dependent bourgeoisie today, partly because the Left as it once prevailed no longer exists, but also because education policies of the last four decades have managed to take us back. The situation is so bleak that, while looking up to the West, we also hold ourselves as superior to everyone else: a phenomenon that Rajiva Wijesinha dissects well in his book on Sri Lanka and Geneva.
Surprising as it may be to some, there is no contradiction between these mindsets, just as there was no contradiction between the elite’s cosmopolitan veneer and its insular cultural conditioning. In any case, whatever might account for them, such attitudes have prevented the formulation of a Sri Lankan foreign policy. We clearly have a long way to go in achieving this task. What is saddening, of course, is that we haven’t even started.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]