Objections to Indian role a misreading of international politics

By Jehan PereraThe recent meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been hyped as a summit meeting by those who are hopeful of a bipartisan political approach to addressing the multiple crises the country faces. Although the constitutional power vested in the institution of the executive presidency has given President Rajapaksa the appearance of invulnerability, the situation in the country can hardly be described in similar terms. The ongoing war in the north continues to claim lives and displaces thousands of people. Price increases continue to fuel inflation past the 20 percent mark without corresponding growth in incomes. The sudden removal of the director general of the Bribery Commission by the President can hardly reassure the general public about where at least part of the money in the country is going.

The two main issues that the two leaders are reported to have discussed were the 13th and 17 amendments to the constitution. The 13th Amendment recently came to the public limelight on account of it being recommended as an interim solution to the ethnic conflict by the All Parties Representatives Committee appointed by the President. The 13th Amendment, which provided for the devolution of power to elected provincial councils was passed by Parliament in 1987. But it has not been fully implemented in any of the provinces, and not been implemented at all in the two war-affected provinces of the north and east. The 17th Amendment, on the other hand, was passed in 2001, and seeks to ensure the de-politicisation of appointments to key state institutions, including the public service, judiciary and police. It has not been implemented for the past four years leading to an erosion in confidence in good governance in the country.

In these circumstances the vast majority of people in the country would welcome a bipartisan political approach that would ensure good governance and conflict resolution. Virtually all political parties have also expressed their support for such an initiative. The only exception has been the nationalist JVP which is perennially seeking to carve out a revolutionary role for itself even at the cost of conventional logic. They have accused India of being the force behind the possible coming together of the President and Opposition leader, and of having ill intentions in doing so.

With the passing of every day, pressure in mounting on the government to add a viable political package to be a part of its arsenal in the conflict with the LTTE in which the military dimension has been the focus up to now. Virtually every foreign government that has spoken publicly on the issue has urged a political solution that would address the grievances of the Tamil minority in the areas of power sharing, equality and the protection of human rights. Although most of these friendly countries are not seeking sanctions to be imposed on the government, they would all wish that human rights be protected in the midst of civil strife that has polarized the ethnic communities in the country. These international pressures would be weighing heavily on the government especially at a time when its ministers are making a valiant effort to preserve the GSP+ privileges that make Sri Lankan exports competitive in the EU market.

Kosovo challenge

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Kosovo and its swift recognition by several influential Western countries has also generated considerable concern within the country with various conclusions being derived from it. One is that the devolution of power to a group that is set on separation is likely to only enhance their appetite for separation and therefore should not be granted. This appears to be the JVP’s line of thinking. They have emphasized that they are opposed to the devolution of powers on any ethnic or regional basis that would strengthen the forces of separation, as epitomized by the LTTE which, despite recent military and territorial reversals, continues to retain a considerable part of the north of the country under its armed control. Sections of the government and its allies, in particular the JVP, have also been very critical of what they consider to be Western hypocrisy, and have sought to strengthen ties with other countries that have shown less concern about the prevailing problems in the country.

On the other hand, more sophisticated strategists that expressed the need for a more nuanced government strategy towards the concerns of the international community. Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, the head of the Sr Lanka Mission in Geneva has recently written a tightly argued essay in which he has argued for a governmental approach that balances the country’s national security considerations with responsiveness to international concerns. He says, “The problem arises with those who would resort to such strategies of “deterrence” without its concomitant of the “balance of power”. Sri Lanka can leverage its Asian location, balancing off certain powers against Western interventionism, but it cannot balance off the entirety of the outside world, West and East, far away and near, and base itself on a strategy of domestic deterrence, nor can it balance off certain Asian powers against others at the same time that it has to balance off the West!”

He goes on to say, “If Sri Lanka inevitably has to resist on two fronts, internal and external, so be it. However, it cannot resist on the “internal external” and “external external” fronts. In other words, Sri Lanka cannot abandon a policy of balancing some powers against others, in favor of a policy of taking on all comers, far and near! If it is to be argued that in the 1980s Sri Lanka fought cross-border separatist terrorism and eventually retrieved its sovereignty, rolling back a regional intervention, it must be recalled that in the 1980s Sri Lanka was not facing the concerted pressure it is today, from the West…A Hobbesian Sri Lanka, locked in a war of all against all, will be unable to sustain itself. Internal discontent and repression, external isolation and cross-border intervention, will constitute the conditions for Tamil Eelam and its recognition.”

In his essay, Dr Jayatilleka also argues in favour of autonomy, albeit in the framework of a unitary state and refers to the example of Kosovo whose liberation struggle was fanned by the withdrawal of its existing autonomy by President Milosevic. At the present time Indian pressure appears to be the one constant in keeping the devolution debate alive. It is an unfortunate fact that apart from a handful of civil society groups there are few champions of devolution within the polity at this time. In this context the role played by India is a constructive one, as it keeps pushing for the presentation and implementation of genuine devolution based on the 13th Amendment within the existing unitary constitution as a starting point in getting the political process restored in the north and east.

India’s concerns

Regardless of its past positions, which at one point were extremely detrimental to Sri Lanka’s security, and for which it continues to be viewed with circumspection by many Sri Lankans, India remains the strongest guarantor against Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka. This would be on account of India’s concerns about its own unity, especially in the context of continuing separatist rebellions taking place in the Indian north east and Kashmir, and its past experience with separatism in Punjab and Sri Lanka’s neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. The recent developments in Kosovo cannot be considered to be isolated ones, as indeed pointed out by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry in its statement that received wide publicity throughout the world, and suggests the danger to India itself, which is the world’s largest collection of ethnic diversities concentrated in one country.

Students of world history would no doubt recall that ethnic-based nationalism in Europe twice led to wars in the 20th century that had catastrophic consequences not only in Europe but in all parts of the world, which is why they were called world wars. The past century saw Europe consolidate itself into a system of countries through border adjustments that led to most of them having one predominant ethnic community, and relatively small ethnic minorities. The break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have been the most recent manifestations of ethno nationalism and ethnic separatism in Europe that tends to be glossed over by Western critics of ethno nationalism in the rest of the world. It is likely that as India’s own varied ethnic populations become more urban, literate and politically mobilized, the forces of ethnic separatism will also get mobilized, which India will always be on its guard against and reforming itself to prevent.

The objections to Indian intervention in Sri Lanka are based on a misreading of current international politics. India has a vested interest in preserving Sri Lanka’s unity, if only to protect its own. The JVP’s suspicions of Indian intentions in Sri Lanka do have a resonance with the general population on account of the role played by India at the outset of the separatist insurgency. Few in Sri Lanka will easily forget how in the late 1970s and up till the time of the Indo Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, India provided weapons, training and a safe haven to Tamil militants who used these advantages to create a tragic situation that has devoured over three decades of Sri Lanka’s economic developments, let alone the tragedy of lost lives and broken families now spread across the globe. On the other hand, the subsequent efforts by India to address the consequences of its mistaken policy towards Sri Lanka, including the sacrifice of over a thousand Indian lives in the failed peacekeeping operation of 1987-91, need to be given more emphasis today, as this is the present reality.


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