M. D. Nalapat, Courtesy of Gateway House, 30 December 2010
The Western and Indian response to Sri Lankan aspirations has sent the island nation into the arms of China and Pakistan. But Colombo’s trust must be won. For Sri Lanka is vital to India’s security and the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.
That old habits die hard is clear from the way in which the functionaries of the European Union seek to influence the developing economies on the best way to manage their nations. And woe betide those leaders from the former colonies who explain that their knowledge of local conditions may be a tad better than the EU officials jetting in from Paris, London, Berlin and other exquisite capitals to advise the locals. If Chechnya or Kashmir did not follow the Kosovo and East Timorese path of breaking away from their parent countries, then it was the good luck of Russia and India, both countries with leaders receptive to advice from afar. Indeed, India has the distinction of asking the British Viceroy to tarry a while longer in 1947 after its independence and partition of Pakistan, so terrified were the new rulers of the country to exercise their responsibilities sans the guidance of the colonial hand.
If India has had about a century and a half of unbridled European colonisation, Sri Lanka has had nearly five centuries. Small wonder that its leadership, of whichever political hue, obeyed the dictums of even junior officials from Europe and the US.
That ended when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President of Sri Lanka in 2005. Within a year, he had shed the cocoon of subservience that had been the characteristic of his predecessors, going so far as to challenge even India, the country that ” Sri Lankans love to hate, and hate to love”
Rajapaksa’s most egregious crime of lese majeste has been his refusal to heed the many and ever-shriller EU, US and Indian demands for an immediate ceasefire in early 2009. Then, the Sri Lankan army was on the cusp of overrunning the last sliver of territory controlled by the LTTE, an organisation whose backers have significant influence not merely in Chennai, but even more so in Brussels.
Once the liquidation of the LTTE demonstrated that Rajapaksa would ignore the commands from Washington and Brussels, the imposition of punitive sanctions on Colombo began – the latest being the EU withdrawal of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences for Sri Lankan textiles. This is seriously damaging: next to tourism and remittances, textiles is the largest earner for the Sri Lankan economy. Efforts are on to declare President Rajapaksa, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and others in the new team as “war criminals” and seek their extradition and prosecution at the International Court of Justice – an institution not only headquartered within the EU, but largely controlled by that alliance.
This has put Sri Lanka on the road to becoming another Myanmar, a country to be subjected by the US, the EU and its developed country allies to isolation and sanctions, all in the name of human rights and democracy.
And as in the case of Myanmar, the major beneficiary of such a boycott will be China, which has today displaced India as the country of consequence in Sri Lanka.
How did India stray so far from this neighbor? The distancing of Colombo from Delhi began in 1998-1999, when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee brushed aside requests from Colombo for emergency military assistance. The LTTE had inflicted a series of defeats on a demoralised Sri Lankan army, which was running out of ammunition and weapons such as mortars.
Within India, foreign policy towards Sri Lanka has almost always been set not by Delhi but by Chennai. With the DMK as a partner in the BJP-led coalition, it became evident that no such assistance to Colombo would be forthcoming. After all, the DMK had even organised rallies to decry the returning IPKF forces from Sri Lanka in 1990, and had made no secret of its affinity towards the LTTE’s demand for a separate “Tamil Eelam” carved out of the east and north of Sri Lanka.
When it became clear that India would refuse assistance because of its own political compulsions, the “friendly Chinese embassy in Colombo” suggested that Pakistan be approached to provide military help. It was, and within days a flood of equipment poured into Sri Lanka – a move that proved decisive in holding back the LTTE. Soon, China directly joined Pakistan in providing military help – all this while Vajpayee looked on, and the alliance with the DMK continued.
Years later, history repeated itself. Since the 2004 elections, the DMK has been a partner of the Congress Party, and was therefore, once again, able to ensure that no help was forthcoming from Delhi in President Rajapaksa’s 2006-2009 war against the LTTE. Once again, Pakistan made up for India’s refusal to help, joining its Chinese ally in pumping in weapons into Sri Lanka.
In 2009, when the parliamentary polls in India were announced, the Manmohan Singh government demanded that President Rajapaksa halt the military offensive against the LTTE. This “request” became insistent just a week befoire the capture and killing of LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, when a team of officials from Delhi was sent to Colombo to attempt a forced ceasefire that would allow LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran and his organisation to escape annihilation.
As he had done with similar requests from the EU, Rajapaksa ignored the Indian advice, calling off the campaign only after the destruction of the LTTE and the killing of Prabhakaran and his close associates. He threw a fig leaf in the direction of Delhi, halting the use of mortars and heavy artillery two days before Prabhakaran was killed on May 19, 2009.
Since then, it has been the China-Pakistan duo that have become the partners of choice for Sri Lanka – though care is taken to avoid making this too public. The combination of India’s refusal to provide military assistance and the EU’s diplomatic blockade of the Rajapaksa government have had the effect of sending Sri Lanka into the arms of China and Pakistan or risk becoming the next Myanmar of the international community.
Apart from pandering to the Eelam demands of the DMK, another factor that weighed with the Manmohan Singh government is the fact that elements within the EU have long been effective protectors of the LTTE. Led by Norway, the EU enforced a cease-fire in 2002 between then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE. This accord gave the latter control over the north and east of the country, and helped ensure the defeat of Wickremesinghe and his United National Party in the polls three years later.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who came to power in 2005 on the platform of a united Sri Lanka, was unique in that he was the first representative of the rural Sinhala Buddhist social underclass to become President of the country. In its six decades of freedom, Sri Lanka had only one other head of state who was from the lower echelons of society – Ranasinghe Premadasa, also of the UNP. Premadasa was born in urban poverty but was almost as far removed from the chemistry of the rural Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka as were the westernized urban elite who had ruled the country almost without interruption since its independence in 1948.
Unlike Premadasa, who was content to be a figurehead while actual power continued to vest in the upper-class elite that provided his UNP with its leadership, Rajapaksa swiftly began to eliminate such elements from his government. Instead he populated it with those from his own social group,the rural Sinhala Buddhist population that today forms the base of his support. It is not so different from the Indian leaders like Bihar’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and Kumar Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh who rely on caste support. Rajapaksa has also adopted the Bandaranaike family’s penchant of filling up top posts with his close relatives.
In view of his rustic ways – in contrast to the westernized Ranil Wickremasinghe or the equally elite Chandrika Kumaratiunga (Bandaranaike) – Rajapaksa began to be distrusted by the EU’s diplomatic representatives in Colombo. They were far more comfortable with the westernized, upper crust politicians of the opposition UNP and similar elements within the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party than with a grassroots politician like Rajapaksa. That made the EU receptive to the criticism of the new President by members of the old Sinhala elite, who suddenly found themselves marginalized by a group who they contemptuously termed as “country people.” The change in Sri Lanka that followed the election of Rajapaksa in 2005 would be akin to that in India, were the Bahujan Samaj Party, comprising a vote bank of the Dalit (former untouchable) castes, to secure a majority in India’s Parliament and their leader Kumari Mayawati be sworn in as Prime Minister.
The arrival of Mahinda Rajapaksa on the political stage of Sri Lanka held no terrors for LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran,who had confidently seen off several Sri Lankan heads of state (and assassinated at least one, Premadasa). He saw Rajapaksa as less able to rally international support for a united Sri Lanka than rival Ranil Wickremasinghe. Prabhakaran even facilitated Rajapaksa’s 2005 election victory by enforcing a poll boycott in the Tamil areas. The LTTE leader’s weakness was one of his earlier strengths: his incapacity to stop short of the jugular. Although Wickremasinghe had conceded autonomy to him in the north and east of the country, even allowing the LTTE to conduct political campaigns in government-held areas without the government having the right to similarly enter LTTE-held areas, Prabhakaran wanted the Sri Lankan Prime Minister to concede full independence to the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka – impossibility. It was a miscalculation that would cost him his life four years later.
Prabhakaran regarded Mahinda Rajapaksa as being a better bet for securing “Eelam,” a presumption borne out during the first eight months of Rajapaksa’s term, when numerous LTTE attacks went unanswered and the buzz in Colombo was that Rajapaksa was a “weak” head of state
Those who were observing closely, though, knew that Rajapaksa was just stalling to get the real measure of his enemy. Unlike his predecessors, the new President of Sri Lanka personally attended each week’s Security Council meeting, thereby getting an insight into what needed to be done to ensure the defeat of the LTTE. An indication of his mindset was the surprise sacking of his 2005 campaign manager, Mangala Samaraweera, from the Cabinet in end-2006, after a newspaper owned by the politician criticised the Sri Lankan army. In 2002, when Defense Minister Anuradha Ratwatte planned a campaign against the LTTE in their northern redoubt, it was also Samaraweera who insisted in the Chandrika Bandaranaike Cabinet that the push be abandoned.
Under Rajapaksa, a campaign was quietly launched to burnish the reputation of the army, and within a year of taking office, an overall increase of 300,000 in the strength of the Sri Lankan army was approved, of which 50,000 were to be recruited “immediately.” It was then that requests were sent to India for weapons and equipment – and when this was turned down, Pakistan was asked to fill the gap, which Islamabad (and its ally Beijing) did immediately and with zest.
By mid-2007, the eastern provinces were cleared of the LTTE and this time around, the militia was not allowed to return. While army units were sent further north, units of the police, navy and air force ensured that the LTTE cadres were denied entry into the eastern provinces.
Slowly, the encirclement of Prabhakaran was progressing.
At this point, the EU – led by Norway which had built up a close rapport with the LTTE since the 1990s – began demanding that Rajapaksa call off his offensive and agree to peace talks. Till that time, every Sri Lankan government since the J R Jayawardene administration beginning in 1978 had been responsive to “advice” from the US and the EU. Its consequences were manifold – one of them was to set off India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who began arming the LTTE in 1980 as a counter to Jayawardene’s “softness towards the imperialists.” Each time the Sri Lankan army pushed the LTTE into a corner, professional peacemakers stepped in and halted military operations, giving the LTTE time to recover and once again emerge as a deadly force.
This time around, Rajapaksa turned a deaf year to the peaceniks in the EU, India and the US, all of whom were united in asking that he declare a cease-fire. Instead,he publicly assured the armed forces that this time around, he would not stop “until the LTTE was eliminated.”
As is the case in India, especially with reference to Kashmir and now the Maoists, Sri Lanka has numerous “peacemaking” NGOs. Each of these come up with numerous reasons why military force ought not to be resorted to even in cases where there is an armed attack on the unity and integrity of the state. In both countries, these are led by well-meaning idealists from the upper echelons of society. While the Manmohan Singh government has been very receptive to such voices, several times pulling up the armed forces, the Rajapaksa team ignored them, angering the NGOs and their diplomatic backers. Because of the substantial military assistance given by Pakistan and China, the Sri Lankan army was able to destroy the LTTE by May 19, 2009. It brought celebration in Sri Lanka but Western condemnation. Since then, the EU has led in imposing sanctions on Sri Lanka, including most recently the withdrawal of export preferences for Sri Lankan textiles. All this has had the (hopefully unintended)
effect of drawing Colombo ever closer to Beijing.
There is little doubt that the “beautiful people” of Colombo dislike the feisty, rural Rajapaksa. But consider the reality: the President of Sri Lanka is a hero to the 70% of the population that is both rural and Sinhala. They voted him back to power with an overwhelming majority in January 2010, giving him an additional five-year mandate. Now that the war against the LTTE has been won, efforts are ongoing to ensure that the Tamil community be given the opportunity to participate in the political and economic life of the country without discrimination – still a work in progress. With each call from European leaders for a “war crimes” trial of Rajapaksa and his close associates (including his brothers Gotebaya and Basil), the attraction of China becomes ever greater. It is ironic that the EU – and to a lesser extent the US – is pushing away a country that is among the most West-friendly on the globe.
India must understand the desire of the Sri Lankans to be a united country – much the same as India desires to stay united with Kashmir and China to stay united with Tibet. It must also understand that Sri Lanka is too important a country in terms of security and geopolitics, to view only through the single prism of the Tamil issue. It is vital to India’s security, and to the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. For these and other reasons, New Delhi must broad base its relationship with its southern neighbor. Sri Lanka can be a natural ally not only for India but also for the western world. English is spreading in Sir Lanka almost as fast as it is in India. One day, Sri Lanka will be, along with India, part of the 21st century Anglosphere.
MD Nalapat is Director, Department of Geopolitics, Manipal University