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Anti-Indian sentiment in Sri Lanka: A political strategy or trust deficit?

23 Oct 2021

  • India rushes to reconnect, deepen ties using Buddhism, aid for Tamils
  • Trust deficit between the two neighbours existed since the ‘80s
  • President Rajapaksa allays Indian concerns over Chinese activities
  • Anti-Indian sentiment more easily marketable in SL than anti-Chinese sentiment
  • Controversy over Trincomalee oil tanks still unsolved
By Shihar Aneez  A crush and push are seen together. All of a sudden, India seems to be approaching, with its soft and hard powers, the Indian Ocean island nation located to its South. The crush is with the people of Sri Lanka and the push is for some strategic projects including the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, the West Container Terminal (WCT) at the Colombo Port, and some other projects. Within the last few weeks, India’s Adani group signed the $ 700 million WCT project, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla visited Sri Lanka, the Indian Army Chief arrived in the country, Sri Lanka’s new sensational singer Yohani de Silva got an unusual, rousing welcome in India for her talent, both neighbours are in discussions for a $ 500 million fuel credit line, and Sri Lanka started to discuss holding the provincial council (PC) polls in early 2022, among many more incidents. It is a sudden push to reconnect and deepen the bilateral relationship after “time-tested” ties were severed following Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cancellation of the key $ 500 million tripartite East Container Terminal (ECT) deal in February this year. India’s sudden push comes at a time Sri Lanka is more tilted towards China, and has gone near the point of no return, for the moment though, only economically. The concerns of international powers were whether this relation would be expanded politically and militarily. In that backdrop, Indian crush and push are more significant. The Indian Foreign Secretary’s visits to the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, Jaffna Cultural Centre, and Upcountry, along with the handing over of housing projects in the central tea plantation town of Pusallawa and the Northern District of Vavuniya, and requesting the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government to hold PC elections soon, all pointed to one single intention: Protecting Indian interests. These entail the concerns of ethnic minority Tamils, clearing the controversies surrounding the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, engaging Sri Lanka through helping Buddhism with $ 15 million in the five years through 2024, and a push for devolution of power. During Shringla’s meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s leader said: “Sri Lanka would not be allowed to be used for any activity that could pose a threat to India’s security, since there is a clear understanding about the geographical location of the two countries.” President Rajapaksa also explained the relationship with China in a comprehensive manner and informed the Indian Foreign Secretary not to have any doubts about it. President Rajapaksa’s media statement revealed India’s main concern and the possible reason for its hurried crush and push – growing Chinese influence in its own backyard. The Foreign Secretary’s visit came after Sri Lanka’s newly appointed Cabinet-ranked High Commissioner Milinda Moragoda drafted an “Integrated Country Management Strategy (ICMS)” to repair the relationship between the two countries, for the first time in its history. The ICMS, which is already in the public domain, speaks about how to build relations with India. Said strategy is a blueprint formulated by Moragoda, a former minister who handed over his letter of credence as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the Indian President on 22 September. The unprecedented document spells out how the island nation, located south to its “big brother” India, will build its relations, including key tasks to be implemented. The new practice by Moragoda, who had been seen as a pro-US strategist in Sri Lankan politics for decades, signalled one thing: There was a trust deficit between the two countries and Sri Lanka wanted to bridge that deficit. “…In recent years, as a consequence of the changes in the geopolitical equilibrium in the region and a resultant growing trust deficit, a transactional approach has increasingly dominated aspects of the Indo-Lanka bilateral relationship,” states the ICMS document, which was given to President Rajapaksa and the Foreign Ministry. Usually, trust at the international level is built through actions and mutual understanding, especially when it comes to diplomacy. So, the document raises more questions than it answers, in the backdrop of the current diplomatic relationship between the two countries. The relationship goes back not just decades, but millennia. Sri Lanka’s main religion Buddhism was brought from India, while the mythological story of Sinhabahu, which describes the origins of the Sinhala race, also has an Indian connection. However, it is true that the relationship between the two countries has been volatile since the late 1970s, as Sri Lanka’s choice of key foreign ally did not go over well with India. The ICMS expects to improve the existing close bilateral relationship to a strategic level through increased interactions at a political level. “In order to achieve this overarching goal, Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in India must foster political relations at all levels, through constant communication and by building trust,” states the ICMS. Sensitive issue The ICMS then touches the forbidden apple: The Tamil minority issue. Moragoda proposed to resolve the long-drawn issue of externally displaced ethnic minority Tamils. “The presence of Tamil externally displaced persons from Sri Lanka in India, particularly in the state of Tamil Nadu, gives rise to complications in bilateral relations,” the document states. “Vested interests have exploited the sentiments associated with the externally displaced persons to give credence to their theories for political gains. The voluntary repatriation of these externally displaced persons through the existing mechanism is slow.” Sri Lankan Tamils in the North are culturally and geographically closer to South Indian Tamil Nadu. Former Sri Lankan diplomats say the close relations with ethnic minority Sri Lankan Tamils has been a gain as well as a pain. For both Sri Lanka and India, the Tamil issue has become a complex one because of the way it was handled before, during, and after the 26-year war. Now, Sri Lanka is facing international scrutiny for alleged human rights violations during and after the war. Moragoda correctly identified the core issue: Without Indian support, Sri Lanka cannot address the Tamil issue. The Indian Central Government wants to address the Sri Lankan Tamil issue to ensure justice for Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority, while it also has to keep its own South Indian Tamil Nadu state happy. Nearly 93,000 displaced Sri Lankan Tamils are still living in Tamil Nadu as refugees, whose issues are mainly raised when there is an election in the South Indian State. “Settling the issue of externally displaced persons should prevent fringe elements from dominating the discourse concerning this emotive issue, and thereby help to create a positive image of Sri Lanka,” the ICMS states. “Voluntary repatriation of these externally displaced persons forms a vital part of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process.” Troubled history Moragoda’s document comes at a time when Sri Lanka wants India to overcome its economic challenges, as well as face international criticism over alleged human rights violations. His document spells out the direction of diplomatic relations. However, it has failed to address some of the key concerns that have resulted in the trust deficit from both sides. There cannot be a genuine reconciliation to build trust without addressing those concerns. Sri Lanka’s retired diplomats who were in their first few years of foreign service in the early 1980s said India could have easily prevented a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka. “India, unfortunately, paved the way for the Tamil youths to take up arms,” said a former diplomat. Sri Lanka has already paid a heavy price for the war with over 80,000 lives and still remained a developing country, which late Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once wanted to emulate in the 1960s. The relationship soured when then President J.R. Jayewardene’s administration got close to the US in the late 1970s. India feared that J.R. could give Sri Lanka’s strategically located natural Trincomalee Port to be used as a naval base for the US military due to his close relationship. This was the time when India and the US were in a cold war because of the US’ alliance with China and Pakistan. Sri Lanka had earlier agreed to give the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm development project to India at that time because of India’s fear that the original bidders, a Singaporean firm, had links to the US. Jayewardene’s decision in 1981 to lift the nine-year-old ban on foreign warships in the Trincomalee Harbour was seen as a major threat to India’s hegemony in the region, particularly because the US was the first to send warships to the port for refuelling. India feared that the Trincomalee Harbour would be covertly converted into a US naval base if it did not put pressure on Sri Lanka to give up the Singaporean firm’s offer. This, along with the J.R. administration’s state-sponsored 1983 ethnic clashes and attacks against Tamils and growing agitations in the South Indian Tamil Nadu, led the then Indira Gandhi administration to train Sri Lankan Tamil youths in South India. This is how the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) received foreign training in India. Sri Lanka gave the China Bay oil tank farm, which is next to the strategic Trincomalee Port, to Lanka Indian Oil Company (IOC), a subsidiary of the Indian state-owned oil retailer for a 35-year lease. Sri Lanka’s Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila early this month said according to a 1987 agreement, Sri Lanka, on its own, cannot develop the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm even after the 35-year lease agreement ends with India in 2038. Changed order Now the order has changed. India and the US are allies, while Pakistan and China are in the rival group. But if Sri Lanka believes it could take advantage of this rivalry, as it did soon after the end of the war, it would be a big mistake. The consequence would be unimaginable for Sri Lanka in the international arena. Moreover, India must also come out of the “zero sum” mindset regarding Sri Lankan relations with China or any Indian adversary, if India really desires Sri Lanka to prosper. After the war started, J.R. wanted India itself to resolve the conflict and that led to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) stepping into Sri Lanka’s North after the controversial 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. Sri Lanka’s Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and leftist political parties were against the deal. Most of them saw the Indian move as a clear intervention into Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. They saw the move as India’s continued suppression of Sri Lanka to strangulate the future, instead of apologising for inflaming the civil war or at least an expression of regret. The accord gave birth to the 13th Amendment of Sri Lanka’s Constitution. India has been consistently, both during and after the war, asking Sri Lanka to resolve the Tamil issues based on the 13th Amendment. This amendment is to give more powers to provincial councils by reducing the central government’s powers. The 13th Amendment model works in India. For instance, Indian states (which are similar to Sri Lanka’s provinces) have more autonomy and decision-making powers. However, despite the establishment of provincial councils based on the 1987 Accord, Sri Lanka’s successive governments have been hesitant to devolve power to the provincial councils, citing fears that the Northern Province could become a Tamil state and the Eastern Province an Islamic state. Hence, successive Sri Lankan governments didn’t implement the 13th Amendment fully, though promised, because of fears over how separate police and land power could possibly lead to an independent state. Despite repeated Indian requests, Sri Lanka has not taken any step to implement the 13th Amendment fully. Many Sri Lankan intellectuals and bureaucrats say regional autonomy was a necessity, but the way India forced the 1987 Accord unto Sri Lanka was wrong. “The intention of the 13th Amendment may be good. But Sri Lanka should have been given more time without being rushed,” another former diplomat said. The ICMS mentioned neither the 13th Amendment, nor the need for resolving the key issues faced by Tamils, which have been the two of the key reasons for the trust deficit.  Anti-Indian sentiment Many people ask why both anti-Indian and anti-American sentiments are easily marketed among Sri Lankans, while anti-Chinese sentiments are difficult to be sold. The answer is that an average Sri Lankan’s perception is created from past incidents, especially India’s “spoiler role” in the civil war. What we see now is the outcome of the seeds sown in the form of past incidents. India’s direct involvement in providing arms training to northern Tamil youths and the 1987 Accord are two of the main reasons for anti-Indian sentiments. Apart from that, political analysts say India’s backing of the LTTE in the separatist war in which the terrorists also killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, the China Bay Oil Tank Farm deal in 2003, the intervention in the 2015 presidential polls which led to a regime change, and its intervention in some governments’ decisions were key, among many, that fertilised the anti-Indian sentiment. Unfortunately, anti-Indian sentiment trump cards were played well during Sri Lanka’s national elections, mostly by leftist or nationalist political parties. Soon after the election defeat in January 2015, current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa himself openly blamed India for his defeat. Rajapaksa, in 2014, expelled the Colombo Station Chief of India’s spy agency in the run-up to the January 2015 presidential election, a Reuters report cited Sri Lanka’s political and intelligence sources, for helping the opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena to oust the then President Rajapaksa. India, however, denied this allegation. Anti-Indian sentiment had seen its consequences in the past. Sri Lanka was forced to stop expanded bilateral trade deals like the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA), and the ECT project worth $ 500 million, due to strong protest by trade unions and some political parties. While in the Opposition in 2016, some of the current government ministers campaigned against Suwa Seriya (1990 ambulance service) saying it was to gather intelligence information for India. Some former diplomats, as well as ex-military leaders, said India’s strategy in Sri Lanka is to keep both Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils happy while making sure there are no separate or independent states for northern Tamils. It means, Sri Lankan diplomats said, Indian voices for Sri Lankan Tamils are not out of love; rather, India fears separation of Indian Tamils. Therefore, India wants to keep Sri Lankan Tamils close to her. There are fears that such an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka could also prompt Tamil Nadu political parties to demand a similar independent state, they said. Such demands could see a situation of what happened in the former United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) in 1991. Russia emerged from a civil war in 1921 as the newly formed Soviet Union. The world’s first Marxist-Communist state would become one of the biggest and most powerful nations in the world, occupying nearly one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface, before its fall and ultimate dissolution in 1991. The USSR was made up of 15 soviet republics; Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Now each is an independent nation. Moragoda’s ICMS advises exchange of at least one high-level political visit, such as the head of state/government from either side each year, and also at foreign ministerial levels both ways “to develop mutual trust at the political level with India”. Indian expansionism? Due to anti-Indian sentiments, some Sri Lankans see India as considering the island nation one of its own states and trying to intervene to shape up policy. This mindset is well reflected from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology of a “Greater India” that includes Sri Lanka as well. A former ministry secretary in Sri Lanka said India’s main worry is some other superpowers influencing Sri Lanka. He said Indian intervention in the early 1980s was due to fear of Sri Lanka becoming a base of the US, and the current worry is it becoming a base of China. Scores of Sri Lanka’s current and former ministers said India has an increasing concern and have been directly in touch with Sri Lankan ministers, diplomats, and bureaucrats on the Chinese issue. And the concern is well justified. Chinese expansionism in Sri Lanka is seen as a security threat to India as well as the Indian Ocean region, which is becoming the pivot of global trade now. Moragoda’s ICMS suggests Indo-Sri Lanka relations should go beyond what it has been in the past. “Taking into account the present geopolitical scenario, it is important that Sri Lanka takes proactive measures to take Indo-Sri Lankan relations beyond conventional relations with the centre, which hitherto had been the norm,” the ICMS states. However, the current concerns of India and its allies on Sri Lanka are much more different than in the past. Global experts say the geopolitical and geo-economic power shift from the West to the East has raised new challenges in the Indian Ocean region and international relations. The Indian Ocean region was the high-focus region and currently, the Indo-Pacific accounts for 40% of global trade and 62% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). India, the staunch ally of the US, is playing a major role in the security of the Indian Ocean region, which is important to the trade of many other developed nations. Any threat in the region could disrupt world trade as well as shipments through the sea. In that context, the expansion of China, which is expected to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy in a few decades, is seen as a threat, given the allegations of China’s corrupt operations in many countries. And the key worry is that some of the countries to which China has been generously lending loans could be used as a military base when those countries struggle to pay their loans to Beijing. China has repeatedly denied this allegation and said its activities are based on commercial agreements and nothing related to politics, as also confirmed by President Rajapaksa to the Indian Foreign Secretary recently. Sri Lanka has become one of the victims of this ongoing cold war between the rival world powers. But China seems to be the least bothered by the latest Indian push. “China does not have to bother at all because although India brings many things to the table, it has not been able to finalise anything,” a Sri Lankan source close to the Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka said. “China has taken firm control over the sectors which India is now trying to venture in.” The US launched an Indo-Pacific strategy in the Indian Ocean region, a move seen as a countermeasure to China’s One Belt Road (OBR). The US, launching the strategy on 4 November 2019, said: “With $ 1.9 trillion in two-way trade, our futures are inextricably intertwined. US Government agencies, businesses, and institutions are spurring private sector investment and gainful employment in infrastructure, energy, and the digital economy, strengthening civil society and democratic institutions, countering transnational threats, and investing in human capital across the Indo-Pacific.” The US, Australia, India, and Japan have already established the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which is popularly known as QUAD, in 2007, which is a diplomatic and military arrangement widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power. Sri Lanka is in the centre of Asia, the most strategic location. Analysts say this is the key reason why India and its allies are more worried about Chinese expansionism in Sri Lanka, and thus, they also want to make sure their presence is there in whatever way. India has been a major player in Sri Lanka’s energy sector with Lanka IOC, the subsidiary of state-run Indian Oil Corporation. India has also extended a $ 100 million credit line to Sri Lanka to finance various projects in the solar energy sector. Many Indians invested in Sri Lanka’s private sectors, and there is a trend of Indian companies showing a keen interest in the island nation’s stock market. Colombo Port’s WCT was given to India’s Adani group to develop on a build, operate, and transfer (BOT) basis for a period of 35 years after the ECT agreement was unilaterally cancelled by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The ITC Colombo, a waterfront luxury development that includes the capital city’s tallest residential tower with 48 storeys connected by a dual sky bridge to a 29-storey hotel, is on the verge of completion. India has also been playing a crucial role in helping Sri Lanka’s external financial issues with currency swaps. Dollar-strapped Sri Lanka is also in talks with the Indian Government for a $ 500 million credit line to buy fuel. Slowly and steadily, India is succeeding in increasing Sri Lankan dependence on India in economic matters, which are considered vital for any nation’s security and prosperity. Many analysts observed that Indian infrastructure investments and assistance were coming only once China started to lend and invest in Sri Lanka in a major way. Moragoda’s ICMS said Sri Lanka must follow-up on the existing proposed investments by India in Sri Lanka, namely, the WCT, Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm, projects of co-operation in the power sector, Indian projects under development co-operation, and lines of credit as well as financial co-operation. Sri Lankans must calculate whether doing so would help the country prosper or ensure that Sri Lanka becomes a battleground between the US-India bloc and China. (The writer is the former Reuters economic reporter for Sri Lanka and the current Head of Training at the Centre for Investigative Reporting, Sri Lanka [CIR]. He can be reached at or via Twitter @shiharaneez)

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