Midweek Review
Conflicts further isolating Sri Lanka
By Satheesan Kumaaran

Internal conflicts and external conflicts have caused trouble for Sri Lanka for decades. The weak and inadequate response of Sri Lanka’s political leadership in addressing and resolving these conflicts has made Sri Lanka unpopular among its neighborus. Sri Lanka needs leadership, led by new blood, with determination and courage to prevent Sri Lanka’s reputation from worsening.

Although Sri Lanka has the potential to feed its own citizens and export goods elsewhere, this once flourishing country now relies on developing and developed countries for aid to feed its citizens and it looks like that will be the case for a very long time.

Sri Lanka had been under the occupation of southern Indian kings and other world governments, creating a sense of conflict among the ethnic groups on the island when the European powers arrived in 1505 A.D. Once the Europeans arrived, Sri Lanka’s turmoil subsided. However, after the Europeans left the island in the mid-20th century, the country spiralled into economic, political and social disaster as individual ethnic groups started viewing each other as hostile and with the potential to do them harm. All these misunderstandings and suspicions have contributed to the deepening of Sri Lanka’s situation.

Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts are manifested in economic, social, linguistic, religious and other cultural spheres through, for example, the ethnic battles between Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and Upcountry Tamil issues. Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts can also affect their relationships with surrounding countries – external conflicts. Some of the most notable external difficulties have been regarding Indian fishermen, Maldivian fishermen and the Kachchatheevu issue. India and Maldives are two neighbours directly affected by Sri Lanka’s turmoil. Although these countries have enjoyed their association with Sri Lanka, they still feel threatened by it.

India has had bitter experiences with Sri Lanka for centuries. During the 1800s and 1900s, Britain, as a colonial power, brought two million Tamils from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to central Sri Lanka, as indentured labour to work on coffee and later tea and rubber plantations. When the British left the island in 1948, they did not ensure the freedom and privileges of the Indian Tamils in central Sri Lanka and actually connived with the those who would run the new Sri Lankan state to strip them of their citizenship after becoming Sri Lankan (Ceylon) citizens. Because of this, third and fourth generation Plantation Tamils remained stateless until later into the 20th century, which denied them economic and educational opportunities, and political rights. India also refused to accept these people as citizens of India.

The Srima-Shastri agreement of 1964 and the Indira-Sirimavo supplementary agreement of 1974 paved the way for the deportation of approximately 600,000 persons of Indian origin from Sri Lanka to India. These Tamils had refused to return to India willingly because they were born in Sri Lanka, as had their ancestors who had continued to live in Sri Lanka for over a century, and had no knowledge of life in India. Once forced out of Sri Lanka, their business establishments were looted by others in the island. They received no compensation for their losses. These Tamils are still living on the tea farms located in the Nilgiry of Tamil Nadu. From time to time, they come into the streets, demanding India’s central government sends them back to their birth country, Sri Lanka.

At present, 1.4 million Tamils of Indian origin live in central Sri Lanka. There was always a danger that these people would join the indigenous Tamils in northeastern Sri Lanka and create an independent state for the entire Tamil-speaking population. Hence, since the early 1980s when the indigenous Hindu Tamils in the northeast and the Buddhist Sinhalese began to clash militarily, successive Sinhala governments have sought to embrace the Tamils of Indian origin. While eventually, Tamils of Indian origin were granted citizenship and political and educational rights, these people continue to live below the poverty line and resort to making their living by working in the tea estates, and their education, economic and social situations are such that their children cannot compete with students from other parts of Sri Lanka.

India’s central government has faced enormous pressure from Tamil Nadu when the Tamils of Indian origin posed problems. Consequently, the Indian government was impelled to create a foreign policy that opposed the interests of the Sri Lankan government by placating the demands of the Tamil Nadu government. But, for India, Sri Lankan, Upcountry and Malaysian Tamils are a political headache due to the pressure from Tamil Nadu to ensure the protection of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. So, while India has just this year promised to help build educational institutions and medical facilities in the upcountry areas to meet the demands of these Tamils, it is highly doubtful that Tamils of Indian origins will ever see the fruition of this policy.

Meanwhile, Tamils in Malaysia have begun to feel alienated by the Malaysian government in the recent past as reflected in the most recent general elections. They have been discriminated against in education, economics and other spheres of importance. The Malaysian government does not provide educational facilities for Tamils as they do for the Malay students. The unemployment rate is much higher than the rest of the population. Further, the recent violence in Malaysia has created sense of fear among the Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Nadu. This conflict, as well as the clamour of Eelam Tamils and Upcountry Tamils in Sri Lanka has become a major concern for New Delhi.

Another area of contention has been the islands off the shores of India and Sri Lanka. Approximately 12 islands lie between southern India and northern Sri Lanka and they all belong to Sri Lanka. However, biggest of these, Kachchatheevu, approximately 1.6 km long and slightly over 300-m wide, located northeast of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and southwest of Sri Lanka's Delft Island, was originally part of India. India handed this island over to Sri Lanka in 1974, under the Shasthri-Srimavo pact. The agreement stated that the fishing communities of both Tamil-speaking south India and Sri Lanka could fish in the waters around Kachchatheevu and that the populations of both countries could visit the island without passports or visas. Every year thereafter, tens of thousands of Catholic Christians used this opportunity to visit the island, in order to partake in a Christian festival.

However, after the civil war began in Sri Lanka in 1983, the Sri Lankan navy was deployed in the seas surrounding all the islands, which denied access to the islands to both Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils. When Indian fishermen entered the seas near Kachchatheevu, they were shot and killed by the Sri Lankan navy. In response to the increased tensions in Tamil Nadu, India’s central government felt pressured to do something. From time to time, the Indian government lodged complaints about the killing of Indian fishermen, but the Sri Lankan government justified the slayings by claiming they were merely killing men who were smuggling arms to the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting the Sri Lankan armed forces in Sri Lanka.

Since India was suffering directly from the effects of the Sri Lankan civil war, India played a lead role in attempting to bring peace to Sri Lanka. In 1987, India sent 100,000 Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to be deployed in the Tamil-dominated northeast. Approximately 15,000 Tamils were killed during the three years of IPKF involvement. Sri Lanka proved to be a failed battleground for Indian forces, especially the infantry, and they were pulled out in 1990. The following year, the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was allegedly killed by a suicide bomber of the LTTE, as he took part in an election rally near the capital city of Tamil Nadu. After that, the Indian government became a staunch opponent of Eelam Tamils, while continuing to claim to be a close friend and ally of the Sri Lankan government. For a variety of reasons, the Sri Lankan government does not totally believe the promises of friendship by the Indian government.

India has maintained a hands-off policy towards the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka following the killing of Rajiv. However, New Delhi continues to watch this situation closely. India constantly says that it wants peace in Sri Lanka, which will only happen if the Sri Lankan government fulfills the demands of all communities in the island, including those of the Eelam Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. Tamil leaders oppose India’s views because the Tamils lost faith in the Sri Lankan government following several failed attempts at peace talks, and feel that the only solution is dividing the country. India refuses to publicly comment directly on the views and aspirations of the Tamil leadership.

India has its problems and does not want to antagonise Sri Lanka. It wants to maintain good relations with all Sri Lankan communities. India also wants stability in Sri Lanka, so that it can fulfill its aspirations of becoming one of the world’s superpowers, a nuclear power or, at least, a regional superpower.

While dealing with India and its problems, Sri Lanka has also had the challenge of maintaining a good relationship with Pakistan, which put further strain on the Sri Lanka/India relationship. In crushing the JVP insurgency in 1971, Sri Lanka relied heavily on military help from Pakistan and provided a base for the Pakistani air force, while Pakistan fought the Indian armed forces in East Pakistan. West Pakistan could only access East Pakistan through northern India and India would not allow the planes of West Pakistan to use its airbase facilities, so West Pakistan had no choice but to send supplies and refuel through Sri Lanka. India demanded Sri Lanka not offer the services of the Sri Lankan airbase to West Pakistan, but Sri Lanka defied India.

Added to this mix - up the cautiously friendly relationship between the Maldivian government and Sri Lanka; cautious because the Sri Lankan government maintains good relations with paramilitary groups, such as the PLOTE and EPDP. Maldives came under the control of the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in 1988. PLOTE was one of more than a dozen Sri Lanka’s Tamil militant groups, all of whom took up arms to create an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka under their leadership. Because PLOTE opposed the Tamil Tigers, it decided to create a stable base by capturing Maldives; from there, it could launch military attacks against Sri Lanka, weaken the Tamil Tigers, and win an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka under the leadership of the PLOTE leader, Uma Maheswaran. Although all government departments and facilities, including Parliament, community towers, and radio and television stations, were controlled by the PLOTE, President Gayoom managed to send a message to India. India sent its naval ships to Maldives, freed the tiny island-nation from the control of PLOTE within 24 hrs, and handed the administration back to President Gayoom. The Maldivian government then handed over PLOTE captives to Sri Lanka, some years on requisition by the Sri Lankan government, and they are now freely walking the streets of Sri Lanka with the blessings of the Sri Lankan government leaders.

The Maldivian government regards Sri Lanka as a natural ally and continues to seek harmonious relations with all sides in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan fishermen enter Maldives waters illegally and even though Maldivian fishermen lodge complaints with their government, the Maldivian government does not want to take action against the Sri Lankan fishermen because of their valued friendship with Sri Lanka and the fear that doing so would threaten their security and political situation. Maldivians undertake post-secondary studies in Sri Lanka, and many countries have embassies in Colombo, which is in charge of both Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Sri Lanka’s internal and external conflicts with neighbouring India and Maldives are escalating an already tense situation. While India is a friend in need, Sri Lanka does not want India to intervene in their internal affairs because they believe India’s sole intent is to use their potential solution to the problem to propel them to superpowerdom. In turn, India does not want Sri Lanka’s conflicts to spill over into their region because this will destabilize India’s economy and security, and subvert its aspirations to become a world or regional superpower.

In short, Sri Lanka’s internal and external conflicts are distancing Sri Lanka from other countries, especially from its immediate neighbours, India and Maldives. Only a new breed of political leadership with the determination and courage can save Sri Lanka from this isolation and maintain Sri Lanka’s place among the members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

(The author can be reached at e-mail: satheessan_kumaaran@yahoo.com)



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