Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sirimavo Bandaranaike

China and Sri Lanka Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 9 2017.

 

Colman's Column3

China and Sri Lanka Part One

By

Padraig Colman

Donald Trump seems to be determined to annoy as many people as he can. He has made a good start on antagonising China.  The appointment of Peter Navarro, who has forged a career out of condemning China, to the newly- created National Trade Council does not bode well.  Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book called: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action.

navarro

This seems like a good time to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the PCR (People’s Republic of China). February 7 was the 60th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between this island nation  and China.

Ancient History

Professor KM de Silva, in his monumental History of Sri Lanka, describes how this island punched above its weight in ancient times. Sri Lanka, despite its diminutive size, belonged to the big league along with the ancient hydraulic civilisations such as China.

prof-k-m-de-silva

The economic potential of the Anuradhapura region was increased by proximity to the Mahaweli River. Mahasena’s Minneriya tank, plus many smaller tanks and irrigation systems built between the fourth and ninth centuries, helped sustain a considerable local population as well as producing a substantial agricultural surplus for export. The port of Gokanna (Trincomalee) played a part in the development of commercial relations with China and South-East Asia which enhanced the economic potential of the region.

Sri Lanka’s strategic position on the sea route between China and the west meant that from the early days of the Christian era there would have been trade between the island and China which would have been bolstered by religious affinity. However, up until the eleventh century the cohesion that comes from strong diplomatic and political ties was lacking.

The Buddhist connection helped to forge links between the two countries. There is evidence that Sinhalese nuns went to China in the fifth century and helped in the ordination of women there. In 411 AD, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hsien visited the island and stayed for two years.

fa-hsien

However, contacts with Chinese Buddhism were occasional and tenuous.

During the Polonnaruva Kingdom, Sri Lanka was a vital link in the great trade routes between east and west. The unity imposed on the Muslim world by the Caliphs and the peace imposed on China during the T’ang and Sung dynasties allowed trade between China and the Persian Gulf to flourish. Sri Lanka’s geographical position helped it to benefit from this.

In the early fifteenth century, under the Ming dynasty, seven powerful fleets from China visited the ports of the Indian Ocean demanding tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Muslim explorer Zheng He (often known as Cheng-ho) was a Hui court eunuch and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. On Zheng He’s, first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, his objective was to take back the tooth relic from Kandy. In 1284, Kublai Khan had sent a similarly unsuccessful mission for the same purpose. Zheng went back to China disappointed but also aggrieved and he returned five years later to capture the Sinhalese king, Vira Alakesvara, his queen and several notables and took them as prisoners to China. The king was eventually released but his humiliation meant that he could not recover his throne. In 1411, the Chinese emperor sent a nominee to the Sinhalese throne but he was swiftly eliminated by Parakramabahu who began a reign of 55 years.

Relations with Communist China

Fast forward to the Communist Revolution – Ceylon was among the first countries to recognize the   PRC. Ceylon and the People’s Republic of China accorded each other diplomatic recognition in January 1950.

In 1952, Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when Ceylon faced a world shortage of rice.

dudley

The country entered independence saddled with a colonial plantation economy which was susceptible to fluctuations in world conditions. The country faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in export prices after the end of the Korean War and the price of natural rubber declined by 36%. The Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 further consolidated a cordial relationship with China. The agreement gave the newly-independent Ceylon a large market for its rubber in China, and China supplied China with low-cost rice. This agreement was entered into at a time when China was victim of trade embargoes which cut off imports of strategic materials including rubber.

After SWRD Bandaranaike became prime minister in April 1956, the two countries established full diplomatic relations on 7th February 1957 and set up embassies. A number of bi-lateral agreements strengthened political, economic, trade and cultural bonds. Ceylon/Sri Lanka supported the PRC’s “One China” policy, which Trump is now undermining, and efforts to give the UN’s China seat to the PRC. The USA did not establish diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979; Japan in 1972; UK in 1972 and France in 1964.

z_p-08-bandaranaike-4

Mao Zedong died on September 9 1976. September 18, the day of Mao’s last rites in Peking, was also declared a day of national mourning and a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government declared an eight-day period of mourning to coincide with observances in China. A condolence book was opened by the Chinese embassy.

Mrs Bandaranaike and China

 

mrs-b

The premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike further consolidated the gratitude of the PRC towards Sri Lanka. Her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement provided the country with a great deal of international support and respect. She said: “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation.”

The world’s first woman prime minister fully understood the importance for Sri Lanka of good relations with both India and China. She had close personal friendships in both countries and was distressed when the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962. The Chinese Government were feeling somewhat victimised and expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries were functioning as judges rather than mediators. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts were helped by her husband’s and her own history of support for the PRC and her close personal friendship with Chou En-lai.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid her first official visit to China in 1962, and made further visits in 1972 and 1977. China was isolated at this time and did not regain its UN seat until 1971. The Chinese government appreciated Mrs Bandaranaike’s visits and she forged close personal connections with the Chinese leadership. At her request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka from China on loan.

Chinese aid, which was on more favourable terms than aid from other countries, started during Mrs Bandaranaike’s premiership. She personally supervised the plans and construction of the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). Built between 1970 and 1973, the convention center was a gift from the PRC in memory of her husband SRWD Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1956 to 1959.

 

JR and China

Although he led Sri Lanka into a closer relationship with the west, President JR Jayewardene visited China in May 1984. During JR’s rule the USA was Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier and China accounted for only 30%. In the 80s, India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, JN Dixit, cited JR’s foreign policy as the primary reason for Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.

jr-jayawardene

Premadasa

ranasinghe-premadasa-1

Premadasa was president of Sri Lanka at the time of India’s disastrous military intervention in 1987. India’s actions, the imposition of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the 13th Amendment and the forced merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as well as the invasion by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, drove Premadasa towards China. As prime minister, he had visited China in 1979 and received a warm welcome. By the late 1980s China had become Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier, accounting for 58% of all weapons imports, providing warplanes, artillery and tanks. Premadasa invited a senior Chinese political leader to his party-political events and China played a big part in his economic policy.

Crosstown Traffic

This article appeared on Page 9 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday January 6 2015.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html

Vote in hope and repent at leisure

About twenty years ago, I had a meeting in Whitehall with a Conservative MP who was concerned that one of his constituents had been falsely accused (by his estranged wife) of child abuse. After the meeting, I noticed that my umbrella was missing. Soon after, I was watching the news on TV when I saw the MP announcing that he had switched to the Labour Party. “That’s the man who stole my umbrella”, I cried.

Alan Howarth, for it was he, was the first MP to defect directly from the Conservatives to Labour, and the first former Conservative MP to sit as a Labour MP since Oswald Mosley. Howarth wanted to be seen to be doing the decent thing by winning a seat as a Labour candidate. He failed at Wentworth and then again at Wythenshawe, but got a chance at the safe Labour seat of Newport East. Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, who had been emasculated by Thatcher, stood against him but Howarth easily held the seat for Labour. He now sits in the House of Lords, as does his partner Baroness Hollis. They came under a cloud for claiming separate expenses although they live next door to each other. He did send my umbrella back.

New Labour

When I lived in the UK, I always regarded it as my moral duty to exercise my franchise. Because of my class and family background, it would have been anathema for me to ever vote for a Conservative candidate. The Labour Party stood for my class, the working class; it had provided the welfare state (with some help from Liberal Party thinkers); it had allowed me (with some help from Conservative education minister RAB Butler) to go to grammar school and university. Labour candidate Jack Diamond came to our school. He always won the Gloucester seat- until he lost to Conservative Sally Oppenheim.

When I moved to Wimbledon, I found it rather creepy when I received a letter from Sir Michael Havers welcoming me to his constituency. This was a rock-solid conservative seat, so I later tactically voted Liberal-Democrat in the hope of unseating Sir Michael’s successor Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes. I was unsuccessful in my attempted coup. However, in 1997, miracle of miracles, Roger Casale won the seat for Labour.

That was the year that New Labour ended 18 years of Conservative rule. On the BBC’s election night programme Professor Anthony King described the result of the exit poll, which accurately predicted a Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, on 2 May 1997.  He promised to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions. Sound familiar?

The Myth of Political Parties

The story of the development of political parties is a fascinating one but must wait for another article. Briefly, the theory is that like-minded people band together and agree a set of policies. They exert a discipline within the group in order to translate those policies into legislation and administrative procedures. They persuade the public to support them by placing before them an outline of what they propose to do if elected. The public can compare this with what rival parties propose to do.

How does this work out in practice? Blair had won power by jettisoning many traditional Labour policies. The Blair government achieved some progressive measures but the effort was undermined by madcap experiments in neo-liberalism that undermined health services, education and transport by the attempt to introduce quasi-markets. Prisons have been privatized and there are record numbers of people occupying them – how else to make a profit? Soon after taking office, the new administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One can see why New Labour was attractive to a Conservative like Howarth – it was carrying on Thatcherite policies and it was in power. Power attracts crossovers.

Blair was a career politician with no trace of socialist principles or ethics who joined a socialist party as a career move. His father had been a prospective Conservative candidate and his political leanings appeared to have rubbed off on the young Tony, who stood in a mock school election as the Conservative candidate.

Democratic elections involving political parties are often little more than the chance to get rid of one set of scoundrels when we are tired of them, only to replace them with another set. Blair replaced Major but carried on the same policies. In Ireland, Fine Gael replaced Fianna Fail. The voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Sri Lankan Party Theory

What do the Sri Lankan political parties stand for? We think of the SLFP of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a party of the left. She had Marxist parties, LSSP and CP, as members of her governing coalition and she moved a long way towards a command economy with nationalisation of key areas and subsidies alongside austerity.

The UNP of JR Jayewardene was instrumental in introducing economic liberalisation even before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. When he was prime minister from 2001 to 2004, Ranil Wickremasingha tried to continue such policies. Strange to note then that in 2014 the official website of the UNP says: “We are being cheated by the neo-liberalists and the Washington consensus: the UNP vehemently opposes ‘social protection’ cuts and wants more subsidies”.

Crossovers in Sri Lanka

Incessant party-hopping is bad for democracy, confuses the voters and casts doubt upon who stands for what, if anything. There are stories of vast sums of money being paid to those who change allegiance. The case of Amir Ali vs. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Others (2006) opened opportunities for crossovers. That same Amir Ali, only a fortnight after being nominated as an MP by the UPFA, crossed over to the Opposition. As I write, 26 UPFA MPs from a 225-member parliament have defected and more are expected.

After weeks of speculation, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, finally said he would resign his ministerial portfolio to support Sirisena. This is in spite of Wickremesinghe and Sirisena strongly rejecting Hakeem’s demand for a separate administrative district in the East for Muslims. I will never forget Rauf Hakeem’s comment back in 2007: “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Blair would appreciate that.

Fissiparous Alliances

Keeping the governing coalition together must have been like herding cats. The opposition will find it as difficult as the government to herd its constituent components. Although the UNP has retained some atavistic loyalty among the planting community in places like Uva Province, Ranil Wickremasinghe has not been able to match the populist appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the rural Sinhala Buddhist masses. Siresena might be able to eat into Rajapaksa’s Sinhala Buddhist support but he will also need support from the minorities.

Significant numbers of Tamil and Muslim politicians have gone over to the opposition, but will that be enough to convince minority voters that their needs will be met when the JHU seems to be exerting an unhealthy influence on opposition strategy? Rajitha Senaratne cited as one reason for his defection the ruling party’s silence over the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist groups who were allegedly involved in anti-Muslim clashes. Faizer Mustapha decided to join the common opposition because the government failed to take action against BBS. Hunais Farook crossed over for the same reason. The opposition’s dependence on the JHU should cause Muslim voters some anxiety. The common opposition candidate has agreed with the JHU to preserve the constitutional prominence given to Buddhism.

Tamils are seeking greater devolution of power to Tamil areas but the JHU sees that as creeping separatism. Many Tamil politicians are unhappy that the TNA is supporting Sirisena. TNA Northern Provincial Council Member Ananthi Sasitharan told the BBC Tamil Service that the TNA election manifesto for the last Northern Provincial Election was clear on its stance on Tamil identity and autonomous rights. There is nothing in the JHU-inspired Manifesto to give Tamil voters confidence that their lot will be improved by an opposition victory. The hand of the JHU can be seen in the formulation: “I will not undertake any amendment that is detrimental to the stability, security and sovereignty of the country.”

Conclusion

The president has been seen as a canny populist who understands the rural masses in a way that Ranil Wickremasingha never could. Recently, many have remarked that the President appears fatigued and overworked. He was once the youngest elected MP and he has spent 40 years in politics and nearly ten years as President. US presidents always seem to age rapidly in office but they are limited to eight years. Tony Blair became haggard by the end of his reign.

Blair tried to appear hip by associating with the likes of Noel Gallagher of Oasis (the more truculent brother Liam Gallagher refused to be wooed). An indication that the president may have lost touch with the masses is that he has recruited Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Jacqueline Fernandez to help in his campaign. According to The Hindu newspaper based in Tamil Nadu, under his usual rates in 2012, Salman Khan charged approximately 30,000,000 Sri Lanka rupees per day for public appearances. Near where I live there are people living in temporary accommodation in schools because their homes have been destroyed. They may not be impressed at this time by Bollywood stars. The Hindu also reported that 30 people had been killed and 650,000 displaced because of severe rain.

The historian, Tony Judt, wrote: “Tony Blair is a political tactician with a lucrative little sideline in made-to-measure moralising.” Judt also called Blair: “the garden gnome in England’s Garden of forgetting…the inauthentic leader of an inauthentic land.” Thinking about an election in 2015 prompts a recollection of an article I wrote about an election in 2008, which prompted a recollection of an election in 1997. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo. It has not been closed yet and today Obama seems unlikely to take action against those found guilty of torture. In 2008, I advised those euphoric over Obama’s victory: “Celebrate a new dawn but watch out. The nights draw in quickly.”

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