Nihal Rodrigo on Sri Lanka’s Relations with India

Nihal Rodrigo as reported in the Nation, 5 June 2011

Sri Lanka has emerged from a complex and violent conflict situation in whichIndia, our nearest neighbour, came to be involved as well.India’s own political and economic “neighbourhood” extends well beyond its immediate geographic national boundaries. The South Asian neighbourhood and indeed the wider global environment continue to undergo radical changes. Change is one of the few constant factors in history. Global developments over the last half century illustrated that neither rigid devotion to a particular political doctrine of governance, nor to a system of economic order can endure. TheUnionof the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) has broken out into many divergent independent states. In India’s immediate neighbourhood,China, the largestCommunistRepublicin the world has moved away from rigid Communist dogma and state control to emerge as the second largest economy in the world in record time. Sino-Indian relations have acquired new dimensions which impact in our neighbourhood and beyond, globally as well.

The United States National Intelligence Council (USNIC) in its last quadrennial Report (2008) predicted that the world was moving into “a period of historic change, involving a geographical transfer of global wealth and economic power … roughly from West to East”. I have chosen, including in previous presentations, to describe the emerging situation as the New World Symphony.

Despite some lingering residual border disputes, Indiaand her neighbour Chinahave in 2008 adopted a document described as their “Shared Vision for the 21st Century” which provides the score, or elements for “a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity”. Overall harmony in political and other aspects, rather than confrontational cacophony is the prevailing theme. Indiaand Chinaare cast as joint conductors, if not composers, playing in harmony with all their neighbours, including Sri Lankaand SAARC countries, and states beyond their immediate neighbourhood. In their document, Indiaand Chinarecognise “a significant historical responsibility to ensure comprehensive, balanced and sustainable social development in Asiaand the world as a whole”. Significantly, the Shared Vision respects “the right of each country to choose its own path of social, economic and political development” and declares quite sensibly that “drawing lines on the grounds of ideologies and values, or on geographical criteria, is not conducive to peaceful and harmonious co-existence”.
Way back in the middle of the last century, in preparation for the 1955 Bandung Conference, Sri Lanka’s S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (later to be Prime Minister), hoped that the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi would lead to “something much greater… a Federation of free and equal Asian States, working not merely for our own advantage, but for the progress and peace of all mankind”.

Sri Lanka’s history and heritage, stretches bacak many thousands of years into the past and has benefitted from many close encounters of the most profound enduring kind with India, its closest neighbour. This year, Indiaand Sri Lankacommemorate the 2600th Year of the Enlightenment of Gautama Buddha as well as 2300 years since the visit of Arahat Mahinda, son of Indian Emperor Asoka and the introduction of Buddhism to the island.
To fast-forward to the British colonial period, centuries later, thousands of indentured labourers fromSouth India, mainly from Tamil Nadu, were brought into the island to work under tough conditions on extensive corporate tea plantations. After Indian and Sri Lankan independence, their presence in the island became an Indo-Lanka bilateral issue of some concern. However, following agreements, including that signed in 1964 between the two neighbouring Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the issues were defused although some relating to refugees and migrant caseloads remain and are being still addressed. Descendants of the migrants have, over the years, formed political parties which had also been active inSri Lanka’s independence movement and now continue in Parliamentary activities.

With the increasing affirmative use of the Sinhalese language (which, compared to colonial times, when English acquired priority and prominence, had received administrative neglect), issues relating to the status of the Tamil language have caused political disturbances at various times. In its extreme form, this led even to separatist tendencies in the country eventually entanglingIndiaas well. In 1976, during the 5th Summit of the Non-aligned Movement which Sri Lanka chaired and hosted, handbills urging a separate state for Tamils were found to have been surreptitiously circulated to participating foreign delegates, by a group calling itself “Liberation Tamil Tigers”. This had no major impact at the time.

However, in the build-up to the General Elections of 1977, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), a registered political party still very active, in its manifesto, then sought “the mandate of the Tamil nation to establish an independent, sovereign, secular socialist state” to include “all geographically contiguous areas that have been the traditional homelands of the Tamil-speaking people in this country…. in the pattern of the Federalism obtaining in Switzerland”. On the other hand, the fledgling Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expressed its decidedly separatist “fundamental objectives” – “the total independence of Tamil Eelam and… the establishment of a sovereign socialist democratic People’s Government”.

In the elections of 1977, the TULF secured the second highest number of Parliamentary seats enabling its Head to become the Leader of the Opposition. The LTTE, then conscious of its numerical weakness, had decided not to contest elections and instead increased its terrorist activities spawning ethnic violence. In July of 1983, the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by the LTIE led to massive retaliatory attacks, politically worked out, rather than spontaneously, on even innocent Tamil citizens and business establishments.
The pogrom was a devil-send to the LTTE internationally from which it benefitted. India deeply sullied its relations with Sri Lanka when it extended military training to LTTE cadres on Indian soil.
India sponsored talks between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government in Thimpu, Bhutan in July 1985 which did not bring much relief.
Subsequently, following negotiations withSri Lanka,India took steps against the LTTE and dispatched the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) toSri Lanka under the terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 29th 1987 which also included some controversial clauses touching on sensitive constitutional devolution aspects as well.

LTTE operatives in Indiaeventually assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 for his cooperation with Sri Lankatwo months after they assassinated Sri Lanka’s Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne.
Sri Lanka’s President Ranasinghe Premadasa was also assassinated by the LTTE during a May Day rally in 1993. Several other Sri Lankan Ministers, defence officials and political figures were victims of LTTE suicide bombers and assassins. The LTTE brutally killed thousands of innocent civilians of all ethnic groups including Buddhist monks in temples and Muslims in mosques. Muslims in tens of thousands were ethnically thrown out with hardly any notice from LTTE-controlled areas.
Attempts were made in good faith, to negotiate with the LTTE in a series of elaborate peace talks with the LTTE, under successive Sri Lankan Governments, sponsored byNorway in different capitals around the world, commencing in 2002. The process was formally supported by theUnited States, the European Union andJapan as co-Chairs.India avoided involvement but was kept briefed bySri Lanka at all stages. The negotiations faltered whenever the LTTE sensed any danger to their ethno-centric separate state concept and eventually failed.

By May-June 2009, with help from Sri Lanka’s neighbours, particularly Pakistanand Indiaand distant neighbour China, Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE which had sought refuge under cruel, cowardly cover of tens of thousands of forced human shields.
Sri Lanka is currently engaged in a post-conflict process of national recovery which includes six main aspects in which Indian cooperation has also been an asset.

1. Healing the deep wounds of war: This concerns re-building confidence among all Sri Lankans after the ethno-centric divisive policies of the LTTE have been defeated. Confidence among all the Sri Lankan communities need to be rebuilt. This involves rapid tracing and accounting for persons gone missing, perhaps even dead, during the conflict and re-uniting families separated by LTTE actions. It also includes a sensitive programme of converting and rehabilitating, where feasible, LTTE cadres many of whom had been forcibly conscripted, at a tender age, by the LTTE into their forces. UNICEF estimated that about 6,000 children had been so dragged into violence. Rehabilitation Centres are now providing livelihood training or basic education for them. Over 3,000 former LTTE cadres of an estimated 8,000 have been rehabilitated, according to Government statistics.

2. Re-settling communities expelled at very short notice from their homes by the LTTE: Ethnic “c1eansing” of communities, including a significant number of Muslims, was part of LTTE policy. De¬mining areas to expedite secure resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in a secure environment is an immediate priority. Of the estimated 300,000 IDPs almost 90% have been resettled, or have chosen to remain in the camps a little longer. Indian assistance in this task, particularly in extensive provision of housing, health services and power generation has been a major asset.

3. Political and administrative arrangements to accommodate all communities confidently in an undivided Sri Lanka: This is a complex constitutional issue with a long and turbulent history which is receiving attention at several levels including in Parliament, among leaders ‘of political parties with negotiations proceeding among them, among civil society groups and religious leaders often with involvement by the President himself.

4. Inclusive economic development of all regions, particularly in areas which had been dominated by the LTTE: In the Eastern Province, which was liberated from the LTTE, many changes have taken place. Its current Chief Minister is a former LTTE militant who wised up early to his former leader Prabhakaran’s policies and is now working on developing the Province’s economic potential. In theNorthern Province, its potential is being developed with care being taken to provide in situ livelihood security to its inhabitants, while at the same time, carefully avoiding intrusive economic domination from outside the area.

5. Establishing island-wide infrastructure and connectivity to break the isolation which the LTTE imposed in areas controlled by it: Roads and railways are being restored and ferry linkages betweenIndiaandSri Lankaare also being developed for greater connectivity.

6. Dealing with the LTTE’s lingering loathsome linkages with global underworld criminal cartels involved in people smuggling, illegal arms sales, drug trafficking, fraudulent financial activities: These are of common concern toSri Lanka,Indiaand the Indian Ocean community as well as to countries such asCanada,Australia,Britainbeyond our neighbourhood. Cooperation between the Navies of India andSri Lankais being developed to deal with these complex issues.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a state visit toIndiain June last year and the recovery process inSri Lankawas discussed in all its human, economic, political and international aspects. Indian assistance in the process of resettling almost 300,000 civilians affected by the conflict has been a major factor inSri Lanka’s recovery.Indiais proceeding with its engagement for the reconstruction of the conflict-affected areas, providing concessionary financial help amounting to over US $ 1 billion. There is also expertise, material and technical assistance in de-mining activities; provision of housing and medi-care; construction and repair of road and rail infrastructure; and power-generation.Indiahas established a Consulate in the North to help coordinate the process in situ.

Exchanges of visits between the two neighbours including the respective Foreign Ministers, Foreign Secretaries, Defence Secretaries as well as Chiefs of Defence Forces have helped move the Indo-Lanka relations forward although there are some controversial issues which need to be settled as well.
Professor S. D. Muni, currently with the National University of Singapore, has written of the “pangs of proximity” between India and Sri Lanka, which could be seen as including the common, sometimes divisive national factors such as multi-Party politics, coalition governance and sensitive centre-periphery trigger mirror-images and hostile perceptions on the other side. There is no inevitability of conflict withChina. We believe there is enough space in this region for bothChina andIndia to be ascendant as we were in past history for an extended period of time”.Sri Lanka has permittedIndia to open a Consulate in Hambantota which would facilitate its marine connectivity.

Apart from the larger global security paradigm in the Indian Ocean maritime area, some sensitive bilateral concerns between Indiaand Sri Lankahave also arisen. Indian fishermen encroach into Sri Lankan waters damaging aquatic resources through deep trawling and affecting the livelihood security of local fishing communities. In the midst of this, the deaths of some Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters recently led to allegations that they were killed by Sri Lankan naval personnel.
Similar allegations made in July 2008 led to an official investigation team which I coordinated to eventually provide clear evidence, which India accepted, that the Sri Lanka Navy was not involved in the killings. An agreement reached thereafter, in October 2008, on better, more organized and monitored fishing arrangements, according to Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna, had been effective, leading to a drop in the number of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters, from a total of 1,456 apprehensions by Sri Lankan monitors in 2008, to only 127 in 2009. With regard to the more recent deaths of the Indian fishermen, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao visitedSri Lanka in January this year to discuss the incident. It was agreed that the Indo-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on Fisheries would discuss the matter in March 2011 and that the respective Fishermen’s Associations of the two countries would also meet.

In October last year, I was a member of a Sri Lankan delegation that visited New Delhi to promote an India-Sri Lanka Dialogue. The delegation was led by Senior Minister Sarath Amunugama and included a leading member of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa (son of Ranasinghe Premadasa former Sri Lanka President) other Members of Parliament, corporate personalities, economists, and members of the Sri Lankan fisheries community. The delegation had wide ranging discussions with the Indian Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary and others. An Indian delegation with a similar wide composition is expected to visit Sri Lanka to carry the Dialogue further.

 ***  A presentation made by Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, former Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary and Secretary-General SAARC at the Conference on the Dynamics of Political Change in India’s Neighborhood held from 9-11 March 2011 in Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies

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