For as long as the human race has organised itself into sovereign nations, no country has had a story of limitless success. Nations and empires alike have risen and fallen, over thousands of years. Every language has sayings like “it takes a village to raise a child” to remind us of the limitations of individual people and the need to work together. Similarly, no nation will ever thrive in isolation. The fate of every country is dependent on its relationships with other countries, with allies who share their values and who support each other in times of need.
History is littered with examples of countries that have been beset by natural disasters, militarily crippled, ridden with diseases, targeted by terrorism or economically ruined. What separates those who overcome these challenges from those that don’t is the willingness of other countries to come to their aid.
After World War II, for example, when the Axis powers were roundly defeated, it was the countries that vanquished them who stepped in to rebuild them. Indeed, without the aid of the Allies, neither Germany nor Japan would have grown into the economic powerhouses they are today.
The Marshall Plan, an American initiative, enabled West Germany and other West European nations to rise from the ashes of war and gain rapid economic development.
Japan, on the other hand, had far fewer friends. As European victims of German aggression feared the prospect of a united Germany, Asian victims of Japanese aggression feared a remilitarised Japan. Cold War politics too played a role, with the Soviet Union accusing the United States of planning to turn Japan into a military camp against itself and China. It was only at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 that a peace treaty was finally signed, ending the occupation of Japan, restoring Japanese independence, and putting the country on a path to prosperity.
At that conference, it was then Sri Lankan Finance Minister Junius Richard Jayawardena, who spoke most persuasively about the case for making peace with Japan as an independent non-occupied nation. Jayawardena reminded the audience that prior to the barbarity of World War II, Japan had long been a staunch ally of other Asian nations. “It is because of our age-long connections with her, and because of the high regard the subject peoples of Asia have for Japan when she alone, among the Asian nations, was strong and free and we looked up to her as a guardian and friend,” he reminded the assembled world leaders.
Japan has never forgotten, and even today, memorial statues and plaques across Japan mark the country’s gratitude to J.R. Jayawardena. Sri Lanka, at the time, had nothing to gain from the vanquished Japanese. But we came to the aid of a nation in need and did the correct thing. A quarter century later, when J.R. Jayawardena became President of Sri Lanka, our relationship with Japan became one of the cornerstones of Sri Lanka’s subsequent prosperity.
Today, Sri Lanka finds itself crippled by an unprecedented crisis. Our people are in abject financial peril. Over a quarter of the country is starving and malnourished. The economy is paralysed and many children are unable to reach schools due to fuel shortages. Electricity has become a luxury, and essential medicines have become scarce.
This is not the doing of the people but the result of mismanagement by corrupt, incompetent and short-sighted politicians holding the reins of power for their own gain. These politicians benefited. The people suffered. They suffer as I write and will suffer for a long time more to come.
It is tragic to see a country as resilient as Sri Lanka, with a proud history, being reduced to such a state. One day, I have no doubt that my country will rise again. But we will only do so with the support of friends, who will speak in solidarity and act in support.
Sri Lanka is but the first country to see its economy collapse at the mercy of corruption and rising global food and oil prices. It won’t be the last. Before long, other poorly managed countries will also begin to waver. Each stumbling nation can be rescued one at a time, but if several countries all collapse together, the chain reaction could paralyse the economies of not just the region, but the entire world. Sri Lanka, in particular, is ripe for rescue.
The people are clamouring for serious institutional and constitutional reform. If these reforms are coupled to both humanitarian aid and commercial investments, the payoff will be not just a monetary one, but one of deep gratitude.
At this time, if people, institutions and nations alike come to the aid of the Sri Lankan people, that aid is needed like never before. Doing so will help avert or minimise a humanitarian crisis like Sri Lanka has never known. Any country can make a contribution to help feed the starving, heal the sick, employ the unemployed, light up a classroom, and take other steps to help Sri Lanka to jumpstart its economy.
It was such words of support, and deeds of solidarity that helped Japan in 1951, and for which Japan has remained grateful so many decades later. Likewise, such a word, such a deed, will be remembered by Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, those who are suffering right now, those who survive, and their children. It is a brand of gratitude that is special because it is altruistic. People will remember, ‘they didn’t have to, they had nothing to gain, but they did anyway.’ We will remember, and we will be grateful.
Krishantha Prasad Cooray is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Kuala Lumpur.