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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s “Final Resolution” of the Tamil Problem and India’s Options

Monday 27 July 2009, by M K Bhadrakumar


The death of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, circa May 18, 2009 remains an enigma wrapped in mystery. The exact details of what happened, we may never know. Things have never been what they appeared on surface. Colombo’s media management techniques are a legion. Therefore, peering through a looking glass into the future of Sri Lanka becomes quite problematic.

The bottom line, of course, is that a question mark must be put on the intentions of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the period ahead. He presides over a virtual military-political camarilla in Colombo that rides roughshod over the parliament, judiciary and the media, which he will be extremely loathe to dismantle.

Equally, the outside world is hardly aware of the murky activities of the death squads that have carried out hundreds of abductions, “disappea-rances” and murders in the recent months, inclu-ding prominent politicians and editors. The key political decisions are taken by the president and his brothers and a small cabal of trusted aides, and military and police chiefs.

Clearly, strong vested interests have developed through the brutal civil war, involving the military, bureaucracy, Buddhist clergy and the business elite, who will not easily vacate their vantage positions on the mere plea that war has ended.

Clausewitzean War

This has been a Clausewitzean war. Army Commander Lt General Sarath Fonseka told a western interviewer with absolute non-chalance: “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese. We being the majority of the country, 75 per cent, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country. They (minorities) can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.” Rajapaksa will whip up Sinhalese chauvinism to consolidate himself politically.

What all this boils down to is that Indian policies operate within strict parameters. One, any “political solution” to the Tamil problem will be on Rajapaksa’s terms. The Sinhalese regard their country as the last bastion of Theravada Buddhism. India’s locus standii is inherently controversial in the Sinhalese perceptions.

Two, the Sinhalese are highly sophisticated practitioners of diplomacy. In March 2007, they signed an Access and Cross Servicing Agreement with the US that allows American warships and aircraft to use facilities in Sri Lanka as quid pro quo for Washington’s political and military support for Rajapaksa’s all-out war against the LTTE.

But in March 2009, they depended on China and Russia to block a US move in the UN Security Council for humanitarian intervention in Sri Lanka. If India is not “cooperative”, Rajapaksa will not hesitate to show us the door. He knows he has options other than India.

Three, Rajapaksa indeed has a blueprint for the final resolution of the Tamil problem. It involves the systematic colonisation by the Sinhalese of the Tamil homelands north of Elephant Pass so that over the next decade or so, the demography of those regions will be altered to the disadvantage of Tamils. This was how Colombo “solved” the Tamil problem in the eastern provinces of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara.

Four, the Sinhalese establishment will promote an exodus of Tamils to India as a matter of state policy. As victims of state discrimination, Tamils will be willing or even eager to migrate to India as time passes. This will constitute the Sinhalese establishment’s “permanent solution” to the Tamil problem.

Alas, these are unpalatable thoughts. But what are India’s options? Paradoxically, Delhi’s political leverage over Colombo will diminish in the post-LTTE era. Delhi needs to make up for its loss of influence by working with the international community.

It suits Delhi to promote an urgent international monitoring mission in Sri Lanka, which safeguards the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils who are interned in virtual concentration camps and are highly vulnerable to coercion and violence. India must also mobilise the international opinion in favour of initiating a political process with the aim of finding a durable settlement of the Tamil problem within a reasonable timeline.

Visceral Opposition

The Sinhalese establishment will no doubt show visceral opposition to any outside intervention. Quite conceivably, a Sudan-like diplomatic stalemate may arise. But then, Sri Lanka faces a worsening foreign exchange crisis and is urgently in need of a $1.9 billion dollar IMF loan. Rajapaksa’s regime faces growing popular unrest over declining living standards due to the costly war and the global economic crisis that has caused a sharp fall in commodity prices and export earnings.

Sri Lanka has virtually exhausted all access to domestic borrowing and international markets. The IMF conditionalities should include a verifiable commitment by Rajapaksa to move forward with an internationally supervised peace process. The European Union has done the right thing by calling for an inquiry into war crimes.

A complicating factor is that Sri Lanka has become a theatre of big-power rivalry. The Sinhalese establishment views China as its “steadfast ally.” The payoff for Beijing has been the $1 billion deal to construct a major port facility comprising container port, bunkering system, oil refinery, airport, etc. in Hambantota, which China fancies as a trans-shipment hub.

India has a common interest with the US in countering China’s strategy. No matter the motives behind the US’ current emphasis on a “political settlement”, after having been a staunch supporter of Rajapaksa’s war, Delhi must closely work with the Barack Obama Administration.

(Courtesy: Deccan Herald)

The author is a former diplomat.

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