Challenges to independence in the context of geopolitics

Friday, 19 February 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The ECT was only a symbol of what is to follow. There are likely to be many more instances of going it alone as a manifestation of self-reliance, which incidentally has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s civilisational values

By Neville Ladduwahetty

Although Sri Lanka has been independent of colonial rule for the past 73 years, it realised its true independence only 49 years ago when it became a Republic. The choice of the Independence Square as the location to mark the occasion, is therefore appropriate and relevant. The question that needs to be asked is, has Sri Lanka been free and independent enough to define the trajectory of its journey free of geopolitical influences. 

The answer is definitely ‘no’. However, no nation-state is simple minded enough to expect that it is totally independent to exercise its freedoms unencumbered by the reality of geopolitical constraints. The fact that all nation-states are part of a global community compels them to be mindful of the neighbourhood, both near and far when they exercise their freedoms to define their destinies. Nevertheless, it is when the self-interests of geopolitics impose influences to a degree that compel nation-states such as Sri Lanka to seriously modify its priorities and even sacrifice its fundamental rights, that it becomes unacceptable. A classic example of this is the 13th Amendment (13A) to Sri Lanka’s constitution.

The 13A

The 13A is a by-product of the Indo-Lanka Accord. The Accord itself is a product of a brazen intervention in the affairs of a sovereign Democratic Republic in complete violation of the UN Charter that calls for ‘All members shall refrain in their international relation from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ (Article 2 (4). 

Notwithstanding the antecedents of 13A, the common perception is that the motivation for introducing 13A was to create an arrangement for the Tamil community in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to exercise constitutionally assured powers through a process of devolution. 

However, the underlying purpose of 13A was not because of any humanitarian concern for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, but to impose a form of regional government in areas of Tamil concentration in Sri Lanka to reassure Tamils of Tamil Nadu that the powers granted to the Tamils in Sri Lanka are no different to the powers enjoyed by them. This is starkly evident from the fact that powers devolved under 13A are a near mirror image of the powers constitutionally devolved to Tamil Nadu and other States in India.

Since India’s intentions were driven by its own interest of maintaining stability within its territory, at no time would India contemplate a situation where powers devolved to the periphery in Sri Lanka are in excess of those currently existing in India. In such a context, for the Tamil leadership to aspire for a federal arrangement with the right of self-determination would be anathema for India. Therefore, however strident the cry is, it would not be in India’s territorial interests to permit territorial entities in Sri Lanka’s periphery to enjoy powers that would in any way be in excess of those in India. The Tamil leadership refuses to accept this reality, and as long as this perception persists the relations between India and Sri Lanka would remain strained. 

Under the circumstances, it is understandable for India to keep on repeating the need for the implementation of 13A. Recently, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar stated that 13A was important because it was through 13A that the expectations of the Tamil people for ‘equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka’ would be fulfilled. To make such statements scores points with the Tamil communities in India and Sri Lanka. However, as far as the Tamil leadership is concerned, the reference to a ‘united Sri Lanka’ would perhaps keep their hopes alive, but as for the rest, such comments become yet another example of Indian hegemony in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, the consequences of which are bound to manifest themselves in one form or another. More importantly, what about the rest of the people of Sri Lanka? There is an overwhelming consensus that the 13A does not serve the interests of the people of Sri Lanka as far as addressing their needs are concerned. 13A may serve India’s territorial interests but it comes at a serious cost to the interests of the people of Sri Lanka, because 13A is not only short on the expectations of the Tamil people but also does not serve the interests of the other communities in Sri Lanka. 

This is the challenge for Sri Lanka. If Sri Lanka unilaterally introduces an arrangement that serves the interests of its own people, India is bound to respond by insisting that international agreements cannot be unilaterally abrogated, and follow it up by imposing additional punitive measures as they did when Sri Lanka decided to go it alone with the East Container Terminal. 

The bottom line is that the interests of India override the fundamental right of the people of Sri Lanka to develop their own arrangements to govern themselves based on the universally accepted human right as stated in Article 1 (2) which states: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. 

Therefore, it is in India’s own interest to develop friendly relations with Sri Lanka by not standing in the way of Sri Lanka developing more effective forms of governance at the periphery. Not to do so could result in geopolitical consequences as witnessed recently where the antipathy of the people towards India was palpably demonstrated. 


The East Container Terminal

With regard to the East Container Terminal (ECT) the current Government decided to go it alone without the involvement of India and Japan as originally expected based on a Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) signed with the former Government, because of public opposition. The ECT was only a symbol of what is to follow. There are likely to be many more instances of going it alone as a manifestation of self-reliance, which incidentally has been a feature of Sri Lanka’s civilisational values. These trends are a manifestation of a new Sri Lanka that is increasingly becoming aware of its growing strengths to go it alone because it is the only way to be free of external pressures to charter a self-determined destiny. 

After all, the existing 400 plus metres of the ECT quay was built and financed by Sri Lanka. Therefore, it makes sense that the rest is also built by the SL Port Authority. Likewise, work on extending the Jaya Terminal commenced this week. When it is completed in 2022, its capacity would be greater than either the South Asia Gateway terminal (SAGT) or the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT). By going it alone whenever possible, Sri Lanka would be in a position to exercise its true independence free of the geopolitical influences, or be victims of great power rivalry. 

The opposition to the decision of the Government to ignore the MoC and go it alone is based on the notion that commitments by governments need to be honoured. For such a notion to have any validity, governments need to follow due process whenever they sign such agreements. The fact that the MoC was signed despite opposition by the former President who was Head of the Cabinet, means that the MoC has no official standing. 

This is also the case with the co-sponsoring of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 which the High Commissioner for Human Rights keeps harping on. This Resolution too has no validity because it did not have the approval of the Cabinet. If unscrupulous members of a government commit a sovereign country to undertakings without due process, such undertakings should not have any validity whatsoever. This principle is recognised by the Vienna Convention when it comes to agreements between States that violate the fundamental laws of a State. The fact that the Foreign Minister informed the Human Rights Council that Resolution 30/1 violated Sri Lanka’s constitution, and therefore was justified in withdrawing from co-sponsorship, does not seem to matter to the Council. 

Without such safeguards global powers could orchestrate regime changes in small States and use client governments to commit to undertakings that further their self-interests even at a cost to the interests of small States. Therefore, it is in the interest of small States to insist that parties to agreements should comply with due process applicable to their respective countries in order to ensure validity to such agreements. In the case of the ECT, and the co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution 30/1, due process applicable to Sri Lanka was not complied with. 

The latest attempt to curb Sri Lanka’s efforts to exercise its independence in the field of wind power energy in three islands off the peninsula of Jaffna, has become a cause for India to raise concern. According to a report in Ceylon Today (9 February 2021) the CEB had stated that “China’s Sinosar-Etechwin has won the joint contract with local representative St. Theresa Industries Pvt. Ltd in the recently concluded international bid to set up hybrid Wind Power…” using a $ 12 million loan from the ADB. The three islands were earmarked for the windmill project by the CEB after a pilot project was conducted nearly two years ago (before this Government came into power) using a grant from the ADB. 

According to the report, bids were called for last week and the Indian contractor, Sterling & Wilson, lost the bid on technical evaluation. Furthermore, it was the ADB that selected the eligible bidder. The beneficiaries of the project are the Tamil people in these islands; the very people India claims would benefit from 13A. If even they have to compromise their wellbeing because of concerns of India, what really does independence mean? 



Although the UN Charter and other international instruments profess ‘equal rights and self-determination of peoples’, in the real world, small states are compelled to compromise such concepts in favour of global powers. Despite this reality, there are limits to the extent to which countries are prepared to compromise. Those limits are often set and determined by the voice of the people because the authority of governments is founded on the ‘will of the governed’. This was demonstrated recently with regard to the East Container Terminal. 

It was the same voice of the people that made the Government hesitate in signing the MCC Compact with the USA. More of such trends are bound to manifest themselves in the future because the people have realised that they, and not their governments, are the true guardians of their precious homeland. And when governments do not heed the voice of the people, they discard them in preference for others. This is how democracy is supposed to work. Therefore, constraints imposed by geopolitical priorities including elected governments have to pay heed to the voice of the people. 

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, what is emerging is a self-reliant nation that is experiencing a new strength to go it alone in defining its destiny. This would be so whether it is 13A, ECT, UNHRC or the Wind Power Project. As Emerson stated in his essay on self-reliance: “Though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till”.