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Engage more with Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s remarks that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s call for economic sanctions against Sri Lanka were politically motivated, has once again brought the question of sanctions back into public consciousness — unfortunately. Tamil Nadu’s politicians, — the likes of Vaiko, who, though shrewd, are not famous for their economic reasoning — would probably pick up the thread from her, in order to keep the call alive.

While it is evident that the Government of India will not rush into acquiescence with Tamil Nadu’s political waffle, it is useful for people to realise how feckless economic sanctions are, even if the ends that their protagonists seek to achieve are just.

If the idea is to bring the Sri Lankans to justice and to ensure that they do not harm the remaining Tamils, economic sanctions will only be a step in the opposite direction. Assuming that sanctions do hurt, who do you think will bear the brunt of it — Sinhalese or Tamils? The latter, obviously.

But the assumption that sanctions will be effective is founded more on hope than reason. You only have to look at the southern border of Sri Lanka to see why.

After being rejected not once, but twice, by India, the offer for the construction of the port of Hambantota was made to the Chinese. The project is seen by all strategic analysts as a symbol of the new-found China-Sri Lanka strategic alliance. With a full arsenal of strategic weapons — from freebies to funding — the Chinese are pressing ahead into Sri Lanka. (Remember how the third Rajapaksa, Basil, was given a gift of 30 motorcycles last year by the Chinese? “The bikes are just part of a huge infusion of donations, grants, investments and loans, as China’s presence in Sri Lanka explodes,” The Economist magazine wrote then.) At this time, if a sanction-happy India vacates the Sri Lankan economic space, it will be happily occupied by the Chinese. The Sri Lankans know this only too well.

Somi Hazari, a Chennai-based trader, recalls how a couple of years ago, when India refused an offer for supplying cement, Pakistan happily came to Sri Lanka’s aid, and made good money on it.

Imposing sanctions is like pulling the trigger with the muzzle turned towards the shooter. The Free Trade Agreement between India and Sri Lanka has turned out to be singularly in favour of India. We, who complain against the Chinese for running a huge trade surplus with India, have no compunctions in doing the same to Sri Lanka. India exports to Sri Lanka five times as much as it imports, as the figures for 2010 illustrate: India’s exports – $ 2.46 billion; imports – $ 470 million. Automobiles and parts alone accounted for $ 411 million, and were three times as much as the previous year ($ 168 million). Exports of goods transport vehicles rose from $ 23 million in 2009 to $ 103 million in 2010. Sanctions are not in India’s interests.

The counter to this is obvious: this is not the time to look at trade and economics; the need of the hour is to bring to book the culprits who attempted to destroy a race. My response to that is simply this: the best gift to the memory of the departed Tamils in the island is to make sure that their kin not only live in dignity, but also prosper. If the Sinhalese had really wished to wipe out the Tamils, the best punishment would be to defeat them in that objective. The way to do that is to engage with Sri Lanka more, not less. The more you engage with the country, the more it is in your control — and the opposite is just as true.

 The Hindu

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