By Harsha Gunasena –
After the independence Sri Lankan foreign policy debacles were closely linked to ethnic clashes. It happened during the times of J.R.Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapakse. In the present situation of the country evolved from 21st April 2009 we may experience a similar situation. The majority ethnic community of the country, Sinhala Buddhists, led by various elements behave in the same manner they behaved in July 1983. Muslim ministers have resigned from the government portfolios. We can compare this with the virtual expulsion of the Tamil MPs from the Parliament by Jayewardene government. Those who initiate these issues with the intention of political gains may not be able to control the outcome of it. The country is in the verge of slipping into another calamity which may result in unnecessary foreign intervention. The intention of this short essay is to examine the internal ethnic conflicts and the repercussions of those conflicts on foreign relations.
J.R.Jayewardene in 1977 opened the economy and had connections with the western powers. Indira Gandhi, who was in the opposition of India, came back into power in 1980. India had a treaty with USSR for friendship and cooperation and was following a closed economic model. Indira Gandhi did not like the outlook of the Jayewardene government and she thought that Sri Lankan government would be a threat to the defense of India. Therefore, it was a necessity in the eyes of Indian government to destabilize Sri Lankan government. As a result, when Sri Lanka had a problem with Tamil minorities, India provided it’s soil for the military training of the militant minority Tamil youth of Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu being a province of Tamils created sufficient ground support for this exercise.
During those days where Sri Lankan ethnic issue was in a constant rise, Tamil Nadu had a considerable influence on the Indian central government towards its Sri Lankan policy. Professor Ralph Buultjens once said the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was the key person of this whole affair. When the Sri Lankan forces led by field commander Denzil Kobbekaduwa, were advancing and when there was an imminent threat of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers, India tried to send humanitarian aid to Jaffna by sea. When they were turned back by the Sri Lankan Navy, India took an unprecedented action of violation of the Sri Lankan air space and dropped humanitarian aid to the Jaffna peninsula. At this point the Western friends of Jayewardene advised him to liaise with India and sort the issue out. The action of India was not protested internationally. As a result, the military operation of Kobbekaduwa was halted and Indo Lanka pact was signed.
Firstly, if Jayewardene was able to handle India effectively India would not have interfered with domestic affairs of Sri Lanka. Secondly if Jayewardene has treated the minorities of Sri Lanka with dignity, he could have given no ammunition to India to meddle with internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka had a problem of balancing Indian influence. Neville Jayaweera reported that one time powerful Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs N. Q. Dias wanted to develop relationships with China in 1960s to counter the Indian influence. However, during the time of Sirima Bandaranaike foreign policy of Sri Lanka was well managed in the guidelines of non- alignment. She had very good relationship with India and was able to sign the Sirima-Shastri pact with Indian Prime Minister and was able to secure Katchatheevu island for us. Yet she was bold enough to allow Pakistani planes use Sri Lankan air space during the time of Indo Pakistan war in 1971. It was true non-alignment.
During the time of last stages of the war in Sri Lanka, Rajapakse government had a close relationship and understanding with the Indian government. However, at that time political situation was completely changed in India after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. Therefore, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has ceased to be an influential figure in relations with Sri Lanka. In fact, India also wanted to eliminate the LTTE. Hence Rajapakse did not face the crucial situation faced by Jayewardene.
Soon after the ending of war Rajapakse did not abide by the promises he made to India and world community that he would address the grievances of Tamils in Sri Lanka. When the Indian pressure was mounting up, he turned to China. Chinese government which helped Sri Lanka during the war as well, helped Sri Lanka by way of granting loans for development. The end result was selling the land which occupies Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo and allowing freehold right of a portion of the land to be reclaimed at Port City project. Rajapakse also did the same mistake of Jayewardene that not treating the Tamil community with dignity and thereby paving the way for foreign influences.
Dr Ajith Kolonne has given an interview to Ravaya (19.05.2019) and said that Prof. Patrick Mendis of US government service revealed that when US forces came into the territory of Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden, US did not violate sovereignty of Pakistan since there was an agreement called Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) between US and Pakistan. Even at that time similar agreement was signed between USA and Sri Lanka and it was signed by Robert O Blake, US Ambassador and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defense. It was not revealed to the Parliament. Vasudeva Nanayakkara came to know about this and inquired Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President. He had brushed it off saying that it was just an agreement signed by a Ministry Secretary. Sunday Times (19.05.2019) revealed that after the lapse of previous agreement present government signed a fresh agreement extended to 80 pages signed by Atul Keshap, US Ambassador and Kapila Waidyaratne, Secretary to the Ministry of Defense. According to the agreement USA and Sri Lanka have reciprocal logistics support in the case of military exercises.
When Sri Lanka was burning recently the President was “summoned” to China to sign a defense agreement. According to the agreement as reported by newspapers China can send armed military officers to defend Chinese interests in Sri Lanka. While signing this serious agreement the President was in begging mindset. It was reported that he requested 100 jeeps instead of 50 jeeps previously planned.
Sri Lanka being a small country should be very careful when dealing with foreign countries, especially when rival forces are in operation. Ukraine, sometime back, was in between US and Russian influences and at the end Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia.
During the past we had to face regional geopolitics but today the situation is quite different. Global geopolitics are at our doorstep. USA treats China as its main opponent and waged a trade war against China as well. American foreign policy is derived from its defense policy. They do not all the time support democratic and free market-oriented governments. They support anybody who is willing to serve their global interests at that point.
Trying to make deals out of this type of situation is dangerous. If you are in the middle of rival forces that may cost you a part of your territory. It is to be on a tightrope. Intelligent diplomat should be principled and firm and should not try to get benefits out of the auctioned position he is in. The best foreign policy advocate we had in recent times was Sirima Bandaranaike. Act of Rajasinghe II when he sought the assistance of Dutch to defeat Portuguese was a failure. Now it is not exchanging ginger with chilies. It is a combined dose of ginger and chilies.
At this point when the country is divided it paves the way for unnecessary foreign intervention. Therefore, those who ignite communal unrest for political gains are real traitors although they pretend as patriots.
The best thing the majority Sinhala Buddhists can do is to stay calm in this grave hour. If Sri Lanka is not divided by way of ethnicity and religion that would be the best internal defense we would have in this type of troubled times.