Needed: National Discourse On Strategic Policy And Politics


by Sathiya Moorthy22 October 2017

Even as the nation is debating the contours and contents of a new Constitution, there is an urgent need to include in it the parameters of a new ‘strategic thinking’. If there is a paradigm-shift of any kind, Sri Lanka should not shy away from discoursing on the subject and take conscious-decision(s) on which way to go and how to go it – and, also confer on it constitutional confirmation lest changing political leadership(s) give it colours and shaded that a successor government may end up changing without anyone noticing it or contesting it.

If this were to happen, Sri Lanka may not be the only nation to consider constitutional confirmation for a consensual approach to geo-political and geo-strategic thinking and decision-making. Nor should any decision in this regard be taken out of any future re-visit and review as and when the need arises. In a nation that engages itself in a continual constitutional discourse every now and again, in one form or another, a consistent approach to strategic discourse can become in-built into the system.

At the end of the Second World War, Japan was constitutionally constrained from having any military ambitions or a substantial structure. Decades later, when the nation thought it needed to revisit the past and re-organise its priorities and principles governing the same, Japan did precisely that. Naturally, Sri Lanka too should be open to changes of its choice, not of manipulation from outside, one way or the other – or alternating with every Government-change in Colombo, thus sending out confusing-signals to the nation’s military Establishment and partners.

The reason is obvious. Despite ‘international’ assumptions and propaganda to the contrary, through the war-years and afterwards, too, the armed forces acted with extreme professionalism and alacrity in matters of following the decisions and overall directions of successive political leaderships of the nation – at times to its own peril and to the overall peril of the nation in the immediate context. Even at the time of power-transition in the light of 2015 Presidential elections, the forces did a splendid job of brushing aside motivated media-linked campaigns on its professionalism. This inherent and inherited strength should not be allowed to go waste, nor should it be tested beyond levels of institutional flexibility and elasticity.

The word is ‘transparency’ and the course is continuity. This does not mean that the Sri Lankan State, Government of the day and the military Establishment have to send every day proposals and plans to Parliament or debate it over television Talk-shows, to arrive at a consensus. The reference is to ‘long-term strategy’, not ‘operational tactics’, once decisions have been taken on the overall national approach to mutually-influencing geo-political and geo-strategic decisions, instead.  

Centre of gravity 

Inaugurating the annual eighth Galle Dialogue, organised by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) recently, State Minister of Defence, Ruwan Wijewardene indicated that the seas in which the nation was located was fast becoming the ‘centre of gravity’ of world affairs. Very cheerful words indeed but powerful words, too. Sri Lanka cannot stop whatever is happening in and to the neighbourhood waters, but it neither has the political reach or naval/military capabilities to do it otherwise, either.

But the nation can still choose which way waddle through in those troubled waters. The Sri Lankan State as an institution and successive Government leaderships otherwise have often exploited the nation’s strategic locale to whatever it though was to its advantage – but more often than not, got caught in the middle. It happened during the ‘Cold War’ era, it has been happening in these past years after Sri Lanka’s own war on LTTE terrorism.

In his welcome address, SLN Commander, Vice-Admiral Travis Sinniah, made an obvious reference to the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, among others of the kind, and said, “International commerce could be at risk at the key trading hubs as well as at the strategic choke-points.” It is unclear if Adm Sinniah was expanding on former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s reference to a ‘Blue-water Navy’ for Sri Lanka, in the initial phase of the Galle Dialogue process – or constricting it, to more practical and pragmatic terms.

Unless he was addressing a class of naval recruits on theoretical aspects, Adm. Sinniah’s mention of ‘choke-points’ should be construed as a reference to the increasing Chinese maritime presence and naval influence all across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Already, at the 2015 edition of the Dialogue, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to the US as the ‘elephant in the room’ as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, implying that no nation in the region can wish away the sole super-power in its geo-strategic calculations for the IOR.

Contextualised to the still-evolving Sri Lankan thinking possibly at Galle Dialogue-2017, Foreign Secretary, Prasad Kariyawasam, reiterated that Colombo was all for a ‘peaceful settlement of disputes in Indian Ocean’. Such references cannot be without a mention of the South China Sea-East China Sea disputes, in which Beijing is the major contender, with much of the rest of the region and the rest of the world almost ranked against it.

Secretary Kariyawasam said that Sri Lanka ‘stands for a rules-based order which follows international norms and practices, freedom of navigation and over-flight and safe sea-lanes that allow for the free flow of goods both for Sri Lanka and partner- nations. “As the maritime realm becomes increasingly more significant in the context of our nation’s development, I think it is vital that the Navy gets more involved in task of implementing our nation’s renewed and progressive vision for itself as a reconciled, peaceful, stable, and prosperous nation,” he said.

It is in this overall context that the nation needs to look at the ex-Navy Chief, Vice-Admiral Jayantha Perera’s declaration that ‘with the LTTE gone, no such issue of piracy in Indian Ocean’, with the seriousness it deserves. “Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Straits has been curtailed…We are managing other activities in the Indian Ocean too, with the support of major players,” he added.

The question is what role does Sri Lanka perceives for itself in the larger geo-strategic sphere, outside of the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood and attendant security concerns. Even confining any strategic discourse for now to the IOR, the fact remains that the Indian Ocean covers a vast region, from Africa to the Gulf-Arab region, with some of the world’s busiest maritime traffic, population-centres and conflict-zones located there.

Tactical tranquillity

If Sri Lanka is not alert to the existing and emerging realities, it might well get sucked into situations which it might regret being in, later on. If nothing else, in these post-war years gone-by and decades ahead, the nation requires strategic peace and tactical tranquillity to be able to focus all its energies, attention and fiscal commitments to growth and development of its population, towns and villages.

With the ethnic war not available as a political excuse or an emotional binding-force to keep the nation together, the possibility of the nation slipping back into the pre-war era of social tensions and ideological militancy is not entirely ruled out. The war and victory over LTTE terrorism may have restored the confidence of the nation in itself and its armed forces, but the solution to the ideological disparities can only through a national dialogue and readjustments. The days when the armed forces could silence two JVP-led ideological insurgencies in as many decades are a thing of the past.

Today, when the world is ‘watching’ too much and too frequently into internal affairs of individual member-nations, as has happened to Sri Lanka already, pushing real socio-economic disparities and consequent ideological differences under the carpet as if they were inheritances from a colonial past (as with Upcountry Tamils ‘taking local jobs’), addressing internal issues in a meaningful and sustained way would curtain the geo-strategic ambitions of the nation, at least in the interim.

Sri Lanka has to look only at the likes of the US before the First World War and China under Mao Zedong, to learn its lessons. Both nations are the world’s greatest powers and among the tallest member-States. This economic power, political will and military might (the last one, yet to be displayed in the case of China) only by taking time off from the world that was getting increasingly busy with itself in terms of war and diplomacy, until they were actually ready to take the rest in their respective strides.

The erstwhile Soviet Union tried to fast-track it all and failed. Japan, which used the post-War US might, sympathy and support to its advantage, is back where it wants to be, but in a ‘New World Order’, where its place is assured. The Indian neighbour is inching there despite all the inherent and inherited disparities, differences and difficulties, inside and alongside the nation.

Sri Lanka can follow such examples, to prepare itself internally before seeking to expand where it now wants itself to be in the future.  It can begin with ensuring ethnic peace and economic prosperity for all – one dependent of the other, and independent of the other, too.  

‘Shared sovereignty’

It is inevitable that in the 21st Century world, Sri Lanka continues with the inherited existence of ‘limited shared sovereignty’ of the UN, affiliates and international conventions kind, but none of them can deny the nation its territorial integrity and strategic autonomy, ever. If nations get into military pacts of some kind, it is on its own will and volition, no other nation or institution can question them, whether diplomatically, politically or militarily without costs to the other side, too.

Sri Lanka’s issues and problems are different. Though the nation seemingly chose ‘strategic neutrality’ of a kind as its national policy in matters of geo-strategic security, successive Governments since Independence have altered it unacknowledged, and at times, unknown to the nation, too, by crossing a ‘t’ here or removing the dot in an ‘i’ there. This has caused huge problems for the nation as a whole and successor and successive Governments in particular.

The Rajapaksa regime alone is not to blame in this regard. In his time, JRJ did it, too. Because India, 13-A and IPKF were in focus, successor President Ranasinghe Premadasa went the whole hog in the opposite direction by unceremoniously getting rid of them all from not only Sri Lankan land and territory in more ways than one, but also removing India from the nation’s ‘geo-strategic reckoning’ altogether.

It is not about the India per se, but there can be no wishful thinking that centring Sri Lanka’s internal security and geo-strategic considerations based exclusively on the northern neighbour could backfire even without any external, non-Sri Lankan cause or impetus. For Sri Lankan strategic community to go back in time to talk (only) about Rajaraja Chola only exposes the inherent inadequacies of contemporary strategic-thinking and policy-making.

However, subsequent events and developments even on the internal security front proved that the uncivil action of the Premadasa regime had backfired even on the strategic front, if anticipated at the time. Even after India’s genuine hands-off policy on Sri Lanka following the IPKF episode and more so after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the LTTE proved to be a greater menace than already.

There is no denying that successor Governments thought it wise to seek and obtain India’s strategic support, both in political and non-lethal military terms, like valuable intelligence on ‘Sea Tigers’ movements and acquisitions, before being able to neutralise the LTTE so very completely. Apart from re-focussing security energies also on the SLN than earlier, the Rajapaksa regime’s well-considered and better-packaged tactics of ‘strategic neutrality’ through the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ helped in great many ways. 

Chicken-and-egg question

 The question now is if Sri Lanka should revert back to a policy of ‘genuine strategic neutrality’ of the decade of the Rajapaksa regime’s first term, or should it retain the pre-inherited programme of playing global Peter against global Paul, and also either or both of them against regional Tom. It become a ‘chicken-and-egg’ question if one were to ask which of them came first – whether India’s UNHRC vote of 2012 or Sri Lanka’s post-war strategic-tilt towards China, like the pro-US tilt viz the northern neighbour in the ‘Cold War’ era.

It is a geo-political question that impinges on Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic beliefs, wherein India is celebrated for its contribution of Buddhism to the nation, but is nailed for the ‘Chola invasion’, which is already a thousand years old, now. If the India-centric Sri Lankan discourse brought with it the erstwhile Soviet Union into the nation’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood, now the China-talk has made the American elephant’s continued stay in the room even more unavoidable.

It is not about Sri Lanka having to confine itself to an on-again-off-again strategic belief about linking the nation’s security cooperation exclusively to the larger Indian neighbour, whose strategic and internal security concerns are both intrinsically linked to the southern sea-neighbour, keeping all ‘extra-regional powers’ out. Instead, it is about the absence of any internal dialogue on the security and geo-strategic front in the nation and across the nation, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans having tied themselves down to ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’, constitutional reforms and power-sharing, apart from the un-lockable charges of political corruption.

Whatever decisions that are taken, be it on the political, diplomatic or geo-strategic front in this era of high global-connectivity of every kind, Sri Lanka cannot think and act in isolation, for not the rest of the international community to act /react in ways that is uncomfortable to the nation. Nor should Sri Lankans, starting with their political leadership(s) behave likewise, any more.

What is thus required is a conscientious national discourse on geo-strategic aspects of Constitution-making, and a conscious decision if some or all of it should get reflected in the new Constitution, in one form or another.

Sri Lanka can make a conscious choice about any constitutional status for the ‘geo-strategic policy’ of the future, which anyway is unpredictable, but it should not shy away any and all of informed discourse and debate in the public domain, for which there is greater space than in the LTTE era but the interest and involvement too is waning, precisely for the same reason.

That is also saying a lot about the nation’s focus on its security considerations and strategic constructs, now as in the LTTE and pre-LTTE past. Nothing more, nothing original about the present, or of the present generation, it seems!

Previous articleHow did Hindus become Hindu and why Hindutva is not Hinduism
Next articleAssessing the “ethno-political” conflict: Rohingya’s statelessness and their vulnerability in Myanmar
N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University