Two recent references to Sri Lanka by high level representatives of foreign governments have caused concern in government circles. This is not surprising considering that the relationships with the US and India are among the most important in Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. One was the note on Sri Lanka by Robert O. Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, in his Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia. The other was a reference to the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamils by Sonia Gandhi, leader of India’s ruling Congress party, at an election rally in Chennai.
If in fact “the Sri Lankan government was being persuaded” by India “to amend its constitution to provide a political solution to the Tamil issue” as IANS reported Gandhi as saying, this is an unusual way for Sri Lankans to discover it - through media reports on an election rally in Chennai! Sri Lankan politicians have reacted hotly, and claimed that clarification would be sought from India. But could this have been a mixed-up reference by Gandhi to the 13th Amendment, or the “13 – plus” (that Delhi has favoured) in Sri Lanka’s ongoing exercise of negotiating a political solution to Tamil issues? And is Colombo overreacting?
Frayed nerves are not surprising on both sides of the Straits, in view of events in the coming week. In India, State Assembly elections are scheduled to take place on April 13 in Tamil Nadu (and Kerala and Pondicherry). The ruling Congress party is in alliance with Karunanidhi’s DMK party in Tamil Nadu, where politicians have always shown a tendency to exploit Sri Lankan Tamil issues for political gain. The DMK nearly staged a pull-out from the alliance earlier on, and a former DMK minister is implicated in one of the biggest corruption scams in recent Indian history. Congress no doubt has much to worry about in this election.
In her campaign speech Gandhi also reportedly referred to the killing of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan territorial waters, saying she had been assured there would be no firing on Indian fishermen. Emotional issues are known to sway voters in Tamil Nadu which is home to 60 million Tamils.
Meanwhile around the same time (April 13 – 15) Sri Lanka expects the release of a report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon’s advisory panel on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It is said the report may end up at the UN Human Rights Council. Blake’s reference to human rights has generated angry responses on the assumption it has been deliberately timed to precede the release of Ban’s report. But his speech was not directed at the Sri Lankan government. Blake was reporting to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the South Asian region as a whole, and Sri Lanka naturally had a place in this ‘testimony.’ The smaller countries in the region were discussed within the context of India’s overarching importance, from the point of view of US strategic interests.
“With the fulcrum of geopolitics shifting quickly to Asia, India plays an increasingly critical role in our strategic thinking” Blake said. He went on to describe how “a strategy of sustained, multi-faceted engagement with India contributes to stability and security in the United States, the South Asia region, and the world.”
Compared to the other South Asian states mentioned (Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan) the importance attributed to Sri Lanka in this report in terms of its strategic value to the US, is relatively high. Whether this is our fortune or misfortune is another matter. Sri Lanka has perhaps been spared the ravages experienced in some other parts of the world precisely because it has till now not been of much strategic use to the US. According to Blake:
“Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the U.S. An important contributor to global peacekeeping operations, Sri Lanka stands poised to be a capable and willing partner to effectively combat violent extremism, trafficking and piracy, and thereby help to ensure the maritime security of the region.”
It is in this context that he goes on to say:
“But the Government’s worrisome record on human rights, weakening of democratic institutions and practices, and the way in which it conducted the final months of its conflict against the Tamil Tigers hamper our ability to fully engage.”He apprises the Committee of positive developments in Sri Lanka such as setting up of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, resettlement of the majority of 300,000 IDPs, progress in de-mining, reducing high security zones, hiring Tamil speaking police and starting a dialogue with the TNA. But he says that more needs to be done, and that “We have urged Sri Lanka to take credible and meaningful steps towards accountability and have warned that a failure to do so is likely to generate pressure for an international commission.”
It would seem that this admonition needs to be viewed in the context of the overall thrust of the ‘testimony,’ which is not entirely negative. The position spelt out here by Blake is consistent with his previous statements such as at the Asia Society in New York last month. Some of the issues highlighted by him on that occasion have been roundly deplored in Sri Lanka as well. While no sovereign state likes to be lectured and hectored from outside, a government needs to heed criticism that comes from within, if it is concerned about its own long term stability.
For example many question the need for continuation of emergency regulations two years after the war’s end. It seems as if hapless citizens are being told that the country is free of terrorism on all days of the month except the day on which the extension of emergency is being debated in parliament. On that day of the month, and that day alone, it appears, there is a resurgence of terrorist activity in some part of the country, Tiger training camps are discovered in India, etc., etc!
The 18th Amendment which put an end to term limits and provided for further concentration of powers in an already powerful presidency, is another contentious issue. Electoral victory, decisive though it was, did not give a mandate for such radical change. The regime needs to rethink its position on these issues not because any outside power says so but because it owes it to the country.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist