Asian neighbors, Sri Lanka alone has the unique distinction of being a vibrant and functioning democracy, ever since it became independent in 1948. It also has a significantly higher rate of literacy, and an unblemished record of free and fair elections, together with around three decades of ethnic peace. A long-time historical rivalry, however, prevailed between the majority, Buddhist-dominated Sinhala speaking population, and the Tamils, in the Northern and Eastern parts of the Island.
India got drawn into this rivalry, because of the emotional and other ties that linked Sri Lanka’s Northern Tamils, with Tamils in Tamil Nadu. India made the serious mistake of intervening directly in the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict. Pressures for such intervention were accentuated, by political rivals in Tamil Nadu, backing one or another armed Tamil group, in the neighboring Island. What followed was an ill-advised Indian military intervention, which led to the deaths of around 1,000 Indian soldiers and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE.
The Indian intervention did, however, lead to a political understanding and peace between the Sinhalas and Tamils. The conflict ended only after the decisive and bloody military defeat of the LTTE, by the then government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Tamils have since received a measure of Provincial Autonomy, with Colombo directly intervening primarily on issues having a separatist potential. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, led by the Rajapaksa brothers — Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his younger brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — swept the recent Parliamentary Elections, winning 145 of the 225 Parliamentary seats.
The opposition United National Party (UNP), which ruled Sri Lanka for a number of years after independence in 1948, was virtually wiped out, winning just one seat. This débâcle has been attributed to the “lackluster” leadership of former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe. Sajith Premadasa, the son of the former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who quit the UNP and formed his own party, led an imaginative and aggressive election campaign, winning 54 seats. He has emerged as the Leader of the Opposition.
India has acted skilfully after the ethnic conflict ended, building bridges of cooperation with Sri Lanka while providing massive financial assistance to the Tamil majority population, in the war-torn northern and eastern provinces. The turnout in Tamil majority areas was substantial in the recent elections. A positive development was a significant move by Tamils in the Northern Province voting for Sajith Premadasa’s SLPP, which campaigned on promises of employment and economic development, throughout the country.
India has played a remarkable role in restoring normalcy in the Tamil dominated Northern Province, with massive assistance for their rehabilitation, housing, and development. India has committed $3.2 billion since 1995 for the rehabilitation and relief of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It has built 37,000 houses for the rehabilitation of Tamils in the north and north-east. It has also built medical facilities which have extended treatment to an estimated 53,000 people. It is now focussing on building 10,000 houses for the “Indian Tamils” resident in Southern Sri Lanka. The focus has thus been on housing and infrastructure, which has sought to ensure that the grievances of conflict do not lead to violence. The success of this effort has been reflected by the large Tamil participation in the recent elections.
Close watch needed
Politically, the huge humanitarian assistance provided by India has ensured the return of normalcy and ethnic peace in Sri Lanka. It has resulted in greater participation of Tamils in the national life of the country. The salience of the Tamil issue, in India’s relations with Sri Lanka, is diminishing steadily. But, New Delhi should keep a close watch on ensuring that his trend continues. One cannot also ignore the geopolitical trends in the Indian Ocean Region, arising from China’s growing determination to erode and undermine Indian influence, even as one keeps a watch on internal developments in Sri Lanka.
Like in other South Asian countries, China is following its policies of “strategic containment” of India and erosion of Indian influence, particularly in South Asia, by backing and funding parties it believes are anti-Indian, while using Pakistan as its principle instrument for reinforcing its efforts. This effort has now been widened, by seeking to undermine Indian interests, by destabilizing governments headed by rulers friendly to India, and simultaneously promoting individuals and political parties have given to being anti-Indian.
China will spare no effort to persuade the ruling Rajapaksa family to move in that direction. An important aim of such a Chinese effort will be to retain an exclusively Chinese presence in the Colombo Port, by raising anti-Indian sentiments against any Indian participation in the Colombo Port City Project.
India has a natural interest in having a significant presence in the Colombo Port. The overwhelming share of revenues for the port is generated by goods being transferred to and from Indian ports, including items, which have a bearing on India’s national security. An exclusive Chinese presence in the Port would, therefore, be a matter of serious concern.
India’s involvement in the expansion of the Colombo Port City, together with a Japanese presence to improve the terms of funding, would make sense for Sri Lanka, given the exploitative terms of Chinese funding and “aid”, which led Sri Lanka into a “debt trap”. Taking control of the areas of projects that it undertakes across the world, as it did in Sri Lanka, following the construction of the Hambantota Port, in Southern Sri Lanka, is a Chinese specialty, whether in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia. With SAARC now non-functional, New Delhi would be well advised to activate the BIMSTEC forum, bringing together it’s Eastern SAARC and ASEAN neighbors, to promote economic and security cooperation, across the Bay of Bengal.
As India prepares to expand security cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region through the “Quad”, where it partners the US, Japan, and Australia, the time has come to promote greater cooperation between the members of the “Quad” and Sri Lanka. The US and its allies will have to be persuaded that they should end their counterproductive economic and other sanctions on Sri Lanka, imposed when the conflict with the LTTE, was drawing to an end.
Sri Lanka today needs assistance from the US and its European allies and multilateral organizations like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, to ensure that it does not land itself in another Chinese “debt trap” like it did, thanks to Chinese “assistance,” in the Hambantota Port project.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan