By Vishal Arora
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, both famous and infamous for his government’s May 2009 military victory over the 25-year Tamil Tiger insurgency, was in India earlier this month. And he promised to resettle the war-displaced Tamils and find a political solution to the ethnic issue – assurances his government gave to the United States two weeks earlier. But will he deliver on his pledge?
In Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state separated by a narrow strait from Sri Lanka, and home to around 65 million Tamils, people and parties protested Rajapaksa’s visit. They hold him responsible for the death of innocent Tamils in his government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tamil Tigers are also known, which had been fighting for a separate state since the 1970s, alleging discrimination by successive governments led by the majority Sinhalese. Of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka, around 18 percent are Tamils (mainly Hindu) and 74 percent are Sinhalese (almost all Buddhist).
According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization headquartered in Belgium, between 30,000 and 75,000 people died as the Sri Lankan military bombed and shelled civilian targets inside LTTE-held areas in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Further, it is estimated that around 80,000 displaced civilians are still awaiting resettlement.
Indian Ocean Strategy
Giving a red carpet welcome to Rajapaksa must have been difficult for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. After all, the welfare of Tamils in Sri Lanka has long been a key political issue in India’s Tamil Nadu state, currently ruled by an ally of Singh’s government. But thanks to India’s diplomatic expediency, Singh had little choice.
“India has many strategic stakes [in Sri Lanka] and is [therefore] trying to engage Rajapaksa in a constructive way,” said R.S. Vasan, a former regional commander of the Indian Coast Guard who currently heads the Strategy and Security Studies department at the Tamil Nadu-based Center for Asia Studies. Vasan explained that China, which is competing with India for primacy in the Indian Ocean and Asia, had supplied military equipment to Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE.
China is building a $1 billion deepwater port in Sri Lanka’s southern town Hambantota, one of Rajapaksa’s constituencies. It is apparent that China’s financial, diplomatic and military support to Sri Lanka was in exchange for China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.
China, Vasan added, seems to be preparing for a larger role in the Indian Ocean by compensating for its inability to deploy People’s Liberation Army Navy personnel in the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) by creating “dependency ports,” from Gwadar (in Balochistan province of Pakistan) to Myanmar.
The Chinese moves are understandably a cause of concern for New Delhi.
Capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Rajapaksa used the China card not only in India, but also to virtually compel the United States to overlook the immense civilian casualties in the anti-LTTE war. For, like India, the United States is also wary of China’s growing influence in Asia and the world.
“There is no doubt that the United States agreed with whatever Mahinda was doing [as part of the anti-LTTE operations], mainly because the war against the LTTE was seen as part of the global war on terrorism,” Vasan said. Also, until 9/11, the LTTE could secretly procure war-fighting material by the FOC (flag of convenience) ships. But increased surveillance as a part of the global war on terror made such operations difficult. “I am sure that both direct and indirect support would have come its [Sri Lankan government’s] way during the run up to the last day [of the war against the Tamil rebels].”
Colombo apparently views its engagement with China as a substitute for U.S. assistance, which totals around $2 billion since Sri Lanka’s independence from the British in 1948, and its relations with the West in general, which normally translate into financial aid or tariff concessions. Therefore, neither the United States nor Europe has the leverage to put pressure on Sri Lanka beyond a certain point. This explains Rajapaksa’s arrogance, which was quite visible during the January 2010 presidential election when his government alleged that Western forces, including the United States, had funded his rival candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, as part of an “international conspiracy.” He also asked the United States and its allies to look at the war casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq before they pointed a finger at Sri Lanka and the governments actions in the war with the LTTE.
Investigating War Crimes . . . Or Not
Likewise, while the Tamil diaspora has been active in Europe, Canada, and Australia –- and also in the United States –- lobbying to bring Rajapaksa to book for war crimes, the subsequent international pressure has had little success thus far. The U.S. “clout” in the UN Human Rights Council failed. Soon after the Sri Lankan war ended, Washington sponsored a resolution in the Council calling for a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka, but China – reportedly along with Cuba, Russia, India, and Islamic states – managed to block the move. Instead, the 47-member human rights watchdog passed a Sri Lankan-authored resolution congratulating the Rajapaksa government for its efforts to address the needs of civilians displaced by the fighting.
Colombo has also thwarted, thus far, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s plans to appoint an independent panel to look into atrocities in Sri Lanka. In what appears to be tokenism, the Sri Lankan government formed the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission – allegedly comprising of members handpicked by Rajapaksa – to examine the country’s civil war since 2002.
Not surprisingly, the United States subsequently gave legitimacy to the Reconciliation Commission, reinforcing the criticism by human rights groups that Washington’s strategic interests override human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. The website of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense promptly flaunted the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton following her meeting with Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, GL Peiris, in Washington on May 28. “There has been tremendous progress and many thousands and thousands of such internally displaced persons have returned home,” the Ministry of Defense website quoted Secretary Clinton as saying. “I want to thank Minister Peiris for our productive discussion today and commend him for his commitment to the reconciliation process. The United States pledges our continued support to Sri Lanka.”
Peiris also promised Clinton that detainees would be resettled within three months, but more importantly, he called for “a multidimensional relationship with the United States.”
The European Union recently announced temporary withdrawal, starting in August, of preferential tariff benefits on imports to Sri Lanka, citing human rights concerns. A press release by the EU stated, “This decision follows an exhaustive investigation by the European Commission, which identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme.” It is possible that Sri Lanka has made recent overtures to the United States, hoping that the latter will influence the EU decision.
Given the pragmatism shown by India and the United States, the Sri Lankan president can only be expected to move as per domestic considerations, not in favor of the minorities.
Power or Prudence?
Rajapaksa does not seem to be convinced about devolving power to the Tamils. Nor does he seem serious about rehabilitating the displaced Tamils. He apparently fears that autonomy and proper resettlement could help Tamils reunite and renew their struggle for a separate nation. Given the emotional scar Rajapaksa has left on the Tamil psyche by brutal military operations, he has reasons to fear resurrection of the movement. Therefore, in an effort to stifle any opportunity for such a resurrection, many Sinhalese settlements are reportedly being built in Tamil areas, and the Tamils who have been resettled are living in abject conditions.
As prime minister in 2004, Rajapaksa spoke about a negotiated settlement with the Tamil Tiger rebels. But, Sri Lankan political scientist and analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda has indicated that the president took an entirely anti-LTTE stand after he allied with the nationalist parties Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in the run up to the presidential polls in 2005 – when the LTTE asked the Tamil population to boycott the election, which made victory easier for Rajapaksa. The May 2009 military victory over the LTTE – eight months before the next presidential election – made Rajapaksa even more popular among the Sinhalese majority.
But power cannot substitute for prudence in politics. Rajapaksa still needs to exercise caution in politics both international and domestic, said Vasan.
“As long as Sri Lanka is able to balance the relations between the two Asian giants [India and China], it will gain in terms of investments and opportunities. But it ought to know where to draw the line. For example, it has been reported that Chinese companies have brought their own workforce and have built settlements close to the workplace. With the linguistic and cultural differences, it could add to social tensions. Also, the Chinese project costs in comparison to Indian projects will be far higher due to distances and work practices.”
At home, Rajapaksa should treat the Tamil and Muslim minorities as equal citizens of the island. “Any lapses on this part would lead to further divisions which will not augur well for the nation and its citizens,” says Vasan. Perhaps not even for Rajapaksa and his government.
Vishal Arora is a journalist based in New Delhi, India and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He writes and researches on politics, culture, religion and foreign relations in South Asia.