By J Jeganaathan
As the US and its allies prepared to exit from Afghanistan after an unsuccessful military mission, Sri Lanka conspicuously etched a military triumph over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) shell-shocking the Tamils around the world. Although the victory was mainly attributed to precise military strategy and effective leadership at that time, it was Sri Lanka’s meticulous foreign policy based on realpolitik and adroit international diplomacy which actually helped in pulverizing the Tigers. However, the post-war period is fraught with a series of international allegations especially from the western countries about blatant human rights violations during the war. In this context it is imperative to examine what is Sri Lanka’s Foreign policy strategy after the War?
During the war, Sri Lankan strategy was mostly aimed to circumscribe LTTE. In due course, it won Chinese military and economic support for the war. Then it skillfully silenced Western peacemakers who have always been critical about the government’s military campaign. Moreover, it cleverly defied India’s political logic for the Tamil ethnic issue although it had technically helped Sri Lankan military in defeating the LTTE. Tamils around the world felt they were brutally persecuted by the Sri Lankan armed forces, betrayed by Tamils in India and deliberately orphaned by the international community.
Unlike in the past, the foreign policy of Sri Lanka has now become more assertive and realistic. Its understanding of regional and international politics is more comprehensive and this has enhanced its diplomatic skills. For instance, in June 2010 the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a three-member expert panel to advise him on accountability issues pertaining to alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka.
However, the GoSL vehemently opposed this panel and refused entry to the experts for conducting investigations on war crimes on the grounds of infringement of its sovereignty. It subsequently formed its own commission, Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to look into events from 2002 to 2009 to subvert international pressure. According to the LLRC mandate, international experts will be allowed only after they testify before the Commission. This shows Sri Lanka’s intention to subvert independent international inquiry and exposes its apathy towards human rights abuses. Many international observers therefore, do not consider the LLRC to be a credible organization because of its weak mandate and limited autonomy.
At the moment, the foremost foreign policy priority for Sri Lanka is to preserve the status quo. The probability of Tamil rebels challenging the current security situation is minimal. Yet, the government of Sri Lanka appears extremely concerned about the influence of Tamil diaspora which has been spearheading an international movement to prosecute the Sri Lankan authorities.
The primary objective of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy now is to prevent any potential revival of the LTTE or Tamil nationalism in the future. Although the LTTE has been defeated in the Sri Lankan territory, its overseas network is still functional and the political imagination of Tamil Elam is very much alive among the Tamil diaspora, especially in Europe and Canada. This is evident in the formation of Transnational Government of Tamil Elam (TNGTE), a government-in-exile, by the Tamil diaspora. Though the TNGTE has not been recognized by any state or authority as yet, it enjoys widespread support from international pacifists. However, such support by international groups will be deemed as an act of appeasing Tamil diaspora and supporting separatism by the Sri Lankan government. Moreover, any attempt to prosecute Sri Lanka for its alleged war crimes by Western countries will be resisted by all means.
In sum, the present regime under President Mahinda Rajapaksa is astutely pursuing a two-pronged strategy to achieve new foreign policy goals in the post-war period. First, it prefers to keep the Europeans and Americans out of Sri Lanka, who have been constantly criticizing the government for war crimes and human rights abuses. The European Union has condemned Sri Lanka for the same reasons and has even withdrawn the preferential trade status known as GSP+ given to Sri Lanka last year. The US senate has also passed a resolution calling for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka.
Second, it wants to keep China in to defend itself against such allegations and possible actions as its veto power in the UNSC provides a perfect balance against the Western human rights lobby in international forums. China therefore has emerged as an indispensable factor in Sri Lankan post-war foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis the West. For China, Sri Lanka is a big pearl in its string of pearl strategy though not in traditional military sense of building bases but in terms of building favorable (authoritarian) regimes for its own grand strategic interest in the region.
For Sri Lanka, it would be erroneous to conclude that with the demise of the LTTE the long-standing Tamil ethnic problem has been solved. Rather, it must understand that the chances of revival of Tamil separatism in a new form are relatively high if their legitimate socio-political grievances are not addressed.
Research Officer, IPCS