Lee’s five powerful lessons for Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen
All that man wants is freedom from fear and hunger. The entire gamut of human rights stems from these two basic freedoms which ensure man’s right to life, property and dignity. In a society where there is freedom from fear and hunger, there is little place for destructive politics.
This was the essence of the social contract Singapore’s founder and great statesman Lee Kuan Yew conceived and sustained. In this social contract, the State was honest and expected from its citizens discipline and reciprocal honesty. As Singapore, once a run-down port city, bloomed as a developed nation just three decades after its independence in 1965, John F. Kennedy’s famous quote “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” resonated in public life. His critics accused Lee of ruling the country with an iron fist and a virtual one-party democracy, but most of them later agreed that Lee was right. After all, who cares about politics when your next meal is assured, your welfare is taken care of, you are financially stable and your tax money is truly accounted for?
In Sri Lanka, Lee will be largely remembered for his statement that he wanted to make Singapore a Sri Lanka. Decades later, Sri Lanka was trying to become like Singapore with slogans such as making Sri Lanka an NIC — a Newly Industrialised country – by 2000 or turning Sri Lanka into a Miracle of Asia. But apart from the civil war, large-scale or mind-boggling corruption, especially during the previous regime, deprived the country of the opportunity to become another Singapore.
But as the great statesman begins his final journey, Sri Lanka should learn a few lessons from his legacy — his model for success — especially at a time when good governance has become the hot topic.
It was largely good governance that helped Singapore to become the financial giant it is today. Sri Lankan leaders need to stop paying lip service to good governance and look at how Lee’s Singapore practised it.
In Singapore, good governance operates on five principles – meritocracy, ethnic harmony, clean government, the rule of law and social equity.
Singapore was run like a private company with the prime minister being the CEO. The right person got the right job. To achieve the maximum benefit of meritocracy, Lee realised the need for an educated society and worked towards it. In this educated society, people are judged by their performance — not on their family background, caste, class, ethnic group or political ideology. Can this happen in Sri Lanka? Can we dream of a time when appointments will be made not on one’s closeness to the leader but on the basis of one’s ability and qualifications?
Take the second principle: Ethnic harmony. Both Singapore and Sri Lanka have laws that promote religious and racial harmony. But where Singapore succeeds and Sri Lanka totters is in the implementation of the law. During the previous regime we saw how the law was observed in the breach when religious groups advocating racial hatred got state patronage that led to violence in the Aluthgama-Beruwala area. Unlike Sri Lanka where there is constitutional ambiguity over whether the State is secular or not, Singapore is secular but tolerates no attempt to insult a religion or race.
Singapore’s language policy is also worth emulating. Learning a lesson from Sri Lanka, Lee struck the golden mean where English, which is not an official language, became the working language while the official languages — Mandarin, Malay and Tamil — are encouraged in schools to maintain the country’s cultural identity and Asianness.
Lee told the International Herald Tribune in 2007: “We’ve seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose — we didn’t say it was our national language — we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.”
It is interesting to note that Lee’s Singapore saw no issue in adopting the crescent and the stars as the symbols in the national flag, notwithstanding the fact that they gave an Islamic flavour to the flag as seen in the flags of Muslim countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Malaysia.
Clean government was Lee’s third principle. One of the first acts of Prime Minister Lee soon after independence was to increase the public servants’ salaries by manyfold. Many questioned the move because a new and poor country could barely afford a huge public servant salary bill. But Lee stood by his decision because it helped reduce bribery and corruption in the public service. Lee realised that if the head was corrupt, then down the line, the public servants in particular, and the people in general would be corrupt. Lee proved that the leader’s commitment to cleaning up corruption must be absolute. There were no deals within deals or cover ups on the basis of kinship or friendship. The end result was prosperity to all.
The Rule of Law was Lee’s fourth principle. There was general consensus that the Rule of Law was what provided the necessary impetus for Singapore’s economy to grow rapidly from a per capita income of US$ 500 in the late 1960s to a per capita income of US$ 55,000 today. Foreign investors flocked to Singapore as they did not have to bribe officials and had confidence in the country’s commitment to uphold the rule of law.
The fifth principle is social equity where the state steps in not only to close the gap in income disparity but also to ensure that everyone has access to quality education, health care and public transportation. Singapore will not call itself a welfare state but many a welfare state can learn valuable lessons from this laissez-faire state where the state provides a workfare payment to those whose income is far below the national average.
“If an economy prospers but the median income is low and the disparity of wealth is large, the society will not be cohesive and social harmony will be threatened. The philosophy of inclusive growth is therefore important. We need to build social equity into our growth strategy,” Prof. Tommy Koh, head of the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore told a 2009 lecture.
For Sri Lankans, especially the new government leaders who talk about good governance, there is certainly a lesson a lesson to be learned from Lee’s Singapore. Instead of importing a central bank governor from Singapore and messing things up, the Government should have imported Lee’s vision. It is never too late.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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ISIS: The mystery behind the monster

By Ameen Izzadeen
“… when you see them pray, you will look to them and think they are better than you; when they fast, you will think that they are better than you; they will recite Qur’an very well but it will never reach their throats, and they will leave the deen (the religion) like the arrow from the bow…”

This was a warning from Prophet Muhammad about a group who were to come at a later time.
In early Islamic history, there was a group called Khwarij who fitted this description. They were zealots, but apparently failed to comprehend the spirit of Islam. Yet, hordes of youths lured by the Khwarij’s fanaticism left their homes to join the group. Ali, Islam’s fourth Caliph, declared war against them fearing their harmful ideology would destroy Islam.
Today this phenomenon is happening once again; thousands, of youths, including girls as young as 16, are leaving their homes to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose brutality knows no bounds. These youths erroneously believe that ISIS is fighting the cause of Islam and the cause it champions – the establishment of an Islamic caliphate – is worth dying for. Among those who left their homes to join ISIS were three British teenagers – Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana. They made international headlines with the British media describing them as Jihadi brides. This week three British youths were arrested in Turkey while on their way to Syria.
The canker is spreading and stopping this is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the Muslim world. Addressing the European parliament in Strasbourg some ten days ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah said ISIS was a problem within Islam and therefore it was the responsibility of the Muslims to eradicate it.
“We will not allow them to hijack our faith,” the monarch said, pointing out that the terrorists’ acts ran counter to basic Islamic values such as mercy, peace and tolerance.
As the ISIS terror continues, a big question mark looms large over efficacy of the US-led military campaign against the group. Air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria by the United States and its Western and Middle Eastern allies began in September last year. Six months later, ISIS is still a force to be reckoned with. In Iraq, government troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia are struggling to flush out the ISIS from key cities and regions, even though they are getting help from the US and neighbouring Iran.
Why is ISIS so formidable? Only a year ago it was an army of less than 25,000 rebels. Today it has a fighting force of some 200,000 and its influence is spreading in the Middle East. On Wednesday, gunmen suspected to be having links with ISIS killed 19 foreign tourists at a museum in Tunisia’s capital Tunis. In Libya this week, the rebel government in Tripoli launched a military campaign against groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The monster needs to be stopped. But who created the monster? It is the West and its Gulf allies. Their main aim was to oust Syria’s Bashar al-Assad because Syria under Assad was a key link in the Iran-led Shiite alliance in the region and had rejected Saudi-Qatari proposals to build energy pipelines to the Mediterranean across Syria. Assad in a recent interview hinted that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was programmed by the US when he was a prisoner in Iraq.
Al Baghdadi’s military successes began in 2013 with a jail break in Iraq. Hundreds of hardcore militants who escaped from the prison were sent to Syria to fight Assad’s forces. Last year al-Baghdadi’s forces captured large areas of Iraqi territory. The lightning speed with which Iraq’s US-trained forces retreated in the face of the ISIS advance implied some kind of collaboration at a high level in the Iraqi military. The case of ISIS is not black and white. It is one of the cloak and dagger cases, for which the Middle East is notorious — from the Arabian Nights folklore and the saga of Lawrence of Arabia to the creation of al-Qaeda and George W. Bush’s oil-centric tall stories about weapons of mass destruction.
ISIS was directly and indirectly armed and financed by powerful countries both in the West and the Middle East. Recently, Iran’s Fars News Agency carried a shocking story which many Western media outlets chose not to publish or broadcast. The news items claimed that Iraqi troops shot down two British planes carrying weapons to ISIS terrorists.
The news agency quoted Hakem al-Zameli, head of the Iraqi Parliament’s National Security and Defence Committee, as saying that Iraqi parliament had sought explanation from London. He disclosed that Baghdad was receiving daily reports from people and security forces in Anbar Province on numerous flights by US-led coalition planes that airdrop weapons and supplies for ISIS.
The same news story also claimed that Iraqi troops had found US and Israeli made weapons in areas purged of ISIS terrorists, suggesting some Israeli links with the terror group.
In his address to the US Congress on March 3, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labelled Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorists while he projected ISIS as a lesser enemy than Iran. This together with the lack of support from ISIS for the Palestinian cause, even while Gaza was being pounded by Israel last year, and the ISIS’s ‘coexistence’ with Israeli troops at the ISIS-held territories adjoining the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights points to a possible collaboration with Israel.
In another development, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this week that a man working for a foreign intelligence group helped the three British girls to travel to Syria via Turkey. The Turkish media later reported that the man worked for the spy agency of Canada, a country that works closely with Israel.
As various intelligence groups and countries destabilise the Middle East by manipulating the ISIS, it appears that the Middle East is being pushed into a deeper abyss. The US says the way-out is the resumption of the Geneva process aimed at a solution to the Syrian crisis. But after hinting last week that it would talk to the Syrian government, Washington now says it will not. The deadlock continues. So does the mayhem in the Middle East.
(The article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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South Asian Great Game: Do not modify our non-aligned policy

By Ameen Izzadeen
During the Great Game of the 19th century when Britain and Russia tried to outdo each other in wooing Afghanistan, a political cartoon published in Punch, or the London Charivari on November 30, 1878 showed Afghanistan’s Emir Sher Ali Khan between a lion representing Britain and a bear representing Russia. The caption below the sketch read: “Save me from my friends.”
The cartoon can be Lankanised depicting President Maithripala Sirisena standing between the Chinese dragon and India’s national animal, the tiger, and crying “Save me from my friends”. In this South Asian version of the Great Game, both China and India are seeking Sri Lanka’s love. But Sri Lanka, beware!
Sri Lanka’s relations with India and China will not fit the description of a love triangle where Princess Lanka’s heart is sought by two infatuated princes. Far from it, the relations are more like a spider’s web to which the unsuspecting little insect is drawn. But prudence lies at arm’s length. Sri Lanka should be warned that it should not get too close to either India or China so as not to get trapped in the web they have woven.
One of the less-talked-about reasons for the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime at the January 8 presidential election was its dangerous liaison with China. The people were wary about the Rajapaksa regime’s deals with China because they smacked of corruption while they dragged the country towards a serious debt trap which in turn forced Sri Lanka to make costly concessions to China in the form of land grants in strategic locations.
The previous regime in its myopia believed that China would within a decade or so be the world’s number one economic power and a superpower capable of turning the US-led world order into a China-centric one. But this was a gamble because changes in international systems are unpredictable until they happen. Hardly anyone predicted the end of the Cold War ten years before it really happened. Similarly, ten years ago, no one predicted China would be a world power capable of challenging the United States.
Banking on one superpower in a cold war conflict for one’s political and economic support could be disastrous. Many countries that obtained economic assistance from the Soviet Union during the Cold War were left in the lurch when the Communist giant crumbled. With Cold War II in the making, the past offers a valuable lesson.
Our foreign and trade relations should not be unidirectional. Though the Non-Aligned Movement is now virtually defunct, the concept as a policy offers a strategy to keep both friends and foes at arm’s length. The current crisis in Ukraine offers another valuable foreign policy lesson. If only Ukraine had followed a policy of balancing its relations with Russia and the European Union, it could have avoided the war which is taking a huge toll on its economy. It could have made the best of both worlds. Russia as a solution advises Ukraine that it should adopt a non-aligned policy but the government in Kiev has placed all its chips on one global power, the EU, just as the Rajapaksa regime chose China.
In relations between states, besides a quid pro quo, there should be a need assessment on the basis of who needs whom more at a given time. If India needs Sri Lanka more at a given time than Sri Lanka needs India, this gives the indication for Sri Lanka to up its ante or exploit the situation. If it is the other way round, then Sri Lanka should be prudent enough at least to protect its national interest. At the moment, Sri Lanka is in a position of strength in any bilateral talks with India, be it the poaching issue, free trade, Sri Lanka’s ethnic question or India’s projects in Sri Lanka, because India, in a bid to keep Sri Lanka out of China’s sphere of influence, is ready to make compromises.
In any foreign policy decision, national interest is the key. If India or China goes down on its knees with roses in its hand to woo Sri Lanka, it is not so much that they love Sri Lanka. But it is to make their own positions strong. Remember, there is no altruism in international politics. Even when rich countries send millions of dollars in aid at times of natural calamities such as earthquakes and tsunamis, they expect some gains in return. Hidden behind these grants and donations — and calls in support of democracy and human rights — are moves aimed at enhancing their soft power, improving their tarnished image or covering up their own sins which they commit in other countries.
Similarly, when India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tours Sri Lanka, he does so with India’s national interest in mind. India’s national interest will be best served if Sri Lanka is persuaded to stay out of China’s global power ambitions or not to become a part of China’s military equation in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the global power games, India has thrown its weight behind the United States, Japan and the West. But its stance can vary. India is part of BRICS – an economic alliance that brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and may itself become a strategic ally of China if it feels that such an alliance is in India’s interest.
Therefore, countries like Sri Lanka need to be prudent. India can make or break Sri Lanka. It has the ability to arm-twist Sri Lanka to achieve its foreign policy goals as it did in the 1980s by arming and training separatist rebels with a view to forcing Sri Lanka to revise its pro-West foreign policy stance.
While we need India, our closest neighbour, with whom we are culturally conjoined, we must realise that friendship and strong economic ties with China are also equally important and in Sri Lanka’s best interest. We also need to maintain special relations with Pakistan and Japan and good relations with the West, the Arab World, Russia and other countries – with the theme being friendship with all; enmity towards none. So non-alignment is the best strategy if we want to avoid the crossfire in the South Asian Great Game.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Alleged war crimes: Restorative justice with truth and reconciliation

By Ameen Izzadeen
For how long can Sri Lanka play hide and seek with the Western powers which, for reasons political or otherwise, seek to hold the country’s leadership and the security forces accountable for war crimes alleged to have been committed during the last stages of the separatist war in 2009?
How many times can we ask for more time from the United Nations Human Rights Council to address this issue? The respite the present Government managed to win on the strength of its ‘good governance’ promises is not indefinite. Before the September sessions of the UNHRC, we are told there should be a credible domestic mechanism to deal with the charges. Rather than confronting the international community or the West, the new Government is engaging it. The courage is encouraging.
The earlier a solution is found, the better it is for the country. We should not go after temporary solutions or resort to various stratagems, assuming that with time, the issue will be off the international agenda. This was the strategy the previous regime adopted. Relying heavily on the support of China, a United Nations Security Council member, without whose consent the West cannot punish Sri Lanka, the previous regime dared to court the wrath of the Western powers.
But China’s political and economic support came at a huge price. Sri Lanka became a virtual satellite state of China, so much so that the regime had no qualms over compromising the territorial integrity of the country. As the country plunged deeper into a debt trap made in China, the regime was forced to offer a section of the strategic Hambantota harbour and a large area from the now suspended port city project in Colombo, disregarding concerns over the damage such moves could cause to Sri Lanka’s foreign relations with India and the West.
If only the previous regime had displayed political courage to probe the war crimes allegations by setting up a credible domestic process, Sri Lanka would not have descended to a pitiful level where it could not find enough friends at the UNHRC to deter or defeat a resolution that virtually labelled Sri Lanka as a pariah state in the community of civilized nations.
Now that the country has obtained six more months, this domestic process should be started immediately or after the general election, notwithstanding the fallout from such a move. By initiating a war crimes probe, a ruling party will be committing political hara-kiri as it will make it unpopular among the Sinhalese. Such a move will be seen as betraying the war heroes who sacrificed their lives for the territorial integrity of the country.
But at the same time, the Government cannot be seen as dragging its feet or trying to take the international community for a ride. If the sponsors of the anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC lose confidence in Sri Lanka’s will to probe the war crimes allegations, the Government would only be fast tracking the ongoing international process which can lead to economic sanctions or an international tribunal similar to the ones set up to probe war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The way out is to make the domestic probe one aimed at restorative justice rather than retributory justice. Let truth and reconciliation be the focus of the domestic process with the victims being compensated adequately. It is inevitable that such a domestic process will expose a few bad eggs and may sully the image of Sri Lanka’s security forces. But if the Government, for these reasons, fights shy of setting up a credible domestic process, then it has to be also worried about the long-term economic and political loss to the country and the country’s international image.
A domestic probe will restore the country’s international image while it will also help attract big time international investors capable of giving a much-needed fillip to Sri Lanka’s foreign-loan-dependent economy.
As a first step, the Government should take up the cases which Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) believed warranted serious investigations. The moral compunction for a domestic inquiry lies in the fact that ours was an internal war, where Sri Lankans died at the hands of Sri Lankans. The probe should essentially be an internal matter. But the Government has to be mindful that an international probe derives its legitimacy on two premises – the absence of a credible domestic process and the universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity.
This is why liberal democracies are quick to adopt domestic processes to probe excesses committed by their armed forces. If the Sri Lanka Government is determined to protect the armed forces and their dignity, then it must look at investigations that the Western nations undertake and justifications they cite to clear them of charges of war crimes. Take for instance, the Lord Chilcot inquiry on Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. The British government has adopted a policy of not sharing sensitive information with the investigators and thereby is able to avert serious damage being caused to Britain’s relations with the United States.
We may also learn a lesson from Britain’s Bloody Sunday investigations into the killing of 26 unarmed civilians by British troops in 1972 in Northern Ireland. It took some 38 years and two probes for the survivors of that massacre to hear the verdict that the action of the British troops was “unjustified and unjustifiable”. Claims for compensation and the demand for the arrest of the soldiers responsible for the killing still continue.
It is also noteworthy to mention that countries like the United States when accused of killing civilians describe the loss of civilian deaths as unavoidable collateral damage. This is because they know that international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. Killing of civilians becomes a war crime only when the principle of proportionality is violated.
Thus there are many damage control measures the Government can adopt during a domestic probe without resorting to deception.
The Government would do well to remember that in the international cry for a war crimes inquiry on Sri Lanka, there is more politics than concern for the alleged victims. The new government or the national government to come after the next general election should devise a suitable domestic process to put to rest, once and for all, the war crimes issue without causing much damage to the security forces but meting out restorative justice to the victims and bringing about the much-needed reconciliation.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Political promises: Lanka needs annual status reports

By Ameen Izzadeen
When public disenchantment grows over unfulfilled promises, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands out as a model for all politicians.
Bloomberg was confronted by a civic conscious citizen — Anthony Santa Maria — at a subway station during his 2001 campaign to become New York’s mayor. Santa Maria scoffed at the promises politicians make but the criticism did not make Bloomberg angry. Instead it inspired him to release an annual status report on his 381 campaign promises. When he completed his first term as mayor in 2005, his annual report said 87 per cent of the promises had been fulfilled. His final Campaign Accountability Report released in 2013 at the end of his third term as mayor showed 89 per cent of the 611 combined promises made during the three campaigns had been completed or were being implemented at the time of compiling the report. Bouquets to Bloomberg!
In Sri Lanka, we do keep count of the promises politicians make and we are yet to see politicians of the calibre of Bloomberg. In 2005, when the country was in the midst of a heated campaign for a presidential election, with United People’s Freedom Alliance candidate Mahinda Rjapaksa giving all sorts of promises to everyone, a concerned viewer asked the moderator of a TV show whether there was legislation to take the politicians to court for making lofty promises and breaking them as it amounted to breach of trust. The moderator’s advice was that people should at the next election reject the politicians who broke their promises. But at every election, we are lured by new promises and the cycle of making and breaking promises and electing and rejecting politicians continues.
Going to court over the unfulfilled promises could backfire, if the judge believes the need to ensure the smooth functioning of the government is more important than meting out justice to an aggrieved party over unfulfilled campaign promises. This happened in Ontario, Canada when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in 2004 took the state administration to court for imposing new taxes in breach of a campaign promise that no new taxes would be imposed.
In a ruling that virtually gave licence to politicians to tell any lies with impunity, the judge said that anyone who expected politicians to be accountable for their campaign promises was naive about the democratic system. If anyone who voted for a politician based on a particular promise later were to go to court alleging a breached contract, “our system of government would be rendered dysfunctional. This would hinder, if not paralyse, the parliamentary system,” judge Paul Rouleau said.
Apparently, the seriousness of moral responsibility of candidates contesting for high office and the need to form legal safeguards against false promises were lost in this judgment. The undeniable truth is that unscrupulous politicians make use of the hope that springs in voters’ breasts at times of election and lure the voters with false promises. Sri Lanka’s elections – and for that matter elections in most democratic countries – are won by false promises. In other words, promises make the difference at elections.
In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the presidential election on a promise that she would abolish the executive presidency within six months. But she went on to contest a second term. In 2005, her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa made a similar promise, but he increased the powers of the executive president at the cost of undermining democracy, and removed the two-term restriction in the Constitution to enable him to contest a third term. He lost the election on January 8, because a majority of the voters believed the promises his main rival Maithripala Sirisena made – promises to bring about good governance, provide relief to the masses, expose corruption and punish the culprits.
But the people who voted for the new president are beginning to feel betrayed because they say the key promises of the 100-day plan are yet to be fulfilled, or are partially fulfilled or fulfilled not in the way that the original promise held out. For instance, the promise was to reduce the price of a litre of petrol to Rs. 70. But the price after reduction is Rs. 117 today. The promise was to add Rs. 5,000 to the public servants’ salary from February, but what they will get is a Rs. 2,000 allowance added to the Rs. 3,000 promised in the 2015 Budget passed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The promise was to arrest the culprits responsible for large-scale corruption, but only a few minnows have been arrested while the progress on the investigations into big cases is slow, giving rise to suspicions that the police are not doing their job or not free to do so. In fairness to the 41-day old government, some say one should not pass judgment before the 100 days are over.
The law in many countries, including vibrant democracies, is silent about holding candidates accountable for promises they make during election campaigns. But it is an undeniable fact that political accountability is an essential characteristic of democracy. To state one policy during the campaign and implement totally a different one when in power is to violate the principle of political accountability and undermine fundamental principles of democratic government.
The root of democracy is morality. From this root rise justice, equality, freedom and good governance. But the biggest paradox is that while democracy is everything moral, politics that nurtures democracy is more often than not immoral. With most politicians throwing away morality and their conscience in pursuit of their self-centred agendas and greed driven goals, the people in a democracy expect elected representatives to act in a manner upholding moral values. When the politicians once in power do not act in a morally correct way after giving promise after promise on every election platform, the people have a responsibility to remind them.
This is happening in Sri Lanka. Never in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, have the people been more enthusiastic about and attached to good governance than they are now. Good governance is the topic at every formal or informal political discussion. Evident in these discussions is the growing disenchantment over the slackening commitment to good governance and other election pledges. The Government should work out a mechanism to make politicians accountable for the promises they make. Or at least civic action groups should pursue these promises and publish a status report every year, naming and shaming the politicians who have failed to honour their word.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Ukraine: Giving peace another chance

By Ameen Izzadeen
After marathon four-nation talks in Belarus’ capital Minsk, the Ukrainian government and rebel forces yesterday signed a roadmap to implement a peace deal. It was indeed a victory for hectic diplomacy undertaken by Germany’s Angela Merkel who was shuttling between Kiev, Moscow and Washington and her French counterpart Francois Hollande. The deal became possible because Germany and France succeeded in winning Russia’s confidence. Earlier Moscow had scoffed at them saying it would not deal with vassal states, referring to their subservience to Washington.
A ceasefire will come into force on Sunday while steps will be taken to remove all heavy weapons from the frontline. Though much more needs to be done, the deal appears to be a win-win for all – for Ukraine, Russia, Ukrainian rebels and Europe – and it came at a time when Washington was planning to aggravate the crisis by sending lethal weapons to Ukraine – weapons that could change the balance at the battlefront in favour of Ukrainian forces.
The move to send hi-tech arms had the bipartisan support with hawkish Senator John McCain strongly advocating it while Obama’s next Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told his confirmation hearing that he was very much inclined to support the arms transfer move.
The deal also came at a time when Ukraine’s economy was falling apart. If Ukraine went ahead and bought the US weapons, it would have only worsened its economic crisis which, according to analysts, requires at least US$ 50 billion to get back on the right track – the kind of money which even the European Union was unable to offer. Yesterday as the deal was signed, the IMF announced a US$ 40 billion loan deal for Ukraine. On the other hand, if Ukraine had got the US weapons, it would have led to an escalation of the crisis – with Russia supplying Ukrainian rebels with equally powerful weapons.
Sending US weapons may serve the United States’ political agenda of taking Nato all the way to the borders of Russia and thereby containing Moscow. But on the other hand, such a move will only exacerbate the Ukrainian crisis, the triggering of which was largely due to the brash moves of the United States and its European allies.
The United States’ failure to recognise Russia’s security concerns in its backyard was a costly diplomatic mistake. Moscow had believed that Washington would reciprocate Russia’s policy of not messing around in areas where the US had genuine security concerns.
Breaking this unwritten understanding, the US together with its European allies decided to expand Nato’s borders to Russia. They plotted a regime change in Ukraine early last year when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an economic partnership deal with the European Union at the last minute following instructions from Russia, which promised Ukraine more economic benefits than the EU would offer. An angry US backed Ukraine’s opposition parties, including parties with neo-Nazi credentials, to stage mass protests at Maidan Square in Kiev in support of the EU deal. The US took matters into its own hands and at one point Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat in charge of the region, used the ‘F’ word to show her frustration at the United States’ EU allies when they differed on who should lead the new government after Yanukovych’s overthrow.
As the US and its European allies hoped, the protesters succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Yanukovych. The illegitimate interim government was immediately recognised by the US and the EU. Russia in response annexed Crimea in Ukraine’s southeast following a referendum there and supported pro-Russia separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The end result of the US shotgun diplomacy in Ukraine was a civil war which has so far killed 5,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
While Ukraine burned, the US and its Nato allies added more fuel by slapping economic sanctions on Russia. Washington also conspired with Saudi Arabia and brought the world oil prices down in a bid to punish Russia, the world’s number one oil producer. At diplomatic level, Washington tried to get Russia to submit to unrealistic demands such as the handover of Crimea, where Moscow maintains a strategic warm water port and its Black Sea fleet, the withdrawal of support to the rebels in Ukraine’s breakaway eastern regions, the resumption of easy credit facilities to Ukraine to buy Russia’s oil and gas at one fourth the market price. Obviously, Russia kept rejecting these unreasonable and untenable demands and insisted that the only way to end the conflict was to give more autonomy to the two separatist regions in Ukraine’s east. The stalemate at the level of diplomacy escalated the conflict with Ukrainian forces suffering a series of setbacks in recent weeks at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels. It is against this backdrop that Washington planned to prop up the Ukrainian forces by supplying them with sophisticated weapons such as antitank missiles, battlefield radars and reconnaissance drones.
Thankfully, Germany and France saw the danger in the US move. They indicated their opposition to any major US arms transfer to Ukraine and launched their high-speed shuttle diplomacy to bring about yesterday’s interim deal. Their diplomacy came weeks after the Doomsday Clock was advanced by two minutes to read three minutes to zero hour. The hands of the clock — an early-warning mechanism set up 70 years ago by a group of US scientists to warn world leaders of a global disaster – were last set so precariously close to zero hour some 30 years ago. That was during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. This time around the scientists maintaining the clock were driven to advance the clock by two developments — the world leaders’ failure to effectively deal with the fast approaching climate change catastrophe and the big powers’ irresponsible march towards a nuclear conflict. And nowhere is such a dangerous situation more evident than in Ukraine where nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed Nato are fighting a proxy war.
Certainly US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are not imbeciles to trigger an all-out nuclear war over the worsening crisis in Ukraine. But what guarantee is there that men of reason won’t start devastating wars?
Yesterday’s deal may not bring the Ukrainian crisis to an end. Previous ceasefire deals signed amid much hope have collapsed. The handshakes and body language of Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were not one of elation but one that suggests “Okay let’s try this one also.”
If the latest deal is to survive and lead to permanent peace, the US and its European allies should understand Russia’s security concerns and let Ukraine become a non-aligned nation in the context of the emerging cold war between Russia and the West.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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From a casino foreign policy to principled foreign policy

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United States Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal was here this week. President Maithripala Siriesena will visit New Delh on February 15 while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a reciprocal visit in March. Within days of assuming office, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera undertook visits to New Delhi and Brussels. He will be in Washington in the next few days to meet Secretary of State John Kerry.
High level contacts with the West and the refreshing of Indo-Lanka relations may indicate a paradigm shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy – a shift towards, if official claims are to be believed, non-alignment, a long defunct political force. But the visible shift has stoked fears that we are moving towards a US-India-Japan axis from what was perceived to be a China-centric policy of the previous regime, though some may see the change as an attempt to shore up foreign policy sectors that were deliberately downplayed to appease China, Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. But are we hurtling headlong towards the US-India-Japan axis?
Resetting ties with the West and winning back the confidence of Sri Lanka’s giant neighbour, India, are steps in the right direction. Such moves may help Sri Lanka not only to work out a formula to extricate itself from international investigations on alleged war crimes but also to attract job-generating Western investors, many of whom shunned this country over law and order concerns during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
But we should be cautious not to get pulled by the gravitational force of the US-India-Japan axis, which has its own agenda vis-à-vis China’s growing military might.
Although the US-India-Japan axis does not exist in a formal way, moves are underway to formalise a trilateral strategic partnership. It was a key feature during US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to New Delhi in August last year. This alliance, which has the support of Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is touted as the most powerful outside the US-led NATO.
During Premier Modi’s visit to Japan in September last year, the two countries decided to “upgrade” and “strengthen” their defence cooperation. China which has territorial disputes with India and Japan is certainly alarmed at these developments. In May last year, China’s Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper warned, “India gets close to Japan at its own peril”.
Also adding to China’s concerns is a parallel development involving the US, India, Japan and Australia. Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), this tie-up, initiated by Japan’s Abe, was seen by many analysts as a response to China’s military threat.
These subtle formations of alliances take place against the backdrop of US President Barack Obama’s Pivot-to-Asia policy aimed at containing China, a looming superpower, which is likely to overtake the US as the world’s top economy within years. In this new Cold War, the foreign policy of every Asian country matters. To counter Beijing’s military muscle, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and other nations that have territorial disputes with China have further strengthened defence relations with the US. While some countries that depend on Chinese economic aid remained neutral, the Rajapaksa regime with its myopic foreign policy that contributed to the worsening of relations with the West leaned towards China not only to solve its economic woes but also to court Beijing’s support to quash Western moves to penalise Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes.
Neglecting the balancing act with which almost all previous Sri Lankan governments have conducted their foreign relations with nations that are hostile towards each other, the Rajapaksa regime behaved like a desperate casino player. It placed all its chips on one suit — the red heart symbolising China, which has invested billions of dollars in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure facilities, including projects that have raised eyebrows in New Delhi and Western capitals because of their strategic value.
In the end, this policy became a case of a casino owner lending the gambler more and more to play again, lose again and borrow again. The gamble made Sri Lanka virtually a satellite state of Beijing — with the Red Army’s submarines docking at Sri Lankan ports, raising serious alarms in New Delhi, Washington as well as in Tokyo, which used to be Sri Lanka’s biggest donor before the Rajapaksa regime placed all its bets on China.
It is reassuring to hear that President Sirisena has pledged to return to a principled foreign policy based on non-alignment. But the challenge is to strike a balance, taking into consideration the conflicting interests of different nations. Yes, we need the West and we need India which hopes that the new government will restore Indo-Lanka relations to the level which former foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar had described as ‘irreversible excellence’. But we also need China, which has stood by us in times of crisis and has all the money in the world to assist us, although Beijing, like all donor nations, has an agenda behind the aid it dishes out.
Diplomacy demands that if a state’s relations with one nation are in conflict with its relations with another nation, the state should be prudent enough to adopt a policy that balances its needs and aspirations with the needs and aspirations of the other states concerned.
The new government in its bid to mend fences with the West and win economic concessions and political support should not go all out to endorse every policy of the West in return.
The previous UNP government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came in for criticism when its trade minister Ravi Karunanayake broke ranks with Non-Aligned countries and supported the US position at the 2003 world trade talks in Cancun, Mexico. Similarly, Managala Samaraweera in his previous stint as foreign minister hurt the feelings of Arab countries, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and socialist parties, when he advised our envoy to slip out of the UN hall during a crucial vote in November 2006 for a pro-Palestinian resolution which was unanimously backed by the Non-Aligned bloc.
These two past foreign policy decisions stand out as examples where we put profit before principles. The new government should learn to balance profit and principles – realism and idealism — in foreign policy making.
Foreign policy is by definition an extension of the domestic policy. Since the domestic policy of the present government is built, at least ostensibly, on good governance principles, our foreign policy on sensitive global disputes should also be based on morality.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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