New Delhi must work closely with the present dispensation in Colombo and occupy as much of the strategic space as it gets in the fiercely contested region
by Ashok K Mehta-
( May 27, 2017, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Sri Lanka this month for the international Vesak Day, the Buddhist country’s most revered day, at a time when China’s footprint is ubiquitous in the south of the country and anti-India sentiment high. Colombo refused Beijing permission to dock a submarine this month; a similar event in 2014 had outraged New Delhi. But immediately after Modi left Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe departed to attend China’s One Belt One Road event, which India boycotted.
Eight years after vanquishing the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka has not witnessed a single instance of terrorism. Instead it is flourishing, maintaining a steady growth rate of 5.5 per cent of GDP, which had taken off at eight per cent soon after the war. In Modi’s vision: transition from terrorism to tourism, Colombo faces three main problems: Political stability, revitalising the economy, and fulfilling its commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in Geneva on reconciliation with Tamils. Last month, during the visit of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, India had expressed that “these would be completed in two years”.
Engineering the defeat of the invincible Rajapaksa regime was as big a feat as Rajapaksa destroying the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). India played a role in achieving both objectives. Rajapaksa has blamed India for his ouster. New Delhi’s clout in Colombo has been restored especially after its hands-off-cum laidback policy following the expulsion of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defiant embrace of China. Rajapaksa is down but not out, as his big May Day rally at Galle Face Green demonstrated. He remains popular with the masses in the south for building expressways, ports, airports and high rise buildings. Cut-outs of Rajapaksa, his pictures on trucks and on wartime posters along with his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, war victors, are still visible. Rajapaksa’s early return seems unlikely as long as the marvel of the coalition of the ruling parties in the National Unity Government sticks in the face of the joint opposition led by Rajapaksa.
The presidential and parliamentary elections are due only in January and August, 2020. But cracks are visible within the unity Government even as the local elections are now two years overdue. This is best illustrated by contradictory statements made by members of the Government. (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) Minister Chaminda Weerakoddy asserted recently that the existing Constitution would be amended, not replaced; while Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne (United National Party) announced there will be a new Constitution, reaffirmed by a referendum. President Maithripala Sirisena is holding tripartite talks on the Constitution (which Rajapaksa opposes) with Wickremesinghe and leader of Tamil National Alliance R Sambanthan.
The biggest challenge for the Government is reviving the economy. Opposition protests on price rise are an almost daily occurrence and an embarrassment for the Government, though at the heart of the problem is the high indebtedness to China during the profligacy of the Rajapaksa regime. Like potatoes and onions in India, rice and coconut prices are serious political destabilisers in Sri Lanka. Although the Government is importing rice, people have pinned their hopes on the pro-West Wickremesinghe to use his magic wand to turn around the economy. The revival of the EU Trade and Tariff concessions called GSP plus, worth $200 million annually, will be a shot in the arm for the economy. Managing the eight billion dollars to $10 billion debt to China at eight per cent interest rate will require political trade-off. Hambantota Port is one such stake that is being re-negotiated in the face of protests in the south, with China Merchant Port Holdings, which was expecting an 80 per cent share on long lease. The proposed award of Hambantota to China has landed the Government in court for enabling debt for equity. Further civilian protestors who had occupied two merchant vessels, had to be evicted by the Sri Lanka Navy. Overall, with just 10 m depth, Hambantota is not a deepwater port and is, therefore, ‘not strategic in calibre’. On Hambantota, Sri Lanka had made the first offer to India twice during 2003-05; around the same time, 15 Trincomalee oil tanks were leased to India for 35 years.
Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean is akin to a massive aircraft carrier straddling the crucial Channels 4 and 6. All seven East-West gateways to the Indian Ocean crisscross the sea lanes of communication, 10-12 nautical miles from the country’s southern coast. Across the Indian Ocean, 100,000 ships transit annually carrying two thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of bulk cargo and half the world’s container traffic pass through its waters.
Seventy per cent of India’s containers and almost 100 per cent of its containers bound for the US are trans-shipped through Colombo harbour. This is mainly due to the strict port security measures introduced by the US after 9/11. The mega ports initiative was aimed at enhancing detection capability for special nuclear and other radioactive material on containerised cargo. The problem is, India has no deep water (23 m) ports for bulk cargo containers. It is building a deep water port at Vizhinjam in Kerala but that will be insufficient to handle its burgeoning trade and economy. Colombo port’s expansion by China has created a fourth pier which has been offered to India for development — the three others being with Sri Lanka, Singapore and China. The offer by Colombo of Trincomalee harbour to India for its economic development is a strategic balance for Beijing’s overwhelming presence in Hambantota and Colombo. This has provoked a negative response as Rajapaksa has called it a betrayal of Lanka’s national asset.
Speaking at the 34th session of UNHRC at Geneva, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought two more years to implement Sri Lanka’s commitments made by co-sponsoring the consensus resolution in September 2015, calling for credible judicial process to probe alleged rights abuses. The Colombo model of transitional justice is based on four pillars: Accountability, reparation, truth-seeking including office of missing persons; and a new Constitution. The problem of foreign judges may be overcome by posting international observers. The bottom line: No military officer is likely to be tried for human rights violations. The UNHRC rights chief has said Colombo is scared of acting against its Army.
India has regained some of the strategic space it lost to China during the war and post-war periods, but the Americans too have occupied some of that space at India’s cost. For New Delhi, keeping Mahinda Rajapaksa — and China — at bay, pushing the Government on addressing Tamil grievances and ensuring the longevity of the Government are the inter-connected challenges.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)