Configuring India in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy equation

Sumanasiri Liyanage, in the Island, 30 May 2011

At the end of Minister of External Affairs of the Government of Sri Lanka, Prof. G L Peiris’ visit toIndiafrom 15-17 May, 2011, a joint press statement was issued by the two governments and it has once again raised critical issues that govern India-Sri Lanka relations. Moreover, as it happened on many an occasion, the India-bashers within the government coalition and without have decried the press statement by invoking the grand but blurred notions of national independence and sovereignty. In my opinion, revisiting the issue of India-Sri Lanka relations with special emphasis on post-conflict situation and developing a policy framework taking the geo-political realities and changes are relevant and useful. Let me emphasise at the outset that the basic parameters of the Sri Lankan foreign policy of the present government are basically correct, the need for a substantial degree of finesse in implementation notwithstanding.Sri Lankareversed its anti-Indian foreign policy in 1994 but a clear, explicit and unambiguous definition of it happened after 2005. In an interview with ITN, The Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa outlined the three constitutive elements of the Sri Lankan foreign policy. They are: (1) Sri Lanka as a non-aligned country continues to maintain friendly relations with all the countries irrespective of their political and economic systems; (2) it shifts its foreign policy priorities from conventional Western orientation towards the countries in and around the Indian Ocean; and (3) Sri Lanka respects India’s regional and international concerns and interests and adopts it foreign policy accordingly. The importance of the third constitutive element and the specificity ofIndiain Sri Lankan foreign policy equation were highlighted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa by using a metaphorical distinction between ‘friends’ and ‘relations’.

In post-conflict situation,Indiahas many a time raised its concerns about the need for addressing basic issues that led to the armed conflict and the humanitarian and livelihood issues associated with it. Many promises have been made. The joint press statement reiterated these issues in the following words: “Both sides agreed that the end of armed conflict inSri Lankacreated 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. In this context, the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government’s commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the on-going dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation.” (emphasis added)

The joint statement has also focused on the issue of return, resettlement and integration. It says:

“The Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka reiterated the commitment of his Government to continue to address issues related to resettlement and reconciliation in a focused and progressive manner. In response, The External Affairs Minister of India urged 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.”

Those who criticise the joint press statement, especially those two articles in the statement, have raised the conventional argument thatIndiais trying to interfere and intervene in our domestic affairs. One may interpretIndia’s intention as a part of its strategy of destabilising its neighbours. In spite of the presence of evidence to support such a suspicion and speculation, in my view, it is too simplistic to portrayIndia’s relations with its neighbours sinceIndia’s domestic concerns are directly associated with the policies of its neighbours. For example,Sri Lanka’s Tamil national question is not just an external issue forIndiaas it is very much linked with the domestic politics of Tamil Nadu.Sri Lanka’s continuous contact withIndiaon this issue demonstrates the open or tacit acceptance of issue-linkages. Moreover, if Sri Lanka expects India’s support in facing and countering the campaign of the West over the issues related to the last phase of the armed conflict, it should show to the world that it is in the process of reconciliation which is genuine. Hence, an accommodative state structure that is acceptable to Tamil political parties and Tamil population should be developed sooner than later.Sri Lankahas a rich political discourse on the subject and it can be enriched by drawing from the long experience ofIndiathat is a truly diverse society. The rich experience ofIndiahas proved that power-sharing and devolution of power are not divisive but conducive in achieving unity in a diverse society.

On many visits to India during the last two years, I have found that the government bureaucrats, both in service and retired, academics, media persons and others who are interested in Sri Lanka raising the issue if Sri Lankan delegates are actually genuine in making promises regarding power-sharing arrangements while visiting India. Moreover, they have argued thatIndiahas done everything in international fora to helpSri LankabutSri Lankahas not yet fulfilled its promises as regards devolving power. Although certain degree of manipulation is warranted in international relations, manipulative politics may not be sustainable in the long run especially with the close neighbours. The joint statement is a good point of departure. Nonetheless, the two governments should have prepared a kind of road map with a definite time-frame so that both countries can minimise the internal pressure coming from its own population as well as the pressure onSri Lankaemanating from the Western imperialist countries and the INGOs backed by them. In my view, lifting emergency regulation in toto would not only prove a good confidence-building measure but also demonstrate that democracy is being restored by reversing war time non-democratic imperatives. Since the parametric value that should be assigned toIndiain our foreign policy equation is significantly high, the collaboration withIndiain other areas such as trade, investment etc should also be contributory to economic development in the region.

The writer teaches Political Economy at the University of Peradeniya.

Leave a comment

Filed under historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, world events & processes

Leave a Reply