Sri Lanka Dependent on India
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Sri Lanka dependent on India
Sri Lanka’s president Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi for four days last week for talks with Indian ministers. He returned home with seven bi-lateral agreements with India, and immediately met China’s deputy prime minister in Colombo.
Small nations are bound to have complex relationships with large powerful neighbours. Ireland, for instance, had an ambivalent association with Britain, and the imperial power continued to exert power long after Ireland became independent. Cyprus’s fate will always be intertwined with that of Turkey and Greece. Sri Lanka is a nation about the same size as Ireland with a population of 20 million. Yet just across the Palk Straits there are around 65-70 million Tamils, many of whom were sympathetic to the fight by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) for a separate Tamil state within the territory of Sri Lanka.
India’s support for Sri Lanka in recent years was a vital factor in the defeat of the LTTE in 2009. Radar equipment was supplied and the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), discreetly provided intelligence and training for pilots. Indian naval support prevented the Tiger leaders from escaping by sea to fight again.
The Indian government is today providing aid for de-mining areas formerly controlled by the LTTE and rebuilding the railways in the north. Some Sri Lankans are ambivalent about India’s agenda in promoting reconciliation through devolution, under the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. India’s help to the LTTE is seared into the national memory – the mines that India is now helping to remove were originally laid with Indian assistance.
Part of the game plan
Governments from the India state of Tamil Nadu had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this, and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. According to MR Narayan Swamy, the biographer of the LTTE leader Prabakharan, the RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of weapons and laying mines between 1983 and 1987. Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka agreement in 1987 (1).
Douglas Devananda, once a separatist militant and now a government minister (he accompanied Rajapaksa on his recent trip to India and was threatened with arrest for murders carried out in Tamil Nadu in 1986), says: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” It was widely rumoured that Indira Gandhi intended to use Sri Lankan Tamil rebels as an advance force in a plan to emulate the Turkish action in North Cyprus in 1974 and actually take over part of Sri Lanka. A retired Sri Lankan intelligence officer writing anonymously in the Sunday Leader (2) claims the RAW was responsible for a bomb blast in Colombo’s Pettah market in 1987 and planned to blow up the city’s sewerage system if the Sri Lankan government did not comply with India’s wishes. That same year India, finding the LTTE intractable, sent in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The stated intention was to bring a swift end to the conflict by disarming the LTTE, but the Tigers were as ready to fight the Indians as the Sinhalese.
Sri Lankan Tamils were alienated when frustrated Indian soldiers, out of their depth, committed atrocities, such as a massacre of doctors, nurses and patients at a hospital in Jaffna on 21 October 1987. This followed intensive shelling of the city of Jaffna. According to Narayan Swamy: “The Indian army had been welcomed with garlands and prayers…For the mass of Jaffna people, the IPKF offensive was an unbelievable conflagration, a horror movie come true.” And the Sri Lankan government accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna.
Ranasinghe Premadasa, prime minister of Sri Lanka from 1978-88, had always been opposed to the accord with India. When he succeeded JR Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restore order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference. Premadasa was later assassinated by the LTTE, on May Day 1993.
Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. More than 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25bn. But the real cost was far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother Indira was the architect of India’s interventionist policy: Rajiv oversaw its intensification and paid the ultimate price – assassination by the LTTE.
Before Rajapaksa’s visit to India there were street protests in Colombo by leftist elements and high profile lobbying by professional and business people against the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Part of the anxiety about this trade agreement, which has been growing for over two years, is that the government is withholding details, so people fear Sri Lanka could be dominated by cheaper and skilled Indian services at the expense of domestic industry. The fear is that this version of “free trade” with India will be analogous to the way the US uses Nafta to maintain hegemony over weaker trading partners. In The Island newspaper Douglas Jayasekera has related his experience of previous trade negotiations (3).
Deuteronomy tells us that gifts blind the eyes of the wise. Aid can be a poisoned chalice. Indian “aid” has come in the form of interest-bearing loans and development projects have provided few jobs for Sri Lankans. The big Chinese projects have used only Chinese labour. And the Chinese presence building a port at Hambantota has caused India anxiety and may be the reason for the proposed new Deputy High Commission in that city. Many Sri Lankans wonder at the real reason for an Indian diplomatic presence in Jaffna and Hambantota when there are few Indian nationals in either place. The suspicion is that the Jaffna office, which will undoubtedly have RAW personnel on its staff, is to develop closer relations between the Tamil community in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu.
Some Sri Lankans fear being colonised by India. The anonymous intelligence officer links this in with the promotion of the 13th amendment which India imposed on Sri Lanka as a means of devolving power to the north and east, the territory claimed by the LTTE as a Tamil homeland. He claims: “This is a first step towards setting up a client state in the north and east of our country which would ultimately vote to link itself with Tamil Nadu and India”. But Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s UN ambassador in Geneva during the closing stages of the war, sounds a warning note: “If India stops supporting us, not even the Non Aligned Movement will defend us fully, because they take their cue from respected Third World states such as India” (4).