For India, Sri Lanka is not indispensable, but for Sri Lanka, India is indispensable
An Interview with Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Question: President Mahinda Rajapaksa left for India recently and he is set to show his Indian counterpart a draft of the proposed Constitutional amendments. This is seen by many as a gesture of subjugation and their requests to open a Deputy High Commissioner’s office in Kandy and a consulate office in Hambanthota and their insistence of implementing the 13th Amendment are seen by many as attempts to impose their will on Sri Lanka?
Answer: You use the term ‘many’. Who are these ‘many’ and where are they? I have only seen criticisms voiced by the usual handful of Southern extremists, and some small political parties both in government as well as defeated ones. President Rajapaksa is a patriot and a realist, a pragmatist. The handful of critics may be patriots but they are not realists. When we antagonized India we could not win the war, but when we correctly managed relations with India, we won the war. If India had opposed us or not supported us, we may not have been able to win or withstand the Western moves to stop the war. There is a saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Every relationship is reciprocal. Sri Lanka has to reciprocate for India’s support.
We must bear in mind that we still need that support because, though the hot war has been won by us, a cold war continues against us in the global arena.
We need India’s support to balance off those who are hostile to us or are influenced by the pro-Eelam trend in the Tamil Diaspora. India is our buffer with the USA. Delhi is under pressure to take a stand hostile to us, or to stop supporting us. That pressure comes from Tamil Nadu but not only from Tamil Nadu...from India’s civil society as well as some of India’s Western friends. If India stops supporting us, not even the Non Aligned Movement will defend us fully, because they take their cue from respected Third World states such as India.
If India allows Tamil Nadu or Kerala to become rear base areas once again for LTTE activity, we will have endless security problems. It is only someone who is deaf, dumb and blind to geo-political realities, who will not admit that India has a stake in our Tamil issue, simply because they have 70 million Tamils separated from our territory by a narrow strip of water. As for the 13th Amendment, I must say very clearly that this is the cheapest price to pay. It is simply a matter of letting the Northern and Eastern provincial councils have the same powers as enjoyed by the provincial councils in all other parts of the island for the last 20 years. If we don’t settle for the 13th Amendment now, we shall jeopardize our military gains and we shall probably have to pay a much higher price some years from now.
The request to open a consulate office in Hambantota seems to be an attempt to balance out the Chinese influence in the area. Wouldn’t this add to the already existing tension between the two super powers? And how would this tussle affect Sri Lanka?
We have to balance carefully between China and India. China is our most consistent and strongest single friend, but the reality is that even with its growing power, China is rather too far to come to our aid if our closest and only neighbor makes a move that is unfriendly to us. As we saw during the tsunami, India’s Navy can put a ring of steel around this island in hours, and even project her naval power up to Indonesia. China’s Navy has not yet developed such a capacity.
We must be aware of our strategic vulnerabilities. We must understand the limits of our China card. In the 1980s, J R Jayewardane’s UNP government thought that Sri Lanka can play the American card against India but he failed. Today, no one must have the opposite but similar illusion that we have a China card to play against India. Even China will not want to upset its relations with giant India, over little Sri Lanka. China did not come to its ally and our friend Pakistan’s aid during the Kargil crisis, when it was pushed back by India. China doesn’t want the West to entangle and entrap it in a tussle with India, which will prevent the onward rise of Asia as a whole.
Sri Lanka must realize that there is a miracle going on, namely the economic rise of Asia, which is propelled by two engines, China and India. It is bigger than the original Industrial revolution! If we plug into both these engines, we can rise with the rest of Asia. If not, we shall be left on the ground, like Myanmar. The man renowned as the Sage of Asia, Lee Kwan Yew, recently said that China and India are two great trees and that Singapore must find a spot in the shade where the branches of these two great trees intertwine. I think that is true, and good advice, for Sri Lanka too.
Although India can match China or the USA in meeting Sri Lanka’s economic needs, it cannot help us on the world political stage as do China or the USA who have UN veto powers. Your opinion please?
India is a member of G 20. It is also a member of many groupings of intermediate powers such as BRICS which consists of Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. If India gives a green light the West, will move against us. The US hasn’t so far, because of its strategic partnership with India, which it needs in order to balance off China. As I said before, without India’s support we will not even get that of our ‘tribe’ the Non Aligned Movement. India has longstanding close relations with Russia, South Africa and Latin America. In fact, India is one of the few powers that have support in the West as well as the East, in the North and well as the South, while China and the USA are competitors who do not have support in some parts of the international system.
We must never forget that despite China’s goodwill, not a dog supported us when India went against us in 1987. Today, despite China’s political support, Sudan is before the International Criminal Court, because it was referred there by the Security Council and China did not block it. The basic reality is that Sri Lanka’s closest friend China is not closest to Sri Lanka physically, geographically! We must neither embarrass nor overburden our friend China nor must we place all our eggs in the Beijing basket.
It was China and Russia that helped us out in the United Nations in the recent past. And they can also assist us in the future as allegations of war crimes gather momentum. So are we jeopardizing their support by seemingly giving into the demands of the Indians?
Russia will not help us if India says not to. Take that from me. The US would have moved against us in the UN and more importantly the IMF last year, if not for India putting in a word in our favour. We have been operating under the Indian and Chinese umbrellas diplomatically, but if the Indian umbrella is furled up, nobody will back us. Our friends will start stepping away from us. This is the basic point: India is so big; it is such a vast market and so powerful an economic player; it is so vital strategically, that no one will take our side against India; no one will support us if India is known to be against us.
I can tell you that as far as certain key issues go, such as the Tamil question and a political settlement with the Tamils, there is no difference between the views of India, China, Russia and the USA! That is true of the Non-aligned countries as well. You noticed that we almost had a problem recently with a pro-Tamil Eelam infiltration and manifestation in revolutionary Venezuela! All these countries want us to settle the Tamil problem politically, by which they mean some kind of autonomy. No one supports Tamil Eelam and no one, not even the USA, has called for federalism, but everyone, and I mean all our friends, want us to solve this problem fast, by means of devolution of power. For India, Sri Lanka is not indispensable, but for Sri Lanka, India is indispensable. That is the cold reality. That is the hard fact.
Can we use the interest shown by all these powers, China, India, USA and the EU without eventually antagonizing one or more parties?
Of course, we can. Lakshman Kadirgamar did it. Before that, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike did it. But we cannot keep saying no to every issue to everybody! And we cannot manage on our own! We must reach out to all, on all points of the compass. We must dialogue with all. Prof GL Pieris has the ability to do that, which he has proven with his successful US trip and meeting with Hillary Clinton. Once again, we have a foreign minister that every Sri Lankans and Sri Lankans everywhere can be proud of.
We must have a policy that defends our vital interests, and compromise on things that are not vital. We must safeguard our core strategic and security interests, while making concessions on tactical issues. Each of these powers has something we need and each of them needs something from us. In order to get what we need we need to give something, which sometimes means giving up something. We cannot have the kavum and eat it at the same time!
The first thing is to understand that we cannot live in isolation, like frogs in the well. If we try, we will crash economically and the Tamil Eelam forces waiting outside the country will triumph. We must also understand that we cannot have everything our way; we cannot negotiate with the rest of the world from a position of strength because we do not have such strength. To build up strength we must have good relations with the world and expand those relations, getting as much as we can and more importantly, learning as much as we can. Each of the global players or sectors you mentioned wants certain things from us, and we should give them whatever does not harm our core interest and our good relations with the other global player or friend. We can have a policy of good relations with all, but at the expense of none.
Since we have an external enemy working round the clock against us, namely the pro-Tamil Eelam section of the Tamil Diaspora, our international policy must be one of building the broadest global united front; the widest global partnerships. If we don’t isolate the Tamil Eelamists, they will isolate Sri Lanka! Here I must repeat what I said earlier: the one thing that all the players you mentioned - China, USA, India, EU, have in common is an urgent need to see Sri Lanka release and rehabilitate IDPs, reconstruct the North and east and arrive at a political settlement with the Tamil people based on some form of autonomy and self-administration. If we do that, we can remove or reduce the pressure on Sri Lanka on issues of war crimes etc. As a top Chinese diplomat and official once told me “You must help us to help you. Sri Lanka must give its friends something to help Sri Lanka with”.
One year after the defeat of the LTTE, what is Sri Lanka’s position in the world. Would you agree if I say, we have not properly used the opportunities given to us to improve relations with other countries? South Indian politicians and its population are still very much anti-Sri Lankan, a sentiment which was clear during the recently held IIFA. Elements of Tamil extremists have set up a transnational government and seem to have gained many sympathizers in the west?
One year after the victory in war, Sri Lanka is not where it should be, either in the world or internally. We have lost the war of opinion in the world’s media. If, as I had recommended, we had quickly followed up the military victory with the implementation of the 13th Amendment while the TNA was disoriented, we’d have been dealing with our ally Douglas Devananda. We lost that moment and momentum because of some small ideological caucuses of ultranationalist pundits who have a disproportionate influence. Even after that opportunity was lost, there are things we could have done.
The government has made the same mistake as the Bush administration after the war in Iraq, namely the absence of a clear postwar plan and program for the area and primarily, the people. Our military did its job superbly, but who congratulates us internationally, one year after? No one, not even our friends defend us publicly when we are criticized! Why? Because, the politicians and the development ministries have not followed up the achievement of the military.
We fought and won a Just War (‘Saadharana Yuddhayak’), but the world looks at us and does not see a Just Peace (‘Saadhaarana Saamayak’) having resulted. What the world sees is something like an occupation of a foreign country or foreign people. Because we do not yet have a Just Peace, world opinion doubts whether it was a Just War to begin with! That is not a sustainable peace.
Simply put, if by today we had a Tamil Chief Minister and an elected Northern Provincial council, the IIFA partial boycott would not have been possible and furthermore, we may not have had this much international pressure on ‘war crimes accountability mechanisms’ either. If we could have shown results in the North, winning the Tamil people over with a fair and just peace, the rest of the world would have told those who criticize us to shut up.
I must also say that in the year after the war, Sri Lanka is losing, or has lost the battle for world opinion. I am not speaking only of the West. In a brand new book, the highly respected senior leader of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew says that though the Tamil Tigers have been killed, the problem has not been settled and that Sinhalese extremism will be unable to keep the Tamils, who are a ‘capable’ community, ‘submissive’. So it is not just the INGOs and the liberal west which is critical of our postwar policies, direction and situation.
Col. P. Hariharan in his article “India’s concerns in Sri Lanka: Update no. 199’ says that ‘the three things he (Rajapaksa) achieved in his first term of office - wiping out Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers, re-election for a second term with increased margin of votes and an unprecedented victory in parliamentary poll with 60% mandate from the voters - give him the confidence to talk from a position of strength to New Delhi.’ Do you think it’s an accurate description of the situation since it stands in contrast with many other commentators who claim that President Rajapaksa has no other option but to agree to everything that India puts on the table?
The only leaders who can talk from a position of strength to New Delhi are President Obama of the USA and President Hu Jin Tao of China, but they are both wise enough not to do so.
What can Sri Lanka do to overcome the challenges both locally and internationally in the coming years?
We must use our brains, and may I say our best brains. We must deploy our best talent to face the global challenge and fight the Cold War against Sri Lanka. We must rebuild our educational system to the point that we can produce those who can compete in the global arena and beat those forces hostile to us. We need to build up quality human resources. Today our external and internal relations are tied together. Our external relations depend in large measure on how we resolve our internal problem with the Tamils.
Remember that it is not a purely internal problem though we may like to think so. In the first place the world is globalised; humanity lives in the era of globalization, so there are no purely internal questions. In the second place the Tamils are spread not only in Tamil Nadu but throughout the world, from the USA to Malaysia and South Africa. We must learn from King Dutugemunu. He wiped out the armed Tamil challenge as manifested in a separate kingdom with a separate king and a separate army. He knew that with the Indian Ocean at our backs, we cannot tolerate two kingdoms with two rival armies on this small island.
However, the story tells us that after the victory he appointed a Tamil sub-king and allowed the people of the area to be governed according to their cultural norms and customs. As a wise strategist he didn’t try to control and dominate everything, nor did he try to change the basic character of the area he had liberated. What he implemented postwar, is another word for provincial devolution within a strong unitary state. King Dutugemunu was wise enough not to think of culturally colonizing the Tamils. We cannot wipe out the Tamils collective identity.
If they think we are doing so, they will resist peacefully. If we are seen by the world to crush non-violent Tamil civic resistance, not in the cause of Tamil Eelam or in support of the Tigers, but simply to protect their identity and ancestral homelands, then we will embarrass our friends and we shall have no one to back us. This is when the pro-Tamil Eelam Tamil Diaspora will have its day. Who knows what stand the big powers and the UN will take then? It is far better to have a timely political process and grant a measure of autonomy while the state is still on top.
[Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, formerly Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, is currently a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore. This interview appeared in Lakbima News.These are his personal views and do not reflect the views of the Institute.]