Yesterday Sri Lanka celebrated the 65th anniversary of its independence from colonial rule. Even if you had not known the day was coming, any casual observer would surely have noticed the ramp up in flags on display; on cars and bajaj’s, in shop windows, and especially on houses. But another thing has also noticeably ramped up in recent weeks, especially in the press and especially in the government-run press; and that is anti-UN and anti-international community rhetoric. Most notably, the headline of today’s Daily News (government run) reports that the President used his Independence Day speech to declare that nations are “not obliged to submit matters under domestic jurisdiction to the UN”, and that “no nation can browbeat another”.
Already I have a few issues with this speech. Firstly, while the President is right that the UN can not and should not intervene in areas under ‘Sri Lanka’s domestic jurisdiction’, the UN and the Sri Lankan government have a vastly differing opinion on what constitutes “Sri Lanka’s domestic jurisdiction”. This is exactly what the fight is about anyway, and, after all, what is the United Nations if not a limiter on what was once considered domestic issues? Secondly, history is rife with countries browbeating each other and winning. This is not new, not unique to Sri Lanka, and hardly an ineffective policy – it can be argued that the lack of a war with Iran (so far) is due to such browbeating. While this vapid mixture of nationalism, isolationism, and populism may be good politics in Sri Lanka (as it is pretty much everywhere), it does not stand up to reality and is getting increasingly tiring. Let’s please be frank, for all of it’s chest thumping both economically and militarily, Sri Lanka is an incredibly small fry.
For starters, and putting this ridiculous speech and beautifully choreographed military parade aside, there are very few countries in the region (let alone the world) that Sri Lanka should not be scared of. Just as an example, according to the CIA World Factbook Sri Lanka’s military spending is equivalent to 2.6% of it’s GDP, this is considerably less than the 3% spent by Australia and of course let’s not forget Sri Lanka’s billion man neighbour (I am not overly fond of calculating a country’s worth by it’s military potential, but there you go). Sri Lanka may be able to hold a parade and catch (some of) the ‘boat people’, but where would Sri Lanka be if any of its enemies or “frenemies” conducted military action against it? Would it be so quick to decry the international community then? Would the UN be such a monster in that situation? Yes the international community failed dreadfully in the civil war with the LTTE, but has the government been perfect? Either way, should the international community just be written off?
But the economic domain is where Sri Lanka’s dependence on the outside world is most prominent and most hypocritical. President Rajapaksa’s speech criticizing the international community comes exactly a month after Sri Lanka asked for a $1billion USD loan from the IMF, which comes only months after a $2.6 billion loan from the IMF (and I can keep going back). A trip through Sri Lanka reveals lots of projects undertaken by the international community (e.g. new airports and seaports in the south, de-mining and house construction in the north). And finally, organizations like the Asian Development Bank have lent many billions of dollars to the country, propping up vital industries like agriculture. Furthermore, according to the CIA World Factbook, such essential products as petrol and building materials are all imported from other countries, which has led to a trade deficit of almost $8.6 billion USD (although that is now declining). While physically Sri Lanka may be an island, by no means is it one financially.
Whether Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan government like it, they are as beholden to the international community as every country is. It is the international community who buys their products, who give their expats jobs (remittances make up a large part of Sri Lanka’s income), who furnish the tourists, and who provide the loans and aid packages (etc.). Furthermore, the international community are also the only ones who can come to the rescue in times of need, whether financial or military. The outside world is an easy target, but good relations with the outside world are required if Sri Lanka wants to fulfill its potential. The chest thumping doesn’t help.