By Sudha Ramachandran –
BANGALORE/ Asia Times Online – Sri Lanka’s Minister of Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka’s recent announcement that Colombo was considering raising the issue of the safety of India’s nuclear power plants with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been widely interpreted in the Indian media as retaliation for India’s vote supporting an anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently.
“We respect the right of India to have nuclear power stations,” Ranawaka told journalists in Colombo. “But our concerns are on the possible radiation affects they could have on Sri Lanka,” he said.
Ranawaka drew attention to nuclear plants located in southern India and pointed out that in the event of a nuclear disaster in India, Mannar in Sri Lanka’s northwest would be hit hard.
Just a narrow, 20 kilometer-wide strip of shallow sea separates Mannar from the Indian coastline. It is a mere 250 kilometers from the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district.
Coming in the wake of the UNHRC resolution, Ranawaka’s statement was interpreted in the Indian media as aimed at embarrassing India.
India’s support of a UNHRC resolution that urged the Sri Lankan government to “credibly investigate” allegations of violation of international humanitarian law by government forces in the final stages of the civil war has raised hackles in Colombo.
In the run-up to the vote in Geneva and in the wake of the resolution’s passage, Sri Lanka has been engulfed by a tidal wave of nationalist emotions especially among the island’s Sinhalese majority. Demonstrations led by monks and Sinhala nationalists have hurled abuse at the United States, which sponsored the resolution, and India for its “betrayal” of Sri Lanka.
Commentators in the Lankan media have accused India of “backstabbing”. Reports have sought to malign India. The Island, a pro-government English daily, for instance reported that 150 terrorists trained in Tamil Nadu “have returned to Sri Lanka and are hiding in the north and the east to carry out a destabilization campaign” in the island. A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the eastern city of Batticaloa was damaged recently.
Ranawaka’s comment on the safety of India’s nuclear plants comes at a time when Delhi is struggling to quell a mass protest in Tamil Nadu over the safety of the Kudankulam nuclear plant. The protest, which has captured global media attention, has embarrassed Delhi.
An Indo-Russian collaboration, the Kudankulam nuclear power plant has been beset with delays. Then August last year, just months ahead of the scheduled commissioning of one of its units, a mass protest erupted. Villagers in its environs went on fasts to pressure the government to shut down the nuclear plant.
They blocked roads and laid siege to the project site to prevent employees from entering. In a highly publicized campaign activists claimed the plant was unsafe and called on the government to make safety analysis and site evaluation studies public. Local residents raised fears that radioactivity from the plant and unsafe disposal of nuclear waste would endanger their health.
Fishermen expressed concerns that water used to cool reactors and flushed into the sea would contaminate fish in the Gulf of Mannar. Villagers said that in the event of a Fukushima-type disaster, a rapid evacuation would be impossible as over one million people live within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant.
The government deployed experts to convince locals that the nuclear plant was safe and extended development packages to the region. But locals are unconvinced and the agitation continues.
Ranawaka’s raising of the nuclear safety issue in such circumstances is bound to have irritated Delhi, particularly since talks on nuclear technology-related issues, including that of nuclear safety, are reportedly continuing between India and Sri Lanka at the bilateral level.
Both governments have clarified that contrary to Ranawaka’s claims, Colombo taking the issue to the IAEA is not on the cards.
It seem Ranawaka was engaging in some empty muscle flexing aimed at impressing his Sinhala Buddhist supporters, who are livid with India for its support of the UNHRC resolution.
Ranawaka is general secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by radical Buddhist monks that is part of the ruling coalition and has been at the forefront of the rallies opposing the UNHRC resolution.
The JHU has called for a rethink of economic ties with India. “We should not grant favors to countries merely because they are our neighbors. India was the only Asian country that sided with the US” in voting on the UNHRC resolution, JHU spokesperson, Udaya Gammanpila, has said.
The UNHRC resolution has provided an excuse for hardline Sinhalese politicians, several of them ministers in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, to burnish their “patriotic” credentials as “defenders of the motherland”. Each is seeking to outdo the other by announcing punishment to be meted out to those who “betrayed the motherland” by supporting the UNHRC resolution.
If the JHU wants Sri Lanka to downgrade its economic ties with India, the Jathika Nidhahas Peramuna wants the US to be punished. Its leader Wimal Weerawansa, who is minister for housing and common amenities, has called for a boycott of American brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Google’s e-mail service Gmail.
Minister for Public Relations Mervyn Silva, who belongs to Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has gone a step further and warned certain Sri Lankan activists and intellectuals at a public rally that he would break their limbs in public.
Contrary to claims that they are true “patriots”, some analysts say the politicians and parties calling for defiance of the UNHRC resolution are harming the interests of their “motherland”, while others have drawn attention to the perils of a confrontationist course.
“Hereafter Sri Lanka will be an agenda item of the UNHCR and if it defies the Council, the Council will refer the matter to other UN bodies with more teeth,” warned Kumar David in The Island. “It is dangerous for Colombo to defy the international community and set itself on collision course; the consequences will be drastic,” he writes. “Make no mistake, going before the Council next time with a fail grade on its report card will reduce its support to zilch; even the Chinese and Russians will duck as they are now doing at the Security Council about Syria. Defying the UN High Commission is the road of self-immolation.”
Economic boycotts and a downgrading of economic ties are options that Sri Lanka can ill afford.
While confrontationist calls for “taking on India” may boost support for help Ranawaka, Weerawansa and others, India remains Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner and source of FDI. Every fifth tourist to Sri Lanka is an Indian. The US accounts for 21% of Sri Lanka’s export market. “Teaching them a lesson” by downgrading ties is bound to boomerang on Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of an economic crisis. With fuel prices rising by 40% in recent months, prices of food and other essential commodities and transport have soared. The Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by 15% since the beginning of this year and is showing no signs of stabilizing. There have been mass demonstrations protesting the economic crisis.
The UNHRC resolution might be a headache in the long-run for the government but for now it’s likely proving a vote winner.
It “came at a good time for Rajapaksa”, R V Radhakrishnan observes in Frontline, an Indian fortnightly news magazine.
Sri Lanka was roiled in anti-government protests against price rises when the UNHRC resolution came up. The ruling coalition then focused on mobilizing protests against the “external enemies” and “internal traitors.” In the process, it was able to turn public attention away from the government to “enemies of the Sinhala-Buddhist people.”
Thus the UNHRC resolution provided the government with an issue to deflect public attention away from its own shortcomings.
The question is, how long will public attention remain diverted?
“There is only so much of diversion that people can put up with,” points out Radhakrishnan. “Conventionally, a full stomach produces a vocal patriot. As pressure mounts on the common man to make ends meet each day, he is unlikely to bother about what the man in the White House is up to in the cozy comforts of climate-controlled hotels in Geneva. He might just decide to trek to Temple Trees – the Sri Lankan president’s official residence – and demand his meal. And, he is unlikely to be alone.”
Rajapaksa’s popularity in Sri Lanka remains high for now. Sri Lanka’s “victimization” at the UNHRC has helped tone down the heat at home.
The president’s cheerleaders should realize that steps to downgrade ties with Sri Lanka’s main economic partners would deepen the island’s already serious economic crisis, providing momentum to more power protests against the government in the future.
“Bigger economic protests” will surface in another year or two, warns David.
Sri Lankans are hailing support Colombo received from its “true friends”, China and Pakistan at the UNHRC. They are saying that India must be made to pay a price for its treachery. They are calling on the government to “teach Indian a lesson” by deepening relations, especially military ties with China.
Given the geographic proximity between Sri Lanka and India and the close ethnic and other ties between them, working with Delhi rather than baiting or defying it would be Colombo’s best option.
However tempting it might be for a jilted Colombo to court China this would be a perilous path. “If thumbing its nose at the international community is slow asphyxiation, a military game with China, such as a naval base, will be sudden death,” warns David.
Colombo must heed these voices of sanity. It is in danger of cutting its nose to spite its face.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org