This ran in the Leader a few weeks ago, sans the word ‘pissing’. Seems relevant in terms of Sri Lanka’s ongoing visa wars.
Right now Sri Lanka seems to be engaged in a global pissing contest. High level people are being kicked out of the country to assert our sovereignty. Then ordinary people pay the cost in terms of business, travel and tourism. It’s sad because Sri Lanka is a hospitable country, good for business and a beautiful place to visit. There’s no need to be rude.
This is not to say that the west isn’t rude in it’s own right. Media like the Times Of London makes things up to attack Sri Lanka. Foreign ministers lecture when they should listen. Diasporals have funded terrorism and many still want the country to fail. Even the well meaning aid economy can have a corrupting effect on normal business.
That said, these are still our friends. We take their money, send our children there and are generally friendly when they come to visit. I know very few Sri Lankans who will be actively rude to a western visitor. On the contrary, most people I know will go out of their way to provide a cup of tea and a meal and make them feel at home. I do think the world is changing and we need to assert ourselves, but not at the expense of who we are.
The common argument is that we don’t need the west because of the rise of India and China. Indeed, India is the largest source of tourists and China now provides more aid. India is largely in the western orbit in terms of democracy and human rights, but China doesn’t seem to care. Indeed, they will extend full support to a stable government and are generous beyond compare.
China builds ports, airports and infrastructure through loans which in turn get paid to Chinese developers, and repaid by us. This infrastructure, like the Hambantota Port, is also part of Chinese military strategy and may include Chinese warships docked on our shores. Before we run to China we should consider what sovereignty means. If Sri Lanka cannot be bullied then neither should we be bought.
Personally, I think the west is no longer in a position to lecture to Sri Lanka. After the Bush years their own house is a mess of torture, willful war and economic collapse. However, that does not mean they’re necessarily wrong. It may not be a good idea to imprison our fellow citizens in camps. Maybe jailing and allowing the death of journalists is bad. Maybe human rights and democracy can improve ordinary lives.
I say this not because they’re western ideas but because they’re good ones. I don’t want freedom because I’m on the western payroll. I just want to be able to travel around my own country and I think everybody should have the same right. I don’t want a free press because it’s a western innovation, I just want to know what’s going on. I don’t think these are western values. I think they’re just valuable.
At some point sovereignty is about us and not them. It means knowing who we are and acting with confidence and civility. Diplomacy even. We can kick out the people who disagree with us and welcome those who always say yes, but those aren’t necessarily friends. Sometimes friends tell you stuff you don’t want to hear, and sometimes they’re wrong. Confident nations can deal with that.
To me, sovereignty means that we can’t be bought or bullied by anyone, that we try to do the right thing based on our values. It means we don’t take offense at every slight or bend over for development but rather do what’s best for us. That means a Sri Lanka ruled by our own laws, where the constitution applies for everybody and where we’re welcomed and respected in the world. That, to me, is true sovereignty, and it has very little to do with anybody else.