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Obama's 'Deepavali' visit to New Delhi and it's Implications for Sri Lanka

Nov 2, 2010 5:11:36 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Except for the single piece by an Indian columnist (a former senior civil servant), there is hardly any mention, leave alone assessment, in the Sri Lankan newspapers, of a portentous event with (at least) indirect implications for our country, and which has been discussed in publications and seminars from Washington to Delhi, Islamabad, Tokyo and Djakarta. That is the Deepavali visit of President Barack Obama to India followed by Indonesia and Japan.

The visit of the leader of the world’s sole superpower to the South Asian region’s preponderant power, at a time when the two states are strategic partners, is of great significance. It should be of cardinal significance to a small state on the doorstep of the regionally preponderant power. Closer ties – political, strategic, cultural, economic and diplomatic— between the state with the most powerful navy plying the Indian Ocean (the US) and the Indian Ocean state with that ocean region’s most powerful navy (India) should certainly be of first order strategic significance to a small island state located within that ocean.

Sinhala and Tamil opinion makers got it very wrong once before. In the Jayewardene –Athulathmudali era, the South thought that its relations with the USA could offset the enormous strategic weight of our inescapable neighbour India. We paid a terrible price for that monumental and obvious miscalculation.

The Tamil opinion makers made the opposite error. They thought that their leveraging of the Tamil Nadu factor, and through it, Delhi, could secure the Tamils of Sri Lanka a deal far beyond anything that minorities of comparable size and proportion had obtained elsewhere. They were partially and momentarily successful but that achievement proved ephemeral. Both the Tamils and India suffered for that equally monumental miscalculation.

So the Sinhalese ideologues overestimate the internal factor at the expense of the external, while the Tamils do the opposite.

Of course, in their continuing dialogue of the deaf, each would argue that we are no longer in the 1980s; things have changed. One side would count on the Indo-US convergence, the other the rise of China. One side would mention the Sri Lankan state’s monopoly of force throughout its territory and the elimination of the Tamil insurgency and the other would note that the liquidation of the Tigers also means that there is no Tamil army that will, for its own reasons, resist India and ironically serve the South as a proxy or balancer.

It is not that the identification of these factors is wrong. It is that those ideologues, Sinhala and Tamil, who bring them into the debate, seem to overestimate their favourite factors and are unable to understand their respective limits. Another round of ethnic conflict and contention in whatever form, is not necessary, if only reason and good sense can prevail.

Having commenced with a critique of the myopia of the South, one must complement it with a tale of miscalculation in the North. In a recent interview, the TNA’s respected leader Mr Sampanthan states his perspective on the resolution of the Tamil question today, in post- war Sri Lanka, and it is a perspective that, in its fundamental assumption, is lamentably wrong. He says:

"...People must have the right to determine their destiny in the territory in which they live, within the framework of a united, undivided country. After the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement in 1987, the 13th amendment was the first constitutional step. Thereafter, efforts have been made over a period of 23 years to evolve a political solution that will be acceptable to the people through the Mangala Munasinghe Select Committee proposals during President Premadasa’s time, through the constitutional reforms that emerged between 1995 and 2000 during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s time, through the Oslo declaration and the Tokyo communiqué during prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s time, and through the APRC after President Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005. The President addressed the inaugural meeting of the APRC, the experts’ committee report and the deliberations of the APRC. Much work has been done. A fair amount of consensus has emerged from these processes." (Interview given to Arthur Wamanan, The Nation, Oct 31, 2010).

1. Mr Sampanthan does not tell us why the 13th amendment was ‘the first constitutional step’. That is a position that was not reflected in the Indo-Lanka Accord and the understandings of the time. Discussion on future measures to fully implement either the Accord or the 13th amendment in no way envisaged another Constitutional step. The 13th amendment was never intended by Colombo to be a first step of a ladder!

2. If Mr Sampathan were so positively disposed towards each of the exercises he lists here, from the Mangala Moonesinghe to the ’95-’2000 CBK proposals and the 2003 Tokyo declaration, he and his party should have welcomed and supported them at the time, which they did not.

3. Mr Sampanthan seems to live in a Wonderland in which the proposals he listed were never accepted and implemented because of the prevailing balance of forces and climate of opinion, but can be built upon or considered ‘steps’ at a time which is politically, strategically and ideologically far less conducive to their acceptance or even consideration.

4. He does not explain how he thinks a constitutional enhancement in the direction of internal self-determination will pass muster at an island-wide referendum. Perhaps he knows it won’t but wishes to delineate the ‘Tamil polity’ that will, as a future zone for the exercise of external self determination.

Mr Sampanthan’s deus ex machina seems to be India. He fails to comprehend the lessons of the Accord and of today’s Afghanistan. External factors can force a solution but the internal factor is needed to make it stick.

The Tamil leadership didn’t just miss the bus –it missed a whole fleet of buses. Having done so, it must recognise that the external balances can only prevent the roll-back of prevailing Constitutional arrangements with a bilateral backdrop, not unfurl a telescopic ladder to self determination of a minority, just as the Sinhalese establishment and society must recognise the converse. While Delhi supports self-determination in cases of foreign aggression and territories internationally recognised as occupied, no leadership in the global South is as allergic as is India’s to the slightest notion ‘self determination’ of ‘peoples’ or territories within the borders of existing states. This is with excellent and fairly obvious reason.

If the Tamils’ right to self determination is recognised or conceded and exercised anywhere, it won’t be on the island of Sri Lanka.