By Balbir Punj
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has made many overtures to China by ignoring Indian bids for projects in the island country and awarding them to Chinese firms. He is playing China against India
The sentencing of five Indian fishermen in Sri Lanka to death for alleged drug-smuggling across the waters that separate the two countries, would have been seen as a purely judicial process in normal circumstances. Nothing has been so normal with reference to Sri Lanka in the last five years, especially after the Sri Lankan Army crushed the Tamil Tiger rebellion with a heavy hand, creating concern across the world on the violation of human rights of the minority Tamils in that country. This concern was the highlight of the UN Human Rights Council vote last year on the US-backed resolution on events in Sri Lanka in the context of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and subsequent Army mayhem in the Tamil areas of the island country’s north-east. Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa got his own Army chief Sarath Fonseka involved in a scandal and then jailed him effectively eliminating a rival to his power play.
Gen Fonseka was contemplating challenging the President at the general election subsequent to the crushing of the LTTE resistance. A number of journalists have been incarcerated or their newspapers banned for being critical of the ruling party, and especially of the President. The Buddhist extremists are blocking any move towards real autonomy for the Tamil areas that President Rajapaksa promised in his discussions with Indian Government leaders in the aftermath of end of the rebellion. Many observers have felt that the post-rebellion series of events including the general election there have steadily taken the country on the path of a power-addicted President. It is not without reason, therefore, that New Delhi has viewed the sentencing of the Indian fishermen with suspicion. Surely, the President wants to play to the gallery in his country.
Relevant in this context is the fact that the Sri Lankan Constitution envisages equal status to both Sinhala and Tamil-speaking people and says the Government should be carried out in a bilingual mode — that is, in both the languages.
The current wave of anti-Tamil politics in the island country has blocked the implementation of the Constitution amendments that President Rajapaksa promised, to give the Tamils real autonomy in the Jaffna-centered northern and eastern regions.
But it is also true that the LTTE, though its series of murder and mayhem, had destroyed the middle ground of Tamil politicians and alienated good parts of the middle ground of the Sinhala counterparts as well.
This has affected India-Sri Lanka relations, with New Delhi having to contend with the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu who compete with extremist stands on issues of Sri Lanka that affect the Tamil populations there. Meanwhile Colombo dithers over creating a political climate where the two groups could work out a co-partnership after the decades of mutual killings and targeted violence.
New Delhi has sought to earn goodwill in Colombo all along, curbing the growing demand in Tamil Nadu for an extremist stand against the Sri Lankan Government. The last UPA Government abstained from a vote in the UN Human Rights Council on investigating human rights violations in the island country, despite the high-pitched demand from the two leading parties of Tamil Nadu to insist on an international investigation into the atrocities.
The Narendra Modi Government took one more step towards harmony by inviting President Rajapaksa to the swearing in of the new regime in New Delhi in May. That invitation deliberately ignored the demand of the Tamil parties here to keep Colombo out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation group invited to the function, to underline India’s opposition to what was happening in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, despite Mr Modi’s gesture, Sri Lanka has been trying to deliberately provoke India by various dubious means.
The strategy of the Rajapaksa Government seems to be to play China against India in an apparent bid to keep New Delhi out of asserting pressure on Colombo to implement the full autonomy to the Tamils that the Sri Lankan ruling party has promised.
This is despite the fact that the UPA Government had not intervened when the Sri Lankan Army had in 2009 acted ruthlessly to eliminate the separatist violence in the Northern Province. The cry in Tamil Nadu to stay the hands of the Rajapaksa regime even as it was killing a large number of civilian Tamils in the Army action, was ignored by the UPA Government for the quite good reason of advancing India’s larger interests in the region.
In any case, the LTTE was hardly considerate towards Indian opinion, with its conspiracy to kill Rajiv Gandhi and target several other Indian politicians. The LTTE had little sympathy from India after the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Successive Governments in New Delhi since 1991 have invariably gone out of the way to be sensitive to the requirements of Colombo to end the menace of armed violence by the Tamil group, even though pro-Tamil parties such as the DMK had been part of both the first NDA and the two UPA Union Governments. For India, good relations with Sri Lanka are of critical importance as the Chinese are increasingly wandering into the southern Indian Ocean with their aggressive expansion of Beijing’s naval strength. Last February, China launched a two-month long naval presence with surface and submarine ships, under the pretext of friendly naval exercises, in the region.
Subsequently, China has obtained Sri Lankan permission for repeated naval visits to its ports for “refueling and refurnishing of its ships and relaxation of the crew”. In the context of China’s belligerent intentions in South China Sea and its growing presence in the Indian Ocean, these moves cannot be seen as normal naval sailings. Besides, China has been hinting at its interest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are vital for India for the defence of the eastern coast. Geographically, Sri Lanka reduces the distance between these islands and the mainland coast China is also building up the Gwadar port in Pakistan and port facilities in Sri Lanka as well.
President Rajapaksa has made many overtures to China by ignoring Indian bids for projects in the island country and awarding them to Chinese firms. By all accounts, again, he is playing China against India. For India, the message of the story is that it must speed up its naval expansion and strengthen it further. That alone will keep the balance in its favour.