Sri Lanka’s International Reset
Image Credit: Narendra Modi via

Sri Lanka’s International Reset


As the dust settles following an unexpected result in Sri Lanka’s recent presidential election, the focus has gradually shifted from discussions on what was behind the incumbent’s loss to what lies ahead with the new administration. President Maithripala Sirisena’s campaign focused mainly on domestic affairs, related to corruption and government reform, yet requires a firm pivot towards prioritizing external affairs as well.

Post-conflict Sri Lanka and its Ministry of External Affairs, over the past five years, has depended on haphazard and reactive arrangements, to say the least. In fact, the country lacked any coherent message on relevant issues with contradictory statements being made by local politicians and diplomats. This article attempts to note a few areas in which Sri Lanka could improve its foreign policy in order to maximize its strategic interests while achieving a sustainable peace for the future.

Diaspora Affairs

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The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has gained considerable strength through local politics in the United Kingdom and Canada and consequently has significant clout in international politics. Over the past few years, Sri Lanka’s de facto policy has been to blame all international pressures on the Tamil diaspora and paint them as LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) sympathizers. While a segment of the diaspora does indeed continue to actively support the LTTE, its affiliated ventures, and a separate Tamil state, many simply seek a peaceful, political settlement to ethnic tensions in the island, sans the LTTE.

As the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies has noted, the LTTE’s “ambition to be the sole representative of the Tamils and the heavy handed tactics they used to ensure this meant that their political agenda became the de-facto non-negotiable policy of the entire community.” This recalibration severely undermined the position of the Tamil diaspora as legitimate partners in finding a political solution in Sri Lanka, with the result that it was eventually seen as sympathizers of terrorism. The military defeat of the LTTE, therefore, provided an ideal opportunity to engage with the Tamil diaspora and involve them in the nation’s reconciliation process. Despite recommendations to that effect in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report, however, state engagement with the diaspora has been minimal, if not non-existent. The main focus of engagement has been reactive to criticisms and therefore defensive in nature.

Although an opportunity was lost, the change in government provides a viable opportunity to rectify the situation. The extremist elements of the diaspora have been granted a platform as long as the political question remains unaddressed and the Tamil diaspora, in general, is consigned as a single entity. Sri Lanka should thus identify and engage the silent, yet significant, proportion of the Tamil diaspora that hold moderate political views and are willing to be involved in achieving a sustainable peace in a united and inclusive nation. Refocusing its strategy would consequently legitimize the “positive” elements of the diaspora while also providing an alternate and more politically viable perspective of Tamil affairs to the international community.

Moreover, Sri Lanka’s remarkable economic growth since the conclusion of the conflict has unfortunately featured few members of the Tamil diaspora. Therefore, identifying potential investors and other economic contributors from within the Tamil diaspora would undoubtedly facilitate political reconciliation. As a first step, a Department of Diaspora Affairs should be created under the External Affairs Ministry. That would create the necessary impetus within the government to pursue constructive policy changes.

Non-Alignment: Tried and Tested

Arguably, the golden years of Sri Lankan foreign policy took place under the leadership of the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar. The highlight of his diplomatic efforts, and therefore Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, was the ability to cooperate with a plethora of actors. A staunch adherence to non-alignment was vital towards these efforts. As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Sri Lanka has historically practiced the concept with a certain sense of religiosity. Under Rajapaksha, however, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy digressed from this notion in favor of an overt alignment with China. This shift was evident not just in political terms, but most notably in economic terms with China funding and partially managing many of Sri Lanka’s new infrastructure projects, such as the Colombo Port Expansion Project. This growing allegiance to Chinese interests has created concerns for India and its allies. While no overt declaration has been made, on closer inspection, it is evident that political pressure from India and the United States at the bilateral and multilateral level escalated following Sri Lanka’s alignment with China.

China is an important actor in South Asian politics and Sri Lanka must maintain good relations with it. However, Sri Lanka still needs the assistance of other actors as well, namely India, the United States, and the European Union. First, given concerns of a resurgence of LTTE-related activities, partnerships with these actors are important to sustain counter-terrorism efforts. The decision by the General Court of the EU to annul the status of the LTTE as a designated terrorist organization on a discrepancy in processing is a perfect example of weak diplomatic relations counteracting Sri Lanka’s interests. In fact, prior to 2010, with relatively better relations, Sri Lanka successfully diminished the LTTE’s economic and political activities in the EU and North America through political complementarity and intelligence sharing.

Second, to sustain the island’s economic growth, improved trade relations with other partners will be valuable as manufacturers struggle to source wider markets for its exports. Through a combination of multiple factors, the EU in particular has rescinded certain trade benefits and the impact on Sri Lanka has been significant. Improved relations, therefore, is likely to support Sri Lankan exports while also promoting foreign direct investment (FDI) from sources other than China. The diversification of Sri Lanka’s FDI portfolio will contribute to the long-term performance of the economy.

Given its strategic location within South Asia, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from a more skillful foreign policy. Both the U.S. and China are capable of influencing the country’s political and economic outlook unilaterally, and neither is willing to sacrifice a great deal to insulate it from any negative repercussions. Sri Lanka’s political questions need domestic solutions and not international intervention, however, but to lay the groundwork Sri Lanka needs a conducive international environment. For this, a non-aligned strategy would best serve Sri Lankan interests, as it would remove the added political pressures from worried neighbors even as Colombo practices a proactive diplomacy.

In effect, the change in government has given Sri Lanka a new lease of life on the international stage. It was heartening to hear Sirisena mention the need for a constructive foreign policy in his inaugural address and it appears that he has taken some preliminary steps towards reform. If this continues, then Sri Lanka can hope to re-emerge in international affairs, this time for the right reasons.

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