Colombo Telegraph

Does USA Or India Want Regime Change?

By Kumar David

Prof Kumar David

The short answer is “no” in the case of India, but America I believe is keeping its options open; it will not get so deeply involved in this pandemonium without strategy and game plan. The resolution has taken centre stage; briefings and lobbying overshadow everything else in the Geneva corridors. The crucial issue is no longer the wording, though stake holders tear each others hair out re “strengthening” or “watering down”. The dynamics of the next stage depend entirely on whether the Lankan government accepts the resolution and agrees to implement it, or rejects it and the UNHRC makes its moves. The two paths along which the crisis will flow in the next 6 to 12 months depend on this choice; an immediate crisis if the government rejects; a maturing conflict if it agrees to go along, and, obviously as it will, messes around with implementation.

March 7 was the first consultation where the US presented the draft. The hall was packed with many countries present. The EU countries welcomed the resolution. Some even wanted to add to the text and surprisingly the edits strengthened it not it watered down. Uruguay and Chile spoke in support of the US resolution, while Mexico was vocal but undecided. Japan spoke of the need for justice, suggesting it is be moving towards supporting the resolution. Two countries spoke in favour of the Lankan government; Thailand and Pakistan and are sure votes against the US. The Africans are watching; they are waiting for a lead from South Africa. The Organisation of Islamic Countries, strangely, kept away from the meeting.

The US has stirred up a buzz; so what is its possible game plan? Till recently I thought the US was not seeking regime change as it had no alternative to put in place. But this degenerated into a chicken and egg scenario; don’t change as there is no alternative, without change there will be no alternative. In the State Department’s view, I believe, matters seemed to be going from bad to worse and at some point during the last 12 months it snapped. Why may the US stance on the Sri Lankan regime flipped to a new attitude? One reason is that American public and Congressional opinion about justice and human rights has to be assuaged and the second is the influence of the Tamil diaspora in Britain and Canada. Both are small factors, in isolation inadequate as explanations. A third it is that Washington, like Delhi, is fed up with Colombo’s insolence and untruths and wants to teach the upstarts a lesson. Again this is not how great powers make foreign policy. All three count but not enough to explain.

A fourth more substantial reason is strategic; Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean, sea routes, proximity to India and a great and growing Chinese strategic and economic threat. But there is no Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean, nor will there be for a quarter century; China does not have a blue water fleet. Nor will the UNHRC fracas help in this respect; it is more likely to push Colombo closer to Beijing. On the economic front too Lanka is not a big factor in China’s great global outreach; Africa, Central Asia and South America matter more.  Therefore this too is a subsidiary not a decisive reason.

The US will note all this but the crucial link concerns political stability. It certainly looks as if the Americans are putting in motion a process of regime change which will deliver results some way down the road. Why do I think the Americans want regime change? I think that they reckon the current regime is headed for an unstable period; the connection with the North is deteriorating and no political solution is in sight, Muslims are alienated, and the rapport with India will deteriorate after the Indian elections. Most serious, the political scene in the south has developed fault lines on economy, autocracy and democracy issues. The current round of elections may be the last time the regime can play the Sinhala-Buddhist card; that cock may not fight much longer.

Since every global crisis ends on some White House or State Department plate, for reasons to do with America’s global position that are beyond this piece, maybe Washington would like to nip this one in the bud. If the Sri Lankan government does not compromise in Geneva; if it is driven to paroxysms of irrationality, and if extremism shows its face on the streets; then Washington’s plan will already be half done thanks to Colombo! In practice immediately, and verbally at a future venue, Clause 8 de facto be beefed up to override the by then inoperative Clause 2 of the current draft. If the government accepts the resolution, as wiser counsel is urging it to do in self-interest, then Clause 2 takes precedence and the game plan gets operative when the government warps, buckles and screws it up in implementation.

India and 13A

The genesis of 13A is known from the post-1983 armed conflict to the enactment of 13A. But this was 25 years ago; is India still emotionally attached to the 13A narrative, is its self-interest connected to provincial devolution? The answer to the first question (emotional attachments) is, yes but not strong. The Indian army lost 1200 jawans and there is sentiment that they should not have died in vain. At the same time rational Indians concede memories alone are no reason for retaining a policy if it serves no current purpose. Does India get any economic benefit from the Indo-Lanka Accord? None as far as I can see; it is exports, investments , CIMA, SAARC and such linkages, which have nothing to do with the Accord or 13A, that can be pointed to as of economic interest to India.

Therefore the only factor apart from sentiment and memory that concerns Delhi is the affect that the Lankan Tamil issue has on Tamil Nadu. The part real is; Indian Tamils do care about Ceylon Tamils and more deeply about Upcountry Tamils, and part bogus. Tamil Nadu politicians keep it alive as they need a punching bag against each other. Therefore this is a factor in that the Tamil dilemma in Lanka does affect Tamil Nadu, and through it, the Central government. This is controllable so long as quarrels stay within limits; meaning, if for example something like 1983 occurs again, we will see the Indian military “teaching someone a lesson”. For this reason it is only a suicide prone government that will let things get that much out of control. The upshot of my case so far, is that it is unlikely that India, per se and in its own interest, and sentiment, memory and the Tamil Nadu drama aside, is as deeply committed to 13A and devolution as in the past. This fading is still subliminal to Indian most commentators.

Devolution, power sharing, self-administration and the like, however, are matters of life and death for Ceylon Tamils living in the North and East, and because of fraternal linkages for those living in the South as well. With the Indian commitment waning with the passage of time, the Tamils of Lanka and the TNA are wise to broaden their support base and ensure breathing space for the community. Breathing space is another way of saying autonomy and devolution of power. That is, they need to win the support of other countries, not instead but in addition to India, as a backup to finding a political settlement at home. The relationships now being fortified with the United States, Britain, Japan and South Africa are needed for this purpose. The Tamils are not strong enough to get a fair deal by their efforts alone and expectations about India must not be exaggerated unreasonably; a wider support base is crucial not only for human rights purposes but also as pressure points in hammering out a political settlement.

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