Dateline Colombo

Toward Post-Terror Stability in Sri Lanka

17 Jun, 2019    ·   5592

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera explores the domestic and international contexts and factors to be taken into account in Sri Lankan stabilisation efforts in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks.

A few weeks ago, a security expert who has studied the so-called Islamic State (IS) rightly said to this author, that “Your country was ‘staged’.” While the IS attempted to take credit for the attacks, they do not appear to have been directed by the group. Those who perpetrated the attacks seem to have been influenced by the IS, but the precise manner and extent of it is unclear. Nonetheless, the claims of responsibility by the IS have had a significant impact on national morale in Sri Lanka due to their concurrence with geopolitical concerns the country faces. The Easter Sunday attacks worsen the prevailing crisis of national morale connected in significant ways to Sri Lanka’s position in relation to great power rivalry between the US and China.

Geopolitical Context
With the expansion of the geopolitical reach of global liberal hegemony, the Indian Ocean has been a vital highway of the global energy market. The US naval presence in the island of Diego Garcia, located equidistant from several littoral states of the Indian Ocean, has aided US liberal hegemonic foreign policy as a base for small and large missions carried out over the past few decades in the region. Many more future military expeditions may be carried out from this flexible strategic hub, projecting US military power in and beyond the Indian Ocean. However, in February 2019, the International Court of Justice ruled that Diego Garcia, which has insofar been administered by the UK, be transferred to Mauritius, signaling the need for the US to consider exploring alternative locations in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile, located less than 2000 kilometres from Diego Garcia and at the center of Indian Ocean sea lines of communications is Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka took a non-aligned position in its foreign policy during the Cold War period, today, its foreign policy is multi-aligned, struggling to strike a balance in the context of great power rivalries and internal political disunity. Akin to a tight-rope walker without a pole, any significant measure of stability remains elusive.

Small nations have always owed their independence either to the international balance of power or rejection of imperial aspirations. For Sri Lanka, crucial is its position in the global balance of power between the US and a rising China, increasingly viewed by the US as a national security threat (as evidenced by recent US trade sanctions). Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, highlighted this in his recent interview in Colombo, where he said, “First, my advice to America is that it should not ask the countries to choose between China and the U.S. They do not want to choose. They want to have good relations with the US, China, India and others.” Yet this cannot be achieved with US liberal hegemonic aspirations in the Indian Ocean. In this context, any Sri Lankan foreign security agreement with global powers should be vetted by Sri Lanka’s parliamentary body with inputs from national security researchers, for otherwise Sri Lanka might be unprepared for unanticipated national security implications in the future.

A rigorous process must avoid conjecture and unsubstantiated allegations, instead feeding careful observations and research inputs into the security establishment. The independence of Sri Lanka will be in jeopardy if the US or China take a decisive turn to pull Sri Lanka closer towards their respective orbits, such as in the past when China has sought to gain a decisive and permanent advantage. The recalibration towards achieving a balance by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was viewed as a threat by China, as certain policies made the island country vulnerable to US-led liberal hegemony. It is essential, then, for Sri Lanka to stabilise itself on the metaphorical tight-rope, especially given that the US has stated in its most recent National Security Strategy that its number one threat is China and Russia, and number two is the IS.

The Need to Uplift National Morale
National morale is the degree of determination with which a country supports the foreign policies of its government in times of peace or war. According to International Relations theorist Hans Morgenthau, it permeates all activities of a country including its military establishment and diplomatic service.

In 2015, the Sri Lankan government divided its portfolios, leaving the president with national security, and the prime minister with external affairs. After the 30/1 UNHRC resolution (on promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in post-war Sri Lanka) and subsequent constitutional crisis, there was deep polarisation within the political establishment which triggered a national security threat which perhaps went unnoticed for some time, but whose instability was felt by the entire country from time to time. More recently, after the Easter Sunday attacks, the president flew to China to meet his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, while his Foreign Minister travelled to the US to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both left perhaps to bring in assistance from the two polarised camps.

This polarisation in the establishment harms the national morale of Sri Lanka. It threatens and limits the country’s power to carry its agenda forward or stabilise internal politics. In this vulnerable environment, the risk of external threats creeping in to take advantage is extremely real.

*Views expressed are authors own