Sri Lanka Brief


  V. Suryanarayan & Ashik Bonofer
 When the Fourth Eelam War began in early 2006, the main objective of the Sri Lankan Government was to find a military solution to the ethnic problem. The armed forces were given a free hand, they were well armed and well equipped with latest weapons acquired from different parts of the world; and they were not constrained by likely human rights violations.

The war against the LTTE was projected as an integral part of the global war against terrorism and, as a result, Sri Lanka was able to mobilize international support in the pursuit of its goals. In that process, Colombo got closer with countries like China and Pakistan, because in Colombo’s perception neither Beijing nor Islamabad ever sought to influence the domestic politics of the island.

Faced with serious problems in Tibet and Xinjiang, Colombo’s arguments that it was tackling similar problems found a favourable echo in Biejing. Lakshman Kadiragamar, the former Foreign Minister, in a visit to China in 2004 stated that China “has never sought to influence the domestic politics of Sri Lanka”. It has proved to be “benign and sincere with no ulterior motives”. China has never tried to “dominate, undermine or destabilize Sri Lanka. She has come to our rescue with timely assistance on several occasions when there were threats to Sri Lanka’s security and territorial integrity. There had been no strings attached to Chinese aid”.
What was left unsaid was China and Sri Lanka were birds of the same feather; they were faced with similar domestic problems and, therefore, respect for universal human rights never figured in their calculations. Equally relevant, the two countries did not want Western countries like the United States and member states of the European Union to interfere in their domestic affairs in the name of protecting human rights. The end result, Colombo could count on China’s support against international censure and intervention.
Sri Lanka made opportunist deviations in its foreign policy in order to befriend China. The deafening silence on the issue of human rights violations in Tibet is a noteworthy example. The fact that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, committed to promote Buddhist values of love, compassion and brotherhood were forgotten. In this connection, it deserves mention that Sri Lanka is constitutionally bound to protect and promote Buddhism. Sri Lanka consistently denied entry to Dalai Lama, the supreme spiritual leader of the Tibetans. In 1999, the request made by several Buddhist organizations to extend an invitation to Dalai Lama was turned down, because the Sri Lankan Government did not want to “upset” the Chinese. Similarly in 2006, the Dalai Lama was denied a visa to attend the 2550 Buddha Jayanthi celebrations and also pay homage to the tooth relic of Buddha. In 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka even dissuaded its top cricketers Kumar Sangakara and Mahela Jayewardene from paying their respects to Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.
The major worry of Sri Lanka was how to win India’s support in the war against terrorism. Because of its geographical contiguity, ethnic affinities and historical links India had always been the “major point of reference” for Sri Lanka’s foreign policy makers. Indian support or at least Indian neutrality was extremely important in attaining its goals, more so in the context of New Delhi’s earlier policy of not permitting a military solution to the ethnic problem. What is more, the Tamil Nadu factor should not influence New Delhi’s decision making.
The Tigers, by their many acts of omission and commission, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, had created a sense of revulsion in India, including Tamil Nadu. It did not, therefore, require much effort on the part of Colombo to make New Delhi realize that Sri Lanka was also fighting India’s war against terrorism. It is necessary to remind ourselves that India did not change its consistent stand on the LTTE as a terrorist organization, even when Colombo after 2002 was involved in negotiations with the Tigers. The Indian Intelligence Agencies provided valuable inputs about the Sea Tigers and LTTE ships were destroyed. With the complete disruption of supply lines, the Tigers were like fish out of water.
The refugee influx into Tamil Nadu virtually came to an end, because the Sri Lankan Navy had consolidated its hold on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay and the Indian Coast Guard simultaneously were undertaking joint patrolling in the Indian waters. And, what is more, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu was more keen to maintain cordial relations with the Central Government than in changing India’s Sri Lanka policy. New Delhi understandably provided considerable leverage to Karunanidhi to carry on his political gimmicks in order to project himself as the “greatest champion of the Tamils”.
New Delhi’s decision not to supply arms to the Sri Lankan Government enabled Colombo to further strengthen its links with China and Pakistan. According to informed sources, Colombo used to first approach New Delhi with its shopping list of arms, ammunition, naval sips and airplanes, and when India naturally did not respond favourably, Colombo turned to China, Pakistan and other countries. The impression that India is not helping us, therefore, we are compelled to go to other sources, was created. It may be recalled that the development of Hambantota port was first offered to New Delhi and only when the Government of India said “no” did Colombo approach Beijing. Since the “China factor” looms large in the South Block Colombo was also able to get from New Delhi non-lethal weapons and considerable aid for the rehabilitation of the Internally Displaced Persons.
Keen students of international relations point out to two success stories of “playing China against India” and be friends with both China and India simultaneously. The first is the military junta in Myanmar and the second Mahinda Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka. In Myanmar, in the early years of the stewardship of Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi raised its voice consistently on behalf of pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Su Kyi. In Sri Lanka In 1987 New Delhi asserted itself and made it clear and that it will not permit a military solution to the ethnic problem. As a result, Sri Lanka had no other option but to seek India’s assistance and sign the India-Sri Lanka Accord.
Why is New Delhi turning a Nelson’s eye to the writing on the wall? Students of contemporary history know despite all high flowing rhetoric about “democracy breeds indiscipline, what is required is discipline for our development and this can be accomplished only by strong and disciplined governments”, President Marcos of the Philippines and President Suharto of Indonesia had to finally quit and go into political wilderness.
What is happening to day in West Asia has a great lesson for us, the voice of the people is the voice of God. In a world of shrinking geographical boundaries and widening intellectual horizons, no man can be an island, no island can also be an island. Despite the inevitable ups and downs inherent in democratic struggles, finally people will triumph and the tin pot dictators will be confined to the dustbin of history. We are reminded of the inspiring words of Aung San Su Kyi included in the Joyce Memorial Lecture: “The dream of a society ruled by loving kindness, reason and justice is a dream as old as civilized man. Does it have to be an impossible dream? Karl Popper, explaining his abiding optimism in so troubled a world as ours, said the darkness had always been there, but the light was new. Because it is new, it has to be tended with care and diligence”.
In order to get the approval and support of New Delhi the Sri Lankan leaders repeated, like Gayatri Mantra, that once the war was over and the Tigers destroyed the Government of Sri Lanka will implement sincerely and expeditiously the provisions of 13th Amendment. It was perhaps music to the ears of the mandarins of the South Block, after all, the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Council system was New Delhi’s baby. The reality that Colombo was not sincere in implementing the 13th amendment and the end result did not provide for any devolution in the real sense of the term was forgotten.
Equally relevant, during the stewardship of President Chandrika Kumaratunga new constitutional proposals were formulated which was a definite improvement on the 13th Amendment. The draft 2000 Constitution, which was placed before the Parliament and which could not be passed because of the negative attitude of the United National Party (UNP) was definitely a step forward compared to 13th Amendment. In fact, the draft Constitution was based on certain fundamental principles; they included checks and balances among several organs of the Government – legislature, executive and the judiciary; the enshrinement of fundamental rights and freedoms; safeguarding linguistic rights; effective devolution of powers to the Provinces within a united Sri Lanka; independence of vital government organizations like public Service Commission and the Election Commission; constitutional governance and upholding of democratic rights.
It is also interesting to note that the All Party Representative Committee, appointed by President Rajapaksa, constituted an expert committee to make recommendations for a new Constitution. According to Jayampathy Wikramaratne, a member of the panel of experts, the various communities who inhabit Sri Lanka should be recognized as “constituent peoples” and their rights to retain their identity could be safeguarded without weakening their common Sri Lankan identity. A clear cut division of powers, safeguards against secession and a fundamental rights chapter that included social, economic and cultural rights have been suggested. A second chamber with representatives from provinces and a constitutional court to act as a watch dog have also been recommended. And for the first time, the aspirations of non-territorial minorities like the Indian Tamils and the Tamil speaking Moslems have also been analysed and commented upon. The need of the hour is for New Delhi to pressurize Sri Lanka to accept the Draft Constitution and the majority report of the Expert Committee as the basis for fashioning a new constitutional order. But, as the popular saying goes, if wishes were horses …
It is worth repeating some of the important statements of Sri Lankan leaders about their commitment to the implementation of the 13th Amendment during and after the War. During the height of the Fourth Eelam War, Pranab Mukherjee, then Minister for External Affairs, made a “surprise visit” to Colombo and requested the Sri Lankan Government to respect the “safe zones” and minimize the effect on “Tamil civilians”. At that time, President Rajapaksa told the Indian team that Sri Lanka wanted to move quickly towards a devolution package under the 13th Amendment. In early January 2010, in a policy statement the Sri Lankan President declared that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution will be presented as the basis of a political solution. Speaking in a press conference, the President assured that he was “committed” to the 13th Amendment. He added that “I am ready to grant 13 plus”. In May 2011, GL Peiris, the Minister for Constitutional Affairs, visited New Delhi for detailed consultations and at the end of the visit a press communiqué was issued, which stated, “A devolution package building upon the 13th Amendment would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for reconciliation”.
Despite these pious declarations, Indian observers of the Sri Lankan scene feel that the letter and spirit of the 13th Amendment is being systematically violated by Sri Lankan Government. The merger of the north and the east has been undone by a judicial pronouncement, which is a serious blow to Tamil aspirations. The President and his close advisors have repeatedly mentioned that the police powers would not be devolved. In an interview to the Straits Times of Singapore, the President said, “As for police powers, knowing the people, I would say please do not devolve the power”. The land powers vested in the provinces are also being whittled down.
The Sri Lankan Tamils, with justification, feel that Colombo is determined to change the demographic character of the north just as they did in the eastern province after independence. The establishment of army cantonments in the north and provision of housing facilities to Sinhalese soldiers will lead to permanent settlement of Sinhalese in the Tamil areas. The induction of the Sinhalese is taking place at a time when many Tamils have gone to foreign countries in search of asylum.
When the next census is taken in Sri Lanka, the percentage of Tamil population will show a sharp decline. Perhaps many Sinhalese will welcome such a development. The President frequently mentions to foreign observers that Sri Lanka guarantees freedom of movement; in fact, the Tamil component in Colombo’s population has been steadily increasing during recent years. But one basic difference should be highlighted. The movement of Tamils to Colombo is voluntary migration unlike the induction of Sinhalese in the north which is government sponsored.
In a recent interview to India Today, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Minister for Defence, asserted that there is no necessity for further legislation to provide for devolution of powers to the provinces. To quote the all powerful Sri Lankan leader, “The existing Constitution is more than enough for us to live together… devolution wise we have done enough. I do not think there is a necessity to go beyond that”.
In the light of the ever widening divide between rhetoric and reality, one cannot escape the conclusion that New 
Delhi is being lulled into inertia by “hollow promises”. We are reminded of the famous lines of WH Auden from a poem specially composed for the UN Day concert on October 24, 1971:
Let mortals beware
of words, for
with words we lie
can say peace
when we mean war
Perhaps the only innovation that Sri Lanka may introduce may be the constitution of a Second Chamber of Parliament. The Sri Lankan Government has not so far spelt the nature of its composition nor its functions. However, it is fairly certain that the Second Chamber will not perform the role of the guardian of provinces as the Senate does in the United States. Nor will the constitution of the upper house follow the example of Rajya Sabha in India, which has far less powers than the American Senate. It should be pointed out that the role of Parliament under the 1978 Constitution is minimal. It acts as a rubber stamp for the execution of Presidential decisions by undertaking necessary legislative enactment. All powers are vested in the President. It is relevant to recall the statement made by JR Jayewardene when he became the President of Sri Lanka. “The President has all the powers except making a man into a woman and a woman into a man”. And equally relevant, the two term limit on the President has been taken away by a recent constitutional amendment, so also the legislation to make the election commission and the public service commission constitutionally autonomous. Sri Lanka is slowly and steadily veering round to a “constitutional dictatorship”.
On the thorny issue of the travails of the Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay region, the story is the same. Colombo is going back on the solemn assurances given to the Government of India at different times. Prof. Suryanarayan has written a critical essay in this subject few days ago, therefore, it is not proposed to reiterate those points. ( See paper of South Asia Analysis Group- Paper No. 4658 dt 22-8-2011)
During the cease fire period, Paul Caspersz, the well known human rights activist, led a team of like minded individuals to Jaffna for an on the spot study of the situation. Their objective was to suggest ways and means to build solidarity with the Tamil people in our “common quest for peace founded upon justice”. According to Caspersz, every one – with not one exception – in Jaffna hoped for peace. He expressed the anguish, anxiety and hope of the people of Jaffna by quoting from a poem, The State of Siege, composed in Arabic by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. The poem opens with the lines:
There on the hillside
gazing into the dusk and canon of time
near the shadow-crossed gardens,
we do what the prisoners and the powerless always do,
we try to conjure up hope.
While recent developments in Sri Lanka do not hold the promise of ethnic reconciliation and the dawn of a just political order, enshrining and fostering the identity of various ethnic groups while safeguarding the unity and integrity of the country, we cannot afford to be like Cassandra, the Greek princess, who had the gift of prophecy, but was unable to change the course of events.
This year, we in South Asia are celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. Gurudev was a source of inspiration for all South Asians. He not only composed India’s national anthem, his ideas and ideals provided inspiration for the national anthems of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Tagore’s last famous speech was entitled The Crisis in Civilization, which was delivered three months before his death. Gurudev was ill at that time and was in agony of spirit at the spectacle of the devastating barbarities of the Second World War. Gurudev described how the “demon of barbarity” had “given up all pretense.” He added “as I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility “. Even then, in his death bed, Tagore did not lose faith in man. To quote:
”And I shall not commit the mistake of losing faith in man. I would rather look forward to the opening of a new chapter in history after the cataclysm is over and the atmosphererendered clean by the spirit of service and sacrifice. Perhaps that dawn will come from this horizon, from the east, where the son rises. A day will come when unvanquished man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back the lost human heritage.”
While the international community, especially India, has an important role in the fashioning of a new political order, the fact remains that these processes need to be generated by the Sri Lankans themselves. Even members of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora view the situation far removed from existing reality; in fact, many of them are intellectually fossilized at the time when they left the island in search of greener pastures. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, if the leaders really care to build on the past, the draft Constitution of 2000 and the majority report of the Expert Committee can provide the foundation on which the superstructure of enduring peace can be built. What is lacking is the spirit of tolerance and compassion and, above all, the necessary political will. The problem, as TS Eliot put it, in a different context, is “… peace, not the kiss of peace”.
Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai. He is one of India’s leading specialists in South Asian and Southeast Asian Studies and has written extensively on the subject. His e mail
Ashik Bonofer has specialized in South Asian Studies and is currently associated with the Center for Asia Studies as a Research Fellow. His e mail address:
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