Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Current Trends in India’s relations with Sri Lanka Text of a Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP At the Conference on Cooperative Development, Peace and Security in South Asia Held at the Kathmandu, Nepal February 15th 2014

( Created date: 16-Feb-2014 )

Relations between India and Sri Lanka stand today at a crossroads. There is a perception in India that Sri Lanka has not lived up to its commitments with regard to devolution, while in Sri Lanka there is a feeling that India will work together with the United States to support a resolution critical of Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March this year. 


Unfortunately there is much truth in both these perceptions. Having committed to implementing the 13th Amendment, and indeed suggested that it could go further, Sri Lanka has done too little in this regard, and what it has done, it has done too late, as with the holding of Provincial Council elections to the Northern Province. Conversely India voted for a resolution the United States brought against us in 2012, though after much agonizing; in 2013 it voted against us on a stronger resolution with no hesitation, and all indications are that this year it will end up going along with a resolution that will seem to sanction international, for which read Western, interference in Sri Lanka.


This is in marked contrast with 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.


But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.


Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.


The first reason is myopia. Major decision makers in government, or rather the only decision maker in this regard, the Minister of Economic Development, believed that material development would ensure integration of conflict affected areas in the national economy and hence promote reconciliation. He was wrong, and it is a pity that he does not understand the need for consultation of potential beneficiaries as well as professionals when planning benefits for some sectors. But in mitigation it should be said that the strategy had worked to a great extent in the East, and he did not have established institutions to which to turn when making plans for the North. The absence of think tanks in Sri Lanka, the abolishing of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, as well as the Ministry of Human Rights, left a vacuum which sheer energy cannot fill. 


India has always tried to adopt a government to government strategy in its relations with other countries, and in particular with regard to aid programmes, but in the current context this is a mistake. In implementing aid programmes only in consultation with the Ministry of Economic Development, it failed to understand the need for understanding different perspectives, and also to pay due attention to the development of human resources. It should rather have kept up a regular dialogue with thinkers, and in particular thinkers in the Tamil community, but it should not have met them on their own, since this could well have been misinterpreted, given that Sri Lanka is full of suspicions at this stage. 


These suspicions are understandable in a context in which tremendous efforts are being made by the diaspora to revive the separatist agenda. And even though I believe the leadership of the principal Tamil political party is no longer in favour of separatism, given that they had to be when the LTTE was dominant and would have killed them had they not conformed, the fears of elements in the Sri Lankan government that they might be dragooned again into attacks on the Sri Lankanm state should be appreciated by India. India then could have done much to overcome the burgeoning distrust had it worked together with the moderates in the TNA and moderates in government to develop strategies to improve the lot of the Tamil people, while assuaging the suspicions of others.


Others it could have worked with include the Institute of Policy Studies with which I believe it has excellent relations. The IPS had done its best to develop a coherent economic policy for the Sri Lankan government, albeit with limited success, but it should have been supported to conduct awareness programmes of the mutual benefits of bilateral agreements between the two countries. But India could also have worked together with the IPS with its economic expertise and with political thinkers to develop an aid strategy that also concentrated on human resource development, and putting in place consultative mechanisms.This is where institutions like the Indo-Lanka Foundation should be playing a greater role, but it needs modernization and a more coherent agenda. If government cannot move, the Indian High Commission should develop its own think tank. I had suggested this a couple of years back, at a time when several Embassies were assisting with the development of ideas on Reconciliation, but unfortunately the hidebound traditions of Indian diplomacy, either totally working with government or else working on a confidential basis with select individuals, prevented the systemic interventions that were desirable. 


The second reason for the failure of the reconciliation process is diffidence. While I believe Sri Lanka should have moved quickly on the actions it had promised in the joint communiqué signed by the President and the Secretary General of the United Nations, there was from the beginning a fear of unfair persecution. Given the lack of professionalism, and understanding of the international psyche, in the agencies which should have dealt with charges, namely the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, there were blanket denials, whereas we should have worked closely with those international agencies that work to a professional rather than a political agenda.


I realized what was happening when I was rebuked by the then Attorney General for having given an estimate of the number of civilian casualties, in an interview in the middle of 2009. He informed me that the Secretary of Defence was angry with me, and asked why I had said what I did. My answer was that it was true, which threw him for a minute, but his response was significant. He told me that people would take advantage of what I had said, and I realized then that, given the paucity of people able to put forward a consistent and credible position, even someone as sophisticated as a senior lawyer thought blanket denial the best defence.


This I think explains the failure to deal with the few aberrations in the course of a war that by and large we fought more decently than any of the other exercises against terror now privileged by the powerful. I think that some decision makers in government are convinced that, if we move, we will be pushed further. And while I think this is wrong, and we owe it to our own people to fulfil our commitments and in particular the recommendations of our own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to look into any allegations that seem prima facie credible, I can see why there is diffidence. The manner in which the United States responded to the LLRC report, which all other interlocutors were positive about, suggested that they were determined to go further. 


In this regard I believe India had a significant role to play, though perhaps that is more difficult now. There should have been confidence building to make it clear that fulfilling the LLRC recommendations was all that was needed, and there would be strong support provided against any further demands. I believe some such understanding early in 2012 would have prevented the debacle that occurred in Geneva in March.


That debacle was due to our not having done anything significant after the LLRC report was published, and that lack of action was inexcusable. Trying to understand it, I realized it related to the third problem we face, which is that many of those around the President are not concerned with his interests, let alone those of the country, but rather pursue their own ambitions. These are tied to others with influence, rather in the manner of the old Roman clientela, and therefore the wishes of the President become secondary. Thus those tasked with producing an Action Plan did nothing, just as nothing significant was done with regard to the LLRC interim recommendations. Some measures I should note were taken, but those in charge did not think it necessary to report on these and consult more widely on the best way forward, because they were keen to safeguard their own absolute authority. 


This is where I believe India should have worked more consistently with the Secretary to the President under whom these mechanisms were meant to function. Though he has not been as effective in recent years as when he was part of the team that worked together with India during the conflict period, he clearly has no agenda of his own, except support for the President. It would therefore  have made sense to have supported areas under his purview and enabled him to function more effectively. This can be done even now with regard to the Task Force on implementing the LLRC, and through confidence building the Secretary could be encouraged to ensure that that Task Force works through a distinct Ministry, without its personnel being hampered as now by a lack of clear authority.


While this would help I should however note that the fourth reason for government failure may still prove too strong, unless firmly countered. This is what I can only describe as fear of the Sarath Fonseka phenomenon. Once the government decided, in 2009, that it had to compete for the hardline vote, it cut itself off from dealing firmly with abuse. The decision to react to allegations Fonseka made by calling him a traitor, rather than a liar, suggested that there was something to hide. Worse, it made it difficult for government to take action against abuses since that would lay it open to charges of treachery. Unfortunately elements in the Ministry of Defence have adopted this mentality wholesale, which explains the critique of the LLRC that has appeared on its website, in a shocking example of how the authority of the President can be undermined. 


This is an approach that can destroy the country, and in particular the military leaders who did so well in the war, and proved so humane afterwards, when there were efforts to keep the displaced in welfare centres for a protracted period. The recent refusal of a visa to one of the most accomplished of our officers, and that by Australia which government is confident is a strong supporter, shows clearly how insensitive we are to realities. 


But at the same time it must be granted that these realities are monstrously unfair. As the Indian government knew well in 2009, it was ironic that countries which had been loudest in alleging war crimes and the complicity of the army commander at the time, saw him as a hero afterwards, when he became the chosen instrument of regime change. That certainly contributed to the neurosis that has oppressed our defence establishment since then, though typically they have reacted in a manner that can only make the neurosis worse. 


Again this is where India can help build confidence, by affirming its support for the Sri Lankan military. But that should be in terms of its military role, and unfortunately this has been made difficult by the forces seeming to take on civilian functions. Advice as to how such functions should be undertaken through civilian structures, and without a dominant military perspective – which is how former Indian military officers who take on Governorships and similar positions function – would be useful, but accompanied by advice to those critical of the military that they should take advantage of their skills provided they work together with civilian leaders and officials.  


I should note here however that there is a distinct danger that what I have termed the Sarath Fonseka syndrome, the determination to assert a patriotism that is greater than any he can evince, may well get worse in the next few months, given that we are once again entering upon a season of national elections. Already the Sri Lankan establishment seems to have decided that defeat at Geneva is inevitable, but this can be used to electoral advantage. The Foreign Minister for instance, exemplifying his vision of his responsibilities as pertaining to keeping a local clientele happy, has recently been explaining in Hambantota the need for the people to unite behind the government in the light of the threat to our sovereignty represented by moves in Geneva. 


That the Foreign Ministry is gearing up to working to an electoral agenda is apparent from the appointment in January as its Secretary of the official most opposed to India. Kshenuka Seneviratne was caught out, soon after the debacle in Geneva in 2012, in misleading the President with regard to the attitude of an Indian Parliamentary delegation that visited. 


The perception in Sri Lanka is that the attacks on Sri Lanka in Geneva are nothing to do with morality, and indeed this must be clear given the appalling history of war crimes of the two major proponents of resolutions against Sri Lanka. Rather the assumption is that they are keen on regime change, and certainly even some officials in the West have discussed the need for a new leadership since, as was even put to me, the incumbent President may have been an ideal leader for the war, but might not have the skills to consolidate peace.


I do not for a moment believe India shared this view, and indeed it worked together very well with the President, and sought to reassure him about its commitment to Sri Lanka and its government after the vote against us in March 2012. But Kshenuka Seneviratne told the President otherwise, claiming that both the Indian delegation and senior members of his own political party had expressed the view at a dinner hosted by the Indian High Commisioner that the President was the great stumbling block to political progress. This led to the President wanting to cancel the meeting schedule with the delegation, and it was only the persuasions of his Secretary – who also got the Ministers of Economic Development and External Affairs to assure the President that there had been no criticism of him at the dinner held at the Indian High Commissioner’s – that prevented a diplomatic incident. 


Underlying this attack in India are the attitudes that still affect what I might call the dinosaurs of our Foreign Ministry, rather as there were officials in the sixties and seventies who had been so traumatized by the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 that they saw everything through a prism of suspicion of, and hostility to, China. Similarly, many in Sri Lanka were traumatized by Indian interference in Sri Lanka in the eighties. That as we know contributed to terrorism becoming the dominant factor within Sri Lanka, and contributed also to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and celebration of this by elements in India which could contribute in time to destabilization within India too.  


It makes no sense now to engage in retrospective blaming, and India has indeed refrained from this. Sadly, in Sri Lanka there is still residual hostility to India, and what happened in the eighties is regurgitated. Typically, there is no attempt within Sri Lanka to look into the reasons for Indian hostility.


I believe both countries should engage in more thorough analysis of what happened in the eighties, since it will help both of us avoid the problems we will face if hostilities between us increase. Sri Lanka must realize how self-destructive were our efforts to get involved in international rivalries instead of sticking to the traditional Non-Aligned Foreign Policy, with close links to India, that had held us in good stead previously. We must also understand realpolitik, and that no country will allow its relationship with India to deteriorate because of us, a factor that became crystal clear in the eighties when, despite Western hostility to India, there was no question of support for Sri Lanka in the face of Indian intervention in our internal affairs.


But conversely, India too must recognize the dangers of accepting an international dispensation based on oppositioning. For India to base its approach to Sri Lanka on propaganda emanating from the West would be tragic, since that is precisely the trap Sri Lanka fell into in the eighties, when politicians enamoured of the economic strength of the West belittled India. India must appreciate that its own strengths, if properly developed, entitle it to a central position in international relations, not simply that of an ally to others, whose services will be dispensed with when no longer necessary. For that purpose, it must ensure solid support from the region which it dominates geographically, and which it should indeed dominate, but through soft power that is appreciative of the concerns of other countries. That will promote the regional stability that is needed if India, and the countries around it, are to develop equitably.


Let me reiterate then that it was a mistake for Sri Lanka to have followed Western attitudes and seen India as the enemy as a result of Cold War rivalries. When we emerged from the economically disastrous state socialist dispensation of the sixties and seventies, we swallowed wholesale the idea of two oppositional ideologies, and looked on India as totally in the wrong camp. This led even to military adventurism, with agreements with the United States and its allies which India saw as a threat. 


I can understand India’s reaction, especially in a context in which it saw Western funding going – if not direct and deliberately – to terrorists within India, through the massive resources ploughed into Pakistan to deal with the Afghan problem. But I believe India was wrong to support terrorists in Sri Lanka, and I hope that is also now granted by India. Similarly, it would be counter-productive for India now to support Western aggression against Sri Lanka through support for a resolution that will hearten those elements seeking to divide the country up. Given that the West is not above encouraging what your Foreign Minister called the federalization of Foreign Policy to achieve this end, India must recognize that there will be no restraints on such independent initiatives once the West finds that it can get its agenda fulfilled by individual elements within India. That is a danger that neither India nor the sub-continent can afford. 


In this context it is worth noting that the elements in our Foreign Ministry that are hostile to India are positive about the West, as was the case in the eighties when the Jayawardene government took on the role of Cold Warrior. Thus, even in 2012, there were efforts to present India as the main reason for our defeat – which perhaps was the case, since Indian support might have led other countries to refrain from jumping on the Western bandwagon. But given that the resolution had been crafted elsewhere, some of the attacks on India in the Sri Lankan press afterwards were patently absurd – unless one sees them as a strategy to deflect attention from what should have been our priorities, and suggest, as one article did, that we would be safe for the future if we worked together with the West. This was presented as our traditional foreign policy, which is nonsense since it was an aberration under Jayawardene’s Presidency, in contrast with our traditional policy of Non-Alignment, which had involved strong ties with India.


In the context of elections however the perception is that bashing of India will be popular, whereas the same is not true of criticism of the West. I fear therefore that, unless swift action is taken to build bridges, and to ensure close ties with leading members of the government who do not share what I have described as the view of the dinosaurs of the Foreign Ministry, relations might deteriorate because of pronouncements made for electoral reasons. And while this would be regrettable, in a context in which so many countries make foreign policy for electoral reasons – as David Miliband confessed to Wikileaks, and as we are told must be understood given current electoral realities in India – it will not be surprising if in Sri Lanka too problems arise because of what politicians will do to win elections.

Given the possible dangers of electoral propaganda in the next few months in both our countries, it is important for our leaders to work together to swiftly iron out remaining problems as best possible. This is particularly vital with regard to the fifth and perhaps most important reason for government failure to move on reconciliation, namely its incapacity to work positively with moderate Tamil forces.


There are many reasons for this last, most obviously as I noted previously the pervasive distrust engendered by thirty years of conflict in which Tamil politicians were often in thrall to the LTTE. This has however to be understood in context, and we must learn to work together with those who from our point of view behaved badly because they were under threat. We have however failed to do this, and have spent more time attacking moderates, in the belief that their final goals are separatist, without trying to win them over.


I should add that they have to some extent contributed to this, by flirting with the Sarath Fonseka candidacy, by continuing to talk in terms of a merger (which suggests commitment to the concept of a homeland rather than devolution for greater responsiveness to the needs of the people) and also by following the American lead (as with Sarath Fonseka) in criticizing the LLRC and thus creating the impression that they too wanted blood.


This is where I believe India should have made greater use of its influence. After all, allowing Tamil political parties to emerge that have a greater commitment to Western nations rather than the sub-continent itself would be a greater disaster for India than for anyone else. At present they still see India as their patron, and India must make use of this to establish the parameters within which they should work. This can involve Indian commitment to greater decision making powers with regard to areas that do not affect national security, as well as concerted action to promote economic empowerment. Sri Lanka should not resent this, and indeed there was no resentment in 2009 when India made clear its concerns about the Tamil people whilst supporting us to eradicate terrorism.


That understanding needs to be restored, and we have to work together to prevent international interference since, however benight it might seem temporarily, we can never be sure that different rivalries will not rear their heads and change its character. The future of South Asia requires a strong and prosperous India, with positive relations with all its neighbours, and to sacrifice this for temporary gains would be a disaster all round.


I am not one of those who advocates continuing patience when there is no sign of movement. But I believe a clear message of support for Sri Lanka and the work of its armed forces during the conflict is essential, albeit combined with stronger mechanisms for providing advice and assistance that leads to greater cooperation between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil populations that suffered so much in the last few decades. We do not want the seeds of further conflict to be sown, either in Sri Lanka or in India, which means we need to work together urgently to ensure reconciliation and both dignity and prosperity for all our people. 




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