Between surging dragon and suspicious sacred cow Sri Lanka’s choices


Sri Lanka's long history has been intimately conditioned by the monsoonal winds that buffet its shores and the tides and waves of the vast Indian Ocean. The greed and ambitions of its regional and distant neighbours who followed the winds and rode the waves coveting its treasures and its unique strategic position have been a bane as well as a blessing. While, time and time again, it was forced to ward off the marauding attention of external powers during the course of its long history, (in the early part, mainly from South India), geography provided it with the opportunity to exploit its fortunate location as a trading hub.

Now, once again history appears to be ready to place little Lanka at centre stage with emerging India nervously seeking to place constraints on it from engaging too intimately with distant powers (China in particular) and China identifying it as a central player in its One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative. It is, therefore, imperative that Lanka should formulate a proactive policy with the focus on its location in the middle of the Indian Ocean and chart a future course that would continue to protect its independence and identity that stretches back much more than in the case of most countries and enhance its prosperity. Past experience suggests that the designs of powerful maritime nations will inevitably impact on its aspirations.

I have been visiting China regularly since 1985, both for official reasons and privately. On every visit I have been amazed by the rapid progress China was making. In 1985, Beijing boasted only one tourist class hotel, the Beijing Peace Hotel and one department store, the Friendship Store, and China was way behind Sri Lanka in living standards. Today China boasts of the second largest economy in the world, has a scintillating network of roads and high speed railways, glittering cities, world class hotels, impressive living standards and is the largest lender to the world, including, Sri Lanka. China's multi-lane roads are clogged with fancy foreign cars and restaurants are always full.

Sea of bicycles

Gone are the days when its roads were a sea of bicycles. Today, pay as you ride yellow bikes are everywhere and you pay for renting one by phone app. Its military might commands respect. The crowded smart shopping centres, brash confident young women and mind boggling consumer choices could place it anywhere in the West. Their hospitality was always impressive. Now it is legendary.

The number of Chinese multimillionaires keeps on growing.

Wherever I went, their expensive and glittering shops were full, the food choices were endless and the temples were well patronized (the light and sound show at the ancient Shaolin Temple was hauntingly spectacular). Buddhism is undergoing a noticeable revival with considerable mass participation in China. The Chief Abbot of the Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou who is also the vice secretary of the Chinese Buddhist Association, which has close links with the State, entertained me to tea and spoke fondly of his recent visit to Sri Lanka and of the potential for further expanding temple to temple and people to people contacts and exchanges.

Buddhism provided Sri Lanka the soft power outreach to develop constructive relations with the Buddhist world in the distant past and appears to provide a similarly tantalizing opportunity now, especially with the Buddhist majority countries of South East Asia which are experiencing sustained growth.

Chinese trains rival Shinkansen and TGV

My fast train eased out of the Beijing Central Station sharp on time, and accelerated quickly to 98 kmph, and to 174 and then to 302 while hardly causing a tiny ripple in the cup of hot tea resting on the window sill. As it sped along litter and wild shrub free tracks, past endless fields and neat villages, city after city competing with each other for high rise buildings, one is left wondering about the secret of China's success. The train itself, like other trains left punctually, was spotlessly clean and was crewed by smart uniformed staff. How did a centrally controlled economy and political system, endlessly derided by Western media and commentators, achieve such impressive heights in such a short period?

I also reflected on a recent train trip along a newly completed track to Jaffna in Sri Lanka with an American friend and his pregnant wife which nearly had to be aborted half way due to fears that the violently shaking carriage might cause the lady to miscarry and the train was travelling only at around 50 kmph. This line was constructed by an Indian company. Asking the same entities to construct more railway lines in Sri Lanka without insisting on the highest technical standards will only condemn the country to remain satisfied with its current unexceptional rate of progress when it should be raising its sights much higher. Indian companies have achieved impressive standards in certain areas and Sri Lanka, for its part, must ensure that only the best technology is purchased at cost to the public purse. Products which are unsuitable to a modern economy (eg. Pollution belching three wheeled vehicles, lumbering trucks, etc) must be phased out.

Opportunity beckons Sri Lanka

There will be endless debates on every aspect of China's mind boggling achievements. But for Sri Lanka, with trading opportunities galore and considerable sympathy at popular level, it will present many economic and diplomatic challenges and opportunities. Sri Lanka's bonds with China were fostered over the millennia and the influences were not only one way despite China's massive size and wealth.

Across the Palk Strait, our closest neighbour and main cultural and religious inspiration, India, has always been a factor that could not be ignored. Fortunately, the 22-mile wide Palk Strait kept Sri Lanka from being absorbed into India. While this natural moat helped us to maintain our distinct identity and independence over the centuries, India's soft power influence was unavoidable. Our geographical position exposed us to many diverse influences, some immensely beneficial, others not so good.

Lessons from history

Sri Lanka's maritime links with its neighbours and distant nations stretch way back into the mists of time.

Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhala race, and his followers came from across the seas. He stayed and assimilated with the rest of the inhabitants. Traders from distant lands, Rome, Greece, Persia, Arabia, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Vijaya and China, followed the monsoonal winds to Lanka in search of its fabled spices, precious stones, iron and elephants, making Lanka a thriving entrepot. Lanka prospered with the trade that occurred in its port cities and produced a fabulous civilization, vast remnants of which still stand proud in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.

Repeated invasions from South Indian kingdoms, avaricious of its prosperity, were repelled sometimes after our kings were forced to regroup their forces in the central hills or in the South of the country. Sinhala armies, on occasion, even crossed the Palk Strait to support friendly South Indian rulers or establish buffer zones. Kings of the late Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods implemented a proactive foreign policy based on keeping the greedy neighbours in South India away from our shores. Balancing interests has been a time-tested strategy in foreign relations.

Lanka's rulers

Simultaneously Lanka's rulers, proudly independent, also ensured that the country would remain the safe and thriving hub of the sea based Silk Route originating mainly from the southern part of China. The cache of ancient foreign coins and porcelain still being discovered on a regular basis and the large number of sunken wrecks, many from China, close to its coastline suggests an intense international environment that had attracted traders, scholars, artists, religions, adventurers and ordinary people.

The map of Sri Lanka drawn by the Alexandrian cartographer Ptolemy, suggests the exaggerated importance of the island in the minds of Westerners Legend has it that Hannibal's war elephants came from Lanka, the elephants from this country having a reputation for their greater bulk and ferocity in warfare. Recent research seems to suggest that the iron ore smelted in the hills of Sabaragamuwa was used to produce the famous Damascus swords.

Buddhism came to the island from across the sea, from India. Later Lanka was to become the centre of the Southern School of Buddhism with Lankan missionary monks, with the active encouragement of its rulers, fanning out around the South Eastern and Eastern regions of Asia using the sea routes. Buddhism became the vehicle for establishing warm relations with our neighbours to the East. The Sinhala Buddhist style of Sukhothai, brought across by Sinhala monks and sculptors, is a recognized sculptural tradition in Thailand. Buddha images sculpted in Lanka during the Anuradhapura period are to be found all over South East Asia and were recently highlighted at a much acclaimed exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Sinhala kings maintained a pilgrims' rest in Bodh Gaya for almost 10 centuries.

The Hong Kong maritime museum records visits by vessels manned by Sinhala sailors in the pre-colonial period. The Creole of Macao is a mix of Chinese, Portuguese and Sinhala. Marco Polo from Venice in the 13th century and Ibn Battuta from Tangiers in the 14th century visited Sri Lanka and left instructive records. Trade facilitation was a factor in dispatcwhing a Sinhala diplomatic delegation to the court of Augustus Caesar.

International relations

While trade and Buddhism clearly made international relations an essential study for Lanka's rulers, the attention it was receiving from neighbours near and far also made diplomacy an essential discipline for them. The country also became a destination for traders and Buddhist pilgrims and students of many nations. The Sinhalese also ventured across the seas for the same reasons.

Extensive links with China also developed during the same period of history and maritime relations were established in the early part of the first millennium and they were mutually beneficial. Many Chinese Buddhist monks, in search of the pristine doctrine, visited the island and left detailed contemporary records. Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang came to Lanka in the fifth and sixth centuries. Fa-Hsien travelled back to China on a ship carrying over 200 passengers. Ships that big were not built by the Europeans until well into the 18th century. Sri Lankan nuns travelled to China to establish the order of nuns in that country.w

King Parakramabahu I not only sent an expeditionary force to Burma but also a royal princess to China. Obviously, the sagacious king considered a relationship sealed by marriage to the Chinese royals an advantage to Lanka. Marco Polo visited Sri Lanka during one of his missions on behalf of the Mongol emperor. The Chinese Admiral, Cheng He, visited Lanka, during his many epic voyages starting in 1409, as he sailed to Africa and beyond. He also took with him to China, a local prince, Alakeshwera.

Dr. Kohona, as Foreign Secretary, chaired the inter-ministerial committee which finalized Sri Lanka's claim to the continental shelf which was submitted to the UN Commission on the Continental Shelf in 2009. As acknowledged by Judge Peter Tomka, the President of the ICJ, in his address to the UN Sixth Committee in 2013, Sri Lanka in keeping with its long tradition, has a wealth of experience and high level skills to contribute to the world when it comes to the oceans.

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