By Jehan Perera –
There was some uncertainty whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka to join the country in its celebration of the International Day of Vesak would turn embarrassing to the host government. Prior to his visit nationalist politicians and nationalist civil society leaders from the ethnic majority community called for black flag protests. This was against what they called Indian intervention. Two controversial matters currently being negotiated between the two countries are the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and the Trincomalee harbor project that revolves around the lease of oil tanks. ETCA has generated formidable opposition amongst sections of the local business community and professionals led by medical doctors of the government medical doctors association who fear that they will not be able to withstand Indian competition. Those who sought to give an ulterior motive to the Indian premier’s visit were also able to draw on memories of the Indian intervention of the 1980s that contributed to the strengthening of Tamil militancy in the country.
Those who were associated with the Indian premier’s visit noted that he had been unsure of the public reception he would receive in Sri Lanka. This would have been due to the reports of organized protests against his visit that could have turned ugly. However, the decision of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to seek a meeting with the Indian premier put an end to any plan the nationalist opposition might have had to make a public show of opposition to Indian intervention. The silence of the nationalist opposition and their inability to convert their verbal threats to any form of public protest is an indication of their limited power in the country. The nationalists once again showed themselves to be a fringe group whose strength comes from being included into the agenda of a mainstream political party. In the context of the leadership of the Joint Opposition seeking a meeting with the Indian premier there was no possibility of the nationalists seeking to ride the wave created by a mainstream political actor.
By the time Prime Minister Modi left the country he would have been reassured that the Sri Lankan population in general views India positively as part of its larger civilisational ethos and a powerful country that is capable of assisting Sri Lanka. In particular, India’s more recent role in being supportive of Sri Lanka in international forums is a source of strength and confidence. The reception that the Indian premier received in the hill country where the Tamil people of recent Indian origin are concentrated was extremely warm and enthusiastic. Prime Minister Modi opened a state of the art hospital there and promised the people 10,000 houses in addition to the 4,000 that India has already committed to the plantation sector where they live. To this day the Indian origin Tamils have not recovered from the blow that was dealt to them in 1948 at the time of Independence from British colonial rule when they were deprived of their citizenship rights that included the right to vote. Even to this day they remain the poorest and most socially disadvantaged of all Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities in terms of UN statistics and standards. In this context, it was no surprise that they looked with hope on the Indian premier as their champion and welcomed him accordingly.
The choice of International Vesak Day for Prime Minister Modi to make his visit to Sri Lanka was politically astute. Vesak Day became accepted by the UN as an international day due to the efforts of Sri Lanka during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The Indian premier’s visit to Sri Lanka to celebrate this day was an acknowledgement of Sri Lanka’s contribution to the international community and its role in preserving the unique teachings and traditions of Buddhism down the millennia. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate to the Sri Lankans and to the international community the special relationship between the two countries. Prime Minister Modi expressed this reality during the course of his main speech in Sri Lanka when he said, “whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean the security of our societies is indivisible.” After the end of the war, Sri Lanka has become more openly a focus of competition between the great powers of the world, including the United States, China, Japan and India. Located just below India, Sri Lanka can potentially be used by foreign powers that wish to put pressure on India. In 1963 the world came close to war when the Soviet Union sought to place its missiles in Cuba, which neigbours the United States. The Soviet Union only backed off when the United States threatened to attack the Soviet naval fleet that was approaching Cuba.
National security is non-negotiable to any country. During Sri Lanka’s three decade long war successive governments gave priority to expanding the military budget although there were many other areas in which government expenditures were necessary. Despite criticism by international human rights organizations, they also strengthened and expanded laws relating to national security including the emergency laws and by promulgating the Prevention of Terrorism Act. After the war ended there was an expectation that the government would reduce the size of the military budget and demobilize the military whose numbers had grown to unprecedented proportions. However, none of this happened on the grounds that national security remained the foremost priority. Even today, the former war zones of the North and East continue to have a large and visible military presence on the grounds of national security.
The continuing priority given to national security in Sri Lanka can also be seen in the reluctance of the present government to make the national security laws more liberal and human rights friendly. Both the GSP Plus economic concession and the UNHRC resolution require that the government should replace the present Prevention of Terrorism Act with a law that is more in line with international human rights conventions that Sri Lanka has signed. However, the proposed new Counter Terrorism Act has been severely criticized by international human rights organizations and the TNA as being even more violative of human rights principles than the existing PTA. The proposed new law gives to the police the power to issue detention orders instead of reserving this power to the judicial authorities. Other concerns relate to confessions being used as evidence and on access to legal assistance from the time of arrest.
The priority given to national security comes from Sri Lanka’s long experience of battling insurgencies, terrorism, war and external interventions. A similar logic can be expected to hold in the case of India, which is a much larger and more important country that is closer to the centre of global politics. India has faced wars with its neigbours and continues to face problems of internal insurgencies. The priority given to national security by all states, including Sri Lanka, suggests that India will prioritise national security in its relationship with Sri Lanka. While it is likely to be flexible and open to negotiations with Sri Lanka on economic, trade and investment issues, it is also likely to be inflexible on national security issues.
The request by China to send a submarine to dock in Colombo port came up during the immediate run up to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka. This gave rise to speculation that it was China’s way of highlighting its presence in Sri Lanka at a time when India was at the centre stage. This is not the first occasion in which China has engaged in submarine diplomacy in Sri Lanka. In 2014 when the Japanese prime minister visited Sri Lanka a Chinese submarine berthed in Colombo port during the visit. On that occasion both Japan and India were concerned about what they saw as a message to them about China’s influence over the former government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. On this occasion however the Sri Lankan government denied permission to the submarine to dock in Colombo port during the Indian premier’s visit.
China has said its submarines need a place to resupply on their way to anti-piracy missions and that stopping to resupply of its submarines that are on their way to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters for protection missions is an internationally accepted practice. China is currently the largest provider of economic resources to Sri Lanka on both concessional and commercial terms. This is a benefit that any Sri Lankan government would be loath to lose. At a time when Western investments are few in coming, China is willing and able to take up economic opportunities in Sri Lanka that may not be economically attractive to privately owned commercial enterprises but are viable to China’s state enterprises. Although generous itself in terms of the economic assistance it provides Sri Lanka, India is unable to match what China is able to provide in terms of economic investments. At the same time India will not be agreeable to Sri Lanka giving China the strategic spaces such as access to ports for military purposes that it may seek. As in the case of all countries, national security comes first. Sri Lanka needs to maintain a neutral national security policy that it will not arouse the security concerns of its neigbours. It is also important that Sri Lanka should continue to walk the tight rope between economic imperatives and national security issues in its own interest.