Resounding endorsement of pluralism



Dignitaries at the BCIS convocation.

The convocation of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, Colombo, (BCIS) for 2023, held at the BMICH on November 10, provided many a thought-provoking ‘take-away’ for the International Relations (IR) student and analyst. The principal dignitaries at the momentous event did considerable justice to current developments in the IR field and thereby rendered the convocation a most memorable one.

The convocation got off to a resounding start with the playing and singing of the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil. This amounted to a clear and unambiguous endorsement of the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka. Here was a striking signification that Sri Lanka belonged to all its communities.

The anthem thus sung was a most welcome statement that the BCIS stands for ethnic harmony and the peaceful coexistence of the country’s communities. Hopefully, higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka, in increasing numbers, would take the cue from the BCIS and endorse Tamil as a very important national language, going forward.

It could be said that the chairperson of the BCIS, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Executive Director of the BCIS Prof. Gamini Keerawella and Director of the BCIS Dr. Minna Thaheer, along with the general management of the BCIS, have acted with the greatest foresight and sensitivity by focusing on Sri Lanka’s plurality through the rendering of the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil. This spirit of reconciliation was evident in subsequent program items that unfolded during the convocation as well.

The choice of New Zealand’s High Commissioner (H.C.) to Sri Lanka Michael Appleton as the Guest of Honour for the occasion proved a very sound one because he gave the audience much to think about in relation to building and sustaining peaceful multi-ethnic polities. Introducing New Zealand as ‘the only Maori country in the world’, he did not baulk from endorsing the unique identity of New Zealand as a veritable peaceful coming together of the Maori community and other ethnic groups, including whites.

The H.C. underscored the fact that one in every three New Zealanders was ‘born outside New Zealand’. Some extracts from the H.C’s address: ‘All of Asia’s countries are important to New Zealand. We’re pragmatic and independent in our foreign policy thinking and formulation. Our foreign policy is based essentially on the ideal of peaceful co-existence. On this score, “pigeon-holing” New Zealand is not possible.

‘New Zealand has right along opposed the use of the veto in the UN Security Council and has stood for UN reform. We don’t see might as right. On the contrary, New Zealand has always endorsed problem-solving on a collective basis. While working towards our national interest, we have always ensured that our aims are shared by the rest of the international community. We are also for a rules-based international order, characterized by openness and trade liberalization.

‘It is our belief that all countries must be party to Sri Lanka’s development. New Zealand is for helping Sri Lanka to realize what we regard as an awesome future.’

If Sri Lanka, as a small state, is continuing to wonder what its basic foreign policy parameters ought to be, they are all here for the taking in H.C. Appleton’s address. To begin with, Sri Lanka is obliged to tell the world very clearly that it is a multi-ethnic and pluralistic country that treasures peaceful coexistence among its communities. If it comes clean on these fundamental domestic principles, it would find relating amicably to the countries of the South Asian region and outside it very much easier. Wide acceptance would be there for the asking among the vibrant democracies of the world.

Some thought provoking observations made by the Chief Guest at the convocation, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the course of his address were as follows: ‘There is growing disenchantment of the global South with global North. We see a marked change in US foreign policy currently. Whereas, in former times there was continuity in US foreign policy, this is not the case now. Currently, US foreign policy is crafted mainly for the American middle classes. International trade is no more open. There seems to be a rolling back of international trade frameworks.

‘Meanwhile, there is a widening of international divisions. US-China tensions have heightened. China and Russia are coming together at the expense of the US. Sri Lanka should avoid getting caught up in these rivalries. The US should not be seen as one option and China as another option. Sri Lanka should take an ASEAN viewpoint on these issues.

‘But how does Sri Lanka survive in the current international situation? Sri Lanka should work on the basis that there could be no big power rivalries in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The IOR should be open to all. Freedom of Navigation is important.

‘Meanwhile, we should expand and strengthen our ties with Asian countries. SAARC is dead but we should seek greater integration with BIMSTEC and also seek to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which promises a more expansive market for Sri Lanka. Likewise, our partnership with India must be strengthened.’

BCIS chairperson and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga made the following points, among others: ‘Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical location is her main strength. We have the best landing and anchoring spot. But it is credit and not conquest that matters in world affairs currently. Sri Lanka has been showered some credit by external powers mainly on account of her location. Our foreign policy formulation must take these factors into account. It should be premised on our vital interests.’

The latter addresses draw the attention of the observer to the increasing complexities in international politics and economics. There are daunting challenges in the current world situation for small and cash-strapped countries such as Sri Lanka. It ought to be clear that they do not have many choices. They cannot afford to offend too much the foremost powers on account of their helplessness.

Given this backdrop, the commentator is obliged to be of the viewpoint that Non-alignment remains the best foreign policy option for Sri Lanka. Non-alignment is considered obsolete and inapplicable to the South’s foreign policy calculations by some local sections and is fought shy of by them, but it ought to be plain that Sri Lanka has to steer very clear of big power rivalries, which are today at their height, since it needs most of these powers to survive. It needs to relate amicably with all international political actors that matter. This stance translates into Non-alignment in its quintessence.