India’s policy towards Sri Lanka shifted from active engagement (1983-1990) to a near hands-off policy in the aftermath of the assassination of the former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. The end of the war against the Tamil militants in Sri Lanka opened up a few possibilities for India to take the bilateral relations ahead.
However, with the incumbent government led by Maithripala Sirisena assuming power, a series of sincere and genuine attempts at reconciliation and peace building is being made in Sri Lanka opening up opportunities for India to engage Sri Lanka at all levels- diplomatic, political and economic to facilitate the process.
One of the major concerns for India’s peace and security in its neighborhood stem from the ethnic imbroglio between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka which has, over the years, adversely impacted India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. Ethnic linkages between the Sri Lankan Tamil population and the people of Tamil Nadu of India have been a source of worry for both countries rather than a binding factor primarily due to the protracted ethnic conflict and unsettled issue of accommodating political demands of Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Any further prolongation of the conflict or discontentment would create space for extra-regional powers’ intervention and would be a source of India’s security concerns given Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for and geographical proximity with India. Therefore, India must aim at durable peace in Sri Lanka in its own security interest.
Sri Lanka’s strategic salience to India can be gauged from the fact that it is adjacent to the shipping lanes that cater to 65 per cent of India’s oil needs. It is noteworthy that in recognition of its importance in the emerging Indian Ocean strategic scenario, Sri Lanka was invited to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Council meeting as a dialogue partner.
Enhanced Chinese Footprints in Sri Lanka
India’s disengagement from the Sri Lankan government during the war against Tamil militants created opportunity for China to enter the arena. The support and assistance extended by China to the Sri Lankan government during the war ensured that the former acquired a lot of strategic space and credibility in the latter. As China’s large chunk of trade passes through the sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka also used it to its advantage. It had procured sophisticated arms and ammunitions as well as diplomatic support in exchange of strategic concessions.
While the Sri Lankan State waged an all-out war against the Tamil militants, China not only generously supplied weapons but it also encouraged Pakistan to train Sri Lankan Air Force pilots and supply small arms. While China sold Jian-7 fighters, anti-aircraft guns and JY-11 3D air surveillance radars to the Sri Lankan army, Pakistan took care of the small arm requirements.
Sri Lanka is seen as an “important hub on the Maritime Silk Road” by China. The Chinese involvement in Sri Lanka ranges from infrastructure development, economic aid, oil exploration, investments, trade, and a strong diplomatic support to the island state at the time of its need, especially in the context of human rights accountability issue that emerged after the end of ‘Elam War IV’.
Chinese investment in infrastructure development in Sri Lanka has expanded rapidly, including the strategically situated commercial deep-sea port in Hambantota which was former President Rajapakse’s home constituency and the two-phase coal power plant in Norochcholai. Other significant infrastructural projects supported by China in the island state include Katunayake-Colombo Expressway, Maththala Airport, Colombo South Harbour Expansion Project and the Center for Performing Arts in Colombo. Statistically speaking, funding from China accounts for more than half of Sri Lanka’s construction and development loans. In value terms, it is estimated at over USD six billion –more than any other country.
Infrastructural development bearing deep strategic implications is the main Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka that has roused considerable attention in India. The most talked about project is Hambantota port. Colombo attempts to project that “the Chinese interest in the Hambantota port is purely commercial”. However, the harbor is strategically located not only for the Chinese merchant vessels and cargo carriers sailing to and from Africa and the Middle East to make a stopover, but can also be used by any military fleet. A strong foothold for the Chinese in Hambantota would allow them to have dominance over a vast area of the Indian Ocean extending from Australia in the east, Africa in the West and up to Antarctica in the south. It may not be difficult for China to closely monitor all ships – military and non-military-that shuttles between east and west coasts of India encircling Sri Lanka.
India and the Post-Conflict Scenario in Sri Lanka
The end of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka created the hope for India to contain growing Chinese influence and enhance its own by playing a pivotal role in securing sustainable peace by looking for addressing the root causes of the conflict. The termination of the armed ethnic conflict witnessed the emergence of a major humanitarian challenge, with nearly 3, 00,000 Tamil civilians housed in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Under these circumstances, the Indian government undertook a robust programme of assistance to assist IDPs resume their normal lives as quickly as possible. In June 2009, the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced a grant of INR 5 billion (SLR 12 billion) for relief and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka.
India also consistently advocated the need for IDPs to be resettled to their original habitations as early as possible. Taking a major step in this direction, India provided shelter assistance for constructing temporary housing for IDPs. In addition to this, agricultural implements were supplied to assist resettled families commence their livelihood generating activities. As the need of de-mining was a major stumbling-block on the pace of resettlement, the Indian government totally financed seven Indian de-mining teams, which took up the task in various sectors in northern Sri Lanka to accelerate resettlement. With the shift away from relief and rehabilitation to reconstruction and development, the Govt. of India laid stress upon the housing requirements of the IDPs.
Since agriculture is the principal means of livelihood in the areas affected by the conflict, India supported this sector through a wide-ranging programme for agricultural renewal. Sri Lanka is one of the major recipients of development credit given by India. These are being used for repair and up-gradation of various damaged railway links and renovation of Airport, Harbours and power plants. India also continues to assist a large number of smaller development projects in areas like education, health, transport connectivity, small and medium enterprise development and training in many parts of the country through its grant funding.
India was the largest source of foreign direct investment for Sri Lanka in 2010 (US $110 million). Sri Lanka has long been a priority destination for direct investment from India. India is among the four largest overall investors in Sri Lanka with cumulative investments over US$600 million and the last few years has also witnessed an increasing trend of Sri Lankan investments into India.
However, India’s relations with Sri Lanka took a downturn from March 2012 when not satisfied with Colombo’s sincerity in carrying forward assurances on reconciliation and in finding long-term political settlement, India voted in favour of the US-sponsored resolution. On the contrary, China used the opportunity in its favour by supporting Sri Lanka in voting against the resolution. India voted against Sri Lanka further in the UN Human Rights Council in March 2013 in an attempt to step up pressure on Sri Lanka to address the legitimate concerns of its Tamil minorities.
Sri Lanka’s disappointment with India was very much conspicuous when India voted in favour of UNHRC resolutions. Under the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, the Sri Lankan government was allegedly delaying democratic process in the Northern Province. It was the Indian insistence that finally led to provincial council elections. On September 21, 2013 elections were held in three provinces of Sri Lanka-the Sinhala majority North Western Province (NWP) and the Central Province (CP) and the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured a landslide victory in the Northern Provincial Council, winning 30 of the 38 seats, polling 78 percent of the votes.
Recent attempts at Ethnic Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Challenges and Opportunities before India
Ever since the incumbent Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena came to power, he set the right tone for the sixth anniversary of the end of the civil war (May 2015) in the island nation and said that the truth of what happened in the conflict needed to be established and justice delivered. While Mahinda Rajapaksa celebrated the end of the war as “Victory Day” for five years, Sirisena re-christened it in 2015 as “Remembrance Day.” The change in the nomenclature signaled a change in the Sri Lankan government’s perceptions on the war. For the first time, the Tamils felt that they, too, could take part in the observance, if not the celebrations of the anniversary. Remembrance included the sacrifices made by one and all, irrespective of their ethnicity.
It is noteworthy that the Sri Lankan government under Sirisena’s leadership has taken a series of steps to win the confidence of the Tamils. For instance, many political prisoners were released, large tracts of military-controlled land were returned to their original Tamil owners, and investigations into civilian deaths were begun. However, there is, as of now, no clarity on the happenings during the last few days of the civil war. There are reports that many Tamils were shot at close range after the actual war had ended. As long as these charges are not probed and the guilty punished, reconciliation will remain a pipe-dream.
The Sri Lankan government has promised a Truth Commission, a Judicial Commission with a Special Prosecutor, an Office for Reparations and another for Tracing Missing Persons, substitution of the Prevention of Terrorism Act by one based on international norms and a new constitution to address the Tamils’ grievances. For the first time, Colombo has wholeheartedly accepted international assistance to run domestic mechanisms. It has agreed to the US proposal to present to the Council a binding “collaborative resolution”. At first glance, Sri Lanka seems to be heading for peace and harmony, but in reality, the road ahead is tough.
However, the Tamils too are not sanguine about the peace prospects. Even the moderate Tamil National Alliance has reservations regarding the Sri Lankan government’s intentions. Tamils wonder if the armed forces, seen by the Sinhalese as war heroes, will be hauled up for war crimes. They see little likelihood of the government enacting war crimes laws with retrospective effect, or even putting in place an effective witness protective regime. Admittedly, post-Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka is moving towards democracy, but the Tamils fear they may not get to enjoy the ethnic rights.
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe in September 2015 co-sponsored with the United States and an overwhelming majority of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a resolution which ties Sri Lanka to far-reaching institutional reforms for bringing about reconciliation and accountability. Among the reforms, one which will have an immediate impact on the ethnic question is the establishment of an ad hoc mechanism with the participation of foreign judges and other legal personnel to try cases of alleged war crimes and rights abuses. Sri Lanka’s historic step at Geneva stemmed from the desire of Sirisena’s regime to abjure divisive and confrontationist domestic and international politics, which had taken the country to rack and ruin, and opt for dialogue and accommodation.
India, which faces potentially destabilizing fallout from the Lankan Tamil problem, will certainly be relieved by these developments. Nevertheless, there is possibility that the Sinhalese ‘nationalists’ led by Rajapaksa would denounce the stand taken in Geneva as a ‘sellout’ to recapture power. But, unlike its predecessors, if the present government implements its commitments and convinces the majority Sinhalese to accept them, it would go a long way in satisfying the concerns of the Tamil minority and mitigating the possibilities of distrust and the resultant peace will benefit the stakeholders. However, as the President Sirisena pointed out on September 18, 2015, it will be a “long way” for Sri Lanka to achieve national reconciliation and so far, the over-securitization of the Sri Lankan State has adversely affected the peace-building process.
This reconciliation process needs to be accelerated and India must engage the Sri Lankan government diplomatically, politically and economically. India must convince different sections in Sri Lanka of the crucial need for reconciliation, fundamentally in its own interest. For this, India has to reach out to the opposition, the monks and the Muslim community. India has to work hard to win over the trust of the Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka. The Tamil population of Sri Lanka should be reassured of India’s commitment towards the realisation of its legitimate aspirations within a united framework of the Sri Lankan state. The Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka should be persuaded by the Indian government to accept the peace overtures if and when extended by the Sri Lankan Government and stay away from adopting extremist tactics.
The peace initiatives undertaken by the present government of Sri Lanka have opened up possibilities for India to engage Sri Lanka in the economic sector more than ever before. Both the countries are engaged in deliberations to ink Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) to elevate their bilateral FTA to the next higher level. This would chiefly include the service sector. The key sectors that would reap benefits from CEPA are tourism, computer software, advertising, financial and non-financial services, health, retail services and tourism. This will create avenues of employment. During the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s visit to India in September 2015, the proposed CEPA was discussed and committed to be drafted by December 2015. If properly implemented, this will lead to more extensive trade between the two countries aimed at correcting the severe trade imbalance.
In the last few years, India has committed over $1,100 million in economic assistance programmes for Sri Lanka. Needless to say that the success of these programmes would depend on the extent to which this assistance is used by the Sri Lankan authorities in moving forward in the direction of reconciliation. Based on this, India should frame an extensive programme of co-operation with Sri Lanka with a view to radically transforming its economy.
Though there is a growing feeling among certain sections in India that New Delhi lacks necessary leverage over Colombo, the TNA and many ‘moderate’ civil society activists in Sri Lanka maintain that India can considerably influence the Sri Lankan government as it has a credible international voice and an increasing global role. They hold the view that dialogue with the Tamil leaders is important and the cumulative grievances of the Tamils have to be addressed for securing durable peace and stability in Sri Lanka. It is believed that India can play the role of the facilitator for arriving at a political solution between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil community.
Nevertheless, Indian diplomacy faces the challenge of enabling a meaningful process of reconciliation. It is argued that India can use its leverage with the political groups in Sri Lanka provided there is right political will in this direction. It is hoped that the perceptible change in the electoral dynamics of India after Bharatiya Jantata Party (BJP) came to power emerging as the single largest party in the lower house of the parliament under the leadership of Modi would allow India more independence to deal with the Sri Lankan issue by rising above the regional politics.
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