Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa wriggles from India's grasp

By Sudha Ramachandran - India and Sri Lanka signed an array of agreements across areas including security, power, railways, rehabilitation and cultural exchanges during Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa's visit this week.

The Indian government rolled out the red carpet for the Sri Lankan leader in Delhi. This was even as the visit was marked by black-flag demonstrations in Tamil Nadu and other southern Indian states, where anger against the Rajapaksa government's conduct during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the high civilian casualties - especially in the final phases of the war - last year is still high.

Rajapaksa's visit saw the two sides agree to institute an annual defense dialogue and increase high-level military exchanges. A Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance on Criminal Matters and an Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners were signed. These are expected to strengthen the security and legal framework of the bilateral relationship. Training of Sri Lankan military and police personnel in India is also to be increased.

Cooperation in the energy sector is poised to expand. A memorandum of understanding on connecting the electricity grids of the two countries is expected to provide power-hungry Sri Lanka with around 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

India has taken forward its ongoing restoration of railway infrastructure in the war-ravaged north by agreeing to construct a rail link between Talaimannar and Madhu in the Northern province. The two countries have also agreed to resume the ferry services that had been suspended in the wake of the outbreak of the Tamil secessionist insurgency.

India's already substantial role in the reconstruction of Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north and east is poised to increase. In July last year it extended US$100 million for rehabilitation of internally displaced persons and lines of credit worth $800 million for railway and other reconstruction projects. India pledged to construct 50,000 houses for the displaced families. It will also renovate a harbor and airport. Projects for the rehabilitation of widows and vocational training for youth are also on the anvil.

The slew of bilateral agreements signed during the visit notwithstanding, there is "some disappointment in India with the Sri Lankan government's reluctance to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict and its dragging its feet on signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India," an official in India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Asia Times Online.

Economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka has grown remarkably in recent years. A free-trade agreement (FTA) has been in operation for a decade and trade has expanded. Proponents of CEPA in both countries were hoping that it would be signed during the presidential visit.

CEPA will cover services and investment. Its signing has been put off repeatedly since 2008. Last month protesters took to streets once again, calling on the president to refrain from signing CEPA.

"Opposition to CEPA in Sri Lanka is on nationalist, rather than economic grounds," said Sumanasiri Liyanage, who teaches political economy at Peradeniya University in Kandy. "There are some industrialists and businessmen who fear that they will lose their share in the Sri Lankan market if CEPA-led imports from India come to Sri Lanka. There is concern that Indian imports will flood the domestic market and that will be costly to domestic producers.''

Similar concerns preceding the signing of the FTA have been belied by the fact that FTA has led to an increase in trade volume and benefited both countries, he said.

Drawing attention to opposition from political parties like the Sinhala nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna, Liyanage pointed out that "their positions on CEPA stem from their old perception of India as an imperialist power".

Some in Sri Lanka's media refer to CEPA as an 'Indian economic pact being pushed down Lankan throats'', according to the MEA official. ''It is not. It benefits both countries,'' the official said. The reason for the delays in signing is ''the Rajapaksa government sees gains from CEPA but wants to be seen to have engaged in hard bargaining over it."

As for a political solution to the ethnic conflict, with the LTTE defeated and Rajapaksa having consolidated his position considerably over the past year, India was hoping that he would act to find a political settlement to the conflict. "But that has not happened yet, despite India's urging," the official said.

Not everyone is convinced that India is pushing the Lankans hard enough on the matter.

"India doesn't seem really interested in a political solution to the ethnic conflict," said Soosaipillai Keethaponcalan, senior lecturer at Colombo University's department of political science. Although it calls on Colombo from time to time to pursue a political solution this seems aimed more at placating Tamil political parties in India and at pressuring Sri Lanka to concede its demand on other issues, rather than to find a just solution to the problem, he said.

In Delhi, Rajapaksa spoke of his "determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities" and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stressed the need for "a meaningful devolution package for the Tamil-dominated North and East provinces."

These are words the two governments have articulated repeatedly.
India's solution to the conflict is the "13th Amendment and beyond". The 13th amendment to the constitution provides for devolution to Northeastern province. This is a package it brokered over two decades ago. India is now calling on Colombo to go beyond the 13th amendment. It is regarded by India and sections in Sri Lanka as the best possible solution.

Critics of this solution say it is a non-starter. Northeastern province doesn't exist as a unit any more, the east having been severed from the North by a judicial ruling a couple of years ago. The Sri Lankan government is unlikely to merge the provinces again. By talking of 13th amendment and beyond, India then is "talking about a political solution in the abstract", Keethapocalan argued.

Indian officials dismiss allegations that India is not pressing the Sri Lankan government hard enough on finding a political solution. They blame Rajapaksa's government for not having the political will to pursue a political settlement.

Post-LTTE, Rajapaksa and many Sinhalese are unwilling to heed counsel from abroad. Their response to international criticism of Sri Lanka's human rights abuses has been extremely prickly. They are unwilling to take suggestions emanating from outside on how to resolve the ethnic conflict. In part, this stems from the triumphalism and arrogance evident in post-LTTE Sri Lanka. Moreover, many in Sri Lanka believe that with the defeat of the LTTE the conflict is over. There is nothing left to resolve.

Importantly for India, while its profile in Sri Lanka in projects and rehabilitation is growing, its influence over the government is on the wane. China's growing presence in the island could have something to do with that. With Chinese help on offer, the Lankan government seems to be in a position to pick and choose. And India's help, which comes with conditions, seems less attractive in the circumstances.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

© Asia Times

Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Post a Comment

© 2009 - 2014 Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  © Blogger template 'Fly Away' by 2008

Back to TOP