July 13, 2010


[Would it really serve the Tamils to prosecute Gotabaya or Mahinda Rajapaksas for their atrocities, when they and the vast majority of the Sinhala intelligentsia truly believe they had fought and won a just war? What could the Tamils expect, after justifying the atrocities of the LTTE, in the hope of winning the war against the Sinhala state? (Also please watch two videos scrolling down this page. Courtesy from Frontline on Human Rights and Press Freedom in Sri Lanka) ]

The comments and questions from colleagues at work about ‘my’ defence minister raging and ranting on the BBC (Hard Talk, 28.01.10) threatening to kill Gen. Fonseka, for a Tamil was a paradoxical experience. Yet, having been through LTTE’s assassinations campaigns it wasn’t a new experience. However, the real shame was the realisation that for all the scorn we poured on the leaders of the LTTE, to their credit none sounded so unrefined and dreadful as Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Watched by millions across the world, the interview reminded the striking difference in refinement and knowledge, murderers or not, between the IRA spokespersons and the armed Unionists in Northern Ireland when they were in full flow. 

For many non-Sri Lankans the cringe factor apart, minister’s performance answered the questions about the fate of the thousands of Tamils, unaccounted and wiped out from the face of the Earth during their ‘final phase’ May last year. It surely gave the world a snapshot of the mindset of those at the helm of the Sinhala society.

It may have also prompted many to question the position India takes in the region, and “the type of neighbourhood it wanted”. The 45 points joint declaration by India and Sri Lanka at the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit (Sri Lanka Guardian, 09.06.10) gives some clues to this question. There were references to the “potential available” for building principles of democracy & pluralism, establishing leverages to effect common strategic concerns and interests, enhancing connectivity, integrating economies, and reinforcing institutional framework for cooperation. For the cynics among us these are familiar phraseologies, meant nothing to the ordinary people, particular to the Tamils, but are the necessary guarantees for the wicked.

Tamil issue

Despite the misguided belief of some Tamils that Mahinda would reveal “the solution to the ethnic problem”, political expediency prevailed and the Tamil issue was presented as one of many important issues in the declaration.

If as expected India had demanded and Mahinda complied, the whole process would not have been in good faith, just as the 13th amendment before. The Tamils would have to pay even more, and end up in a worse situation than now. How much India care about the issue behind the scene is very important for the Tamils, though they are yet to be convinced by its ‘quite diplomacy’.

For many the ‘Tamil issue’ is the litmus test for the substance on pluralism, diversity and democracy in Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka conforms to these ideals, it will also spell an end to the extreme Sinhala nationalism and democratisation of the state. However, these are fundamental issues also for the Sinhala communities, and to the Indians within the greater scheme of things in the region. While such expectation of public arm-twisting is no longer helpful to the Tamils, it also assumes a level of Indian influence over Sri Lanka and the importance about the rights of the Tamils in the Indian agenda. How does the ‘Tamil issue’ really fit in the present regional conditions, and how does it emerge from Indian perspectives?

First and foremost South Asia is predominantly about Feudal Democracies with its strong feudal structures in polity and societies, and in their dynamic relationships. India is a qualified exception with a political system firmly founded on democratic principles and an independent judiciary, though prone to corruption. It is developing a strong civil society that has firm roots in the history of its people and social justice. Newly emerging corporate-India may give modernity the democratic-India wants, for itself and the region. What the corporate-India wants may not what the democratic-India needs, and this is an added concern for many in the region set in their feudal ways. This also makes any advocacy on these issues difficult for India, which suffers from the same, therefore must approach with due care and attention.

Secondly, as feudal democracies at different stages of social transformation South Asia does not have a strong civil society as a whole to make Human Rights a framework to sort out the fundamental issues within, and between the societies and nations. Its medieval social systems, patches of high economical development, borrowed political systems, morally and politically corrupt bureaucracy, and ‘international legitimacy’ of its ‘states’ is a mixture difficult to completely understand or handle by any of its feudally propagating political classes.

In the absence of such a social advancement it is unproductive to use prosecution of the political leaders as a means to advance democratic reformations in any of its states. It is futile to expect the prosecution of the leaders of Sri Lanka for their atrocities against the Tamils, and the ‘supporters’ of the JVP. Or consider holding the Pakistani establishment for the excesses in their war against terrorism inside its ‘boarders’ while supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Myanmar authorities for the destruction of its minorities.

The denial of human values is structurally ingrained even those fight against the atrocities commit counter-atrocities that makes an idea of common humanity a difficult proposition. This allows the statists, nationalists, and corporatists for their propaganda, making the level of atrocities as the measure to decide on the ‘rights’ of any struggle.

It is equally futile to expect the West, though with a strong civil society to be able to prosecute the alleged offenders against humanity other than use them as leverage. Even if it could what would be the purpose when there isn’t an institutionalised framework on human rights in South Asia? How could the end product be helpful towards such a framework, an imposition on societies with medieval social systems and traditions?

Would it really serve the Tamils to prosecute Gotabaya or Mahinda Rajapaksas for their atrocities, when they and the vast majority of the Sinhala intelligentsia truly believe they had fought and won a just war? What could the Tamils expect, after justifying the atrocities of the LTTE, in the hope of winning the war against the Sinhala state?

What would be the definition of a common humanity in all that?

Perhaps, lessons can be learned from the old ANC and South African leaders, who considered these issues seriously and took the “truth and reconciliation” option to progress from their nightmare, but still find themselves a long way away to avoid a return to it.

Undoubtedly, only a serious economical development can help to emancipate these ‘rulers’ from their feudalistic notions and concept of governance and, ownership of the resources and human potentials. We have made this point several times, long before the defeat of the LTTE.

Thirdly, having been identified exclusively with the Tamils, for strategic and local political reasons until recently, India needs the time to build trust and good will among the Sinhala feudal lords and chieftains. The help India provided to defeat the LTTE may sway some public opinion in the Sinhala Land, but it cannot be sustained if Tamil issue is prioritised whenever the Sinhala feudal-lord visits India.

It is noticeable during Mahinda’s visit the ‘Tamil issue’ had been “down graded” from the head-of-states to ministers of external affairs level. From the Tamils’ perspective this adds insult to injury. However bringing the issue to the MEA level, it can be consistently raised at the revived ‘Joint Commission Mechanism’ giving a firmer footing, without giving the impression of India of constant interference. In a round about way this allows India to make connection with the Indo-Lanka Accord, which is essentially a bilateral agreement about the security of India and the region, a sort of ‘legitimate’ way to interfere.

Fourthly, India has to ‘understand’ Sri Lanka’s need for Chinese support in the international arena to ward off any inquiries about human rights violation committed by its military forces and political masters during its war against the Tamils. The need to have a veto-power wielding friend in the UN has already been made by Col. R. Hariharan (Lanka Guardian, 07.06.10). India needs to work around these difficulties to counter the ‘Chinese influence’ creeping into the island, and on the ‘Tamil issue’ if it still remained on its agenda.

Fifthly, how much the ‘corporate’ approach to overwhelm the islanders will endear or give confidence to the ordinary Sinhala person is another question.

Sinhala Greater-nationalists have portrayed the Tamils as the “fifth column” of the Indians largely due to the political and military ‘interference’ by its Southern kingdoms in the past, perhaps also of the kinship between the Tamils on either side of the water. India’s covert support for the Tamil militancy and the misrepresentation of the Tamil Nadu sympathy for the plights of the Tamils may have helped to reinforce this false image.

The history however notes a different portrait: Sri Lankan Tamils being equally suspicious of their ‘brothers’ across the water, who formed alliances with Sinhala Kings to destroy Tamil states in the island or let them down in times of need. Eastern Tamils fighting along side Duttu Gemnu to defeat the Tamil king Ellalan. And recently, the LTTE based inside the Sri Lankan military camps with the help of Sinhala President R. Premadasa fighting to ‘defeat’ the Indian army (the IPKF, July 1987-1990).

Yet, the Tamils have continued to suffer badly of the image at the hands of the Sinhala rulers. Nowadays because of the worries the local petty/bourgeoisie have of the Indian ‘business’ classes in anticipation of difficulties than opportunities, and nationalists on both sides elevate these suspicions to an anti-Indian position when necessary.

Indian strategy

On hindsight the decision to support the Tamil militancy can be viewed a serious strategic mistake, yet it must be assessed over a period in the future. As for the Tamils in Sri Lanka it was a disaster from beginning to end. The Indo-Lanka Accord the end result of this strategy conceived in part to keep the US interests out looks as outdated as the thinking that produced it. So the need to endeavour with economic projects and soft-loans, China replacing the US in the tussle.

Some believe the assumption India ever had a cohesive strategy towards its neighbourhood is an intellectual fantasy to explain events that ‘inevitably’ happen. Even these cynics must notice a pattern that had provided the right circumstances to destroy Tamil nationalism in the island, which India mistakenly considered might affect Tamil Nadu. Allure of an opportunity to eliminate Tamil nationalism from any source at its roots was so great that India reverted back to its old method of bribing the Sinhala extremists with Tamil assets, veering away from its initial intention to bring Sri Lanka into its fold. This time its bribe was to allow the Sinhala extremists to eradicate the ‘Tamils issue’ along with its nationalism once and for all, which Sri Lanka use it as green light to ethnically cleanse the Tamil from their lands to make Sri Lanka ‘one country’.

Thus with a strategy or not, and pilloried for a series of failures India has seen to it that extreme Tamil nationalism on both side of Palk Straight is nullified. Along with the advent of globalisation Tamil Nadu has become one of the most integrated states in the Indian Union and the most ‘industrialised’ after Madhya Pradesh. The realities of economic progress and commercial enterprise are such, keeping any alleged state ministers from Tamil Nadu in place is more important now than the altruistic notions of Tamil-brotherhood.

Tamil Nadu has also been persuaded it can’t have a ‘foreign’ policy of its own and must abide by the general direction the Centre took, and raise its opinion within the established channels.

Furthermore with the complete annihilation of the LTTE, Inida has also ensured no one Tamil group represented the interests of the Tamils, and Delhi alone decided their fate.

Tough India had been decisive on Tamil nationalism its critics will argue there weren’t a real choice, because of the geo-political conditions and Sri Lanka’s ever growing relationship with China. For them this is the proof for the failure/absence/irrelevance of Indian strategy. This coherent argument for the failure leaves Indian policymakers in a long haul game in the region with unpredictable consequences.

However, the real failures are at human level with consequences to last a long time. Five points to note are, (i) depletion of the Sri Lankan Tamils as a strong society, (ii) institutionalising anti-democratic feudal political establishment (iii) enabling the extremists to fulfil their program to make Sinhala people the majority in all parts of the island, (iv) increase the suspicions among the Sinhala communities about India’s eventual intentions and, (v) the serious damage to the faith the Tamils had of India, who survived or witnessed or endured the pain from afar for the past 30 years.

Some of the consequences can be already seen. Tamils virtually wiped out as a political force in the island, and almost all the Sinhala political parties and groups are ‘anti-Indian’ with regard to their ‘nationalistic pride of place’ in the region, the strategic conditions for India are not entirely favourable but not threatening, at least for the present. And the Tamils, particularly the Tamileelam contingent of the Diaspora, opting to work with Sri Lanka “than India”.
Sri Lankan Tamils’ deep-seated mistrust of India goes back in the history in the medieval times in relations with Tamil speaking kingdoms and principalities in India. Despite the new-age feeling of pan-Tamilism, a sort of imagined Tamil-brotherhood entirely different to pan-Tamil Nationalism, they conspired with Sinhala or Tamil chieftains to destroy most of the embryonic Tamil states in the island. Even recently as the colonial era, the promises of help to the Jaffna Kingdom against the invading Portuguese turned out to be ‘betrayals’.

If these were distant memories, etched in the genetics and the Tamil psyche, the very recent events wiped away any hope of change in the behaviour many hoped of India.

Yet, they also know their future survival as a defeated people in the island depended entirely on the wishes of India. This poses a serious problem for the Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly for the Diaspora. Trapped between the propaganda of the LTTE and no place to put their trust in, it has been trying to extend some influence on the Indian policy makers, perhaps from a position similar to them with Sri Lanka.

Full cycle

Having failed bribing the Sinhala greater nationalists with Tamil assets, particularly helping them to deplete the Tamil population by agreeing twice the deportation of the Plantation Tamils, serious Indian program to contain Sri Lanka within its security sphere started when J. R. Jeyawardene was in office; 04.02.78 - 01.02.89. The Sinhala strongman was taking a pro-West stance to balance Indian influence, a trait followed by the Sinhala elite. At the end of the cycle of the strategy, we see Sri Lanka now taking a “pro-Asian” stance, by that it meant a closer alliance with China to counter balance Indian and Western influence, leaving India in the same position in its relationship. The strategy failing to convince the Sinhala ruling classes to bring Sri Lanka into India’s regional economic and security systems. Yet, twenty years down the line India is stronger in every sense, and having the West on board for its plan along its southern tip also strengthen its position.
During this phase, with the help of the LTTE the Sinhala polity has also been reduced to the condition not so dissimilar to what the Tamils had endured under the LTTE, and instead of a single Sinhala strong man pitting his wits against Indian strategists Sri Lanka now has the entire family of Rajapaksas to rely on.

“Where are the Tamils fit in this process?”

Chinese are here

Bang-Ki-Moon’s announcement (22.06.10) against his wish, to set up a panel to collect evidence on human right abuses in the island, and the bare coffers are good reasons to push Sri Lanka towards China. But why would the Chinese want to be in the island?
Various arguments of commercial interests, from oil fields to using the island as a bridgehead to penetrate the Indian market have been forwarded. From strategic point of view, old idea of “building a ring-around-India” and limiting India’s influence in the Indian Ocean are also being discussed. When consumerism overrides every aspects of life in the ‘globalising world’, one is forgiven for mistaking strategic interests of a country with its commercial interests. While all the listed reasons may be true, China’s intervention may involve rather fundamental issues, such as the ‘new world order’ and, ‘value and protection of its assets’, than the scrap with India.

As the global competition for shrinking resources gets tougher anything buried anywhere is a matter of interest for the economical powers. Newly emerging powers China and India, with vast populations need the resources at a faster rate than any other for the produces for export and to satisfy their own growing middle classes. While there is competition to mine or excavate, there is also competition for the fertile lands in Africa and other poorer countries to satisfy the voracious appetite for food produces.

It isn’t surprising the Chinese trade with Africa increased from $80 millions in 2003 to $1.4 billions in 2009, and the large portion of its imports was oil. China’s entry into Africa naturally causes worries in the West, which as the collection of colonial powers has always assumed the ownership of the African riches. However, of the oil find in Africa amounting to 117.2 billion barrels (Libya 35%, Nigeria 31%, Algeria 11%, Angola 8%, Sudan 5%, and Other 10%) only about 3% are signed up by Chinese NOCs. Despite the anti-Chinese campaigns of sucking the Africans dry, questioning its ethical position in their deals with the most oppressive African states, the Western NOCs control 35% of the oil stakes and the rest belong to the African NOCs (International Oil Daily, Wall Street Journal, 2009).

Yet, China’s aggressive entry into the new fields in Sudan and Angola and many former French colonies for oil and minerals with special deals does make the West to think that they will be locked out. Most often these deals are tied to China’s promises to build the countries infrastructures that are never there or devastated by years of civil wars. During the China-Africa summit in Egypt in June this year, China promised $10 billions of investment in Africa during the next three years for specific projects. Reacting to events President Sarkozy made a “No future without Africa” speech in the Franco-African summit (01.06.10) and promised permanent African representations without veto-power in the UN Security Council, and to invest to meet the challenges, meaning China. As promises go, France also volunteered an extra $5.2 billion in aid to poorer countries in the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005, but only managed $1.3 billion.

China’s venture into Africa, and in some Asian countries will become as intense as its search for natural resources. With it, its foreign assets said to be more than $2.5 trillion will no doubt grow. As the competition for resources becomes intense so would be the tussle between the West and China, which has been under wrap until now. With it arises the argument for its assets to be secured and serviced, and conditions for it to grow further.
Capital assets cannot be secured or serviced without human assets, and China has been building a network of support among the African countries since the 70s. These countries, from the Islamist Sudan to ‘socialist’ Zimbabwe have differing socio-political perspectives and, for all their false pretences and anti-West rhetoric, have tried to steer clear from foreign interferences. China as a non-invading power, not threatening with its military power to extract benefits towards assets, with a well-cultivated image of supporting African independent movement provides the cover they need. Its deals to build their infrastructures seem more genuine than the unfulfilled promises, coups and civil wars suffered at hands of the West and some times even their large companies.

If cultivating human assets are one of the necessary logistical needs, ports and facilities are other logistical requirements that China has been busy securing.

But, securing any asset also means preserving and enhancing the value of the asset. The West is always willing to go to war anywhere to place conditions on the resources belonging to smaller, weaker nations. It rightly argues that the passage of oil through the Red Sea to the West is vital to its interest; therefore assumes ‘all rights’ to take actions. Even without considering the invasions, the coups, and the civil wars it has been accused of, its action of simply being the guarantor of safe passage influences the production and the price of oil from the region. By placing constraints on the oil from the region it secures and even enhances the value of all its assets.

Therefore beside the ‘market’, who decides the prices of the valuable commodities depends on who can actually put conditions on them. They in turn become part of the decision on the value of the assets of every country or company.

Unilateral decisions on these matters by the West or by the US on behalf of the West are becoming almost impossible. How to secure assets and the currency of measurement of the assets are now debates even within the West. The ‘new world order’ so easy to understand at the turn of the millennium is now a multi-facet affair with G5 becoming G6, 7, 8, and 20 and the search for a revamped, reorganised UN mooted as a possible venue to regulate some of the issues has also begun.

Yet, the strategic reformulations may appear difficult to understand without the full knowledge of the complicated regional situations. For we see the US signing a strategic treaty with Pakistan but goes on undermining its ‘sovereignty’ by raiding its territory, and China “guaranteeing” Pakistan’s ‘nuclear-parity’ with India (Harsh Pant, rediff news, 22.06.10) and US considering the same request from Pakistan, while Iran continuing with its own nuclear program in the neighbourhood. China, India, Pakistan, and Russia working hard to prevent any investigation on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, while the West seemingly wanting to hold the Lankans responsible.

These regional configurations will have some effect on the global strategic trend, if not on the assets of the countries involved. However, they will be minimal compared to the effect the amount of assets, and the efforts of maintaining the value of the assets will have on the global trend.

It is in this context the arrival of China to the southern shores of India, into Sri Lanka is more important. Securing the sea lanes, servicing transport vessels and safeguarding and facilitating its communities, and exploring for more wealth will always be China’s aims. But these are secondary in terms of its priorities, we would argue, compared to its priority to maintain/enhance the value of its assets by not allowing India or any other new competitive power to assert direct or indirect control over the riches. That means denying/undermining the measure of their positions or aspirations in the international organisations and ‘arenas’.

Reorganisation of the UN is an interesting example where China would rather have a whole host of devalued powers included into the Security Council to undermine its structure than allow India become a veto-holding member. China may very well of the opinion that US and itself, and perhaps Russia and not every nuclear power should hold the ‘veto-power’ on any major global issues.

Comparisons and adverse competitions between the two Asian powers are discussed or encouraged by many outside the region, and insiders wearing old cold war goggles. Those aware of the full details of the future pathways will decide whether these giants should really collide or not for the benefit of their people and those in their regions. We at best can only speculate with the best available information and a keen and acute eye.

It is clear these apparent competitions and conflicts are limited to the South and Central Asian regions and no more, at least for the present. The comparisons made perhaps are necessary, but they are like the ‘pound for pound’ comparisons made by the ‘experts of boxing’ between the great champions heavyweight Muhammad Ali and the middleweight Sugar Ray Robinson, though they never would have fought. They could have speculated whether Sugar Ray would put on weight and challenged Ali one day, perhaps. Until India grows into the economic power China is, these are mere speculations.

Yet, it is essential for India’s to maintain its regional assets and their value. The worry some of these speculators rightly touch is the devaluing process that has taken place to its assets in its own region. In Sri Lanka, if Indian strategists thought the Tamils were part of their assets, then they no longer have them. If they were counting on the flourishing relationship with the Sinhala elite as an asset, for helping them to defeat the LTTE, it is not forthcoming.

India has been ‘investing’ heavily in Afghanistan, and it may have laid out more than $2 billion so far. It provides direct humanitarian help running its own medical services and in IT and educational fields. It has adopted 100 or so villages to promote rural development in the form of rain harvesting and solar-energy, and helped to launch the national air, the ‘Ariana’ by gifting few Airbus crafts. The parliament house in Kabul is being built at a cost of $25 million, and installed 200 km power line cable erecting 100 towers bringing electricity from Uzbekistan. Its major capital investments involved the Salma Dam project, 150 km away from Heart, electrifying Western Afghanistan, and the 220 km long Zeranji-Delaram road, starting in the town Zeranji on the Iranian border linking Heart and Kabul, which has opened up the remote villages to have access to the Iran and other Central Asian states, at a cost of $85 million and 1.5 lives per km due to the Taliban campaign against it (Rohan Joshi, Pragati and Guardian, Jan 2010).

India’s financial & political investment in Afghanistan is recognition of its geo-strategic position as a gateway to the oil & mineral rich Central Asia States. By 2015 Caspian Sea Basin states, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and others will produce 4 million barrels of oil a day and gas production equally important, hence the competition between the US, Russia and China, and now India. Its squadron of MIG-29 based in Ayni, Tajikistan is considered by many as a forward step in this direction, and some consider will help to contain Islamic terrorism in South Asia and Central Asia (Prof. Blank, US army war college, March 2009).

Then the question is whether India is in a position to put constraints on the riches/assets of others in the regions it considers as its security zone. The arguments that its ‘soft power’ should be turned into a ‘strong power’ with direct military intervention into Afghanistan in the event of US capitulation is a sign that India is willing to work towards such a position.

Then, does it have to sacrifice what it already has in order to achieve more is the next question. Soft or strong its power, if India doesn’t have the means or the resolve build its human assets within and inside the region, establishing a measure of control over the assets and their values would be a harder task than its past endeavours. These can only be done with a sense of social justice and full democratic participation for all people in the region within the state and regional structures. As the US experiences in the South and Central Americas show without these aspects in place attempts to maintaining the value of any assets would be require cycles of violence and recriminations.

Since China emerging as the regional power the fear among the South Eastern economies, prone to raid on their currencies by the ‘market’ and instant collapses, have been allayed and now there is an air of stability in the region, no doubt achieved with the enormous help of Japan and South Korea. The value of Chinese assets, so are that of Japan, are enhanced by the security and conditions placed on the assets belonged to the region, releasing the regional potential. It was perhaps a lesson learned from Japan, which invested heavily on China even it were aware of China’s eventual power and dominance.

In contrast, South Asia as a whole is a region of failed states and instability requiring more than the attention of the only successful economy, India. Its leaders still hampered by their feudal enmities, not being able to learn form the Chinese-Japanese history and their relations, limited inside their own regions, believe one-by-one they all can reach their promised land, and their enemy’s enemy will be of help.

So on one hand we see many nations of people, who believe in the authority of their state and the place of an individual or community defined within, working together knowing their regional responsibilities. And in South Asia, we have nations of people wanting their ‘identities’ and ‘individualities’ to define their state, knowing firmly those ‘rights’ to be fundamental, yet with high socio-economical expectations, not being able to know their regional responsibilities that could help to fulfil them. It is between these two positions the answers must also lay, and expecting the feudal and failed states to take a lead on this matter is as futile as to expect them to respect the value of the life of their people.

The writer can be reached at <academic.secretary@gmail.com> 

Sri Lankan Guardian