The New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a leading Indian think tank engaged in research on defence and security related issues, held its yearly South Asia Conference from Oct. 30th – 31st.  It brought together experts from South Asian countries to discuss issues under the theme ‘India and South Asia: Exploring Regional [...]


Tamil Nadu and the Diaspora – ‘A great and complex challenge to Sri Lanka’


The New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a leading Indian think tank engaged in research on defence and security related issues, held its yearly South Asia Conference from Oct. 30th – 31st.  It brought together experts from South Asian countries to discuss issues under the theme ‘India and South Asia: Exploring Regional Perceptions.’  In an exclusive email interview with the ‘Sunday Times’ from New Delhi political analyst Dayan Jayatilleka who was a delegate at the conference conveys a sense of the climate of opinion in India’s strategic studies community, in relation to Sri Lanka.  Dr Jayatilleka is former Ambassador/Permanent Representative of  Sri Lanka to the UN Geneva; former Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Sri Lanka to France  and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO.                                                                                                                         

Q.            This conference organised by the IDSA and supported by the Indian Ministry of Defence was attended by scholars, diplomats and experts from India’s South Asian neighbours, with the Indian Defence Minister A K Antony delivering the inaugural address. The theme relates to perceptions among states in South Asia towards India, factors shaping such perceptions and ideas on how they can be managed, to foster better bilateral relations, regional cooperation etc.  Given this background, at the end of it what was your assessment of the climate of opinion in the Indian government establishment about Sri Lanka, and the status of the bilateral relationship?                                                                                                                                                      

A:            I do not think the attendees at the IDSA annual conference on South Asia could be said to reflect the opinion of the Indian government establishment. Though the IDSA is linked to government—and here I must add, it is not only the Ministry of Defense but also the Ministry of External Affairs that supports it– it conducts independent research and the research fellows and staff are independent minded specialists who do not take their cue from the Government of India. It is no echo chamber. There were around 150 members of the audience who were basically strategic and security policy analysts and area specialists, with a sprinkling of officials. One may call it a significant segment of the strategic studies community.

From what I could discern, there is some concern and confusion with regard to missed opportunities for post war reconciliation on the part of Sri Lanka, the slow pace of delivery on promises of devolution as per the 13th amendment, the lack of progress on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations, the long term alienation of the Northern Tamils by overly large military footprint in the North, and the attitude of ‘triumphalism’ in the discourse of the regime.

My conversations left me with the impression that these strategic analysts believe that militant Tamil Nadu sentiment could have been forestalled and could still be countered by adequate devolution and implementation of the LLRC which would revive and restore better relations between Colombo and Delhi. My interlocutors were concerned about a new political culture which seemed to have arisen in Sri Lanka which was less democratic, more authoritarian, more militarized, more religious and ethno nationalist and less open minded than they recall Sri Lanka as being. What is the direction in which Sri Lanka is going, and what is the future that Sri Lanka envisages, seemed to be a question. There was some amazement that the Sri Lankan establishment seemed to think that the globalization of the Lankan issue – most visibly in the form of UNHRC resolutions and forthcoming moves in Geneva– could be countered by Colombo with only the support of China and Pakistan. I definitely got the impression that Sri Lanka has an image problem in Indian public opinion, that it had depleted its soft power and that a sophisticated new generation of young activist-lobbyists from Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora were beating Sri Lanka in winning hearts and minds.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Q.      In spite of the recent resolution in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly demanding that India should boycott the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka, in the past few days there have been opinions expressed by Congress leaders like Manishankar Aiyar and in the Indian media, suggesting that it would be in India’s interests for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend it. Why is the question of India’s attendance/ non attendance important?                                                                           

A:            It is important for Sri Lanka not to appear to have a breach or downgrade in its relations with its sole neighbor who also happens to be one of two Asian superpowers and the only one who has a strategic relationship with the world’s sole superpower. The global Tamil Eelam movement is trying to shrink Sri Lanka’s international space and to isolate Sri Lanka. It is seeking to widen the gap between India and Sri Lanka. It is therefore in Sri Lanka’s interest that this does not happen.

Thus it would help us if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to attend. It would be a victory for the anti-Sri Lanka fanatics in Tamil Nadu if he did not attend and a victory of good sense if he did. It would also strengthen the pragmatists –or perhaps more accurately, the rational, pragmatic tendency or impulse– in government, state and society who/which won a crucial policy battle and pushed through the Northern provincial election after a quarter of a century. A downgrade in India’s representation would discredit the pragmatists and strengthen the arguments of the xenophobic elements within the State. From the point of view of India’s enlightened self-interest I do not see how it could be beneficial to be perceived as succumbing to political blackmail by Tamil Nadu in an issue of foreign policy. Such a retrenchment would subtract from India’s soft power in the South Asian region.                                                                                                                                                     

Q.      The Commonwealth is seen by many nowadays as being somewhat irrelevant, a ‘relict of the colonial past’ etc. With Sri Lanka becoming the venue for the summit, suddenly it seems to have become an intensely contested space in the battlefield of ideas (there is heated debate in some quarters as to whether heads of state should attend or not, and why).  Your comments? 

A:            The campaign against Sri Lanka in the UK and Canada and the criticism that will manifest itself at the summit and its sidelines, should be a reality check for the Sri Lankan state. India, Canada and the UK are far from insignificant states. The Malaysian Opposition has also called for a boycott.

Though the boycott call will fail, the volatility in the international arena around the Colombo CHOGM shows that the Sri Lankan state has lost the battle for international public opinion. Graham Greene once wrote a famous novel called ‘The Ugly American’. Thanks to the hubristic and truculent postwar ethos and discourse of the regime, it has been possible for the anti-Sri Lanka global campaigns to project an image of ‘The Ugly Sri Lankan’, or more correctly, ‘The Ugly Sinhalese State’. We have almost lost our soft power, while Burma/Myanmar has regained hers! We have a chance to re-grow our soft power if we change our political culture and behavior once we take over as Commonwealth chair. If we don’t we’ll be a propaganda, political, diplomatic and even economic target, a veritable dart board, as never before.    

Q.      The conference’s Concept Paper suggests that India has concerns about negative perceptions of itself in the region. Indian Defence Minister Antony in his inaugural address said: “In regions plagued by conflict and underdevelopment, mistrust has an impact on the behaviour amongst states. In such a scenario, perceptions often get divorced from the reality. Perceptions of countries about each other in the region are not too favourable for regional cooperation.”  A Sri Lankan hearing this might think Antony was referring to perceptions about the status of Sri Lankan Tamils across the Palk Strait, where an anti Sri Lanka campaign has reached a peak. Does the Indian government establishment reflect an awareness that ‘perceptions’ in Tamil Nadu are divorced from ‘reality’ – particularly in relation to the fishermen’s issue? Did this issue come up for discussion at all at the conference? 

A:            The issue of the fishermen did not come up specifically. There was however a clear sense that the states—and certainly this includes Tamil Nadu—would have a greater salience in domestic politics and perhaps even foreign policy, than before. In a speech significantly enough in Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi has called for a greater role in foreign policy to be given to India’s states. This is something that Sri Lanka will have to factor in and reckon with. The Tamil  Diaspora is stronger and more in touch with Tamil  Nadu than ever before, there is more anti-Lankan fanatical sentiment in Tamil Nadu than ever before, Tamil Nadu is more influential at the Center (Delhi) than ever before and India is a closer strategic partner of the USA than ever before. It is a great and complex challenge to Sri Lanka. The regime’s strategic policy planners are out of their analytical league, out of their conceptual depth.                                                                                                                                                                            

Q.      What perceptions emerged at the conference on China and its influence in the region?                                                                                                                                                                                       

A:            There was no fear of China, because India is a self confident power which considers itself a marathon runner as one participant described it, due to the presumed systemic superiority in the long term of democracy and democratic values. India’s self confidence also stems from its new and growing partnership with the US and the West, cemented by those common democratic structures and values.  It also rests on India’s naval power which can use the Andaman and Nicobar islands to make China’s supply routes less than invulnerable. It was noteworthy that the country that had made most headway in South Asia in economic relations with China is none other than India itself. So there is a strong element of cooperation with China. There is however a discernible element, not of hostility, animosity or antagonism, but competition.

Within the conference, those of us – all ex-ambassadors- from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh maintained a common posture of refusing to budge from our nonalignment between China and India and to engage in any unfair or one-sided criticism of China. Outside the formal conference proceedings there was a bit of irritation that Sri Lanka seemed to think unrealistically and irrationally it could sustainably countervail India and its Western partner by clutching at a distant China.

Q.      You made a presentation at the conference titled “A Perception from South Asia’s Far South: The Geopolitical Matrix of Indo-Sri Lanka Relations.” Briefly, what was your argument in this paper?  

A:            Since the paper is to be published in a volume, I think it would be incorrect for me to give a sneak preview. I would rather you go by whatever report the IDSA rapporteurs upload on their website. I can say though that I urged against a role in foreign policy for Tamil Nadu that smacks more of a confederation rather than a quasi-federal India, and that if such a role were perceived to have been accorded and if India’s Sri Lanka policy seems unduly influenced by an anti-Lankan pan-Tamilian nationalist, pro-Tamil Eelamist Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka would act or react as any state would under the circumstances anywhere and at any time in history, when there is a threat on a vulnerable periphery from a neighboring landmass. It would seek out whatever allies it can get—and here I quoted Kautilya’s Arthashathra, to the effect that one’s neighbor’s neighbor is one’s natural ally. I also argued that undue external pressure would cause devolution to a vulnerable periphery would be scrutinized under a security microscope for its centrifugal and irredentist potential, and that within the state and ruling bloc there would be hardening and a shift in the centre of gravity.                                                                                                                                     

Q.        Following from your responses to the above questions, in your opinion what kind of change is needed for Sri Lanka to effect a ‘course correction’ – in terms of domestic political culture, and in the way the state relates to the rest of the world? 

A:            There must be no illusions that our problems will cease or abate with a change of administration in Delhi. In fact a Modi administration will not be like the earlier BJP administration of Atal Behari Vajpayee. A Modi administration will be more robust and tough-minded in its reactions to perceived Chinese and Pakistani influence in India’s neighborhood. It will regard China as more a rival than a mere competitor, especially in the South Asian region. A Modi administration will also have a far greater role for Jayalalitha. Both these factors cannot but impact adversely on Sri Lanka. Lord Buddha recommended that the searchlight should be turned inwards. We need reflection, introspection, to understand why we are losing international support, losing the international battle, while having obtained much international support a mere four or five years ago.

This is a strictly postwar deterioration and decline in our international standing. Turning the searchlight inwards is the very opposite of what the strategists and ideologues of the regime are doing– which is to blame everyone apart from oneself; to see the source of the problem in everybody other than ourselves and our own attitudes. One of Sri Lanka’s traditional strengths over decades has been our democratic political culture, the rule of law and the control of the civilian authorities over the military. We were almost a Third World exception and even a South Asian exception, together with India. Now the growing external perception is that Sri Lanka is moving towards authoritarianism, ethno-religious majoritarianism and an excessively large role for the military. This is the profile of Sri Lanka that must be changed for the better. This profile is credible, though exaggerated, because the evidence is provided by the backward, arrogant and crude discourse of the regime itself– and here I am not referring to President Rajapaksa who is a much more pragmatic and flexible personality with decades of experience in the give and take of democratic politics.  Our international vulnerability greatly increased and our international support decreased precisely in the second Presidential term, not the first one which covered the war years. In the postwar years covering the second presidential term, there has been a shift in the ratio of forces within the regime and state.

That has in turn caused a shift in the discourse and profile of the regime , which is what has made us such an easy target in the global arena. Even our external relations and foreign policy discourse has become ‘ securitized’ and hawkish. In a grotesquely surrealistic turn our embassies and the practices of our diplomats have become increasingly given over to mono-religious ritual. The most influential stakeholders and interlocutors  in relation to our embassies are not the best educated youth, the top professionals and persons of achievement in the Sri Lankan Diaspora, but the chief incumbents of the local temples in those countries! None of this helps our external profile or help Sri Lanka communicate with the politicians and opinion makers of those countries. We no longer know how best to communicate persuasively with the world. We no longer know how to dialogue or even to debate and argue credibly.

Instead, we declaim. We must change our profile, and here we have the excellent example of Burma/Myanmar. We have a great opportunity with CHOGM and our imminent tenure as Chairperson. All we have to do is to take our new role seriously and act according to democratic, pluralist Commonwealth values. We must be a good, exemplary Chair. More concretely, we must immediately implement of the core proposals of the LLRC with regard to accountability and the appointment of a high-powered Human Rights Commissioner, while we must have a structured dialogue mechanism with the Northern Provincial Council and the TNA leadership on the subject of implementing the 13th amendment. But we must most certainly not move in the direction of federalization of the Sri Lankan state, which is strategically dangerous, given that we are a small island with no ‘strategic defense in depth’, and there are seriously hostile Tamil Eelamist trends across a narrow strip of water in Tamil Nadu.

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