The Indian, US main course with a side order of Sri Lanka
Wednesday, 4 February 2015 00:00
Indian Premier Narendra Modi embraces US President Barack Obama upon in arrival in India -ReutersBy Mano Ratwatte
Everyone is talking about the hug Obama gave Modi. Body language is important in global relations. Remember how Angela Merkel cringed in disgust when George W. Bush gave her a shoulder rub at the G8? International political watchers give a lot of credence (more than to Astrology) to body language when powerful leaders meet.
It is an open secret that the Obama regime and Netanyahu’s rightwing Israeli regime do not have any body language and warmth when they meet. Theirs is one of irritability and “we are saddled with each other.” Modi’s hug was followed shortly by a joint communiqué on a “strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.”
This importance was symbolised when for the first time in modern Indian history, a US President attended their Republic day parade where India (ironically there are 600 million people without toilet facilities, a massively sub-literate, caste ridden unemancipated population and abysmal poverty in this nation with nuclear weapons) displayed its first-world military prowess even promoting a silly “thumbs-up” by President Obama.
China and its large-scale efforts to develop infrastructure across Asia and Africa is viewed by both nations as a threat to their security. India has never really emotionally recovered from the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. Sri Lanka will have no choice, however unpalatable it is, to readjust its foreign policy relationships in order to stem further interventions and possible Indian intrusions into it.
Do this right but not at the expense of the very unique and strong relationship with China; keep in mind, China never supported terrorism in Sri Lanka unlike India but our geographical location next to India gives us no choice. It will be a tough balancing act. People advising the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime did not seem to have a grasp of the complex geopolitical games people play and overplayed the China card. Interestingly, Obama goes onto mention Sri Lanka too. What does it mean? Keep in mind, that Sri Lanka will never be the main course in big power banquets, it’s just a side item or an appetiser.
The US-Indo affair
This cosy relationship is of newer origins. As in many places of the world, immediately following World War II, US policy was based on its racist attitudes towards third world nations of dark skinned peoples in newly independent nations of the world.
It tended to be condescending and patronising and both the US and USSR were trying to establish a series of client states in hotspots across the world (I have encountered patronising and condescending people even as an American citizen even amongst my white academic colleagues who were clueless and didn’t know the difference between communism or socialism; so this is not far-fetched and is well documented in declassified documents released by the US State Department).
Even in the 1970s, racist American Presidents like Watergate Nixon (he called Mrs. Gandhi a stubborn b***h) and racist American policymakers like Kissinger hated India during the cold war and were prone to making racist statements about Indian leaders because it was not a client state.
India and Sri Lanka at that time were fiercely non-aligned states with a socialist bend but were secular democracies and their interests coalesced. During the cold war, the US had a penchant for supporting brutal military dictators in Pakistan (and many other places where it overthrew democratic regimes that refused to be client states) to safeguard its military interests.
India rejected US demands that it not recognize communist China in 1948 irritating the global superpower. Its relationship with the US was mostly one of either open hostility or one of “able to tolerate each other” for a long time even though the US tried hard to move India towards its bloc with massive amounts of food aid.
However, in 1965 during India’s war with Pakistan, relationships soured greatly as US and other western nations failed to support India’s military whose equipment was mostly of western origin at that time. After Mrs. Gandhi became PM, India decided not to depend on the US for military supplies and started purchasing equipment from the Soviet Union. India’s objective was to never depend on a foreign power for military equipment and it started a domestic industry based on securing patents and assembly and finally outright manufacturing rights to modern weapons systems from the Soviet Union and that policy continues to this date.
The USSR stepped right into this and signed a defence pact with India in 1972 following the military humiliation of Pakistan in December of 1971, leading to the creation of Bangladesh. This infuriated the US even further; they failed to realise India and Indira Gandhi were only interested in protecting their interests and were not part of the Soviet Empire. US policies were duplicitous when it came to smaller nations which have no valuable natural resources but it now views India as a crucial ally in their efforts to stymie China’s influence and combat global terrorism.
Al Qaeda Islamic terrorist attacks in the American heartland made a huge difference in the group thinking of US foreign policy mandarins. After ignoring India for a long time and favouring military dictatorships in Pakistan, after Al Qaeda became a military threat to the US and the US ended up invading Afghanistan (and also bungled the invasion of Iraq).
Later on, with mutual fears of militancy spreading from Pakistan, (and with the end of the cold war), India became a more respected nation in the eyes of the US foreign policy experts. I feel the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime failed to realise the importance of this newfound love affair between India and the US. When Rajapaksa’s regime overplayed the China card, it only brought the US and India closer to initiate regime change in Sri Lanka.
India is also the world’s tenth largest economy now. After the cold war, India opened its economy and became a liberalised open one, thus providing far greater opportunities for the US and India than before.
The radical changes in attitudes towards India and realignment of relations came about only after the treat of Islamic terrorism became real. India and the US had mutual security interests. India plays an active role in Afghanistan’s economy. It fends off Kashmiri rebels operating from Pakistan and various Islamic terrorist groups which use Pakistan as a base and there are also multibillion dollar business opportunities at economies of scale smaller nations simply cannot offer.
Yet I feel the relationship with India should be on a slightly more even keel than previously where the Congress l regime arrogantly dictated and exercised hegemonistic behaviour towards Sri Lanka. There are some thorny issues that need to be resolved without bowing to the arrogant Foreign Office Brahmins in New Delhi while safeguarding Sri Lanka’s national interests and addressing Indian security concerns.
1983, 1984 and 2009
Indians, especially not their Hindus, cannot judge Sri Lanka on the basis of the horrendous violence in 1983 perpetrated by Government goons of the UNP regime. However, this was the singular horrendous event that swayed Indian public opinion and led to the rapid rise of the Tamil Tigers as a group seen to be as liberators.
I lived in Punjab when Cong-I-sponsored thugs including some of their members of Congress, encouraged Hindu mobs to rape (with cries of, ‘We will breed the Khalistani out of you’), burn and murder tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs after Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated on 31 October 1984. That single act made millions of Sikhs want a separate state and led to the Khalistani movement in India. I have made repeated mention of this and want to state this again because I feel a lot of Sri Lankan politicians are clueless about this incident and they want to shame all Sri Lankans based on violent acts perpetrated by UNP goons. I state this because, while we should be ashamed of 1983 and should never allow it to be repeated, India really has no room to preach.
Then there were people who said they were “ashamed to be Sri Lankan” when the war ended in 2009. That too is a very unfair attitude to have. Sri Lanka went through hell. That hell was first imposed on it by India. All wars are hell. The war had to end and everyone now knows that India finally said “finish it off” (and told the US to “back off”) and encouraged Sri Lanka to militarily defeat the Tamil Tiger fascists. They accepted the levels of casualties that are now cause for HR concerns because they too were tired of the Tigers.
The booming economy, free elections and all the positives in post-war Sri Lanka would not have been possible if the war was not finished off. Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and President emeritus Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga have no credentials to talk about the conduct of war during their regimes which engaged in appeasement. If there is anything that needs to be done, perhaps a commission of truth and reconciliation (a real one this time) may help the healing process.
Some points I would raise with India:
The illegal fishing issue. Sri Lankan Tamils are the most affected by blatant theft of Sri Lanka’s natural resources. Indian fishermen use bottom trawling equipment thereby denuding a lot of the regenerative stock of fish. Publicity should be given in India, and especially in South India that Sri Lankan naval measures to protect Sri Lankan fishermen are in fact pro-Sri Lankan Tamil and not anti-India. I felt that message was not sold to chauvinistic Indian Tamils during the MR regime. The message is one of protecting Sri Lankan Tamils and their livelihood. I lived in North India for nearly five years and realized how clueless average Indians were about Sri Lanka. “do you speak Hindi?” “do you worship Hanuma?” were not uncommon googlies I had to laughingly pad off. SrI Lanka needs aggressive marketing of its image in India more than in Washington DC.
Illegal drug smuggling from India across Talaimannar with alleged political involvement in Sri Lanka and India. Scarce resources will be far better spent cracking down on the import and distribution of dangerous drugs from India and Pakistan; and apprehending their political sponsors than prosecute people for the possession of marijuana.
Today, Sri Lanka has an illegal immigrant problem South Indians desperate to leave India for better opportunities in Sri Lanka. Jailbird Jayalalitha akka and other Tamil Hindu racist Chauvinists in Madras/Chennai can scream their heads off but if Sri Lanka were that horrible for South Indians why are there so many illegal immigrants in Sri Lanka after 2009?
On a recent trip, I also noticed a lot of Hindi-speaking Indians who are residents in Colombo. In contrast, how many skilled Sri Lankans are freely employed in India in lucrative positions? Has India reduced obstacles to investment in India by Sri Lankans? How many skilled Sri Lankans or unskilled Sri Lankans are employed in India? Where is the reciprocity?
Illegal Indians are reportedly even peddling sarees in rural Sri Lanka and working in rice paddies. Why is this not being stopped and illegal immigrants not sent back? Why are Sri Lanka’s immigration authorities not using a system such as the one the US does to fingerprint and photograph every non-citizen tourist at the airports? A lot of these illegal immigrants disappear after coming on tourist visas.
Does no one see the long-term national security threats? Encourage legitimate tourists from the region but be careful and have better intelligence measures to stop even regional terrorist groups from trying to use Sri Lanka to harm western or Indian interests at the same time.
Welcome legitimate Indian tourists but not the two-bit hawkers who come here to sell sarees or work in the paddy fields or restaurants because they do not bring any foreign currency reserves into Sri Lanka.
Does Sri Lanka want a situation like Sikkim? Do our new foreign ministry politicians know what India did to Sikkim and how it treats Nepal and Bhutan? Do you want a situation where RAW and Indians will engineer some attacks on Indian interests/investments and use that as a pretext to invade again? Have you forgotten how RAW acted in the 1980s? This may have been possible if not for the election result of 9 January; it may now not look that plausible if the new regime works to allay Indian fears of China.
India has always been paranoid and afraid of China because of its humiliating military defeat in 1962 and Chinese attempts to destabilise their North Eastern states.
But please look at how heavily militarised Sikkim, Kashmir and the North Eastern States of India are (where foreign tourists are not allowed without special permission from their Defence Ministry). Why should India tell Sri Lanka where it should have military bases? Are we to believe that hardcore brainwashed militants who spent six months to a year in a camp are “born again” and will never resort to violence and terrorism given a chance?
Those hapless Tamils were brainwashed into hating all Sinhalese. There is a generation of Tamils lost to it by the Tamil Tiger brainwashing tactics. Hopefully with the ability to travel freely and with reconstruction, these brainwashed youth will come to realise the hapless conditions they face are the same conditions faced by poor Sinhalese youth.
The new Government and Mangala Samaraweera (luckily there is an incredibly smart highly-skilled veteran diplomat as advisor now) better be aware of how India deals with Nepal, Bhutan and also learn about their own history in dealing with insurgencies in the North-Eastern states. Those little skirmishes were much less lethal than what Sri Lanka had to deal with thanks to India arming and training terrorists long before 1983.
This is where J.R. Jayawardene erred. He felt he could align himself with the US during the cold war and veered away from the pro-Indian foreign policy of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s (prudent) regime. The UNP’s leading politicians attacked Gandhi’s personally. J.R. wanted to join ASEAN and was roundly humiliated by them. This was still during the cold war. End result? India actively working towards destabilising Sri Lanka by using Tamil separatism.
The best period of comfortable relationships with the fourth largest military power in the world happened during the Indira Gandhi –Sirimavo Bandaranaike era. It is J.R. Jayawardene’s regime who blew it; it is JR’s regime which was also responsible for the cruel attacks in July 1983.
Please make every attempt to reduce or end the heartache of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees languishing in India. Make sure to screen hardcore Tigers, but please facilitate the earliest repatriation of Sri Lankans back to their motherland.
If you sign a Trade Agreement with India, you will destroy even the nascent manufacturing sector in Sri Lanka. It is already suffering from dumping of low quality goods from China and India and a flood of Indian employees depriving Sri Lankans of opportunities to work in India or even inside Sri Lanka. Thus the only nation to gain in such a favoured status agreement will be India and Indians who will enjoy the relatively higher superior standards of living in Sri Lanka.
Indo-US collusion the Sri Lankan Election 2015
India and the US were involved in the strategies to overthrow the Rajapaksa regime for a reason; they are worried about the growing Chinese influence. The reason Mr. Eran Wickramaratne was supposedly successful in getting funds from the US, and even get John McCain’s ear,( and in particular from Republicans) is not because of the lack of democracy or concerns about human rights in post 2009 Sri Lanka. It is because of the China-factor.
It is rumoured the UNP received over $ 50million in US support for his election and Mr. Eran Wickramaratne is believed to have played a key role in securing US support. They may have used the China card. He and Ranil Wickremesinghe appear to have outwitted the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime despite its very intrusive intelligence apparatus. Those satellite phones Mr. Rajith Senaratne bragged about didn’t come from China did they? And the skills to use Viber and Skype? Someone had to advice the main actors in the coalition now didn’t they?
This election result may work out in Sri Lanka’s favour if they realign and get close to India and US and allay their fears of allowing China a foothold in Sri Lanka. Talks of punishing Sri Lanka for HR issues in 2009 might be a bit more tempered with this realignment of interests.
Under MR, Sri Lanka made a mistake by overplaying the China card. However the new regime and its foreign policy mandarins in Colombo better never forget that India armed, trained and financed terrorism in Sri Lanka long before 1983. If you recall in 1987 when India violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and carried out the infamous “Parippu drop” no one cared; there was no UN condemnation or no outcry from any major power. Sri Lanka did not fit into the equation of big power politics during the cold war. What should the new regime in Colombo do? Allay Indian and American fears. Cyprus in 1975, fell to the same fate.
China and India need unfettered access to the shipping routes. China with their String of Pearls policy has gone on a path of building ports and engaging in massive visible infrastructure development projects from Africa to South Asia for a reason. It is not just India and US that are thinking in the strategic long term; Vietnam which has historically been at odds with China for hundreds of years, is veering towards a military partnership with the US to protect their booming offshore oil investments in the contested South China sea, it plays a critical role in Asia’s economy.
One-third of the world’s shipping passes through its waters. Huge reserves of oil and gas may well lie beneath the seabed. As a result, its bordering states – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – are fighting over resource rights.
Oil and energy security are the words to remember as Sri Lanka resets their soured relations with India but not at the risk of sacrificing the very strong 60 year old ties with China which has always stood by Sri Lanka even in International Forums and bailed us out many times. Even if it costs more to invite US firms to drill for oil and natural gas, it maybe a smart move for the new regime to allocate some of the surveyed blocks to US firms or European firms as well as Indian and Chinese firms. It will be a tough balancing act, but if Sri Lanka gets hauled up in front of ICJ, then China will be its only genuine friend unless we lose that valuable long term relationship by becoming too cosy with the US and India and humiliate ourselves.
Sri Lanka did not play a major part in International strategic plans of the US until recently. The China factor is the key issue here. The US destabilized Maldives because of fears of Chinese expansion. It was quick to endorse the illegal overthrow(Hillary Clinton) of the regime there until there was a public outcry. These are their long term goals and are based on energy security.
Sri Lankans have a right to be outraged at the dirty games played by India and its role in arming, training and financing terrorism in the 1980s, but RealPolitik (Chancellor Brandt) dictates a more realistic look at these relationships if Sri Lanka is to remain an independent nation as it has for over 2,000 years and not a Colony or a compliant nation like Nepal or Bhutan whose foreign and economic policies are ruled by India.
Perhaps if only Sri Lanka was oozing oil and natural gas, with US energy companies drilling for it and selling it, it could have remained a Rajapaksa dynastic model democracy for many more astrological cycles?