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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

'Sri Lanka needs to refocus her foreign policy'

By Janaka Perera

“The biggest threat to the Asian region is how the US is wooing the Indian government and its corporate sector, and promoting the idea – in a very subtle way - that Indian and Chinese civilizations are different. Indians seem to be falling into this trap at the moment.”

Kalinga Seneviratne, Adjunct Lecturer at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore, made the above observation at a lecture given at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies Forum, Colombo, recently. The title of his presentation was – From Far West to Near East: Need to Refocus Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy. He said he chose the title with a purpose because in an age where people talk about the Asian Century, South Asians need to realize that they live in the same region and rest of Asia is not in the ‘Far East’, whereas Europe and America – looking at the map from where Asians live – are in the Far West.

“The idea that South Asia is different to East Asia has been very often ingrained into our mindset by Westerners, because we depend on their media to learn about other Asian countries. In addition, we continue to uncritically use their theories in our communication and sociological studies.”

Emphasizing this point further Seneviratne quoted former Singaporean diplomat and currently the head of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani (The New Asian Hemisphere – the Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East):

“Few in the West have grasped the full implications of the most salient features of our historical epoch. First, we have reached the end of the Western domination of world history. Second, we will see an enormous renaissance of Asian societies….”

Seneviratne posed the question whether Sri Lanka has realized or understood the implications of the changes in the region that Mahbubani refers to? Judging from the way Sri Lanka has conducted its foreign policy in the past two decades, it was obvious she had not fully grasped it, Seneviratne regretted. Otherwise, according to him the money Sri Lanka spent on CHOGM could have been much better spent if the Government invested those financial resources in expanding diplomatic and cultural links in the Asian region.

He notes that even though historically Sri Lanka has had very close cultural and economic ties to the region, such as in the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist education in Southeast Asia – even in her architecture - today Sri Lankans are not part of any of the regional organizations that have developed in the past two decades such as APEC, East Asia Summit and Asia-Europe Meetings. Seneviratne recently launched Lotus Communication Network, which he is developing to link Buddhist countries in South and Southeast Asia via media and communication projects.

“Today both India and China are involved in a soft power battle around the world and both are using Buddhism to appeal to international audiences as cultural and intellectual bastions of the world. India claims it is the home of Buddhism because the Buddha was born and preached his Dhamma there, while, China claims that it has one of the world’s largest Buddhist populations”.

While both China and India are happy to use their Buddhist credentials in an international ‘soft power’ battle, Sri Lankans who can rightly claim ownership of this ‘soft power’ are afraid to do it since they are “listening too much to those trendy multiculturalists from the West.”

Seneviratne added that it is at the East Asia Summit and at ASEAN meetings that the architecture of the new global order centered on Asia is being developed and Sri Lanka would have no say in it, if the current thinking in her foreign policy institutions continued.

However he said that despite the arguments of Asian scholars like Mahbubani on the evolving Asian domination of global affairs, for that to happen, Asia needs to have a strong united voice such as that of the European Union.

“When the European Union meets we don’t see nations from Asia or North America or even Russia joining their summits. But, when the East Asia Summit meets, many nations in Asia such as South Asia are not included but outsiders like the United States and Russia are included. In fact it is a joke to call it East Asia Summit.”

Seneviratne recalled that in the 1980s, the then Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad – a strong critic of Western double standards – was the first to call for an East Asian Caucus. Today the Chinese have taken the baton from the Malaysians. President Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ is the latest device designed to divide Asia, Seneviratne said.

“Until the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to an East Asian meeting in Vietnam and raised the South China Sea issue three years ago, it was a non-issue in the region but now it is threatening to dominate regional discourse and promoting divisions in the region. The biggest threat to the Asian region is how the US is wooing the Indian government and its corporate sector, and promoting the idea – in a very subtle way - that Indian and Chinese civilizations are different. Indians seem to be falling into this trap at the moment. “

Seneviratne stressed that for Sri Lanka to change its focus away from the Far West to the Near East first and foremost her elites needed to de-colonize their mindset. In this connection he drew attention to a keynote speech given at a communications conference AMIC organized in Beijing in 2005 by the then head of Public Information at the UN, Dr Shashi Tharoor who described the major western global news media as ‘weapons of mass distraction’. He had said:

“The question isn’t whether the media teaches, it’s what it teaches. It can reinforce existing stereo-types, or build new positive ones. It can denigrate and dismiss cultures that are different, or, it can show how wonderful this complicated world of ours is. The custodians of our airwaves can choose to be purveyors of weapons of mass distraction, or, they can choose to be builders of a better world.”

Citing an example Seneviratne said the BBC got its credibility not because it is balanced, but, by giving exposure to voices of dissent that are suppressed in their home countries – especially in Asia and Africa. BBC got the credibility by default and as a result they have been able to manipulate the minds of people around the world, according to Seneviratne. Asian Buddhist countries, he said, get to know of each other through the Western media and absorb their negative stereo-types of each other.

“During my media consultancy for the ASEAN Secretariat in 2008 I went for a meeting with the head of Public Relations Department in Thailand, which is located in the Prime Minister’s office. After the formal meeting, she asked me what was going on in Sri Lanka. I asked her what she thinks about the conflict and her explanation was completely based on LTTE propaganda. I took about 20 minutes to explain to her the roots and the ongoing conflict. At the end of it, she said, that Thailand and Sri Lanka has had such close cultural interactions for hundreds of years, but, today we learn about each other from Western news sources. We agreed that there should be some direct links between the media of the two countries.”

Under the circumstances, he said, it would be good to get better exposure to international news channels from the East such as China’s CCTV and Singapore’s Channel News Asia, because too much dependence on channels like BBC and CNN give the idea that the East is all corrupt.

In 2015, the ASEAN community will be officially launched providing freedom of movement for its citizens across the region, but, they will not have a common currency. Although it would be a difficult task for Sri Lanka to formally join ASEAN she could develop links with academic, media, religious and cultural institutions, Seneviratne added but regretted that very little seem to be done in this direction.

If Sri Lanka plays its cards smartly in coming years, it is here that she could play an important role in promoting Asian unity. China’s recent request to join SAARC – which was promptly opposed by India - creates this opening.

- Asian Tribune -

Kalinga Seneviratne, Adjunct Lecturer at Nanyang Technical University, Singapore
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