The national security adviser’s (NSA) one-day visit to Colombo on June 29 coming in the wake of India’s vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council in March, was all about the application of sustained pressure on it to address the legitimate grievances of its Tamil population. The need for such pressure arises from the fact that three years after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) there has been no progress on addressing the issue of the human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan forces and on the long-promised provincial autonomy for the local Tamils. On the contrary, a creeping Sinhalisation and deepening militarisation of the north is underway that is generating widespread fear and anger amongst the Tamil populace.
The Rajapaksa government, far from working towards a genuine reconciliation with the Tamil population, is riding rough shod over its hopes and aspirations. Such an approach is short-sighted and could lead to the revival of a violent Tamil backlash.
During his visit the NSA not only met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, foreign minister Peiris, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and minister for economic development Basil Rajapaksa but also the Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan.
It is evident from his media interaction in Colombo that the NSA had done some much needed plain talking. While underlining that India was committed to a united Sri Lanka he reportedly added that it must be one in which ‘all communities’ felt that they were in control of their destinies and were ‘satisfied’. Similarly, while asserting that the hopes of the Tamils could only be accommodated through an ‘internal political process’ this had ‘ramifications for all of us’ and India would therefore continue to remain engaged with all concerned and do whatever it could to make sure that it moves in the right direction. While stating that India would not sit in ‘judgement’ on anyone engaged in the process of reconciliation he refused to indicate on whether or not he was satisfied with the pace of the reconciliation process.
The Sri Lankan media has got the message about India’s unhappiness in the matter. The Daily Mirror went so far as to state that India had expressed its displeasure over the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to break the deadlock in evolving a political solution to the national question, to address land issues in the north and to scale down the presence of the military there. It further made out the NSA had indicated that Sri Lanka should expect no ‘blind backing’ from India when its human rights record came up for the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council in November.
Not unexpectedly Indian firmness has elicited a negative reaction in Sri Lanka. The Island, for instance, attributed this to ‘unreasonable’ and ‘irrational’ pressures from Tamil Nadu and argued that ‘external advice’ does not help but hinders a solution to the Tamil problem. It went on to argue that all South Asian countries faced similar problems of centrifugal forces undermining the nation state and Sri Lanka was wary of granting extensive powers to regional councils based on ethnic and regional lines. It had achieved peace at a very high cost and the same would be preserved.
The above negativity is at a piece with anti-Indian statements made by Sri Lankan leaders following India’s support to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. This should not cause India to deviate from its approach of trying to persuade the Sri Lankan authorities to address the legitimate concerns and aspirations of the Tamil community that alone can ensure the success of the reconciliation process so essential for establishing lasting peace and stability.
Obviously, persistence with such a policy is likely to have a short term negative impact on our relations with Sri Lanka which will not hesitate to play the China and Pakistan cards. It is to be hoped that this does not cause India to renege on its firm approach as it alone can deliver on our longer term interests of preventing the emergence of a reincarnated LTTE and of helping establish a Sri Lanka at peace with itself.
India should now be much more proactive, using both negative and positive leverage, in its efforts to prevail upon the Sri Lankan authorities to meet the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the Tamils. Some of the steps that India could consider in this regard are:
n India should make known that if the Sri Lankan government does not address the human rights concerns of the Tamil community it will have no option but to support human rights resolutions targeting Sri Lanka.
n India has in the last two years committed over $1,100 million in economic assistance programmes for Sri Lanka. The nature and size of these programmes should be calibrated to the extent to which the Sri Lankan authorities are prepared to move forward on the issue of reconciliation. Assistance should be vastly increased if they show reasonableness and greatly reduced if it persists with the present charade.
n India should evolve a bold and imaginative programme of cooperation with Sri Lanka designed to radically transform its economy. The execution of such a programme should be contingent on Sri Lanka’s moving positively on reconciliation. The inclusion in this programme of measures like modernisation of Sri Lanka’s rail and road infrastructure, upgrade of its fishing fleet, building of IITs and IIMs, opening up of our institutions of higher learning to Sri Lankan students etc, would greatly enhance its attractiveness.
n A concerted exercise needs to be undertaken to persuade all sections in Sri Lanka of the pressing need for reconciliation — primarily in Sri Lanka’s own interest. Towards this end, apart from reaching out to the establishment, we also need to reach out to the opposition, the monks and the Muslim community.
n Closer contacts need to be established with the Tamil leadership in order to eliminate the trust deficit that has developed over time. We need to reassure it that India will always be on hand in realising the legitimate aspirations of the community within a one Sri Lanka framework. This will help enormously in persuading it to grasp the olive branch if and when the same is proffered by the government and in preventing it from resorting to extremist agendas.
Satish Chandra is former High Commissioner to Pakistan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org