The Buzz over Sri Lanka
As Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla began his visit four-day visit to Sri Lanka on October 2 at the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart Jayanath Colombage to review bilateral relations, there have been interesting developments relating to Sri Lanka in recent months leading to much speculation. Some of these developments are as under:
- A day before the address by Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa Gotabaya to the 76th UNGA on September 22, his office in Colombo issued a statement saying internal issues of Sri Lanka should be resolved through an internal mechanism and that the Tamil Diaspora would be invited for discussions.
- Separately, Rajapaksa told Antonio Gutteres, UN Secretary General, he would not hesitate to grant presidential pardon to Tamil youths who have been held over a longtime for their association with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Earlier, on being elected President in 2019, Rajapaksa had stated that he won elections because of Sinhala majority and would work for their interests. He had refused any talks with Tamils till now.
- Rajapaksa’s surprise turnabout to hold dialogue with Tamils followed recent announcement by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) of being in possession of some 1,20,000 pieces of evidence on abuses of Tamils by Sri Lankan troops during the final phase of fighting the LTTE.
- In March 2021, UNHRC adopted a resolution to collect evidence of crimes committed during the country’s brutal three decade-long civil war against the LTTE; calling upon the Sri Lankan government to ensure prompt thorough impartial investigation and if warranted, prosecution of all crimes relating to human rights violations.
- COVID-19 has hit Sri Lankan economy hard, especially tourism industry. If the UN imposes sanctions on account of HR abuses of Tamils, it will hit Sri Lanka’s economy further.
- According to a recent AidData report, 165 countries owe at least $385 billion to China in hidden debts, raising the risk of these countries falling into debt traps and being forced to sell strategic assets to Beijing – both Sri Lanka and Pakistan fall in this category. The four-year-long research also highlights that Chinese have strategically played down debt numbers while reporting to international institutions like the World Bank. Sri Lanka was debt-trapped by China to hand over Hambantota Port for 99 years. Chinese investments and securing land in the process has continued to grow unabated.
- As of January this year, Sri Lanka needed to make foreign debt payments totaling $3.7 billion having paid $1.3 billion. Fitch Ratings downgraded Sri Lanka to its CCC category, saying the country’s foreign debt obligation will balloon to $29 billion over the next five years.
- The economic turndown has prompted Sri Lanka to look more towards India. Last month India’s Adani Group signed a build-operate-transfer (BOT) agreement with its local partner John Keells Holdings and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) to develop the Western Container Terminal (WCT) of the Colombo Port. Adani Group will reportedly have a 51 per cent stake at WCT.
There is whole range of opinions about Rajapaksa Gotabaya inviting Tamil Diaspora for discussions; ranging from possibility of implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted after the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1987 that provides for devolution of power to Tamils, to Rajapaksa’s call being a bogey. In this context, a number of issues need to be taken into account as discussed in succeeding paragraphs.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has 16 members in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. An amalgamation of four Tamil parties (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, IIIankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), TNA was formed in October 2001. After defeat of the LTTE in 2009, TNA dropped the demand for an independent state, saying it is ready to accept regional self-rule. Because of this, TNA cadres have been facing attacks. Three of its sitting Members of Parliament were assassinated, which TNA alleges was by ‘government-backed’ rival groups.
The rivalry between Tamils and Sinhalese runs deep given the religious and ethnic differences. This continues to create hostility between the parties. The scars of the 26-year long military campaign that defeated the LTTE in May 2009 cannot be forgotten easily. An estimated 100,000 people were killed between 1982 and 2009 in the civil war. These included 27,639 Tamil fighters, more than 21,066 Sri Lankan soldiers, 1000 Sri Lankan police, and tens of thousands of civilians. Some 20,000 civilians are missing.
Rajapaksa Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary under President Mahinda Rajapaksa (his brother) from 2005 to 2015, and oversaw the defeat of the LTTE; Sri Lankan military using air and artillery with impunity and reports of massacres towards the end when the LTTE were hedged into an area with the sea behind them.
Tamils in Sri Lanka are just over 11 percent of Sri Lanka’s total population and have been ignored by successive Sri Lanka administrations. Of more concern to Rajapaksa is the Tamil Diaspora abroad that has helped collect data, in conjunction sources residing within the island nation, of Sri Lankan military’s abuses and HR violations against the Tamils, exposing these effectively through media.
The pressure of sanctions is more on developing nations. Pakistan is clearly fidgety after 22 US senators moved a bill seeking assessment of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and in the Taliban offensive in Panjshir Valley, demanding the report not later than 180 days and annually thereafter, with first report covering support by state and non-state actors, including Pakistan’s government for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020.
Rajapaksa’s call for dialogue with Tamils in all probability could be just a tactical ploy to mellow down the UNHRC and avoid UN sanctions. He would also seek China’s assistance for this; the UN has not sanctioned China for HR violations in Xinjiang beyond showing “deep concern”. For that matter, the UN has not even sanctioned Pakistan for its genocide on Balochistan.
The Sri Lankan Army denies any human rights abuses and there is no question of Rajapaksa taking any action against the rank and file of the military in this context. However, because of the pressure of possible UN sanctions, he may open some sort of dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora and also release ‘some’ youth jailed all these years for having association with the LTTE. This too could depend on the progress of the discussions with Tamils. It is quite possible that China has advised Rajapaksa for doing so.
China is doing all it can to get into northern Sri Lanka on the pretext of development projects, gain influence over the Tamils and use the region as springboard for anti-India activities. Not without reason the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) runs courses in Tamil Language. In September 2018, 10 Chinese youth (nine girls and one boy) were learning Tamil. The only other Indian languages taught at BFSU are Hindi and Bengali.
In Tamil Nadu, South India, both the DMK and AIADMK have traditional links with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, only difference being that the DMK has actively supported the LTTE throughout. Pakistan’s ISI will naturally collaborate in China’s anti-India project in northern Sri Lanka and also help roping in the Kerala-headquartered Popular Front of India (PFI) which despite having an armed wing is not even banned in India.
Finally, there is little hope of Rajapaksa bestowing full devolution of powers to Tamils as warranted by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. However, he may agree to giving some odd concessions. Also, the Rajapaksa government will continue to tilt heavily towards China.