From Jayalalithaa to Trump:Sri Lanka’s missed opportunities and new distractions
by Rajan Philips
Jayalalithaa and Trump in one article title might seem farfetched. Ordinarily so, but we are not living in ordinary times; even though our times are not extraordinary for any particularly heroic reason. The Jayalalithaa-Trump nexus is appropriate to discussing Sri Lanka’s missed opportunities and new distractions. My purpose in discussing Sri Lanka’s missed opportunities vis-a-vis Tamil Nadu is to explore if things could and would be different in the future.
As for new distractions, President Sirisena’s reported overtures to American President-elect Trump may create a foreign policy conundrum for Sri Lanka, given Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s surprising enthusiasm for forging even stronger dependence on infrastructure investments from China than it was under Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Donald Trump’s international forays as president-elect have created waves of amusement and apprehension in global capitals, but Beijing dropped its diplomatic gloves in response to Trump’s tweet (un)diplomacy over Taiwan. On Friday, the Chinese Navy even seized an underwater exploratory drone belonging to the US in the South China seas just to send a signal to Trump. Perhaps it needs a Chinese mandarin to teach the new presidential version of the old Ugly American that there is more to international relations than the business transactions of billionaires and multinationals.
Where will Sri Lanka stand if China and the Trump-led US get into a nasty stand-off in world affairs? Not that either of the two superpowers or going to take too much notice of little Lanka, nor will they have any reason to have the islet get squeezed in their global muscle-flexing. But the question for the Sri Lankan government is whether it is worth investing in opportunistic external relationships to overcome domestic difficulties. Sri Lanka has been down that road before under Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose ill-advised attempts to lobby the US government and establish ties with Israel produced no dividends to the Rajapaksa government or the country, but only a drain on the country’s external finances and the defeat of the Rajapaksas in national elections.
The Rajapaksas lost the battle in Geneva and lost also the presidential war in Sri Lanka, four years after winning the war with the LTTE.
The west was happy to see Sri Lankan voters defeat Rajapaksa, just as it was happy to see the LTTE defeated by the Rajapaksa government. In their own ways, the Rajapaksas and the LTTE were overcome by a common egotistical defect.
The LTTE misread western support for minority and human rights as a blank cheque for terrorizing political violence.
The Rajapaksas took their version of fighting terrorism as licence for overriding minority and human rights and extending their presidential tenure.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the first Sri Lankan to miscalculate west’s support in addressing Sri Lanka’s domestic crises. The credit for that must go to, of all people, JR Jayewardene, who early on in his career was given the nick name “Yankee Dick” by Pieter Keuneman. JRJ began his presidency beckoning: “let the robber barons come” – to come and turn Sri Lanka into a den of riches, but not for all the people.
The ethnic nuisance became an all-consuming detractor and ten years after trying every manoeuvre imaginable, President Jayewardene gave up on the west and publicly acknowledged that he should have turned to India far sooner, and eventually made the turn to Delhi to negotiate, draft, accept and controversially sign the now infamous Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. he Agreement and its offspring, the 13th Amendment, have stood the test of time surviving four, now going five, Sri Lankan presidents after JRJ, and as many prime ministers and governments over thirty years.
13A is still part of the constitution unlike 18A that got overturned within five years of its making, but only in partial fulfillment of the yahapalanaya promises made to the people by the present government in January 2015.
Delhi, Chennai and Colombo
As the chronological table on this page shows, there have been quite a few changes in governments and heads of governments in New Delhi, Chennai and Colombo over the last forty years, more so in Delhi than in the other two. India went through ten prime ministers in the twenty years between 1977 and 1997. But the flurry of changes at the top had no impact on the flexible continuity of India’s constitutional and political system that was put in place soon after independence. The changes were the result of the unravelling of the Indian National Congress which, at the time of independence and until the death of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964 after 17 years as Prime Minister, was virtually synonymous with India. By 1977, Chennai and Tamil Nadu had experienced ten years of DMK government after DMK’s victory and the defeat of the Congress Party in 1967. For half a century since, Tamil Nadu has been the most stable and successful state in India to be governed continuously by a regional party, first the DMK and then alternating with its offshoot, the AIADMK.
The Sri Lankan chronology after 1977 shows stability, but only in appearance, and belying the underlying constitutional chicanery and political turmoil. But to the point of this article, President Jayewardene and the UNP government, for the first few of their 17 years in office, not only courted the west but also made it a point to exult over the defeat of Indira Gandhi and the Congress government in India and celebrate the 1977 victory of the BJP government with Morarji Desai as Prime Minister. The motivation for this intemperance towards a neighbouring country was entirely domestic – to mock at the SLFP that had been claiming exclusive relationship on behalf of Sri Lanka with Indira Gandhi and her Congress government. President Jayewardene had to pay a high price for this unwarranted indiscretion when Indira Gandhi returned as Prime Minister within three years. Although the Agreement that he signed seven years later with Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister was more by necessity than by choice, it helped restore some normality in the strained relationship between the two countries. But within a year of the Agreement, Rajiv Gandhi was out of power in Delhi and President Jayewardene went into retirement in Colombo. Their successors in both countries were indifferent at best and hostile at worst to making the Agreement work.
Where was the Tamil Nadu government in all of this? It is fair to say until 1983, the two DMKs and their governments were not overtly supportive of Sri Lankan Tamil separatism. MGR, as Chief Minister, was quite hostile to the TULF whose leadership was closer to the DMK and its leader Karunanidhi. After 1983 and after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, MGR became a benefactor to the LTTE, which while it had political consequences was not motivated by any grand political design on MGR’s part. His motivations were mostly idiosyncratic and he found easy camaraderie with the LTTE leader than he would have had with the more professional TULF leaders. Everything changed after MGR’s death in 1987, the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka, and the LTTE’s assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in during the 1991 election campaign. The shock of the assassination ensured a congress victory in the general election with the veteran Narasimha Rao stepping in to form a stable Congress government that would serve out its full term. That same year in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister for the first time, leading the AIADMK to the first of its four electoral victories under her leadership. The 1991-96 years became the years of economic liberalization in India at the national and state levels, led by Manmohan Singh then serving as the Union Finance Minister. Tamil Nadu became one of the three most successful Indian states in economic liberalization and expansion, establishing itself as a regional powerhouse in the auto sector. By and large India and Tamil Nadu significantly reduced their preoccupation with Sri Lanka and its Tamil question during these years.
New Actors on the Scene
Those same years in Sri Lanka present a different story. The economic liberalization that was started more than decade earlier in 1977 was by now plateauing, if not stalling. There was brutal infighting within the UNP government over political succession, and the LTTE kept assassinating both Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders in deadly symmetry. Corruption, cronyism and political thuggery became the norm and after seventeen years the people were ready to throw the UNP out of power lock, stock and barrel. The victory of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance were as much a watershed event in the 1990s as the 1956 MEP alliance’s victory was a watershed in the 1950s. On the Tamil question, President Kumaratunga began new peace and constitutional initiatives, but in a major difference with the past, these initiatives had a more internal emphasis to them than external inspirations or pressures. New external facilitators, primarily Norway, got involved, but nothing could succeed without LTTE’s sincere commitment. Even the more elaborate peace process launched by Ranil Wickremesinghe with Norway’s full involvement, in 2002-2004, while in an uneasy cohabitation with President Kumaratunga, ended in failure for the same reason.
India became a key player but without direct involvement in these exercises. Establishing contacts and direct connections with the Tamil Nadu government was not in anybody’s radar in Sri Lanka. As I speculated last week there was an opportunity to establish these connections with Jayalalithaa when she was Chief Minister – first during the first two years of the Kumaratunga’s first term (1994-1996), and later more fully when Jayalalithaa’s second term (2001-2006) coincided with Kumaratunga’s second term (2000-2005) and the entire duration of the Wickremesinghe peace process (2002-2004). Even if these connections had been made, they would not have mattered much after 2005 when the efforts and initiatives of both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe were nullified by the results (and their aftermaths) of the 2005 presidential election with the LTTE leader playing a direct hand in it.
A majority of the leaders in the chronological table, with the exception of Prime Minister Modi, President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the new Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Panneerselvam, are now dead and the others are out of power. The vexed Sri Lankan national question and its Indian implications have not disappeared, although they are manifesting themselves differently from what they were at any time after 1977. It is possible to be optimistic that the old problems are more amenable to a solution than they had ever been before. A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for success is for the current actors to think and act differently than any and all of their predecessors. Reaching out to the new American president to bail out Sri Lanka in Geneva without making any changes at home is not going to produce any worthwhile outcome. Equally, rather than countenancing the breaking of coconuts to divine a desired outcome in a US election, Sri Lankan Tamil political leaders must deal with their southern counterparts to find a just and fair solution to the Tamil problem.