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Sri Lanka becoming battlefield for proxy cold war between China and India

Jun 12, 2010 11:10:14 PM- transcurrents.com

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers -” African proverb

The Indian International Film Awards (IIFA) became a test of strength between the Rajapakse administration and Tamil Nadu Tamils, and, at the end of the day, Colombo was the loser.

Most major Bollywood stars, giving threadbare excuses, stayed away from the event, which is said to have cost Sri Lankan taxpayers close to a billion rupees.

According to The Sunday Times of June 6th, the actors and the actresses who did come to Colombo failed to show up at a brunch organised by President Rajapakse in their honour. As a reprisal for this churlish behaviour, President Rajapakse, who was billed as the chief guest at the IIFA awards, did not put in an appearance. The entire enterprise became a colossally expensive failure from the point of view of Colombo and the most unsuccessful award ceremony in the brief history of IIFA. The sole winner was the South Indian film industry which boycotted the event and asked Bollywood stars to follow suit to protest the treatment meted out to Lankan Tamils by the Rajapakses.

The lesson is obvious. Though the Tiger is no more and Lankan Tamils are cowed, Indian Tamils and Diaspora Tamils together can still pose a formidable challenge to Colombo. And their capacity to do so will remain so long as the problems of the Lankan Tamils are unresolved.

The war has been won. Vellupillai Pirapaharan, his family and all top and middle level Tiger leaders are dead. The LTTE is decimated. And yet, Sri Lanka is not out of the woods, manifestly. Regionally and globally Lanka’s reputation as a vindictive winner is growing, which, in turn, is causing a steady increase in the sympathy for the defeated and defenceless Tamils. Given this context, Lanka’s woes will not be over until a political solution to the ethnic problem is instituted and normalcy is restored in the North and in the Tamil areas of the East.

Army Commander Jagath Jayasuriya’s recent remarks about the need for a political settlement are apposite; his realism is a welcome change from the Sinhala supremacist myopia of his predecessor and his political bosses. In a speech to a group of businessmen, on the first anniversary of the defeating of the LTTE, Gen. Jayasuriya said that “it is up to the government and the people now to fund the root cause of the problem and give a proper solution… I believe in the end a proper solution is needed” (The Straits Times – 11.6.2010).

Unfortunately his words are likely to be unheeded, if not scorned. The Rajapakses will not deliver a political solution, because they do not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem, as the President himself had stated, publicly, time and time again. Disbelieving in the existence of an ethnic problem, they, logically, do not see the need for a political solution.

In the Sinhala supremacist narrative, the Tigers were conjured into being by inimical international forces (including India) to destroy Lanka, the sole refuge of Sinhala Buddhism. Alien Tamils always wanted to possess Lanka, and in this desire they had been aided and abetted, from way back in history, by other alien races and religions.

According to this worldview, the Sinhala Only and other legislative measures introduced since 1956 to ensure Sinhala supremacy are warranted acts, long overdue steps to restore the ‘natural balance’ which the British (and other colonialists) destroyed. Even the Black July is seen as a ‘justifiable reaction’ by ‘much goaded’ Sinhalese. In this narrative, there are no Tamil (or minority grievances) and being ‘aliens’ in Sri Lanka, the Tamils (and other minorities) have no right to grievances. The Rajapakses subscribe to this ‘Sinhala Zionist’ worldview, by and large. Consequently, only the wilfully inane and illogical could have believed and can continue to believe that the Rajapakses will deliver a political solution to the ethnic problem, with or without the Tigers.

Not only will the Rajapakses not deliver a political solution; even the restoration of normalcy or a real improvement in the living conditions of the North-Eastern Tamils is unlikely to happen, except marginally and minimally. The fact that the 2010 budget sets aside Rs.201 billion for defence but only Rs.2 billon for resettlement demonstrates the very low priority accorded by the government to Tamil wellbeing. It also reveals the regime’s inability/unwillingness to see the nexus between development and security. Given such a militarist mindset, reconciliation is but a mirage, a delusion spun occasionally by the state media, for purposes of propaganda.

So India is faced with the classic, take it or leave it, Hobson’s choice. Delhi would know that President Rajapakse will not deliver a political solution (this time even face-saving promises were absent) and – worse still – will hollow out the 13th Amendment leaving only the shell (disempowering the provincial councils seems to be the main purpose of the proposed senate). But post-war, India has little wherewithal to push the Rajapakses into a more compliant mindset. And given China’s very obvious determination to take Sri Lanka into her orbit, Delhi will be particularly vary of ruffling Colombo’s feathers too much.

It is clear that the China factor (and not the Tamil factor) is the focal point in Delhi’s Lankan policy. India seems to be competing with China to give aid to Colombo, to undertake infrastructure projects, to assist in international fora.

The obvious indication of this new priority is India’s curious insistence on being permitted to open a consulate in Hambantota. Delhi is engaged in a race with China burdened by a severe handicap. Beijing does not have to bother about political solutions and human rights; in any case, China is notorious for her uncritical support for notorious human rights violators in the region and outside. India would like to be equally blasé, but given the Tamilnadu factor she cannot.

Delhi must be seen to be doing something for Lankan Tamils, or risk discontent in Tamil Nadu. Already ominous signs are emerging. According to media reports, “passengers in the Tiruchirapalli-Chennai Rockfort Express had a narrow escape when suspected pro-LTTE elements blasted railway tracks at Perani railway station in Villupuram district… Leaflets condemning the visit of the Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse were found from the spot, the police said” (Hindustan Times – 12.6.2010).

Delhi is thus in a bind. It knows that in the absence of a political solution to the ethnic problem and a rapid improvement in the living conditions of the Tamils, Northern Sri Lanka will become radicalised; this can cause a reactive radicalisation in Southern India. A political solution to the ethnic problem is thus critical not only for Lankan peace and stability but also for stability in Southern India. But Delhi is virtually powerless to bring about this desired outcome. Worse still, it cannot even express its displeasure with Colombo too strongly and too publicly for fear of pushing Sri Lanka completely into the Chinese orbit.

According to unconfirmed media reports, India is to initiate direct talks with the Lankan Tamil and Muslim parties about a political solution to the ethnic problem. If true, this decision will rile many in Sri Lanka. Already the UNP’s Ravi Karunanayake (of the Pamankada-Alimankada fame), in an outburst which would have done Cyril Mathew proud, has condemned the move.

But, given the obduracy of the Rajapakse administration, given its obvious disinclination to share power with the minorities, such a step by India is understandable. From the Joint Statement issued by the two countries, subsequent to the discussions between Mahinda Rajapakse and Manmohan Singh, it is clear that Delhi brought up the issue of a political solution to the ethnic problem and Colombo stonewalled it with verbiage.

Delhi would have got the message, and initiating talks with the Tamil and Muslim parties may be its response to Colombo’s recalcitrance. Given the potency of the Tamil Nadu factor, India cannot afford to be seen to be doing nothing, even if she achieves precisely that in the end.

In the 1980’s the Jayewardene administration followed a policy of wooing the West as a counter to India and to Indian pressure on the Tamil issue. This strategy backfired, because, for Washington, as for Moscow and London, Delhi mattered far more than Colombo did or ever could. China then was a third rate regional power. Today she is the pre-eminent regional power and, according to some analysts, a potential contender for the status of the global hegemony.

China, in consonance with this new international gravitas, is making a concerted effort to build a chain of allies and client states, and seems more than willing to stand foursquare behind Sri Lanka, vis-à-vis India and perhaps even the West.

The Rajapakses have adopted a policy of playing India and China against each other and gaining concessions from both. It is a difficult balancing act and how long it can be maintained without turning Sri Lanka into a locus for a proxy cold-war between the two regional powers is uncertain. The contending powers will not content themselves with wooing the government. They will try to win friends and recruit allies in every field, from politics to the media, from the economy to academia, from the armed forces to the cinema and the theatre, in order to plug one’s line and discredit the enemy. Their rivalry will thus divide the already hopelessly divided Lankan society, yet again, between Indophiles and Indophobes, Sinophiles and Sinophobes.

Becoming the friend of both India and China makes sense; but permitting Sri Lanka to be turned into a battlefield for their proxy cold-wars does not. The best antidote to this potential ailment is to diversify dependence, to cultivate other countries for aid and investment. But for this, the unresolved ethnic problem is an insurmountable barrier. Like India, the West too wants to see the root causes of the war addressed. And unlike India it will not hesitate to disengage or even chastise, when faced with Rajapakse obduracy.

The uncertain fate of the GSP+ is a case in point as is the growing pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate war crime charges. Incidentally, outbursts, such as the diatribe by the Defence Secretary, merely serve to strengthen the suspicion that Lankan forces did commit war crimes.

If there is nothing to hide, why should Mr. Rajapakse go into a fit of apoplexy when told that the former Army Commander is willing to give evidence before a war crimes tribunal? When Mr. Rajapakse says, “He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that….. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar”, the impression is of a man with something to hide and is determined to hide it, at whatever the cost.

Given the precarious economic and financial conditions of Sri Lanka, and the less than sympathetic attitude of the West, Colombo has no choice but to depend more and more on China and India for economic assistance and for politico-diplomatic help in warding off a war crimes inquiry. This means, like Delhi, Colombo too has come to a Hobson’s choice.

Even if it is aware of the dangers of overdependence on contending regional powers and of the consequent possibility of Lankan becoming a locus for their rivalry, Colombo has no choice but to turn towards China and India. Because so long as the Rajapakse unwillingness to deal with Tamil concerns endures, other avenues of help are blocked. The danger of being sucked into other peoples’ battles is clear, but given the Rajapakse obduracy, Colombo has little choice but to risk it and bind itself ever closer to Beijing and Delhi.