By Jehan Perera –
The election of a new government in India opens up new vistas for Sri Lanka’s relationship with its closest neigbour. With his congratulatory phone call to the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi,President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the initiative to rebuild ties with India. Relations with India have grown strained due to the Indian stance on issues relating to the country’s Tamil problem and the government’s prevarication regarding promises of devolution of power made to the Indian government. The President’s ability to get a phone call through a very busy Narendra Modi just after his party’s victory at the election was being announced shows the special nature of the relationship that Sri Lanka can enjoy with India. This is an opportunity that comes from both geography and history and needs to be carefully built upon so that it is an asset and not a liability.
The fact that Sri Lanka’s estranged Tamil community is bound by kinship and close cultural ties with the Tamils who inhabit southern India links the two countries together with bonds that are permanent. This is a reality that any Sri Lankan government will have to both acknowledge and cope with. For the past three decades, and coinciding with the period of the war, the major feature of Sri Lanka’s relationship with India has been its ethnic conflict. Since the end of the war, relations with the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu have plunged, with even visitors from Sri Lanka liable on occasion to be subjected to attack on its streets. It has been to the Sri Lankan government’s advantage that the BJP won the election decisively and does not need the support of regional parties, including the dominant party in Tamil Nadu.
With the advent of the BJP government, the Sri Lankan government has an opportunity to reach a new understanding with their counterparts in India and reach a new understanding that will be mutually acceptable. In this regard there are two factors that favour the Sri Lankan government. The first is the overwhelming size of the parliamentary mandate given to the BJP which makes it less reliant on regional parties, such as the AIDMK headed by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu state which has been both hostile and demanding towards the Sri Lankan government. Second is the fact that Indian Prime Minister-elect Modi has little reason to view Western policy on the contentious issue of human rights issues with favour, as he himself has been pursued by them on account of the mass anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat while Modi he was Chief Minister.
Although the war is now over more than five years the political roots of that gave rise to war have yet to be addressed by the Sri Lankan government. The last occasion on which there was progress in taking Sri Lanka from is status of a post-war country (in which there is no more war) to a post-war country (in which there is national reconciliation) was in September last year. This was when the government held provincial elections in the Northern Province. The issue of Tamil self-rule and in those areas in which they constitute a majority in the North and East was one of the driving forces of the three decade long war. The establishment of the Northern Provincial Council for the first time since the provincial system was established 26 years earlier was welcomed by most of the people of the North, by those in civil and political society who seek an answer to the root of the ethnic conflict, and also by the international community. It was praised as a positive outcome of the end of the war.
However, more than eight months after the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council, Sri Lanka has yet to make progress in its journey to become a post-war society in which the roots of war have been eliminated and reconciliation has begun to dawn. The provincial council has been rendered dysfunctional due to the refusal of centrally appointed authorities to relax their controls. There is a sense of stagnancy where negotiated and mutually acceptable post-war political reform is concerned. The two most important post-war issues that have to be dealt with are being completely sidelined with far more emphasis given to other matters. The fact that there is no war is welcomed by all right thinking citizens and most of them will give the government due credit for this. However, to transform a country from being post-war to being post-conflict requires the roots of conflict be addressed.
The most significant post-war failure of the government in the post-war period is to be unable and unwilling to tackle the problem of Tamil grievances that gave rise to the war. There are events that show up the failure of government by law as opposed to government by arbitrary power. War-time legacies continue to haunt the country. Once again the spectre of the LTTE and of anti terrorist operations haunts the people of the North and East and provides grist to the national security establishment in the country. The Northern and Eastern provincial councils that have been established do not enjoy the freedom to decide on their priorities. They have to function under the control of the Governors of the respective provinces who were one-time military commanders and dominate the decision making even though unelected. This means that the fundamental issues that gave rise to the war remain unresolved even as the government celebrates the fifth anniversary of the end of the war.
India’s approach to conflict resolution in Sri Lanka so far has been to seek the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas, which would assuage the sense amongst the Tamil people that they are a marginalized community without access to state power. Under the previously dominant Congress-led governments, the Indian solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict has been to implement the 13th Amendment and provincial council system it established, and ensure the maximum possible devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas. However, this solution has never been fully acceptable to successive Sri Lankan governments, and is fundamentally at odds with the present government’s policy of centralization of power and national security. It is possible that the new Indian government leadership will not be wedded to the old modes of conflict resolution and be more open to new ways of addressing issues within Sri Lanka.
In these circumstances even as nothing is fundamentally changing on the ground, there is also no evident political challenge to the government that comes from the opposition. Instead there is a sense that Sri Lanka is stable and the government can continue to be as it is. The political opposition continues to be divided and unable to mount a serious challenge to it. Still the government cannot be satisfied or be at peace with itself because there is a looming threat that will not go away. This is on account of the issue of accountability in which the international community is involved. After the third UNHRC resolution in Geneva the UN machinery on accountability has started to work. A budget has been approved and now the members of the investigation team are to be appointed. The international machinery is on the move and will continue to move even if the government acts as if nothing is happening. There is speculation that targeted sanctions may be applied to Sri Lanka as they were to Russia. The Indian position can be decisive.
Prime Minister-elect Modi is unlikely to be a supporter of international sanctions, as he himself has been at the receiving end of them. On the other hand, he is likely to be more assertive in his foreign policy. He said during his election campaign that he would give the Indian states more weight in deciding on foreign policy issues with neighboring countries. In addition he said that people of Indian origin living away from India and in any part of the globe would enjoy the protective umbrella of a newly assertive and strong India. Unlike his mild mannered predecessor in office, Dr Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi is unlikely to be willing to let anyone take India for a ride. Indeed he was specifically elected to lead a “strong” government. His assertions suggest that India will continue to be actively interested in the position of Tamils in Sri Lanka. The advent of the new government in India can pose serious challenges to Sri Lanka, even as it offers potential for positive change.