What would be more appropriate at Vesak this year than welcoming the charismatic Prime Minister of India to jointly celebrate the legacy bestowed on the world by its most famous son, Siddhartha Gautama, and to offer thanks to the Indian emperor Asoka for disseminating it not only to all corners of his own territory but also across the water to this little island where it has played such a crucial role in its destiny? The gift of the Dhamma is a tie that will forever remain fresh in the relationship between the two countries.
There is no relationship between states, devoid of considerations of geopolitics. The emerging geopolitics of this region poses new anxieties for India, and Sri Lanka has been cognizant of this fact. China is seen by the citizens of this country as a good friend and a centuries-old trading partner, who poses no threat to its sovereignty and proved its unstinting support during the critical phase of its battle with the separatist Tigers. However, the emotional and cultural ties with India have always been thicker.
The most important geopolitical task of the moment for the government is undoubtedly to ensure Sri Lanka benefits from the interest generated by its serendipitous location, at this time, for these big powers vying for trading and strategic influence.
Managing the balance of power requirements of these giants by offering territory for territory within Sri Lanka however, is hardly the way this island’s citizens expect its government to handle these relationships!
I am no longer certain that we islanders will not lose our most beautiful natural harbor and the strategic space bestowed on this island through its location, at the hands of a thoughtless government scratching around for cash.
The birth of this government owes much to ‘fake news’, although that certainly wasn’t the main reason. Their electoral success with blatant lies has incentivized them to continue with the practice.
While Ministers in this government assure the public that they will not sell off national assets without consulting relevant stakeholders, the Indian press has repeatedly reported that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe means to go ahead with the projects included in the MoU signed with India when he visited Delhi this month.
I have witnessed members of the Indian Foreign Service in action in several capitals and they are some of the best in the world. Their counterparts in Pakistan are trained to be extremely impressive and knowledgeable. Since they are rivals as well as neighbors, they both maintain high standards as an existential necessity. This excellence in diplomacy of our nearest neighbors and friends has been beneficial to Sri Lanka for many years. Sri Lankans have witnessed this to their delight when diplomats from both countries have stepped up to defend Sri Lanka.
Despite this, when the recent MoU signed between India and Sri Lanka includes ‘treaty language’ giving it more weight than the less binding language of an MoU, I begin to wonder what exactly is being assured by whom. When the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka who promoted the MoU is also a lawyer, one can only assume all concerned know exactly what they are doing. But do we?
It is no secret that the country is facing a cash crunch. We need funds. Is wanton wheeling and dealing with treasured assets gifted by nature to its people, especially when their location is geopolitically valuable and vulnerable, the only way to get funds? Is it that this government is short of ideas? How is it that so much more was done for decades before, by other leaders of both parties, while retaining and protecting sufficient control over the territory of this island?
How is it even considered reasonable to lease any part of this island for 99 years? When Hong Kong was leased under duress to the British, the hand back was beset with problems which continue.
When the Tigers ran over Maavilaru gaining control of the only source of water for farmers downstream and decided to turn it off, the collective psyche of the nation felt the existential danger and the state rose in battle to finish off the Tigers successfully. The people can and will never feel safe with essential supplies such as petroleum and gas in alien hands.
India has been a friend for thousands of years. It has also found itself unable to befriend the Sri Lankan state, a fellow democracy, openly during one of its most critical historical periods, due to pressure from its southernmost federal state unit. Delhi may have wanted an end to the Tigers, but they couldn’t help with weapons and sophisticated enough radars needed for the job, due to Tamil Nadu protests. This is a permanent fact of geopolitics, and it is our responsibility not to leave ourselves vulnerable to a situation where Delhi’s hands will be tied. I really wouldn’t want our only supply of cooking gas or petroleum subject to such exigency.
This island, by definition, naturally has limited land mass for its growing population. It was with some surprise that one digested the data in the schedule reproduced by C.A. Chandraprema, extracted from the website of the Indian External Affairs Ministry showing an anomalous fact of the number of overseas Indians now citizens of Sri Lanka, compared to all its neighbors. While among its South Asian neighbors such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives etc, the highest number so described amounts to 108, with China recording 520, in Sri Lanka it is 1,600,000!
There is a reason for this, of course. They were brought in large numbers by British colonialism to work in the tea estates and left without care for their status. A wrong committed by an imperial power was many decades later, humanely compensated for by granting them Sri Lankan citizenship. It remains anomalous though, in the entire South Asian region, when viewed from the perspective of the schedule. Although they are now Sri Lankan, Prime Minister Modi will visit their area of habitation to officially hand over a hospital when he visits Sri Lanka to celebrate Vesak, which is a commendably compassionate gesture appropriate for the occasion.
The trouble with the contents of the MoU with India is that given the probable influx of a workforce/human resources for projects across the spectrum, this island’s citizens cannot be certain if consideration had been given to ensure that the numbers in that schedule of the demographic composition of Sri Lanka will remain unchanged. Is it even possible to satisfy this requirement?
Starting with ETCA, the island’s professionals, trade unions, politicians and citizens have shown anxiety through protests and other interventions about this government’s most recent efforts at managing the gaping hole in the economy. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any signs of the legitimate guardians of the people debating it adequately in parliament. The disquiet amongst the people is the result.
Prime Minister Wickremasinghe’s offer of all manner of projects in Trincomalee to India, including the port which has been jealously guarded by all this island’s governments to date, especially since the Eastern Province formed part of the aspirant Tamil Eelam which saw Trincomalee as its capital, while Tamil Nadu shows no sign of its passion for Eelam in Sri Lanka diminishing, leaves us citizens incredulous.
To me it is incomprehensible that India would want to be seen as a predatory power, causing civil strife sparking anti-Indian sentiments due to the shortsightedness of this administration. A couple of years ago, I accompanied my husband to a seminar in Delhi at one its premier think-tanks where it had invited scholars from all its neighbors to articulate their issues, good and bad, with the region’s big power and neighbor India. The scholars were honest in their submissions and many issues were aired.
When the idea of connectivity via trading agreements with peripheral states of India with their own neighboring countries was mooted, my husband explained that the ethnic politics of Tamil Nadu and of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka would preclude such an arrangement, as threats, perceived and real, would easily eliminate any benefits. Today, it is this very idea of connectivity with Southern Indian states including, quite specifically Tamil Nadu, that is being promoted by Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister.
India which has a more thoughtful state, concerned about its relationships with its neighbors, has the intellectual and imaginative capacity for more creative, consensual solutions to the problem of balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. It should look to our cultural and educational ties that have sustained over centuries despite the imperative for us to fend off regular incursions from the subcontinent’s southern kingdoms/states.
This historical truth of existential threat is embedded in the collective memory of the inhabitants of this little pearl of an island that they call home. They cannot be expected to ignore history, recent as well as past. Governments disregard this at their peril.