The smallest of diplomatic gestures are sought to be analysed from the prism of China-India rivalry on the island nation of Sri Lanka. The fact that India’s high commissioner in Colombo could meet the new President, Maithripala Sirisena, within hours of his victory and the Chinese envoy could not for more than six days, has been much commented upon. Then there was a report that the Colombo station chief of India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, played a crucial part in forging anti-Rajapaksa coalition, leading to his expulsion just ahead of the voting, which led to much speculation and vehement denials from both India and Sri Lanka.
That Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister but old hand in diplomacy, Mangala Samaraweera, made New Delhi his first diplomatic destination is being seen as a significant departure from the recent past. That Mr Sirisena will be in New Delhi in February and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a state visit to Sri Lanka in March — which will be a first by an Indian Prime Minister in 28 years, after Rajiv Gandhi’s unhappy sojourn in 1987 — is reason enough to say there’s been a shift in Colombo’s diplomatic policy.
But both Mr Sirisena and Mr Modi will have to go beyond the optics to recalibrate Indo-Sri Lanka relations in the wake of a decade long period of pro-China policies pursued by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Consider this: Between 2005 and 2012, China provided $4.761 billion as assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this only two per cent was outright grant while the remaining 98 per cent is in the form of soft loans. By contrast, a third of India’s $1.6 billion assistance programme to the island comprises outright grants. There are genuine fears that Sri Lanka will be unable to repay such large loans, in time giving the Chinese the opportunity to turn part of the loan into equity, thus becoming part owners of vital projects and installations.
The Chinese had cleverly played on Colombo’s fears of isolation in the wake of the Eelam War IV and granted concessional loans. For India the greater worry was Colombo’s enthusiastic endorsement of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road and linking the development of Colombo and Hambantota Port to the Chinese-led initiative.
Moreover, post-2005 China increased its military supplies to the Sri Lankan military manifold. By a conservative estimate, the Sri Lankan Air Force and Army have more than 60 per cent Chinese origin equipment in their arsenal. Mr Sirisena’s new government is likely to reverse many of the recent controversial projects like the Colombo city port initiative, but given the deep inroads Beijing has made in the island nation, he may not get too far in sidelining China in Sri Lankan affairs. He will also have to repair ties with Western nations which had ostracised Colombo over allegations of human rights violations during Eelam War IV. India must support Sri Lanka in its stand-off with the West that seeks to punish the country for alleged human rights violations while backing internal investigations. The new government, according to Mr Samaraweera, has already decided on a just domestic probe not coloured by prejudices of the West.
New Delhi will welcome this but the new rulers in Sri Lanka should not be driven by calls for retribution against the Rajapaksa brothers. In his defeat, Mr Rajapaksa’s contribution in ending one of the world’s most brutal insurgencies waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cannot be forgotten or underestimated. Mr Samaraweera, who met Prime Minister Modi and his counterpart Sushma Swaraj during his two-day trip to New Delhi earlier this week, has made the right noises. “It (the inquiry) is not about revenge but about truth. Those who suffered during the war are entitled to know what happened,” he remarked.
Mr Sirisena’s bigger task will be to build a truly inclusive society since his coalition has managed to secure votes from across the broad spectrum in the country, including minority Tamils and Muslims. Mr Sirisena’s first priority will therefore be to gain confidence of the Tamils who have voted in huge numbers for him if only to defeat Mr Rajapaksa. That may not be easy though since he heads a hastily put together anti-Rajapaksa coalition that comprises chauvinist Sinhala far right parties opposed to any preferential treatment to minorities. These parties, like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), would resist any major concessions to the Tamils as they have done in the past.
India will, therefore, be keenly watching how the new government moves on the long pending demand for genuine devolution of powers to Tamil envisaged under the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Mr Samaraweera said in Delhi that all it needs is a strong political will to grant the concessions to the Tamils.
The Muslims too contributed significantly in Mr Sirisena’s victory resentful as they were of Mr Rajapaksa turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots unleashed by extremist Buddhist outfits in 2013. Two major Muslim parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by justice minister Rauff Hakeem and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by minister Rishad Bathiudeen, defected to Mr Rajapaksa’s opponents, decisively tilting the scales in
Mr Sirisena’s favour. They too will demand their pound of political flesh.
Balancing the aspirations of people and parties that have propelled him to an unexpected victory will thus be President Sirisena’s major challenge. New Delhi will do well to support this effort even as it seeks to regain its strategic space in the island nation.
The writer is a strategic affairs analyst and long-time Sri Lanka watcher