30 June 2016

While we plot SLexit…

In November 1917, as the Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic, Leon Trotsky was tasked to negotiate the nature of the peace with the German Imperial High Command.  The delegation led by Trotsky, even as it was negotiating the terms of the peace treaty with the German Government in Brest-Litovsk that December, distributed leaflets to the German troops urging them to revolution. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty cost the Soviet Republic Finland, the Ukraine and its best grain lands.

Almost a hundred years later, a delegation of the United National Party campaigns in the UK, urging Sri Lankan expatriate voters of that country to vote against Brexit.  Britain voted to ‘leave’ the European Union.   

Different times, different agendas, different ideologies.  Trotsky’s ‘leafletting’ was not directly linked to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, but essentially the position he had taken regarding the nature of peace won the day.  The efforts of the Sri Lankan delegation were in contrast trivial and their preferred outcome did not materialize.  Trotsky had the blessings of his Government which of course was not democratically elected and was therefore answerable to the people on in terms of self-proclaimed representative legitimacy.  The Sri Lankan delegation was made of democratically elected representatives.  Whether they had the approval of the people, i.e. through the nod of the Parliament and the Cabinet for this ‘side business,’ is therefore a legitimate concern, especially if public funds were used to cover relevant expenses. 
 What’s common here is that in both instances those who were politicking had their respective countries’ interest at heart.  Trotsky was plotting ‘world revolution’.  The Sri Lankan delegation, in its wisdom, was probably inspired by concerns about the country’s economic future.  Both intentions were ‘noble’ in that sense (let’s say for argument’s sake).  Both had something to do with the alteration of political boundaries, in one case the ceding of territories controlled and in the other a landmass to which there was no claim whatsoever.  The latter, then, in this sense was undoubtedly presumptuous. 

The presumptions are not limited to a land matter though and that’s what needs to be addressed.   It is no secret that this Government was doing its bit in the West’s anti-China campaign, never mind the fact that China owns massive chunks of Western debt or that China, according to the United National Party, was also active in the anti-Brexit camp.  What’s pertinent is that after putting the country’s proverbial hand around the head as per the West’s bidding or what turned out to be misplaced faith in the West, it finds itself touching a nose called ‘Asia’.  This ‘Asia’ is essentially China and Japan – India, for all its friendly and big-player pretentions, is an Asian ‘minor’ all things considered.    

In short, the Government bet on the West and lost.  All the talk about GSP Plus is nonsense simply because it is a) a highly overrated facility and b) we don’t have it.  Rushing into the as yet mysterious ECTA with India on account of Brexit is not only a cheap trick but one that exposes a kind of desperation that only a Government that is clueless can have.  Just the other day a group of Indians, marketed laughably as ‘independent experts’, was here in Sri Lanka to sing the praises of ECTA.  If India is the Government’s ‘PLAN B’ now that it has been made to eat humble pie with respect to the West on account of Brexit, it only shows that lessons are not being learnt.

The Indian (dead) rope trick aside, however, it is a good thing that the Government has finally obtained a better sense of global realities.  Mending relations with China cannot be too difficult.   The Chinese have better things to do than saying ‘hoo, hoo, we told you so!’  They are in this for profit (just like the West and like India), so let’s have no illusions about it.  However, they won’t do the ‘have the profit and eat the cake of political control’ that appears to be the West’s (and India’s) preferred model of ‘Supporting Sri Lanka’.   This is not to say that the Government should snub India of course, but it pays to be honest and to refer realities.  India is good to build a few houses and lay a few miles worth of railway lines but that’s about it.  Sure, you can have a trade pact but if good business is about negotiating the best package and using whatever leverage one has to push it through. 


The West’s bargaining power was dented by Brexit and whether or not it was the far right’s position that won is irrelevant to Sri Lanka simply because ‘right’ or ‘left’, it’s all ‘wrong’ as far as Sri Lanka is concerned when it comes to the West’s foreign policy prerogatives.  India certainly has more power than Sri Lanka on all counts and there cannot be any agreement that yields ‘equal benefits’.  We are talking of crumbs here after all.  India’s bargaining power has to met with a chip called ‘The nature of Sino-Lanka relations’.  

This Government lost by going to the weaker of the global economies.  It can lose all over again as it turns to the regional powers by betting on the weaker of the Asian economies. 

Finally, it should be kept in mind that exercises such as politicking in some other country hoping to change outcomes is not cost-effective.  Sri Lanka is not the Soviet Republic, Harsha De Silva is not Leon Trotsky, Britain is not Finland.   India is not a lesser European Union, but China is certainly far larger on all counts than the EU and North America put together.  Dimensions count whether we like it or not. 

Ideally, of course, the long term plan has to be SLexit as someone quit.  Britain has helped us a bit in the necessary unshackling.  An Indian shackling as alternative would be funny if it weren’t dangerous to economic as well as political interests of Sri Lanka.  A Chinese shackling cannot be prettier but if some kind of fetter is inevitable, that has to be the pragmatic choice (while we plot a sustainable SLexit from all forms of international bullying). 

The above article was published in the Daily Mirror (June 30, 2016) 
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene.