Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesNewsWhile Building Economic Linkages, also Bridge the Ethnic Divide

While Building Economic Linkages, also Bridge the Ethnic Divide


By R. Hariharan

Sri Lanka is undergoing catharsis after a resurgent Sri Lankan army ended, on 19 May 2009, the twenty-five-year-long national ordeal at the hands of Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE. Since 1983 Sri Lanka had waged war against the LTTE in three spells that ended in a stalemate.
The final victory came only in the fourth episode that started in mid-2006. The victory has come at a great cost – the lives of nearly 24,000 soldiers, over 27,000 LTTE cadres and about 80,000 civilians. Millions of rupees worth of infrastructure, material and habitations were destroyed.

At the macro level, Sri Lanka’s success has demonstrated how a determined national leadership can decisively defeat a strong, well-armed and globally networked insurgent group. A dynamic military leadership managed to turn a demoralised army into a winning force and regain control of over 16,000 sq km of territory in more than eight districts. The Sinhala community’s ethnic pride, hurt by the LTTE’s spectacular raid on Katunayake airbase in July 2001, destroying seventeen aircraft, has been regained. The victory has also given rise to triumphalism bordering on Sinhala chauvinism, and resurfacing of fundamentalist Buddhist elements in politics. This appears to be affecting the way Sri Lanka looks at the unresolved issues of ethnic minorities, and global prescriptions to resolve them.

Though the country has embarked on a huge reconstruction and rehabilitation programme in the war-torn areas of North and East and other parts, overt and covert suppression of fundamental freedoms, including media rights, through intimidation and coercive use of legal provisions and gross violation of human rights have become a part of life. Ministers and law-enforcing agencies continue to act without accountability. Corruption has become endemic. Opposition and civil society concerns on these aberrations have been ignored or given short shrift. These actions have marred some of the positive achievements of the government particularly in managing the economy and restoring tourist trade.

The serial war effort has drained the country’s economy and hobbled growth. Over 300,000 people of the Northern Province had become destitute, losing everything – their kin, livelihood, land and housing. Billions of rupees worth of infrastructure, public service facilities and housing have been destroyed, often repeatedly. Over 90,000 women have been widowed. The trauma of the war-affected is likely to linger on for quite a few years.

Sri Lanka’s performance in the three years of peace has been a mixed success. The rehabilitation effort has succeeded only partially because it has lacked transparency and sensitivity to the aspirations of the Tamil minority. The root cause of the war – the feeling of inequity among the ethnic Tamil minority population – still remains to be addressed. The visible presence of soldiers in large numbers cramps the everyday life of the citizen. If this state of affairs continues, Tamil Eelam has the potential to become a rallying call once again.

At the heart of it all is President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As the chief architect of the military victory he has emerged as the unchallenged national leader after he managed to neutralize General Sarath Fonseka, former army commander, the other focal point of national adulation. Rajapaksa used his immense popularity to get elected as President for a second six-year term in 2010. He reinforced his strength when he led the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to an unprecedented two-thirds majority in the parliamentary poll in 2011. He used this massive strength in Parliament to pass the 18th constitution amendment to remove the two-term limitation on the office of President imposed by the previous amendment.

Rajapaksa runs the country with his two brothers – Basil and Gotabaya – to execute his plans for national development and defence, with a rubber-stamp parliament. By giving berths in the cabinet for the seventeen parties of his coalition, he has pre-empted the temptation for them to gang up with the main opposition United National Party (UNP). He has also successfully neutralized the Sinhala leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) by attracting its followers to his fold. As of now he remains the unchallenged, centralized source of power, a fact which is displayed openly in the day-to-day affairs of the country. Understanding his style of politics and governance is therefore essential when assessing the future of India-Sri Lanka relations.

Rajapaksa is currently in his second term as President since 2010. In November 2005 he was elected President with a wafer-thin majority, defeating Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP. Wickremasinghe was deprived of Tamil votes thanks to the LTTE-sponsored boycott of the elections in areas under its control: it has been alleged that the LTTE was paid by one of Rajapaksa’s friends to impose the boycott.

In his electoral campaign, Rajapaksa used to his advantage the growing public disillusionment with the 2002 peace process promoted mainly by Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. He vowed to end the “ineffective” peace process and to tame the LTTE. His predecessors had considered the LTTE’s challenge to the State’s authority as an offshoot of the Tamil ethnic struggle for autonomy. So their approach wavered between military operations and peace talks aimed at addressing the broader issue of devolution of equitable powers to the Tamil minority.

After the war, Rajapaksa advanced the presidential election for the second term by one year to 2010 to take full advantage of his immense popularity. Meanwhile, there was a systematic effort to sully the image of his opponent General Sarath Fonseka, who stood as a common opposition candidate. During the election, even as the voting was ending, prosecution against him was launched on charges of corruption, meddling in politics while in service, plotting to overthrow the government and housing army deserters. The General was deprived of his rank and sentenced to two and a half years of imprisonment.

Rajapaksa has also shown that he does not tolerate criticism of his style of governance. Some of his media critics have disappeared; the high-profile editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who took a critical stand against the government, was shot to death in January 2009. Mervyn Silva, Minister of Public Relations, gained notoriety in a number of attacks on political opponents and media persons, including an assault on Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation’s News Director T.M.G. Chandrasekara in December 2007. Silva had publicly warned some of the journalists and human rights workers that he would “break their limbs” for taking a stand against the government at the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in April 2012.

In the wake of the triumphalism triggered by the military success, there has been a steady increase in the Buddhist extremist campaign against places of worship of Christians and Muslims. There have been threats to remove Hindu temples also. The Buddhist right-wing party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a partner of the ruling coalition, has been spearheading these campaigns. The JHU was in the forefront of a Sinhala mob attack led by monks that disrupted the Friday congregation in Dambulla mosque in May and another similar attack on a madrasa in Dehiwala in June. The administration has been handling such cases with kid gloves.

The Rajapaksa government enjoys overwhelming parliamentary majority. Pandering to religious right-wing elements cannot therefore be dismissed as “vote bank” politics. The President’s political opportunism, rather than religious fundamentalism, probably explains the soft attitude to these right-wing fulminations. As his aim is to maximize his Southern Sinhala support base, one can expect more play of religious chauvinism in politics in the coming years.

An important aspect of President Rajapaksa’s style is his steadfast stand against external interference in the country’s handling of the ethnic issue. He has repeatedly averred that Sri Lanka would depend upon home-grown solutions to its problems. He knows that such a stand appeals to the conservative Southern Sinhala voters.

Strategic Connotations

Eelam War IV has shown that the Sri Lanka armed forces have graduated from a land-bound army-dominated force to a strong multifaceted force capable of planning and executing complex operations, utilizing large sized forces on multiple axes. If they continue to hone their military skills in the coming years, they would be a first-rate force. The army is about 200,000-strong, organized in thirteen divisions and some independent brigades. The divisions are slightly smaller, with fewer supporting arms than Indian infantry divisions.

The armed forces are conscious that Rajapaksa’s leadership and the unprecedented support extended to them by the government machinery enabled their success. The President’s vindictive handling of General Sarath Fonseka caused some unrest in the army ranks, but after his handpicked officer Lt General Jagat Jayasuriya took over as army commander, personnel sympathetic to General Fonseka were retired from the army. Now President Rajapaksa is likely to continue to command the personal loyalty of commanders, who have been carefully chosen by him. This was evident in the run-up to the presidential poll when the army commander and senior officers came out in his support.

The armed forces have thus undergone subtle politicization, with the potential to emerge as an extra power centre in the country. Under ambitious commanders such a power centre outside the democratic sphere could get involved in politics to become the deciding factor in uncertain times. The role of the armed forces in the future would very much depend upon how the President employs them in his second term. The more they are involved to buttress his regime the greater would be their politicization.

This process appears to be already taking place in the Northern Province; even three years after the war, nine out of the thirteen divisions of the army are stationed in the Northern Province. This is about 150,000 troops deployed in an area with a population of 9.97 million – roughly one soldier for every six civilians, including women and children who are recovering from the trauma of twenty-five years of war. It sends a wrong message particularly when the process of ethnic reconciliation has not started fully. The President and the Defence Secretary have justified the army’s presence in such large numbers on three counts: employment of troops in mine-clearing operations; assisting development and reconstruction works; and the right of the army to be present anywhere in the country.

The way Sri Lanka waged war has a few strategic connotations for South Asia in general and India in particular. The war eliminated the LTTE as a role model to other militant groups. It also ended the LTTE’s potential to be a destabilizing force in the region. Sri Lanka’s victory should give confidence to those who are locked in seemingly endless battles with insurgent groups all over South Asia.

Another question is whether Sri Lanka requires such a big army. Tamil militancy in its wake brought about militarization of society, including large-scale desertions, proliferation of illegal arms, increased employment of military intelligence in the civilian domain and criminal activities using firearms. This appears to have come to stay.

The Ministry of Defence is now entrusted with urban development, presumably to justify the retention of a huge army and employing it on non-military duties. Soldiers have been deployed on civic services and law-and-order duties normally performed by the police. Naval personnel have been selling vegetables while the air force is running an air service for civilians travelling to Jaffna. To top it all, the army proposes to import 10,000 cows to produce milk for sale to the public! Employment of the military on civilian tasks seems to have become part of state strategy. This is an unhealthy trend in a democracy; it is open to misuse in times of political crisis as an instrument of power, particularly in Sri Lanka where the executive presidency is vested with enormous powers.

The army also has become an extra administrative authority keeping an eye to control the activity of the civilians in the province. Though such deployment is ostensibly to prevent revival of LTTE activity, in practice it interferes with opposition political activity. This has been brought out by the US Country Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka 2011, released on 24 May 2012. It said:
The major human rights problems were unlawful killings by security forces and government-allied paramilitary groups, often in predominantly Tamil areas, which led many to regard them as politically motivated, and attacks on and harassment of civil society activists, persons viewed as Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sympathizers, and journalists by persons allegedly tied to the government, which created an environment of fear and self-censorship.

International Relations

President Rajapaksa has been aggrieved about the way Sri Lanka was treated by the US and the West even before Eelam War IV started. He was peeved when the US and the European Union repeatedly took up allegations of human rights violations and aberrations of rule of law with him. After the war, he has maintained that the West has not given due recognition to his military success against LTTE terrorism, though it was probably the only success story in the global war on terror. This feeling was further exacerbated when Channel 4 videos showing custodial killing of LTTE prisoners and other atrocities by the army were aired and many Western political leaders called upon Sri Lanka to investigate them. When a UN expert advisory panel found a prima facie case for such investigation, the government took the stance that the US and Western powers in collusion with Tamil diaspora were ganging up against Sri Lanka. This conspiracy theory has found wide acceptance among the public and the media, who find the Western conduct hypocritical and selective.

Rajapaksa’s abrasive relations with the US and the West – particularly UK, Canada and the EU – turned more belligerent during the war. The United States’ suggestion to send US marines to evacuate the LTTE leadership trapped in a narrow strip of land in the last stages of war in April 2009 was perhaps the trigger. Though the plan was shot down (with India supporting Sri Lanka), it caused suspicion about the US agenda in Sri Lanka.
 Sri Lanka’s suspicions were reinforced by the US stance at the UNHRC demanding Sri Lanka’s accountability for its actions in the final stages of the war. The suspicions have been aggravated by the freedom with which Tamil Eelam sympathizers and former LTTE cadres have been allowed to operate in the US, UK, Canada and EU despite the ban on the LTTE.

In defiance, President Rajapaksa went out of the way to cultivate nations known for their strong anti-US stance: Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, Libya (during Gaddafi’s time) and Venezuela. However, Sri Lanka needs the economic support of the US and the West, particularly in these times of global economic downturn. Sri Lanka cannot also afford to ignore the US for strategic reasons, as India-US strategic relations are growing in the Asia-Pacific region. The West’s efforts to improve relations with Sri Lanka have also continued. Extension of favourable credit to Sri Lanka by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank bear testimony to this.

China’s Role in Sri Lanka

China is on an exercise to improve its footprint in South Asia. Its interest in Sri Lanka is much more due to the island’s geographic location. As vanguard of the peninsular part of South Asia, Sri Lanka dominates the Indian Ocean shipping lanes vital to China’s global trade. Secondly, its physical proximity to India makes it part of any activity – strategic or commerce – relating to India and offers immense trade and military potential when China deals with India. So India will have to put China’s activity in Sri Lanka in the perspective of furthering its global ambitions, rather than as being India-centric.

However, as of now the Chinese naval capabilities are limited. As strategic analyst B. Raman observes:
 Till now, the main driver of China’s strategic interest in Gwadar, Hambantota and Chittagong has been the perceived need for refuelling, re-stocking and rest and recreation facilities for its oil/gas tankers and naval ships deputed for anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden area. China is not yet interested in an overseas naval base, but is interested in overseas logistic facilities for its oil/gas tankers and for its naval vessels.
 However, increase in China’s activity in Sri Lanka, just as India, is inevitable. India has to assess every Chinese action for its impact on national security. Such areas calling attention include infrastructure development, exploitation of energy resources, economic assistance, investment and military assistance. Both Sri Lanka and China will be careful not to give military overtones to their relationship. China has emerged as India’s number one trading partner. Similarly, Sri Lanka has benefited from the Free Trade Agreement with India and needs Indian investment. So one can expect both nations to calibrate the nature of growth in their relationship.

China has long enjoyed good relations with Sri Lanka. However, when the peace process 2002 started collapsing in 2005, China stepped in to provide roughly US$ 1 billion military and financial aid annually when Sri Lanka’s military budget rose by 40 per cent to expand its armed forces and equip them rapidly without overdependence upon Western aid. This has endeared China to the Sri Lankan people as a friend, in contrast to India which had internal political problems in providing military aid to Sri Lanka.

So it was natural that China got the bulk of the development projects, including port projects. China became the biggest donor to Sri Lanka in 2009, with $1.2 billion worth of assistance in the form of grants, loans and credit, representing 54 per cent of the $2.2 billion committed by foreign countries and multilateral agencies.

China’s involvement in Sri Lanka is now colossal. China was the biggest lender in 2010, with loans amounting to $821.4 million (India with $483 million was in second place). China accounted for 39.8 per cent of foreign disbursement in 2010, although India can take consolation in the fact that with $110 million it topped the investors.

China’s aid comes with its own strings. For instance, buyer’s credit is extended mainly to finance exports of Chinese products, technologies and services. Similarly, overseas construction projects that facilitate Chinese exports of equipment, construction machinery, materials, technical and managerial expertise, and labour services are usually considered. And Chinese projects come with inflated cost. According to columnist Namini Wijedasa: “For instance, the estimated cost per kilometre of a railway line constructed by the Indians is $1.8 million while the Chinese are doing it for $4 million per kilometre.” India has a tremendous cost advantage in executing projects due to its proximity to Sri Lanka, which India needs to exploit.

Much has been written about the Hambantota port project aided and executed by China as a part of China’s strategic “string of pearls”. While this commercial port project does have strategic significance, what is missed out is that Sri Lanka offered the project to China only after India showed no interest in it. This highlights the lack of strategic integration in policymaking in India. If India is to match China it needs to rectify this weakness.
India-Sri Lanka Equation

The India-Sri Lanka relationship, described as “family” by President Rajapaksa, has had its crests and troughs. In times of crisis, whether political, military, or international, Sri Lanka has generally taken India into confidence for consultation and advice. More often than not, India has gone the extra mile to help out the smaller neighbour. Thus the unique, umbilical relationship of India and Sri Lanka due to their geographic, cultural, religious, and ethnic proximity has continued.

There used to be three hardy perennials in India’s relations with Sri Lanka – grant of citizenship to people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka; strategic security; and ethnic confrontation between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. These have now been reduced to two. Thanks to the far-sightedness of the leaders of both countries, the citizenship issue has ceased to be a contentious one. Even in handling the other two issues, the leaders of the two countries have continued to show a great deal of pragmatism by not allowing the differences to override their cordial relationship. This trend is likely to continue despite periodic dissonant notes in the relations.

Despite India’s bitter experience during its military intervention in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, it has built upon its close political, diplomatic, strategic, and trade relations with that country. These have become all-embracing over the years, with increased linkages in all areas of interest. So it is not surprising that India signed its first ever Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka, paving the way for their two-way trade to grow to $4 billion. When Sri Lanka’s internal political environment turns favourable, it is likely to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) proposed by India to cement their trade and economic relations further.

The peace process 2002 created a dilemma of sorts for India as it provided legitimate entry for major powers – the US, Japan, EU and Norway – in the underbelly of India’s national security. However, as the LTTE – an organization banned in India – continued to remain an unpredictable quantity, India did not participate in the peace process. India lost a golden opportunity to usher in permanent peace between Sinhalas and Tamils if only it had used the Tamil Nadu leaders to prevail upon the LTTE to opt for peace rather than war, as it turned out later.

India’s influence that started eroding in 2002 stands further reduced in the strategic sphere. However, during the Eelam War, India provided some of the essential military equipment and valuable intelligence inputs that enabled the Sri Lanka Navy to track and destroy the LTTE’s logistic fleet. Indian naval patrols minimized smuggling of essential supplies to the LTTE from Tamil Nadu. The navies of both countries worked in tandem to prevent hijacking of ships by the LTTE. These measures made a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s operational success.

More than all this, India scrupulously avoided taking a public stand on allegations of human rights violations, kidnappings, custodial killings and bombing of civilians by Sri Lanka that started piling up both during and after the war. New Delhi made every effort to control the spill-over of emotion-charged reactions in Tamil Nadu from damaging friendly relations with Sri Lanka.

However, India’s unanticipated support to the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva in March 2012 has left a bitter taste in Sri Lanka. The resolution asks Sri Lanka to be accountable for human rights violations and to speedily implement the recommendations of the LLRC set up by the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka’s disappointment is more because it was India’s support to Sri Lanka that led to the defeat of a similar resolution at UNHRC meeting in May 2009. The Indian vote was largely influenced by domestic political compulsions as well as President Rajapaksa’s failure to keep up his promises to India on ethnic reconciliation.

Many Sri Lankans belonging to the conservative Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist segment believe that the Tamil insurgency in their country was India’s creation, after Tamil militants took refuge in Tamil Nadu following the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. They overlook the subsequent sacrifices India made during its military operations in Sri Lanka against the LTTE to facilitate the implementation of the India-Sri Lanka agreement. The Sri Lankan anti-India lobby, mainly supported by the JVP, construed the military intervention as an indirect bid to help create Tamil Eelam. This lobby, now joined by the right-wing JHU has been strengthened by the reassertion of Sinhala superiority at the end of the war, and as a corollary, the defeat of what they consider Indian machinations to keep Sri Lanka divided. This lobby is vociferous and enjoys some indulgence from the administration. So they cannot be ignored.

A major stumbling-block in India-Sri Lanka relations is the ethnic reconciliation issue. President Rajapaksa has not fulfilled his repeated promises made to India at the highest levels that he would implement the 13th Amendment (devolving powers to provincial councils) in full as part of the ethnic reconciliation process. Before the war he constituted the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to evolve a framework for devolution of powers to the minorities. However, its recommendations were put in cold storage. After the war, the government’s talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have been stalled after a dozen rounds as the President wants a parliamentary select committee to evolve political consensus on the issue.

So any exercise to improve India-Sri Lanka relations now will have to be taken up as a challenge by the national political leadership rather than as a diplomatic exercise. Given the complexity of Indian coalition politics, this may be a difficult task. To move forward from this disadvantaged position, India will have to take action to control the call for revival of Tamil Eelam issue by Tamil Nadu politicians in tandem with similar efforts by pro-Eelam activists among the Tamil diaspora. Otherwise, India will not be able to create the climate of confidence required to build a win-win relationship with Sri Lanka.

Revival of the Call for Tamil Eelam

The possibility of Tamil insurgency resurfacing remains a red herring for cordial India-Sri Lanka relations in the future. However, the chances of this happening in the near future appear slim for a number of reasons. The LTTE’s armed struggle, waged under Prabhakaran for decades, has failed. Sri Lanka’s Tamil leaders who could have rallied the masses for the cause have been eliminated in the fratricidal struggle of the LTTE. The leaders left alive after the war have not been able to evolve a common agenda or leverage their political strength to the advantage of Tamils.

Moreover, in the last three decades the Tamils have been dispersed both within and outside Sri Lanka, which makes it difficult to unite them. An independent Tamil Eelam is far from their minds; their immediate goal is to get back to a life of dignity, and make up for the years lost in the conflict.

Elements of the Tamil diaspora who had supported the LTTE have been trying to keep alive the struggle for Tamil Eelam, but lack a foothold in Sri Lanka. There are also over 11,000 former cadres of the LTTE in Sri Lanka in addition to trained elements of the LTTE and other Tamil militant organizations among the diaspora, including India. Tamil diaspora is also a source of funding for Sri Lanka Tamil political parties, including the TNA. They are also in touch with Tamil Nadu political lobbies. However, fortunately for Sri Lanka, Tamils both at home and abroad are in disparate groups, too involved with their own personal and political agendas to evolve a concerted strategy.

Despite these limitations, the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, which had sustained the LTTE insurgency, are not reconciled to its defeat. They are broadly in three streams. The umbrella organization of Global Tamil Forum (GTF), formed in July 2009, and its constituent British Tamil Forum (BTF) would like to take the Sri Lanka government to task for alleged war crimes and other violations of human rights. They have been working with the Labour and Conservative Parties in UK.

The second stream is made up of members of the LTTE’s overseas offices, particularly in EU, UK, Canada, and the US. In a bid to revive the LTTE they are being organized by LTTE representatives like Perinpanayagam Sivaparan alias Nediyavan of Tamil Eelam People’s Alliance (TEPA) in Norway, and Sekarapillai Vinayagamoorthy alias Vinayagam, former LTTE senior intelligence leader. However, their activities have run into rough weather as the LTTE continues to be banned in thirty-two countries.

The Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), formed by the LTTE’s overseas representative Kumaran Pathmanathan (KP) in the last days of the LTTE is perhaps the best organized body of LTTE sympathizers. Its objective is to struggle for creating an independent Tamil Eelam, ostensibly by democratic means. Led by Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, US-based legal advisor of the LTTE as “prime minister”, the TGTE has offices in twelve countries, with the secretariat functioning from Geneva, Switzerland. It conducted an election among the Tamil diaspora to elect representatives for its “parliament”. The TGTE “virtual government”, apart from the “prime minister”, has three “deputy prime ministers”, seven “ministers” and a number of “deputy ministers”.

The TGTE’s interest in furthering its linkages in Tamil Nadu is of special significance to India. In April 2012 the TGTE nominated five persons from Tamil Nadu as “members” of TGTE “parliament”. A TGTE Solidarity Centre, with Professor Saraswathi Rajendran, a TGTE “parliament” member as convener, operates in Tamil Nadu.

Despite their differences, these diaspora groups have made common cause to get the alleged Sri Lankan army war crimes investigated by an international tribunal. Their recent successes in preventing President Rajapaksa from addressing meetings in UK during his visits have emboldened them to come together on such occasions. We can expect more of such coordinated activity in the future. In this context, the joint statement issued by the GTF and the TGTE on the occasion of the “Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day” on 19 May 2012 is of special interest to India. In the statement they said they had agreed upon several areas of joint action. The GTF “intends to liaise with other Diaspora Tamil organizations and representatives of Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka in its efforts to build similar forms of shared understanding.” The TGTE for its part “is engaged in building a power base among the world Tamil community, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and with sections of the international civil society.”

In the light of these developments, the recent revival of Tamil Eelam issue as part of the political catfight between the two major Dravidian parties – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by the octogenarian Karunanidhi and the All India Anna DMK led by Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu – is rather disturbing.

Support for Tamil Eelam died down in Tamil Nadu after the LTTE’s assassination in 1991 of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s former Prime Minister, who had signed the India-Sri Lanka agreement. However, public indignation over the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka during the Eelam War and allegations of atrocities on them came in handy for Ms Jayalalithaa to espouse the Tamil Eelam cause during the parliamentary poll in 2009. She has demanded trade sanctions against Sri Lanka and for a referendum in Sri Lanka for the creation of Tamil Eelam. Smarting under the electoral debacle in Tamil Nadu assembly polls in 2010, Karunanidhi has recently announced the revival of the defunct Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO) he had formed in 1986 to pursue the Tamil Eelam agenda. The support of these leaders to the idea of Tamil Eelam might only be limited to political rhetoric at present; and they have low credibility among Sri Lanka Tamils. However, their support to the separatist cause legitimizes it and provides political space to pro-LTTE fringe parties in Tamil Nadu that deify Prabhakaran.

If the DMK seriously activates TESO, its link-up with TGTE would become a reality. This increases the risk of Tamil Nadu becoming a hothouse of Tamil extremism, with serious implications for national security. Already, Sri Lanka is seriously concerned at these developments. It would also stoke sentiments inimical to Indian interests in Sri Lanka. Thus both the Centre and Tamil Nadu will have to carefully calibrate the political moves to separate concern for Sri Lankan Tamils from pandering to Tamil extremism before it seriously affects relations between the two countries.

Policy Prescription for India

Sri Lanka has emerged as a strong and more powerful nation after the success in the Eelam War under President Rajapaksa’s leadership. He will be in power till 2016 and possibly longer. There is no leader visible on Sri Lanka’s political horizon to challenge him. The challenges he is likely to face in the next five years are from economic woes and how the unsettled aspirations of the Tamil minority are articulated in Sri Lanka politics. His continued survival at the top will depend upon how he handles these two aspects.

Both issues provide unique opportunities for India despite the challenge posed by China’s ever-increasing presence in the economy. Some of the imperatives for success are as follows:

  •   India will have to play a more prominent role on two fronts: to continue to build India-Sri Lanka economic linkages, particularly when the stark realities of economic downturn hit Sri Lanka hard in the near term, and to help resolve the Tamil-Sinhala ethnic divide.
  •   Despite his strong leadership style, President Rajapaksa needs continued Indian economic and diplomatic support. He would probably take action to further improve political, economic, trade and strategic ties with India at politically opportune moments of his choosing.
  •   He responds to only assertive action. So while being friendly, India will have to be unequivocally firm with him about what it wants.
  •   At the same time, to politically strengthen him, India needs to take measures to remove Sri Lanka’s latent fear of India’s overwhelming influence subsuming its national interests. The revival of support in Tamil Nadu for Tamil separatism should be curbed by New Delhi by political strategies worked out with Tamil Nadu leaders.
  •  Thus India-Sri Lanka relations need a more integrated political-diplomatic-strategic-trade strategy evolved by the national leadership. The resources at the Ministry of External Affairs are totally inadequate to execute such a strategy, even if it is devised. Perhaps creating a special task force with its element in Chennai would be the answer. Then only India can show Sri Lanka that it is serious about strengthening its relationship as an equal partner.

Written on June 18, 2012
 Courtesy: Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, April-June 2012

* The Author is a retired MI specialist on South Asia, with operational experience in Pakistan-India wars in Kutch (1965) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), 1971. He served as Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka (1987–1990). He writes regularly on national security issues, particularly relating to Sri Lanka.

Back to Top