With India unequivocally backing a vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council resolution that reprimands the Mahinda Rajapakse government for war crimes against the Tamil mino-rity, 40,000 of whom were slaughtered in the final days of a 27-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency, Delhi’s Lankan challenge has only just begun.
The UNHRC resolution may not be seen as enough of a rap on the knuckles by the two regional rivals, the DMK and the AIADMK using Parlia-ment to score points off each other. They are upset that a full-fledged UN-appointed human rights trial is not on the cards, and instead, Colombo is only being “encouraged” to conduct an “independent and credible investigation into violations of international human rights laws.” But for India, watered down or not, the resolution marks a turning point in Indo-Sri Lanka relations.
It breaks with the approach that Delhi has adopted thus far, running back channel talks between the Mahinda Rajapakse government and moderate Tamil leaders like Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampantham, called to Delhi only months ago for consultations. It’s a signal that as much as India was willing to look the other way, and perhaps even help Colombo in its decimation of the Tigers, it cannot condone the cold-blooded massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocents when documentary evidence points to their wilful killing by the Sri Lankan Army.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s soldiers, many of whom were only children caught between the Tigers and the Army, were in the act of surrendering when they were butchered.
Most importantly, three years and 10 months after the war ended, and despite promises to the contrary, the Rajapakse government, riding a wave of chauvinistic Sinhala nationalism and thumbing its nose at India, has been unwilling to bring Tamils — not the Tigers — into the mainstream.
The flaw may lie in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy focused more on creating overarching economic linkages across Southeast Asia rather than building one-on-one political bonds with leaders in the immediate neighbourhood. Sri Lanka is an early casualty. The IPKF misadventure has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.
The Jayawardene-Rajiv relationship predictably floundered, collapsing in a welter of suspicion and mistrust; as did the Manmohan-Chandrika link, doomed when the Tigers tried and failed to assassinate her when she was Sri Lanka’s President. The subsequent all-party talks with the Tigers, endorsed by the United National Party’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, also ran aground.
With Mahinda Rajapakse, India had a fresh opportunity to start over. Instead, ties with Colombo unravelled further.
That’s a shame. India could have found no greater well-wisher than the earthy Rajapakse, whose rise from relative obscurity to counter the blue-blooded Sinhala leadership of the Bandaranaike-Kumaratungas has been spectacular, with the Rajapakse family clearly taking control of the levers of power, both in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party — once synonymous with the former first family — and in the military and government.
The recent impeachment and removal from office of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake is part of the plan to remove nay-sayers from positions of power, as is the deliberate cutting down to size of war hero Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who mistakenly believed he could use his popularity to counter the President.
The Opposition UNP, led by Wickremesinghe, remains a bystander.
Rajapakse, who made one overture after another to Delhi after he made clear that he was more than willing to go after the Tigers, confided to Indian interlocutors that he could not understand Delhi’s lack of warmth thereafter.
Delhi now sees the sweet talk for what it is — classic Rajapakse doublespeak. It’s the method he employed to use India’s help to destroy the Tigers, knowing that once he had the LTTE out of the way, India would have no card left to play, no leverage to push for the 13th Amendment and the rehabilitation of the moderate Tamils, whom India want back in the political mainstream.
It’s the same method he employed to checkmate critics, as he stays focused on marking his own place in history. The recent opening of the Chinese-built Mattala Rajapakse International Airport in his home town near Hambantota, illustrates the President’s masterly understanding of geopolitics as he plays off India’s inadequacies against an assertive China, and parlays Sri Lanka’s strategic location, eyed both by the US and India as a vital outpost astride Indian Ocean sea-lanes, for his own gain.
India, which set up the Indian Oil Corporation at Trincomalee on the east coast, could lose that too as Rajapakse shores up support from among Sinhala fringe groups like the Godu Bala Sena — the ironically named Buddhist Army — and steps up attacks on Muslim groups ambivalent over his leadership.
What’s clear is that India’s ability to influence the course of events in the island nation is negligible. Sources close to the powerful first family have told this writer that they see India as an “irritating gnat that can be smacked away at will”. Where does India go from here?
As Rajapakse whips up the backlash against India and the US to perpetuate his dynastic politics, India must push for a human rights commission that goes beyond the empty Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission set up by Colombo.
It must ensure the consolidation of moderate Tamil parties, vulnerable to the ruthless disappearances that have visited all critics of the government. It must strengthen the UNP, the only other political force on the island that shares India’s democratic values. Or better still bring Kumaratunga back into play.
And to the people of Sri Lanka, the vast majority of whom remain pro-India, it must be made clear that the UNHRC resolution is against the government, not the people of an island nation with whom India shares time-honoured bonds of ethnicity, culture and history.