The new Indo-Lanka engagement: Getting the context right

by Rajan Philips

(May 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last Sunday’s editorials and commentaries were pre-occupied with the Joint Statement from Delhi following delegate-level discussions between External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna. As a visiting dignitary, Peiris also had an audience with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and met with Foreign Secretary NirupamaRao and National Security Advisor ShivshankarMenon. No one seems to know what transpired with the Prime Minister, but one commentator picked on Peiris’s clasped-hands posing for the photographs. The Joint Statement, however, drew flak from everyone, Left and Right, some polite, some pungent, and many over-the-top.

It beats me - what else could the minister, an eminent law professor with a weak national brief, have got the Indians to say in the statement? His going alone to Delhi was also criticised; but what difference could a team of officials have made in Delhi? One common thread in almost all the commentaries was that Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore India especially in regard to Sri Lanka’s relationships with the outside world, particularly the western world. The bravado that India should be more circumspect, otherwise Sri Lanka will cultivate India’s competitors, does not cut ice. Simply put, Sri Lanka needs India more than India will ever need Sri Lanka. That is a fact of global life, and there is no need to feel bad about it.

Externally, Sri Lanka needs India to mediate with the West. Quarantining the island from the West is not an option, even temporarily. Internally, Sri Lanka needs India’s mediation to settle the Tamil question. Two years after the war and every form of denial, the Tamil question is still the elephant in the political parlour. The concern in Colombo is that India should not overstep good neighbourly limits in facilitating the resolution of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem. More bluntly, New Delhi should not be ‘wagged’ by political imperatives in Tamil Nadu and alienate the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka needs India, but how can we – as the Sunday Island editorial title aptly put it – help India help us? That is also the question, in the minds of many commentators.

Different music, different dance

Answering this question, I suggest, should begin by getting the context right – the current context in which Colombo and New Delhi are trotting to find their feet and dance to a totally different music. Different, I say, from the regional and global music - of the late 1970s through to 1990s - that was the backdrop to India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan Tamil question. It was the Cold War era, the Soviet Union was entangled in Afghanistan, Pakistan was firmly in the American camp, and India had a 20-year Defence Treaty with the Soviet Union. Indian economy was mostly state-led and stagnant, and its foreign policy, if not anti-West, was markedly not pro-West. The music today is quite different. The Soviet Union has disappeared, it is America that is in Afghanistan, Pakistan is hopelessly dysfunctional, and India for the first and for a seemingly long time to come has emerged into world reckoning as an economic power. Its foreign and regional policies have much in common with the US and the West. The market oriented economic growth and potential have brought India closer to the West.

With regard to Sri Lanka, India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan Tamil question and the cultivation of Tamil militancy during the 1980s was totally independent of the West, if not in defiance of the West. That distancing has shrunk over time, and in the current global and regional context, there is greater similarity in substance between India’s position on the Sri Lankan Tamil question and that of the West. India may not express this in international forums (as in the Geneva vote in 2009), but the Joint Statement was a different opportunity. Its reference to "investigations into allegations of human rights violations" has led to heckles in Colombo as code words for ‘war crimes investigation’. What might be more useful than heckling is to take note of the growing preoccupation with human rights and war crimes that is another aspect of the change in context from what used to go on without protest 30 years ago to the insistence on scrutiny and transparency that is prevalent now.

The R2P (Responsibility to Protect) proposition, the convulsions in the Middle East and trial-and-error in Libya, the fatally successful American operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil, and the handing over, last week, of Ratko Mladic by the Serbian government to the International Criminal Tribunal are indicators of the growing emphasis on the human and democratic rights and freedoms of citizens with attendant accountability of the violators of those rights and freedoms. Privileging people and their rights over the power of the states was also the theme of President Obama’s speech on the Middle East. Although boorishly sidetracked by the Prime Minister of Israel, Obama’s speech sums up the new direction in foreign policy that the young American President and his inspired Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, are trying to give their country in the face of some stiff opposition from the extreme right and well established vested interests.


India’s closeness to the West in this context is also the result of their common exposure to the threats of Islamic fundamentalist organizations. India has been fully supportive of America’s engagement in Afghanistan and is a firm supporter of the Karzai government in Kabul in his fight against the Taliban. And India must be relieved to see the unraveling of the Pakistani Military’s connections with Al-Qaeda and its support of the Taliban against the Karzai government. So, are India’s code words with Sri Lanka a form of quid-pro-quo for America’s campaign against the Al-Qaeda whose offshoots are of concern to India?

In using nuanced code words, rather than throwing Sri Lanka under the bus about which many commentators appear to cavil, India may seem to be appreciating the specific situation of Sri Lanka in the context of the allegations raised by the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. The question has often been raised as to why the Western countries while leading a worldwide campaign against international terrorism are not appreciative the Sri Lankan government’s successful campaign against the LTTE. One answer could be that the LTTE did not pose any international threat. The bigger answer is that there was more to the Tamil question than the LTTE and that the campaign against the LTTE, even if justifiable in many respects, disproportionately affected the larger Tamil community. But these arguments are reversible. Just like the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government poses no international threat. It is also a democratically elected government among the Sinhalese, in contra-distinction to the LTTE’s assertion that it was the sole representative of the Tamils. And the LTTE targeted non-combatant Sinhalese as much as it attacked the Sri Lankan army.

Looking ahead, as the Joint Statement observed "the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka (has) created a historic opportunity to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation imbued with political vision to work towards genuine national reconciliation". Addressing "all outstanding issues" would mean not only "a devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment" as ‘affirmed’ by Minister Peiris, but also the issues ‘urged’ by the External Affairs Minister of India, viz.,"the expeditious implementation of measures by the Government of Sri Lanka, to ensure resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their respective homes, early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families".

Addressing these issues sincerely and systematically is the only way for Sri Lanka to address its external and internal challenges that I noted earlier. Now that the bogeyman of the LTTE is gone, only the government is left to take responsibility and move forward. Realistically, the tasks listed above are not fully achievable in a single year, the entire second term of President Rajapaksa, or even all future terms of Mahinda Rajapaksa. But a beginning has to be made somewhere, and if a proper beginning is not made and built on with persistence and skill, the Rajapaksa presidency will lose its relevance and vitality.

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