M D Nalapat
The past few days, this columnist has been in Colombo, the serene capital of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka, a country with an ancient history and a proud tradition. The Galle Face Hotel, where he is staying, is a combination of western colonial architecture and Sri Lankan heart and soul. The rooms are magnificent, especially those with a sea view, and the service impeccable. The only spot was the inability of the laptop to log on to the internet, a problem in this era of instant and continous communication.
Although India is Sri Lanka’s biggest neighbour, the reality is that it is Pakistan that seems more popular amongst the majority Sinhala population of the country. The reason for this may be that Islamabad has, since 1998,been a reliable supplier of weapons and equipment to the Sri Lankan army in its ( now victorious) battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),the organisation that killed Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Ironically, it had been Premadasa who secretly armed the LTTE against the Indian military contingent that was sent into the island by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 to enforce a peace agreement between the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, an organisation that had been funded and equipped by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1980s, but which subsequently turned hostile to her son and successore Rajiv in 1987,when he brought LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran to Delhi and made him agree to less than total independence for the Tamil-majority regions in north and east of Sri Lanka. Although Prabhakaran – under duress, as he was kept a virtual prisomer in the 5-star Ashok Hotel in Delhi as long as he was relyuctant to sign on to the dotted line - agreed, he changed tack as soon as he returned to Sri Lanka, and verysoon thereafter,his men began to harry the Indian military contingent.
When Ranasinghe Premadasa took over as President of Sri Lanka in 1989, he demanded that the Indian military withdraw from Sri Lanka, something that the new Indian PM, V P Singh, agreed to with alacrity. Till its withdrawal, Premadasa ensured that arms and cash were supplied to the LTTE, in order to harass the Indian army units. Being a fiercely patriotic Lankan, President Premadasa hated the idea of seeing foreign troops on his territory, and finally ensured their exit. However, once the Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) left, the LTTE turned against him, again because he refused to concede to an independent Tamil Eelam (or homeland), killing him soon afterwards in a bomb attack.
For thirty years, the LTTE had succeeded in destabilizing the security of Sri Lanka, preventing the country from entering the high-growth trajectory of other Asian economies. However, all that changed in 2005,with the election as President of Sri Lanka of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The new Head of State did not come from the westernized aristocracy that had ruled Sri Lanka since the British left six decades ago. Although Premadasa too came from the non-westernized segment of Sri Lankan society, he represented the urban underclass, rather than the rural Sinhala Buddhist community whose representative was – for the first time - President. Unlike Premadasa, who reigned while the westernized elite ruled in his name, the new Head of State very quickly began to replace westernized Sinhala and Tamil elements with representatives of the rural Buddhist commmunity. Since then, this elite has disliked him, and has been instrumental in spreading stories about him to friends in the US, the EU, Canada and Australia. Unlike his predecessors, Rajapaksa continued the military campaign against the LTTE until he was able to defeat the organisation by mid-2009, in the process eliminating the top leadership of the LTTE, including its supremo, Prabhakaran. Ever since it became clear by 2007 that he was serious when he said that he would not stop until the LTTE was eliminated, there had been tremendous pressure on him from the EU and to a lesser extent the US to halt the offensive and give the LTTE a chance to recoup its strength, the way it used to do previously. Under pressure from its DMK ally, both the “hardline” BJP-led government as well as the “soft” Manmohan Sing-led government refused Sri Lanka’s requests for weapons to fight Prabhakaran’s forces. In 1998, when it seemed as though the LTTE would even sweep into Colombo, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ignored urgent pleas for help, refusing to send even a single rifle to the island. In consequence, Colombio turned to Islamabad, and within days, cargo aircraft filled with weapons began landing at air bases across the country. These were joined by ships ferrying Chinese weapons, with the help of which the LTTE offensive was reversed. It was from that period that Pakistan overtook India in the goodwill stakes in Sri Lanka.
During the 2006 Sri Lankan army campaign to retake the eastern provinces, once more Colombo turned for help to its northern neighbour, only to be ignored once again. However, in a repeat of 1998, Chinese and Pakistani weapons poured in, enabling the takeover of the eastern provinces without the loss of a single life among the Sri Lankan armed forces. Unlike in the past, when the LTTE quickly moved back to territories from which it had been temporarily expelled, this time around President Rajapaksa saw to it that units of the Air Force and Navy joined hands with armed police to prevent the LTTE from re-entering the eastern provinces. Soon, the army moved north, and pushed ahead till victor, much to the horror of Norway and other EU countries, who had become accustomed to being obeyed by successive Sri Lankan governments, and to India acquiescing in US-EU primacy in Sri Lanka, because of its own evolving alliance with Washington and Brussels. Today, because of India’s refusal to militarily assist the Sri Lankan armed forces in their victorious campaign against the LTTE, the influence of Delhi on Colombo has visibly declined. Part of the reason is the creaky nature of the Indian bureaucracy. Despite so-called “liberalisation”, each departmental initiative in a foreign country has to pass through the vetting of the External Affairs Ministry at South Block, which often delays decisions to the point when they become meaningless. Even crucial decisions involving collaboration with Sri Lanka, as for example in the important 3-language initiative of the government, designed to make each Sinhalese learn Tamil and each Tamil learn Sinhala. Unlike the Indian bureaucracy, both China and Pakistan are swift in taking decisions. Beijing in particular has been very pro-active in Sri Lanka, and is constructing a huge port in Hambantota, the home province of President Rajapaksa. When completed, this port will be one of the biggest in the region, and will sit athwart the sea lanes from Africa and West Asia to South-east and East Asia, thereby giving China privileged access.
In President Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka has a leader who is not afraid to say no to the big powers, including the US and the EU, who by their policies are wounding Sinhala pride and pushing the country ever closer to China. What Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will need to do is to escape from the prescriptive style of the US and the EU - both of whom exult in telling lesser powers what to do and how and when – and appreciating that Sri Lanka will take its own decisions on core matters of economics and security. Should he do this, then India can emerge as the key player in an economically rejuvenated Sri Lanka. Already, huge investments are being planned by Indian corporates, including in the vicinity of Hambantota. The US and the EU need to change course, before they convert Sri Lanka into another Myanmar. The people of the island have had decades of conflict. They deserve the prosperity that the newfound peace can bring.