By Asoka Bandarage –
Following the 2015 elections and change in political leadership, Sri Lanka is experiencing major policy shifts at the national, regional and international levels. The confluence of these shifts has significant political, economic and cultural implications for the island as well as the Indian Ocean region.
In a seeming return to the ‘dominant minority’ position they enjoyed during the British colonial period, Tamil elites have been appointed to some of the highest positions in the Sri Lankan state, including Chief Justice and Governor of the Central Bank. A Tamil politician was appointed as the Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition even though his Tamil National Alliance party won only 16 seats as opposed to the much larger number of seats gained by the United People’s Freedom Alliance.
Notwithstanding the decisive military victory of the Sri Lankan government over the separatist LTTE in 2009 and efforts to increase Tamil participation in the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil demand for constitutional change continues. The demand is for political devolution and transition from a unitary to a federal form of government. The proposed constitutional changes which are backed by the Tamil Diaspora, India and the ‘international community’ are likely to lead to ethnically based balkanization and destabilization of the island, reigniting violent conflict.
The Sri Lankan constitution gives ‘foremost place’ to Buddhism, the religion of 70% of the island’s population referring to the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism. At the same time, the Sri Lankan constitution asserts that “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”. Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society with long established traditions of mutual co-existence and harmony. The country has allowed extensive Christian evangelical and Islamic Wahabi proselytization and conversion that are not permitted in Islamic and many other nations. Still, there is vociferous demand backed by the ‘international community’ for western style pluralism and secularism and the elimination of the ‘foremost place’ given to Buddhism in the proposed new constitution. The severance of the historical relationship between Buddhism and the state would undermine the culture of the Sinhala majority and the identity of the island as a Buddhist nation. The attempted change has already given rise to resistance and inter-religious conflict.
Ethno-religious tension and conflict generated by proposed policy shifts are likely to be aggravated by developments at the regional level. These include efforts by the government of India to integrate Sri Lanka (as well as other smaller neighbors like Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan) firmly within its sphere of influence. Unlike earlier bilateral trade deals with India, the proposed new Indo-Sri Lanka Trade deal, the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) covers trade in services, especially IT, marine, shipbuilding and engineering. The ETCA proposal is yet to be made public. However, given the asymmetry in size and economic and political power of the two countries, it has generated tremendous opposition from professional bodies in Sri Lanka. They are fearful of inundation of doctors and other professionals from India who could displace Sri Lankans in their own country.
The charges of ‘Indian invasion and colonization’ are exacerbated by India’s plan to build a sea bridge and tunnel, at a cost of over $5 billion by the Asian Development Bank, to connect the southern tip of India with the north west of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and unique cultural heritage were maintained historically through her physical separation from its large and powerful neighbor. There is fear that the easy influx of Indians, Hindus and Muslims, into Sri Lanka through the planned bridge would change the demographic makeup of Sri Lanka turning the Sinhala Buddhist majority into a minority. In the long term, the bridge could well threaten the territorial integrity of India itself by providing the basis for the long held Tamil separatist dream of ‘Greater Eelam’ combining Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka.
Adding to the tensions at the local and regional levels is growing geopolitical competition over access to oil and other resources. India, China and the USA are all struggling for influence over Sri Lanka which is strategically located in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Sea lanes of the Indian Ocean are considered to be the busiest in the world with over 80 percent of global seaborne oil trade estimated to be passing through them. Sri Lanka is central to China in its massive import of energy and export of goods. The U.S. backed political leadership in Sri Lanka tried to break ties with China upon coming into office in 2015. However, faced with the necessity of Chinese economic support, the Sri Lankan government signed a new economic deal with China in April 2016. Despite India’s concerns over Chinese encirclement, Sri Lanka committed itself to active participation in the Maritime Belt and Silk Road initiative (formerly known as the ‘string of pearls’), China’s extensive network of ports and maritime facilities connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Indian Ocean (along with the Western Pacific), is expected to become ‘the center of future world politics, strategy and economics’ and one of the most strategically contested regions in the world. Two US military ships have visited Colombo this year and in August 2016 the first joint operation between the US and the Sri Lankan military took place in Jaffna with participation of TNA politicians at the launching. In September 2016, the United States signed a partnership with Sri Lanka allowing the US House of Representatives to ‘work with’ the Sri Lankan Parliament. It seems that the island is being incorporated as a base of operations in the U.S. military strategy to curtail Chinese expansion across Asia and the world. Is Sri Lanka being turned into a theater for the foremost geopolitical struggle of the 21st century?
To protect the Indian Ocean from militarization and warfare, the countries in the region need to collectively uphold the principles of non-alignment and freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean. To avoid the emergence of new forms of ethnoreligious violence in Sri Lanka, local communities have to transcend their differences and the divide and conquer approaches of external powers. They have to come together to protect themselves and their beautiful island, ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean’.
*Dr. Asoka Bandarage, Author of The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Colonialism in Sri Lanka and many other publications on Sri Lanka and global political economy