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    Goofing up on Sri Lanka    

Omkar Goswami


Call it the ‘big brother syndrome. Call it lack of strategic thinking. Call it pandering to Tamil Nadu. Whatever the reason, India always seems to make a hash out of its affairs with Sri Lanka. And loses goodwill with this island nation.

Let’s go back a bit. By the mid-1980s, the conflict between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority erupted to a civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. Many LTTE training camps were in Tamil Nadu with the state government offering tacit support. New Delhi turned a blind eye.

In June 1987, when India air-dropped humanitarian supplies on Jaffna after the city was besieged by the Sri Lankan army, the island’s canny president, Junius Jayewardene, asked Rajiv Gandhi to mediate. The siege of Jaffna was lifted and an accord was signed in July 1987 between the governments of Sri Lanka and India, without the LTTE being a party. Under the accord, the Sri Lankan troops withdrew to their barracks, and the Tamil rebels were to lay down arms.

Jayewardene knew that the accord would not be honoured by the LTTE. So, he inserted a provision stating that the Indian army would be committed to offer military assistance should it be asked for by Sri Lanka, and that there would be an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to enforce the cessation of hostilities. Soon, a force of a few thousand soon grew to 60,000 troops or more. By October 1987, all semblance of ‘peace-keeping’ was broken with the IPKF moving against the LTTE in Jaffna. Facing determined, well armed LTTE guerrillas, the IPKF started getting mauled — with the worst massacre taking place at the Jaffna football ground. Body bags started returning to India. The Sri Lankan Tamils now loathed the Indians.

Once again, we have goofed it up. After the Sri Lankan army killed Prabhakaran and defeated the LTTE in 2008, its government reached out to build a better relationship with India. It wanted India to participate in building infrastructure destroyed by the civil war; to set up industries; and to invest in the nation. Things started well: during 2008-10, some $215 million of FDI came from India.

Then came the US-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution against the war and post-war crimes in Sri Lanka. There is little doubt that there such crimes were committed against the Tamils. But there is more to diplomacy and international relations than grandstanding to appease Tamil Nadu. We not only voted in favour of the resolution, but also gave free rein to India’s envoy, Dilip Sinha. His communiqué noted in pointedly anti-neighbourly language India’s concern with “the inadequate progress by Sri Lanka in fulfilling its commitment” relating “to missing persons, detainees, disappearances and abductions… return of private lands and withdrawal of security forces from the civilian domain in the Northern Province.” As if that weren’t enough, Sinha reiterated India’s “call for an independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives.” Imagine someone asking for that in J&K!

Our showboating hasn’t impressed India’s Tamils. The DMK withdrew its support to the central government. And it has again ruined our relationship with the Sri Lankan government. Contrast this with China. Huawei is the biggest investor in telecoms; China is building the Hambantota Development Zone, which involves an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery and an international airport; it has got into offshore oil exploration; into modernising the Sri Lankan railways; and is building power plants and highways. In addition, China is the biggest military supplier to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

China is a friend of Pakistan’s and developing the Gwadar port. It is a friend of Sri Lanka’s and will develop Hambantota. And a friend of the regime in Myanmar — building an oil pipeline up the Irrawaddy to Kunming.

While China encircles us through its ties of ‘friendship’ and non-interference in internal matters, we continue to posture and alienate. Who goofs?
Published: Business World, April 2013


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