By Dharisha Bastians –
When history is being written one day about this particular chapter of Sri Lanka’s chequered dealings with the international community, historians will discover that the road to Geneva and beyond was littered with promises made and broken by the Rajapaksa Government
The Oxford educated Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, recently lapsed momentarily into literary metaphor in attempting to explain some of the current complexities that govern the bilateral relationship between New Delhi and Colombo.
“What can I say, but to borrow from Eric Segal’s Love Story: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. That is how our relationship is,” the Minister told visiting Sri Lankan journalists in New Delhi, explaining that some friendships forged through the decades and not always in good times, tend to stand up to challenges along the way.
To say that the Indo-Sri Lanka relationship is angst-filled at the moment would be an understatement. The civilisational ties and shared histories of conflict and loss that diplomats are so fond of talking about are tangible factors that add to the palpable sense of betrayal on either side of the Palk Strait.
After years of supporting the Government’s military effort, warding off international pressure while the Rajapaksa administration ploughed through with defeating the LTTE militarily in 2009 and assisting to reverse the 2009 anti-Sri Lankan resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to a congratulatory draft, New Delhi is feeling let down by the promises made and broken by Colombo about delivering on devolution to the island’s Tamil population and angered by increasing belligerence towards India from some sections of the ruling administration. For the Sri Lankan Government, New Delhi’s decision to back the Washington led resolution at the UNHRC in 2012 was the ultimate betrayal that it never saw coming. Since India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva rose to make a case for voting in favour of the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka in March 2012, the Rajapaksa administration turned a corner in its relationship with New Delhi.
Over the past year, the tensions have intensified, with Sri Lanka publicly threatening to alter not just one, but two major areas of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The Government threatened to repeal provisions of the 13th Amendment that set up a system of quasi devolution to the provinces and reclaim a petroleum storage tank complex given to the Indian Oil Company on a long lease. The Indo Lanka Accord includes a clause on India’s first right of refusal on the use of the oil tank facility in Trincomalee, a manoeuvre on New Delhi’s part to ensure the highly strategic area of the Indian Ocean remains within its sphere of influence. On both issues, New Delhi has made it clear it will tighten the screws if its interests are being threatened, prompting the Rajapaksa administration to back off temporarily on the devolution front and conduct the Northern provincial election as promised.
Sri Lanka’s strained relationship with the Western lobby is less marked by the sense of an almost personal betrayal that the deteriorating ties with India commands.
Diplomacy and statecraft maybe arts mired in duplicity and learning to out-manoeuver the other, but they also unfold in a human realm. Emotions such as anger, betrayal and exasperation therefore, while not necessarily professional considerations, remain factors in dealings between the leaders or representatives of two states.
Indian Government officials are smarting over the ease with which President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledges progress on issues of devolution and reconciliation in discussions with senior Indian envoys or diplomats, only to deny the assurances and renege on the promises immediately afterwards. Former Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj and even Indian Premier Manmohan Singh have been on the receiving end of these volte faces by the Sri Lankan head of state. There is therefore palpable disbelief and frustration at the highest levels of the Indian Government, about the inability now to take seriously assurances provided by the Sri Lankan President, authoritative sources revealed. Prime Minister Singh is confronted with similar frustrations in his dealings with Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed, who assured the Indian leader during discussions in May 2012 that his Government would stand by all economic partnerships between Indian and Maldivian firms by his predecessor, only to renege on that assurance later in the year by cancelling the contract of an Indian firm contracted to build the archipelago’s new international airport. “An assurance from a state leader is something that is not usually treated lightly, it is something to place faith in. It’s chaos if what is agreed upon privately is reduced to mere rhetoric to be retracted the next day,” the sources point out, explaining that these considerations contributed to Prime Minister Singh’s decision to skip the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last November. With no guarantees that conditions agreed to in order to coerce Singh to attend CHOGM would be met once the summit concluded, and considering the furore a decision in favour of attendance would make in Tamil Nadu going into an election year, the Congress led Government made a call on the summit, the sources explained. President Rajapaksa and Premier Singh are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC summit in Myanmar next week, but it remains unclear if the meeting will yield different results. The high-handed approach taken by certain senior officials of the Rajapaksa administration, during meetings with Indian officials as senior as Minister Khurshid has also played a role in the break-down of camaraderie between officials of the two Governments, the sources said.
India’s preoccupation with the legacy of the Sri Lankan conflict remains deeply political in nature. Having fought its share of brutal wars in the 20th century, New Delhi may be able to come to terms with a lack of accountability for alleged crimes committed in the fog of war in Sri Lanka more easily than it can deal with the Rajapaksa Government’s adamant refusal to grant the Tamil community a lasting political solution. Foreign policy experts and analysts have argued repeatedly that to change perceptions internationally, Sri Lanka needs only to win over New Delhi. Of the two international challenges before the Rajapaksa Government, accountability for alleged abuses during the war remains the more difficult issue to address from the Government’s perspective, understandably due to the complexities with regard to the chain of command. But it is the regime’s intractability on the issue of delivering on a political solution and its continued demonization of the country’s main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance that is most baffling.
It is no secret that without the pressure of CHOGM, India’s insistence and a note on the commitment to hold the polls by September 2013, the Northern provincial election – which ushered the TNA into office in the north with a thumping majority – may have been delayed indefinitely. Despite promises to no less than UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in May 2009 and later to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the “full implementation” of the 13th Amendment, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has failed to keep its word. Five years after the Tigers were finished, the Government still believes it is too dangerous to devolve land powers to the provinces, to say nothing of police powers – all provisions of the constitution’s 13th Amendment.
Not budging on devolution
The Government continues to ignore recommendations by parliamentary committees that have exhaustively dealt with the issue of power devolution and insists upon the setting up of another, highly polarising committee dominated by ruling party politicians and few moderates to draft another set of recommendations for resolving the ethnic conflict constitutionally. The latest committee remains a non-starter, deliberating at snail’s pace without a single member of the opposition in attendance after both the main opposition UNP and the TNA refused to be part of the process. Direct talks with the TNA also stalled two years ago, and despite pledges from both sides about being willing to resume negotiations, the Government is yet to make an overture. No amount of appeals from India has altered that status quo and the promise of a political solution to buttress the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 remains as elusive as ever.
“As Sri Lanka’s friend, India wants to help. But in order for your friends to help you, you have to help us,” Khurshid appealed to Sri Lankan scribes at the South Block earlier this month, in a clear reference to the need to show progress that Sri Lanka’s allies could showcase internationally in the country’s defence. The plea has been echoed for months by diplomats based in Colombo, but apart from cosmetic measures announced prior to a major international event, like the Commonwealth summit last November, realistically the Government is digging in its heels on its international commitments and obligations.
Convinced that what the international community is really pushing for is regime change in Sri Lanka, the Government is hitting back hard against local diplomatic missions and high ranking UN officials in Colombo and Geneva, just ahead of the opening of the 25th Session of the UNHRC. The Administration’s mistrust of the Western lobby is growing and open hostility to visiting high officials like US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal in early February and the alleged rejection of a visa to US Ambassador on global gender issues, Catherine Russell have added to the strain.
In the lead up to Geneva 2014, the President has opened up a new front with a proposed South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that will purportedly achieve all that an international mechanism to investigate allegations of a breakdown of humanitarian law during the war. The TRC fervour is widely regarded as the latest in a series of time-buying exercises the Government is prone to just ahead of the UNHRC sessions in March. The Sri Lankan Government’s real interest in South African processes lies in cooperation for a post-Apartheid style defence review, a transformation of the state defence policy better suited to a post-conflict era, according to sources with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations. As a policy however, the African National Congress (ANC) will only agree on defence cooperation if it goes hand in hand with a truth seeking process, like the TRC.
All this notwithstanding, on the issue of the TRC and its setting up, the Government is likely to find that the international community will not be baited. The observation in UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s blistering 74 point report on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation that Sri Lanka’s failure to address certain cases that were “emblematic” of what had unfolded in the island, was “fundamentally a question of political will”, instead of a issue of time or technical capacity is echoed in other quarters, where the lapse of five years without even the beginnings of a credible accountability process is being considered time enough.
Tactics instead of strategy
Perhaps the problem with the Government’s approach to its conundrums in Geneva, that have come to define its international relations, is that it opts for tactical, short-term measures, such as the TRC initiative this year. Every March session of the UNHRC in Geneva is approached in terms of a battle, rather than being looked at as a chapter in what is now a rapidly unfolding war. Tactical advantages in a particular year, do not necessarily translate into long term victories. It will no longer be sufficient to ply members of the international community with various promises, only to disregard them the moment the Geneva sessions end. This strategy may have worked, if Sri Lanka had simultaneously strived to keep certain key players firmly at its side.
Despite the attempts in recent years to portray both Washington and New Delhi as pawns of the LTTE and the attempted saviours of the Tigers’ top leadership, a brief look back at the support extended during the final phase of the Government’s military push against the separatist rebels belie these claims.
Crucial war time allies
The Rajapaksa Government credits Pakistan, China and Russia as being its largest international supporters of the war, for ensuring the smooth and uninterrupted sale of arms and ammunition that was essential to defeating the LTTE on the battlefield. Yet it was the Washington ‘peaceniks’ that conducted a strategic assessment of Sri Lanka’s military during the tenure of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and donated the US Coast Guard Cutter, now the Sri Lanka Navy Ship (SLNS) Samudura in June 2004 to assist the navy’s patrolling operations. New Delhi, now dubbed slaves to Eelamists in Tamil Nadu in the prevailing local narrative, sold, leased or donated the three key naval patrollers, SLNS Sayura, Sagara and Sayurala – two of them during the Fourth Eelam war between 2006-2009. Together these four vessels assured Sri Lanka’s Navy had the blue water capability that assisted in the sinking of 11 LTTE ‘floating warehouses’ filled with ammunition during the last years of the war, cutting off key weapons supplies to the Tigers fighting in the North and East. According to some reports, the bulk of the intelligence provided to the Sri Lanka Navy to locate enemy vessels on the high seas was provided by the US and India, with Indian military aircraft performing reconnaissance missions over sea to locate the warehouses.
Such memories in post-war, UNHRC challenged Sri Lanka are tantamount to treason and has no rational place in the enmity and hostility now developing towards the two large powers and former allies.
Less than five years after the war ended and the Sri Lankan Government was lauded at the UNHRC for its efforts at wiping out a ruthless terrorist outfit in the LTTE, the regime’s score card on foreign policy looks abysmal. This is not for a lack of competent diplomats handling affairs in Geneva, but because even the most brilliant of foreign policy experts handling Sri Lanka at present have an impossibly difficult brief to work with. In the five years since the end of the war, Sri Lanka has isolated not only its two largest trading partners, the United States and the European Union, but its only existential threat by its immature handling of affairs with New Delhi.
In its official point-to-point response to Pillay’s report to the Council at next month’s session, the Government accused the high official of bias and claimed she had been calling for an international investigation into alleged atrocities during the war since 2009. It is pertinent therefore to reflect on how it took a mere five years since the end of the conflict to push nearly all of its former key allies over to Pillay’s side on the question of an international inquiry. Historians writing this chapter of Sri Lanka’s international challenges will find that the country’s road from 2009 to 2014 and beyond is strewn with wrong turns, missed opportunities, self inflicted wounds and most of all, promises made explicitly to be broken.
Courtesy Daily FT