Atlas ‘shrugged’

There was a time when there were “paper” maps. Some of us who were born in a distant past would remember using them frequently.

Since there was no Google, places and distances could be found and distances measured on large maps, which could be folded nicely and stuck in the book shelves, in the walls, or kept in the car pockets for use during travel.

They had a different charm and they never aged well until such time we started getting some covered in thin, foldable plastic — a clear technology upgrade!

There were also those beautifully hand-crafted globes with wooden bases that sat neatly and importantly on office tables. They came in different sizes and were prized possessions.

And then there were those awesome, detailed world maps, which could be framed and hung in offices and studies. Well-travelled people showed off the places they had been to by tagging colourful pins on those maps.

Maps are always fascinating. They tell stories of places that otherwise don’t get told. Geography decides national boundaries, national interests and therefore — in many ways — our lives.

Why am I writing about maps? I am because I found something during my summer cleaning exercise — the world atlas by National Geographic, acquired with much love during the very early years of global e-commerce. It took me back more than two decades ago when the world was probably much simpler.

I lived in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s at a time when the country was wracked by an ugly civil war. Bombs went off with precise regularity, people died, but life kind of went on despite all the turbulence around.

In between all that one day I registered myself on — the new, very exciting website that could send me books from across the oceans. I had always loved the National Geographic and had always been fascinated by the atlas they produced. The cartography was mind-blowing for someone with deep interest in geography and graphics.

So, after successfully receiving some books from the United States, I put $50 (if I remember correctly) on my credit card for the world atlas and clicked buy. The return mail that I opened excitedly said it will reach me in a few weeks by sea mail! The wait began.

However, at some point I quite forgot I had ordered the atlas as more bombs and more violence in the war zone north of the country distracted me.

Three months later I suddenly remembered that the atlas hadn’t showed up to brighten my otherwise then rather dark and violent world. I wrote to Amazon, expressing my unhappiness over their poor service. 

A day later an apology landed in the inbox, saying they were now sending the atlas by courier and it should be with me in a couple of days. This time the atlas kept its tryst with Sri Lanka. It took a plane instead of a ship and landed at my door three days later.

As I opened the large card box package, I did wonder whatever had happened to the earlier shipment. Had the ship carrying it lost it’s way, or sunk in bad weather. Where could that copy be?

A month later, the phone rang. A voice at the other end asked in broken English whether I had ordered a “big” package from overseas. It took me a while to connect the dots before I said yes and was ordered to show up at the customs warehouse the next morning.

On a rainy morning I walked into this covered compound where consignments were stacked and spread across the floor. I was shown to a corner where sat a large black package — with visible signs of having been opened and peered into.

“There is a war here, sir, and importing maps need security clearance,” I was told. It is a world atlas that I have ordered to donate to a school library, I responded, and gave the name of one of the famous schools in Colombo after handing him my foreign journalist identification card.  

The officer at the counter looked at me suspiciously, but eventually agreed to clear the consignment, and now I had TWO of those beautiful atlases.

One of them had to shrug and accept it won’t stay with me. So, I kept my promise to the customs officer and sent it across to a school from where I received an ecstatic letter of thanks and appreciation.

The other still lives with me — in good health despite having added 22 years to its life! 

Parched Before The Arriving Rains

This May should also be remembered for its cornucopia of outlandish riches — $900 billion in China’s save-the-world-from-poverty investment, a $350 billion envelope to President Trump to help Muslims defeat each other, and a $250 billion Indian plan to turn its traders into manufacturers of sophisticated weapons.

Read Here – Dawn

Monks With Guns

The vast majority of introductory books on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy do not mention Buddhist violence. Instead, they associate Buddhism with pacifism and non-violence. Think of the many books on Buddhist meditation, the 14th Dalai Lama and his advocacy of non-violence, and the peace work of Buddhist activists such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Read Here – Aeon

India May Not Like It, But Sri Lanka Can’t Move Completely Away From China

Buried under billions of dollars of Chinese debt, Colombo has little option but to go along, albeit at a pace slower than earlier. After all, Chinese money did prop up the war-battered economy and created jobs. and this did help the government in ending the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Chinese know that while the wicket might be sticky at this point, the pitch will eventually help the ball turn their way.

Read Here – The Wire

It’s always long term for China


By Rahul Sharma

There is nothing to be excited about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to skip Pakistan during his forthcoming South Asia tour. Some might argue that it would have been a good time for Xi to land in Islamabad to show support for the country roiled by political uncertainty, but let’s be clear that the call to stay away does not reflect any change in relations between the two long-standing friends.

Xi is due to visit India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives later this month, trips during which he will test prime minister Narendra Modi’s keenness to improve trade ties between the world’s two most populous countries and reaffirm Beijing’s deepening ties with Colombo that has attracted vast amounts of Chinese investments in its infrastructure.

Ties between India and China have always been testy given the border dispute that saw the two go to war back in 1962. Frosty relations have thawed in recent years and trade between the two neighbours has grown, but there is still a long way to go before any degree of mutual trust can be established.

Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said this week that while Modi and Xi had established good relations when they met at the BRICs summit in Brazil soon after general elections in India, she also made it clear that Beijing had been delivered a strong message that it had to respect the “one-India policy (which means no claims on Arunachal Pradesh) given that New Delhi recognised Tibet and Taiwan to be part of China.

One thing India and its diplomats can be clear about is that his decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean China is ready to dump Pakistan. Usually Chinese leaders club their visits to India and Pakistan, but all that a de-linking this time around could possibly do is give New Delhi temporary comfort that at this point it figures higher in Beijing’s priority than in the past.

One thing India and its diplomats can be clear about is that his decision to skip Islamabad from his tour does not mean China is ready to dump Pakistan. Usually Chinese leaders club their visits to India and Pakistan, but all that a de-linking this time around could possibly do is give New Delhi temporary comfort that at this point it figures higher in Beijing’s priority than in the past.

China seldom takes a short-term view of the world, and has clearly defined its relations with other nations on the basis of its long-term goals and needs. A recent info graphic in Global Times, a Chinese government-run newspaper, provided a view of how Beijing divides its worldly ties.

China essentially follows four partnership models: creative partnership, comprehensive cooperative partnership, strategic partnership (of cooperation) and comprehensive strategic partnership (of cooperation). The difference, according to the newspaper, is that while cooperative partnerships are formed at a fundamental level, are bilateral in nature and focus mainly on politics, economics, science and technology and culture, the strategic partnerships can be both bilateral or multilateral and are based on benefits of national security.

While one would imagine that diplomacy and foreign relations are usually dynamic in nature and, therefore, likely to change depending on circumstances, in China’s case one can merrily assume that any shift will only be snail paced with little or no change in the foundation. Foreign policy, like so many other things in China, can be rather nuanced and small variations in definition of relationships can mean a lot more than what the world outside may understand.

So it is interesting to see that China clubs the European Union and most large European nations except Germany and Russia as those with which it has a comprehensive strategic partnership. With Germany it has an “all-round strategic partnership” and with Russia it is in a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”

With India, Afghanistan, South Korea and Sri Lanka, Beijing shares a “strategic cooperative partnership”. That means it sees all of them through the same prism, an idea that may not appeal to India, but might go down well in Kabul and Colombo.

According to the Global Times, China’s ties with ASEAN, central Asian republics, the United Arab Emirates, Canada and some East European countries are seen to be one of “strategic partnership”, while those with Nepal, Congo, Bangladesh and some other key African nations fall under the head “comprehensive cooperative partnership.”

The emerging great power rivalry with the United States and the old, historic unhappiness with Japan has led China to define its relationship with these two very differently than those with other nations of the world.

It calls its engagement with the United States a “new model of major-power relationship”, which means Beijing definitely sees itself in league with Washington, an idea that obviously reflects on its relationships with other capitals. In short that means that while China is willing to engage with all, it doesn’t consider anyone a bigger rival than the United States. Countries such as India are, therefore, mostly marginal to China’s larger cause.

Similarly, its defines ties with Japan as a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit.” Given the huge bilateral trade and Japanese investments in China even as the two battle over a gory past, the definition makes sense.

Pakistan is the only country with which China has an “all-weather strategic partnership of cooperation.” In layman’s terms, it simply means that Beijing considers its relationship with Islamabad over and beyond its ties with all others. The phrase “all-weather” is key; China might be willing to shift gears either way in its relations with other countries, with Pakistan it will always be an even ride just as it has been for the past several decades.

Let’s not forget it was Pakistan that essentially helped Beijing open its door to the world in the 1970s, an event that has now propelled China to almost become the world’s biggest economy. China never forgets its friends and that’s a thought Pakistan can live comfortably with irrespective of whether it has a democratically elected government or army rule.

It’s also a thought India’s new government needs to keep in its mind while dealing with Beijing and Xi, the now all-powerful man in China.

Rahul Sharma, a former newspaper editor, is President, Rediffusion Communications, Mumbai; Secretary, Public Affairs Forum of India, and a keen foreign policy follower. Views are personal.

Bringing Down the Walls


By Rahul Sharma

Most concrete walls in Sri Lanka have been demolished in the past four years since the ethnic war ended, but the emotional barricades remain as the country battles its bloody past and tries to make peace with itself.

It’s easier said than done.

The scars of a three-decade-long war that killed tens of thousands of people and introduced suicide bombers to the world are deep and the government’s efforts to bridge the ravine that divides the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamils communities are constantly questioned inside and outside the country.

On the face of it, peace has only made a pretty country prettier.

The capital Colombo, once infested with check points manned by gun toting soldiers, is a very different place.

Parks hidden by tall walls, homes surrounded by bricks and mortars and colonial-era public buildings once guarded by armed soldiers have emerged from behind sand bags, metal gates and machine gun barricades to soothe public eyes. The concrete, iron spikes and steel wires have given way to beautifully lit walkways where people walk in the mornings and children play in the as the sun sets.

More importantly, there is discipline on the roads and the traffic is managed better than even despite an increasing crowd of vehicles. The once-decrepit, bat-infested Vihara Mahadevi Park near the beautiful, British-era Town Hall in Colombo has been cleaned up and the famous Independence Square is a must-visit place.

Old, heritage buildings nearby — once home to government offices and the military — are being converted into jazzy shopping areas with fancy retail outlets and restaurants.

Colombo, a party town even during the days of the war, is awaiting plush hotels and casinos to come up along the famous Galle Face Green. A new Chinese-developed port stretches out into the Indian Ocean, a sign of huge investments into infrastructure that the government hopes would keep boosting the economy.

Outside of Colombo, new highways to the south and the east and a new railway line to the north have once-again connected the island to allow people to freely travel to areas that were once out of bounds because of the war.

But scratch the surface and there is a deep worry about what the future holds for a country where trained former soldiers are now building roads, running restaurants and even selling vegetables. In the north, where once the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ruled, are thousands of ‘rehabilitated” former fighters thanking the government for the peace that surrounds them but at the same time looking for jobs and ways to make ends meet.

Despite new roads, bridges, seaports and airports the government has built and is building, and a consequent economic growth of around 7 percent, the mood on the street is somber, as the private sector is still battling to grow at a pace that could create the kind of jobs Sri Lanka needs.

A fat government that provided employment to 50,000 job-seeking youth last year and is battling a widening fiscal deficit can’t continue on that path for long.

On the other hand is the divide between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil communities. For more than quarter of a century, the Sinhalese equated Tamils with the LTTE as soldiers from deep southern villages lost their lives in the country’s north. The war might have ended, but the ethnic divide is yet to be fully bridged.

Allegations of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military in the last days of the war and international pressure to come clean on the charges has only made it difficult for the two communities to come closer.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is in his second term and is credited with vanquishing the LTTE, has consistently maintained that what happened back in 2009 was Sri Lanka’s internal matter and that it was being addressed in ways best known to and understood by the country.

However, in a historically violence-prone nation such as Sri Lanka – which not only battled the LTTE but also an attempted revolution by the People’s Liberation Front in the 1970s and 1980s – the chances of acute disgruntlement triggering another bloodbath can be considered to be high. That is what the government of the day has to worry about and ensure that the window for the peace dividend is not lost due to delays in processes.

More importantly, the international stakeholders, including Western governments, need to appreciate that the only people who will be able to solve their differences and build a better future are Sri Lankans themselves. It is easy to voice opinion in an attempt to influence events, but if Sri Lankans have to find peace they have to be left alone and allowed to put in place systems that will help mold a strong future.

Recent regional elections in the country’s north in which a Tamil party won power should be seen as a right step towards bridging the big divide. It is now necessary to build on this, as that’s the only way to bring down the emotional and ethnic walls.

Disquiet In The Neighbourhood


By Rahul Sharma

The taxi driver ferrying me to the airport in Sri Lanka was pretty clear about why the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had chosen to stay away from the Commonwealth Summit in the capital Colombo this week.

“Your prime minister doesn’t like our president’s closeness to the Chinese,” he declared, as he sped over a spanking new expressway to the airport at Katunayake, a journey that once took nearly two hours but now has been reduced to about 25 minutes.

The taxi driver’s view was remarkably at odds with that of the Sri Lankan government, which is piqued by New Delhi’s decision to stay away after pressure from political parties in Tamil Nadu months ahead of a general election, which is likely to throw up another coalition government.

Sri Lanka is a vastly different place than what it was when a three-decade ethnic war ended in 2009 with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels who were fighting for a separate homeland for minority Tamils.

Prabhakaran was a feared man – god to some and terrorist to others – who led a bloody quest that ended tens of thousands of lives on the island, shattered the economy and wiped out most of the political leaders through use of suicide bombers.

There is now a government headed by a confident President Mahinda Rajapakse who, in his second term, is still riding a high after being declared a saviour of the majority Sinhalese community.

Military checkpoints have given way to sparkling pavements, restored buildings and shiny roads. There is a positive buzz around Colombo, where hybrid taxis and fancy cars jostle for space with Bajaj three-wheelers.

One of things that Rajapakse has done in the past few years apart from rebuilding the country is that he has seemingly sold his country to the Chinese, or so many Indians and Sri Lankans would like to believe.

Indeed, the Chinese are everywhere. They are doing what they are very good at – building new highways, bridges, airports, convention centres and ports that are making Rajapakse look extremely good at home. His beaming face looks down from large cutouts that adorn the sides of the new expressways that now connect Sri Lankan cities.

For a nation that witnessed various bloodbaths since the riots against minority Tamils back in 1983 triggered the long war, these are years of change and the Chinese are more than happy to participate in the development process by helping a president who is keen to build political equity for the long term. Indians, on the other hand, have held back to ensure that New Delhi’s domestic political constituency remains stable.

If Singh would have gone to Sri Lanka, he would have been driven on a brand new Chinese built airport expressway to a Chinese built and renovated convention hall for the summit. On the way he could have had a peek at a brand new Chinese-built shipping port in Colombo and many a Chinese restaurants and massage parlours that have sprouted across the capital.

If he went deeper south to Rajapakse’s home town of Hambatota, he would have seen another large port and another convention centre that the Chinese have built. The new highway to Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern tip and another to the eastern port city of Trincomalee also have a Chinese stamp. More importantly, there are more Chinese visiting the country than Indians.

The once disjointed country, broken by war, is now connected the way it was 30 years ago thanks to the Chinese. Are Sri Lankans unhappy about it? No, they aren’t. They appreciate what Rajapakse has done after winning a war his predecessors could not. And the lack of a strong opposition makes him a powerful leader to contend with.

And what is India, which once held sway over Sri Lankan politics and economy, doing about negating the increasing Chinese influence on the island? Precious little, to say the least. The Indian contingent is standing by the tracks watching the Chinese win a race that was once New Delhi’s to take, thanks to state-level politics that binds its hands.

Rajapakse is a grassroots politician who understands the pulse of his voters better than most in Sri Lanka; he also understands that while hobnobbing with the Chinese is beneficial, India can’ be wished away completely. He wants to stay engaged, but at his terms.

It’s a smart move. If things go wrong again in the Tamil-dominated north and east, he can happily put the blame on India’s door. If not, he can take the credit for working with India to help the minority. The south is not a worry for him – at least not yet – as that’s his majority Sinhalese political base.

The good news for India is that it is still appreciated among large chunks of a country which, like many others, could soon reach a point when it begins distrusting the Chinese.

The immigration officer at the airport says that Chinese were different from Indians and that the Indian prime minister’s participation in the Commonwealth Summit would have helped New Delhi earn critical brownie points against Beijing. “Your prime minister should have come,” he said, as he stamped my passport and waved me off with a wry smile.

Yes, the prime minister should have gone, if only to keep the tiny neighbour happy. Singh’s absence may not necessarily push the Sri Lankans deeper into the Chinese arms, but it would definitely make it slightly more difficult for New Delhi to do business with Colombo. Given its chaotic neighbourhood, India needs to keep its friends; not turn them into indifferent acquaintances.

(The columnist, a former newspaper editor, is President, Public Affairs, Genesis Burson-Marsteller and co-founder of Public Affairs Forum of India. He has a keen interest in China and Southeast Asia. Views are personal)