US preoccupation with Sri Lanka

By Neville Ladduwahetty  Courtesy ISLAND

US preoccupation with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs is a cause for concern. Every incident has prompted a comment from the US. If the office of a newspaper is attacked, it is an attack on the independence of the media despite the fact that any number of possibilities not connected with media freedom exists for such attacks. While issues such as increase in electricity tariffs, transfers of judges and concerns over religious tensions have elicited comment, the following are repeated on a regular basis: progress on reconciliation; delays in implementing the National Plan of Action; delays in evolving a political solution; need for accountability, and the list goes on and on.

A point has been reached where analysts and commentators speculate as to which issue or issues should be addressed for the US in particular and the West in general in order to get them off Sri Lanka’s back; the most popular being the implementation of the National Plan of Action. A recently adopted strategy to retain two PR Firms at a reported cost of $116,000 per month to improve Sri Lanka’s image in the US would work only if hidden agendas do not exist on the part of the US and the West. However, if the litany cited above is only a cover for an unstated agenda, living up to the expectations of the US and the West would not in any way prevent their continued preoccupation with Sri Lanka.

Despite the fact that perfect societies do not exist anywhere and that every country has shortfalls in performance and shortcomings of every conceivable kind, including even the US, there has to be some compelling reasons for Sri Lanka to be hit on with such regularity and persistence. Historically such strategies have been adopted in order to break down a nation to a point where it would barter away an asset that is prized in the hope that they would be left alone. Is this what is at play in Sri Lanka? This was the technique used with the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The explanation doing the rounds for the broader than expected recommendations in the LLRC Report particularly by a membership most of whom had been associated with the Government, was because of their perception that such a report would soften the call for inquiries into war crimes that had persisted prior to the publication of the Report. Whether or not there was a tacit understanding on which such a perception was based, the LLRC presented a Report that came to be acclaimed internationally subject to a caveat: the Report fell short on issues of accountability. Doubt was also expressed as to whether the Commission’s findings would be implemented. This doubt was overcome by the US initiated resolution in Geneva in 2012 which internationalized and concretized the LLRC recommendations in order to ensure that the recommendations of the LLRC that were incorporated into the National Plan of Action would be implemented to the satisfaction of the US and the West. In short, resolutions of 2012, 2013 and what is to follow would not let Sri Lanka off the hook.

GEOSTRATEGIC DEVELOPMENTS

The compelling reason for US preoccupation with Sri Lanka is attributed to Sri Lanka’s extended engagement with China. The need to counter or balance China’s engagement in Sri Lanka has been recognized by the US and India. While India’s concern has both national and geostrategic ramifications, to the US it is primarily geostrategic. As a first step, Japan has got involved with Sri Lanka by way of maritime security and project aid, perhaps at the prompting of the US. The next step may be to get a foot hold for the US in Trincomalee despite recommendations of some military strategists for the US to reduce Naval bases globally. Others however have called for an increase in US presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans in view of the growing importance of these two oceans to contain or balance China regaining power. Sri Lanka is increasingly becoming the focus of these developments because of its location: as they say the 3 most important factors in Real Estate are “Location, Location and Location”. A consequence of the growing importance of Sri Lanka has been to bring together the US, India, China and most recently Japan to engage with Sri Lanka in the pursuit of their strategic interests or as proxies for others. In this regard, how prudent was it to develop maritime relations with Japan in the background of growing tensions between China and Japan in the South China Sea? This development will likely have repercussions in Sri Lanka’s relations with China. Similar displeasure with Libya for engaging with the West prompted China who had been a faithful ally of Libya to abstain and permit the West to militarily attack Libya. Sri Lanka therefore has to clearly figure out how it is to survive with all this attention and at the same time protect its national and strategic interests without seeming to be aligned to any power in particular. It is certain that if Sri Lanka enters into a strategic relationship with the US on the understanding that in exchange for access to Naval bases and/or other assets beyond the current provisions of the Access and Cross Service Agreement, the US would relax on the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka would fall into a trap as it did with the LLRC Report. Hence, Sri Lanka has to be extremely circumspect in whatever negotiations rumoured to be taking place. In short, adopt President Reagan’s warning: “Trust but verify”.

IMPACT ON SRI LANKA

In the background of these global engagements how could Sri Lanka protect its interests, the most vital of which is its territorial integrity? Current plans are to hold elections to set up a Northern Province Provincial Council. What would follow thereafter is uncertain. The Council could very well resort to legal action for the full implementation of the Constitutional provisions of the 13th Amendment that include Police and Land powers. If the ruling is in favour of such powers, they would apply to all the Provincial Councils. A Council could resort to other actions as well such as calling for a referendum in keeping with sentiments expressed in Tamil Nadu for a UN sponsored referendum to set up Tamil Eelam. The fact that such developments would impact on India’s territorial integrity by way of a breakaway Tamil Nadu is recognized and accepted by analysts and commentators in India. Despite this recognition regular calls by the Central Government of India to implement the 13th Amendment may be then seen as a ploy to placate Tamil Nadu rather than as a durable political arrangement for Sri Lanka. However, the fallout from a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka would encourage Tamil Nadu to break away from India with the possibility of the two regions merging to form a combined region for the Tamils of the world. To some, such possibilities are wild imaginings beyond the realm of reality. However, countries such as Sudan and Timor were divided on the basis of referenda, which attest to the possibility becoming very real. The mutual dependence for security between Sri Lanka and India was recognized by the former Foreign Minister, S.M.Krishna when he stated that the security of India depends on the security of Sri Lanka. India may be confident that it has both Constitutional and military capabilities to prevent threats to India’s territorial integrity. This is a false security considering the capabilities of powerful external states to subvert and destabilize states such as India, which incidentally never in history existed in the form it is structured today. The reward for such efforts would be to alter the emerging global architecture of a multi-polar world made up of the US, India and China as the major players, to one that is bipolar made up of only the US and China. Under such a global formation the US would have full dominance in the Indian Ocean. For Tamil Nadu a confederated state made up of itself and Tamil Eelam would present opportunities far in excess of being one of many states in the Indian Republic with only a Chief Minister. Furthermore, such a confederation would be a sovereign state with joint access to demarcated resources in the Economic Zone in the Indian Ocean. All in all, this outcome would offer decided advantages to the Tamils of Sri Lanka and those in Tamil Nadu, with a geostrategic advantage for the US to pursue its interests in the Indian Ocean.

OPTIONS FOR SRI LANKA

If Sri Lanka goes ahead with holding Provincial Council elections for the Northern Province, it would precipitate an irreversible process from which Sri Lanka would not be able to extricate itself. Under these circumstances Sri Lanka has 3 options. 1 – Work with the UNP, the major party in the Opposition, and evolve a common agenda based on the District as the peripheral unit to ensure territorial integrity together with an equitable arrangement to share Executive power among the three major communities at the Center. 2. – The Government could use its 2/3 majority in Parliament and unilaterally abrogate the 13th Amendment and replace it with the District as the peripheral unit and share Executive power at the Center with the three major communities on an equitable basis. 3. – A referendum could be conducted to establish the acceptance or rejection of the 13th Amendment as a political arrangement. Whatever option is adopted there is bound to be fallout of significant proportions because the outcome of any of these options would be detrimental to the interests of the Tamils within and outside Sri Lanka who are for Tamil Eelam, the Tamils in Tamil Nadu who are for separation from the Indian Union, and the geostrategic interests of the US. The combined effect of these interests is formidable. In all likelihood it would be similar to the price Sri Lanka is paying for not having suspended military operations when called for by the US and the West. Under the circumstances, the choice for Sri Lanka is either to hold the Provincial Council elections and live with the consequences, or to take the risk and do what is best to protect Sri Lanka’s interests. The choice before Sri Lanka is either to witness the dismemberment of the state, or retain its territorial integrity and pay the price for keeping it so. Such a momentous decision should be made by the Peoples of the nation.

CONCLUSION

Procrastination has compelled Sri Lanka to face some hard decision in the eleventh hour. The outcome of the planned elections for a Northern Province Provincial Council would have precipitous consequences for many stakeholders. A TNA-backed Provincial Council would inexorably gravitate towards a Tamil Eelam with the active support of Tamil Nadu. This in turn would tempt Tamil Nadu to seek separation from the Indian Union and for a joint confederation with Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. The prospect of such a notion is the creation of a sovereign state for the global Tamils with the potential to reap the rich resources of the greater Economic Zone in the Indian Ocean; a dividend it would not have if Tamil Nadu remains one of several states of the Indian Union. The pay-off for the US from these developments is for it to gain legitimate access to the Indian Ocean by working out arrangements with the newly created confederation thereby denying to India its claim that the Indian Ocean is India’s exclusive backyard. In the meantime, negotiations are rumored to be underway for the US to gain access to the assets in Trincomalee in the misguided hope that there would be relief from issues of accountability, having forgotten the lessons learnt with the LLRC Report, i.e., that accountability issues would remain intact whatever the nature of the arrangements negotiated. Make no mistake about it. Since the US already has a stake in the Pacific Ocean, a stake in the Indian Ocean independent of India would considerably extend US’s geostrategic capabilities to contain China’s expansion both in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific with a choke point straddling the two Oceans in the Malacca Straits. In light of US preoccupations with Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu involvements in Sri Lanka, an election for a Northern Province Provincial Council would precipitate a series of events that Sri Lanka and India would not be able to contain or hold. Therefore, it is in the interest of both India and Sri Lanka to jointly work out a strategy that would serve their vital interests since the territorial integrity of one is a conditioned dependency that affects the other.

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