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Sri Lanka’s dilemma in Geneva and Myanmar

In brief: Can Sri Lanka warn others not to interfere in its internal affairs while going along with Western powers and agree to interfere with the internal affairs of Myanmar?

by Gamini Weerakoon

Greek philosopher Heraclitus held that everything changes with time — is in a state of flux while the Buddha himself preached of ‘Anichcha’ (impermanence). All this reveals the stark reality of life and Sri Lankan politics as we stretch ourselves in the ‘hansiputuwa’ and ruminate about the past and think of the future.

Velupillai Prabakaran’s saying that ‘the political memory of the Sinhalese lasts only two weeks’ is trite and valid despite it now being a much hackneyed quotation.

While foreign policy experts at the BCIS, the Kadirgamar Institute, and now warriors of defence establishments are scrutinising maps of the Indian Ocean for the defence of the nation in Sri Lankan seas, it appears to us that a peculiar impasse in foreign policy has been reached right now and that is missing their scrutiny.

In Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema and his colleagues are attempting to resist efforts by those of the so-called International Community to ‘bring to justice Sri Lanka’s war heroes’ by condemning them as ‘war criminals’ for alleged war crimes during the final phases of the conflict with the LTTE. While calling upon these former colonial and neo-colonial powers with their blood-stained histories, to prove their allegations, the basic defence of Sri Lanka is to tell these nations: Keep off the grass.

Sri Lanka, a member of the United Nations, is a sovereign state and no state can interfere with the internal affairs of Lanka, in accordance with the UN Charter. Sri Lanka has not signed other agreements such as the Rome Statute of 2002 which would enable Sri Lankans to be taken before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But is Sri Lanka in a dilemma when it comes to making its views known about the February 1 military coup in Myanmar? Could we say: Don’t interfere with the sovereign rights of Myanmar and let the military junta led by army chief Ming Aung Hlaing continue in power while National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders are incarcerated? Or demand that the military junta resigns, end the emergency and restore the elected party with a sweeping majority to power?

In brief: Can Sri Lanka warn others not to interfere in its internal affairs while going along with Western powers and agree to interfere with the internal affairs of Myanmar?

Foreign policy is said to be a projection of domestic policy and the current Sri Lanka government was swept to power on mandate of saving Sinhala Buddhism from the Yahapalanaya government. Are there no historical, religious and emotional attachments between Sinhala Buddhism and Myanmar Buddhism? Burma (earlier name for Myanmar) is a country with an overwhelming proportion of Burmese Buddhists who have been on the streets of almost every Myanmar city and town since February 1, demanding that the military go back to barracks, reports say. Is Lanka extending any political or moral support to the beleaguered Burmese Buddhists?

It may be that the Sri Lanka government right now is locked in a diplomatic impasse but what about the Sinhala Buddhist masses who have kept a deafening silence on the Myanmar coup? They have not been silent when Buddhist monks immolated themselves in Saigon in the sixties in protest against the American backed Dien Diem regime or when the Taliban blasted the Bamiyan statues. Or is it that the Sri Lankan Buddhist masses back the military junta in Myanmar?

What of our ambassador to Myanmar, the inimitable Astrophysicist Dr. Nalin de Silva who is better known for his Jatika Chintanaya? We heard of him recently querying a statement made by a TULF politician on Tamil rights —not on the Military Coup.

Myanmar monks are on the streets protesting against the military junta but do we see or hear any solidarity expressed by our Bhikkus for their fellow saffron clad order across the Bay of Bengal? Perhaps our monks too like dictatorships. It is one of them who made the call for a Lanka ‘Hitler’ during Yahapalanaya times.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Buddhist monks — the main political prop of the Rajapaksa Pohottuwa Party — too seem to be undergoing ‘change’. A fair proportion of them are opposing the Rajapaksa Government’s moves to bring in what the Government describes as ‘foreign investments’. The ongoing story of the Colombo harbour East Container Terminal (ECT) is well known. Now it appears that some of the pro-Rajapaksa monks and also trade unions are opposing anything ‘foreign’ getting hold of ‘our national treasures’ — national treasures being any state owned venture — even billion rupee loss making black holes like the national airline.

Some monks, too, appear to be evolving in unexpected ways. Instead of the accepted norm of taking to the robes for deliverance of suffering through samsara, one of them who contested the presidential election unsuccessfully, last week made an application for election to the Sri Lanka Cricket Board. Monks are much fitter than cricketers who can’t run two kilometres without panting, he claimed in a TV interview. The cricket board, however, has rejected his application, perhaps on the grounds that successive beatings suffered by Sri Lanka cricket will not be enough to deliver him successfully through Samsara to Nirvana.

Going back to Myanmar despite sanctions imposed by the International Community on the junta, it is doubtful whether that could liberate the 50 million people of the richest country in resources in South East Asia from the 59-year- old military dictatorship. China, its immediate northern neighbour will not tolerate Western powers to set up a pro-Western democracy. Yet, the Chinese Ambassador in Myanmar has been reported saying that what is happening now in Myanmar is ‘absolutely not’ what China wants to see’. He has denied as ‘nonsense’ that China was involved in the coup of February 1 or had pre-knowledge of it. China has had free relations with both the civilian and military governments, Ambassador Chen Hai told Reuters.

Reports also say army personnel, too, have been joining in the Myanmar demonstrations which are joined by all professions as well as minorities and even some Rohingyas in opposition to the junta.

Perhaps the determination of that 75-year-old woman who has been leading the opposition since 1988 — a great part of it under house arrest — will be the factor for change if the junta begins to crumble with its leader Ming Aung Hlaing due for retirement in less than in a year.

(The writer is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and former consultant editor of the Sunday Leader)

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