By Dayan Jayatilleka –
On Oct 8th 2020, the day that a member of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (and a former Foreign Minister) arrived in Sri Lanka, a State Minister of the Government of Sri Lanka frontally criticized India and Prime Minister Modi in the Sri Lankan Parliament.
The Associated Press (AP) gave the politician a promotion in its rendition of the story, but captured the essence of what happened. The story was captioned ‘Sri Lankan minister criticizes India for power-sharing call’ and kicked-off thus:
“A Sri Lankan minister said Thursday that India has no moral right to interfere in the country’s internal affairs by insisting on power sharing with minority Tamils because New Delhi failed to fulfil its obligations under a 1987 agreement to disarm separatist rebels and ensure an end to Sri Lanka’s civil war. Provincial Councils Minister Sarath Weerasekara’s comments in Parliament are seen as the island nation’s response to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s request last month to his Sri Lankan counterpart, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for the full implementation of constitutional provisions for power sharing with Tamil minority regions…”
The Modi-MR summit was cordial, cooperative and non-contentious until the morning after. The Weerasekara onslaught would surely make the South Block and indeed any Foreign Ministry in any capital, wonder as to his status in relation to that of our PM. Who responds to Indian Prime Minister Modi for the Sri Lankan government, on a point he made during the virtual summit? The PM? The Foreign Minister? Or State Minister Weerasekara?
If the timing was a blunder, the PM or Foreign Minister should have clarified in Parliament that the State Minister’s view was his own. The President should have pulled him up. But the next day, October 9th, when the high-level talks with China were underway, the same State Minister followed up his anti-Indian attack with another, at a public event.
Weerasekara is a member of the ruling SLPP, of Viyathmaga and Eliya, and a close confidante of the President. The landmark Viyathmaga second convention at the Shangri-La Hotel in mid-2018 which showcased Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Presidential candidate, opened with the on-screen image, showing Gotabaya Rajapaksa with only one other person in the frame, leaning over the shoulder of the seated GR—and that was Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara (Retd.). He has been handpicked by the President to be in charge of the Provincial Councils, a subject which has stood for thirty-five years at the political interface of the Indo-Lanka relationship. His Oct 8th 2020 speech in Parliament warrants review.
Firstly, he went head-on for the Prime Minister of a neighboring country and not just any neighboring country. India is our closest neighbor and there is a colossal asymmetry of power between our two states. He lashed out at the Indian PM at a time in which there is no polemic between India and Sri Lanka; therefore, it was not in self-defense. Prime Minister Modi only reiterated what he had said many times before, and indeed, stopped short of reminding the regime that its present PM and President (as Secretary/Defense and ‘Troika’ member) had made the same promise to India during wartime. With disrespectful testiness the State Minister said:
“Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked our Prime Minister to implement the 13th Amendment although the amendment is an internal affair of this country. When foreign governments adversely commented on India’s abrogation of Article 370 from its Constitution, accusing India of scrapping the special status given to people in troubled Jammu and Kashmir region there, our prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa when asked to comment said that it was an internal matter of India. Knowing that the 13th Amendment is an internal matter of Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Modi is asking for its implementation does not show the same reciprocation. Some interpret that PM Modi is asking so on the mandate of Indo-Lanka Accord. But the question is whether India has adhered to its own commitments specified in the Indo-Lanka Accord. The 13A is not even mentioned in the Accord. The Accord is something forced down on us by India.”.
Secondly, Weerasekara articulated the position that India has no right to request the implementation of the 13th amendment.
“It should also be asked whether the agreement was signed under duress, or whether contents of the agreement compromised Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. When our forces were about to crush the LTTE and capture LTTE leader Prabhakaran at Vadamarachchi, India violated our airspace and dropped food and medicine in Jaffna famously known as dhal dropping operation of India.
Also, it mentions Trincomalee Harbor and Oil Tank Farm. The Sri Lankan courts have nullified the merger of the northern and eastern provinces which was one of the clauses of the Accord.
So, there is a serious concern about the validity of the agreement and if it is not valid, India has no moral right to interfere in our internal affairs.” (Ibid)
Thirdly, he engages in a surreal judgment of Nehru and a grotesque denunciation of one of the most rational and socially progressive South Indian, Indian and perhaps even South Asian political figures—Periyar. He denounces Periyar’s agitation against the oppressive, Brahminic caste system– which the Buddha radically dissented from– as fascistic (“Nazi-style anti-Brahmanism”).
“…Let India be reminded that soon after its Independence there was a separatist movement by the Dravidians. EVR Periyar advocated Nazi style anti Brahmanism. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru broke India into 28 linguistic states…”
Periyar was influenced by his tours of the Soviet Union and was regarded as socialistic, if not Marxist-influenced. It is hardly surprising that Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and casteism – or one may say, anti-anti-casteism– should go hand in hand.
Except in the imagination of Sri Lanka’s State Minister for Provincial Councils, Nehru did not “break” India “into” anything. India has not been “broken” into 28 states. The Nehruvian model of linguistic states is universally acclaimed as a success in keeping together large concentrations of diverse people, preventing actual break-up over a long period, which many countries have failed to do. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar hosted and addressed an international conference at the BMICH on “The Indian Model of Federalism” because he thought we should adapt (not adopt) it.
Fourthly, Weerasekara made clear that he, who is placed in charge of the Provincial Councils, stood opposed to the Province as the unit of devolution –and so too did the regime. This is reflected in his use of the term “we”. He outlines what must be regarded as the position of the GR regime:
“Here, we talk about devolution of power with the province as the unit with provisions for mergering (sic) two provinces…So, Balkanization of Sri Lanka into provincial governments through 13A will invariably affect the existing unity of India. The promoter will then become the victim…That is why the experts say power should never be devolved on the basis of ethnicity. The 13th Amendment provides for ethnic enclaves. We know the devolution of power as opposed to decentralization and result in the division of our nation.”
…So, we do not believe in the devolution of power but of course in decentralization up to the lowest levels. The Centre must retain the power. Our culture of governance was centered with the ruling king…” (Ibid)
On October 9th, with the high-level Chinese delegation meeting the President and the PM, Weerasekara criticized Prime Minister Modi at a televised public event, and made the utterly significant declaration that “devolution means the sharing of power. We must eliminate the term from our political vocabulary.”
The State Minister for Provincial Councils reveals that the regime categorically rejects (a) the very idea of a negotiated political solution to the Tamil Question based on cross-district/provincial semi-autonomy, dating back to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and (b) the outcome and premises of Indian diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka over the Tamil question for almost four decades. The ‘double rejectionism’ is total.
Absent any disclaimer, one assumes Weerasekara has a greenlight to articulate the paradigmatic perspective of the Gotabaya presidency. The perspective has a huge strategic blind-spot:
1. Sri Lanka is no longer simply on the doorstep of the regional sub-superpower; it is now located on the doorstep of a member of ‘The Quad’, a quasi-military strategic alliance covering the Indo-Pacific vastness, with implications for the global balance.
2. Delhi may not run the risk of sowing the seeds of long-run disaffection in its strategically vital Southern cone, Tamil Nadu, by being perceived as abandoning the Sri Lankan Tamils to their fate at the hands of hawkish Sinhala supremacism.
3. Delhi may not risk being perceived by friends and rivals alike, as permitting the unilateral redefinition of the content of a bilateral accord by a neighboring small state whose power-elite has turned it into a dependency/political stronghold of China.
4. Delhi is hardly likely to risk being perceived not only in its traditional sphere of influence the neighborhood, but also among its Quad partners, the larger Indo-Pacific region, and most especially in Beijing, as a ‘Paper Tiger’.
5. Colombo’s imaginary Godfather in the 1980s, President Reagan—and in the current regime’s imagination, probably President Xi– sent his special envoy Gen. Vernon Walters with a message for President Jayewardene: “settle it with India”. No rising Great Power can enable Colombo to bypass or ignore axiomatic geostrategic reality.
State Minister Weerasekara spoke in the plural, uses the terms “we” and “our”, both in and out of Parliament. Would this or any other State Minister attack President Trump or President Xi in the manner that Weerasekara attacked Prime Minister Modi and India? Would the President and PM have let him? Would the US or Chinese Embassy have remained totally silent?
The GR regime has forgotten Sri Lanka’s isolation in 1987, when in a rare consensus during the Cold War, the USA and the USSR (not to mention Castro’s Cuba) supported India’s Accord initiative. The combination of (a) relinquishing Nonalignment (b) recoil from India and provincial devolution and (c) faith in a distant power –the USA in the 1980s, China in 2020, and Israel then and now– is the exact formula that led to our isolation, and is being recycled.
If India focuses southwards on perceived Chinese political influence on its perimeter and a renewed, post-election USA (under whichever administration) focuses eastward on a determined containment or rollback of Chinese influence, a China-dependent, China-model Sri Lanka under its imprudently involuted power-elite led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, could be caught in the crunch.