FORCE Magazine asked me to write for them during my visit to Sri Lanka between April 23 and May 27. My dispatch has been published in their current issue (June 2009) as part of the cover feature on securing India's neighbourhood. Here it is:
Act Now, Big Brother!
by Shiv Aroor
As the proverbial dust settles – if it ever really does settle – on Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers, the country now totters in circumstances it was ill-prepared for. Ill-prepared, that is, unless it opens itself to an overwhelming amount of external influence. With what the government has called the “world’s largest rescue operation” of close to 300,000 Tamils slowly but surely turning into a catastrophic matrix of uncertainty for an entire community, the Sri Lankan government has still to provide any specific roadmap for their restitution beyond the vague, emotional calls for national reconciliation. It seems to be the case that not a single government ministry or department in Sri Lanka has a clear idea of what it has to do now. And that’s where the irony begins. Because no matter how many times President Mahinda Rajapaksa emphasises the need for a local solution and no matter how many times the international community is vilified, perhaps rightly sometimes, for its perceived double-standards on the Lankan operations, the journey from hereupon for Sri Lanka will involve a powerful foreign hand, and lots of foreign money. But strategic and economic influence is merely an end – the emerging humanitarian crisis is the means.
India has sent many tons of food and aid, and most recently dispatched two special envoys with over Rs 500 crore to be used specifically for the political rehabilitation of the Tamils. One could argue endlessly about India’s foreign policy as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, but the one thing you can say without doubt is that is has been shaky and inconsistent at the best of times. The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo was furious when I asked him how he was countering the Chinese influence on the island – he thundered “Look around you. The culture here is Indian, not Chinese.” And while that’s certainly true, many Sri Lankans believe that the uniqueness of the country’s current circumstances offer it the opportunity to shake off the past and push ahead with new friends, new solutions. Remember, an overwhelming number of adult Sri Lankans grew up watching India openly support groups that Colombo officially called terrorists. The influence of ‘Big Brother’ across the Palk Strait is never understated, but time has only barely healed the scars of resentment.
With an almost unanimous perception that the military onslaught was briefly paused for the Indian elections means that expectations from New Delhi now are justifiably high. National Security Advisor MK Narayanan has put it down to the indispensability of a political solution, charged with the promise that the 13th Amendment – a constitutional clause that provides for devolution of political powers to provinces – will be implemented in the true spirit of its intention to provide for a degree of political autonomy to areas with dominant Tamil populations. Of course, now, the geography of Sri Lanka has changed. There are no longer any Tamil-dominated areas. If they haven’t fallen to collateral waste, every last Tamil from the North and North-East now sits in any one of a handful of relief camps, clustered around the Vavuniya area. The facilities there include a well-praised Indian field hospital, recently shifted from Pulmodai on the East coast, where a small team of Indian doctors has spent over a month now treating a literally endless stream of patients. Injuries sustained in the crossfire apart, the camps have obviously bred diseases, sickness and a gargantuan measure of displacement trauma that will have to be addressed in its own right. The horror of displacement is the one illness that binds every last survivor in the camps.
The question now, of course is, what does Sri Lanka expect from India? And more importantly what do the displaced Tamils expect from a country they unwaveringly looked at as the mothership. Colombo now needs India for the gritty, unenviable task of making the North safe. Many Tamils in the camps are willing to forgive what they perceive as India’s detachment during the current operations, if only India guarantees that it will get them a future of honour, economic independence and a degree of political autonomy that puts them on par with the Sinhala majority. The political history of the island would blunt the sentiments of even the most pathological optimist, but Sri Lankan Tamils nurse fervent hopes that these are changed times. At any rate, the Tamil question may never be resolved with any measure of haste, considering that there are challenges ahead that threaten life and limb more than social inequalities.
One of the biggest, most immediate and challenging tasks is the de-mining of the Northern areas. Thousands upon thousands of landmines were apparently planted by the LTTE without record across enormous swathes of land to blunt the Sri Lankan Army offensive. The Army progressively cut a fine line through the vast minefields into the war zone – at least 800 soldiers reportedly died in landmine blasts during these operations. Unless the North is satisfactorily de-mined, nobody can go back. According to one report, the Northern part of Sri Lanka could be more heavily mined now than Afghanistan was in 2001. A team of Indian military de-mining engineers will assist Sri Lankan authorities to kick-start an exercise that could, according to the Lankan Peace Secretariat, take up to five years. Indeed, it could be marked out by international agencies as a mine-contaminated zone forever.
The other area which India will be expected to contribute heavily towards is the rebuilding of the North. I travelled from Kilinochchi to the banks of the Puthumathalan lagoon on May 2 – a mere sample of the area of operations. The entire zone is an unending canvas of destruction. Not a single building stands still. Operations have reduced the area to a veritable graveyard of twisted metal and concrete. The only humans that you can still see there are army troops, who stand on guard against possible revenge attacks by any survivors from the Tamil Tigers.
The word opportunity is used a lot in Sri Lanka these days. This is an ‘opportunity’ for the Tamils to shake off their marginalised past. This is an ‘opportunity’ for the government to establish a truly multi-ethnic society void of Sinhala chauvinism. This is an ‘opportunity’ for India to leave its past foreign policy blunders behind and get right back on track. This is an ‘opportunity’ for New Delhi to counter Beijing’s rapidly rising strategic influence in the Indian Ocean Region. This is also an ‘opportunity’ for South Block to prove that, when it comes to the neighbourhood, India does not always have to be resoundingly impervious to reality. With a relatively stable government in harness in New Delhi, and local Indian political equations suitably realigned, there is every ‘opportunity’ for a new complexion to Indo-Lankan ties – ties could benefit Colombo, and at the same time address Indian concerns.
R Sampanthan, leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and one of the most vocal Tamil politicians in the country, says, “India is very clearly back in the picture. There can be no question about it. India is going to be fully involved both in the matter of resettlement of displaced people, as well as extracting assurances about the collective political future of Sri Lankan Tamils.” It is Sampanthan’s use of the phrase “back in the picture” that is operative here. A full retinue of Tamil politicians, who flocked to India House in Colombo on May 21 to meet Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, urged the special envoys to ensure that India did not waver from its commitment to the Tamil cause this time around. Their request is not without reason. The Manmohan Singh government is seen as having fully supported the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in its operations against the LTTE, at the risk of appearing to wash its hands off the Tamil question, and what aid agencies have almost unanimously called a humanitarian crisis.
Something that troubles island Tamils no end is the Sri Lankan government’s categorical and persistent refusal to acknowledge that a humanitarian crisis has precipitated as a result of its military operations. They feel that while temporary displacement and collateral damage can somehow be understood – if not condoned – as the fallouts of any military intervention, the government’s stubbornness in recognising the situation as a crisis portends ill. Getting the Sri Lankan government to start its journey towards reconciliation by at least recognising that it has a humanitarian problem of enormous proportions on its hands, is also something that island Tamils expect from India. For now though, the wave of euphoria that sweeps Sri Lanka will not permit the establishment from giving up the notion that the military operation has simply constituted the world’s largest rescue operation. Some argue that the ‘rescue operation’ was the means, and the humanitarian crisis, the end, and the two were therefore not comparable no matter which way you look at it.
There are a large number of Tamils who simply don’t believe that there’s a better life instore for them. Their logic is that when the Sri Lankan government was materially threatened by the presence of the LTTE and the geographical consolidation of the Tamils in the North and East, its policy was one of prejudice. And that now with control of the entire island – not to mention the entire Tamil population – it has no incentive to change its policies towards the island’s largest ethnic minority. The very same Tamils also view President Rajapaksa’s call for “magnanimity in victory” as representative of the lingering systemic condescension with which the majority Sinhala population supposedly regards the minorities. They believe, not without reason that while a lot has changed over the years, the essential sentiments that were enshrined in President Samuel Bandaranaike’s notorious Sinhala Only Act of 1956 – an Act widely believed to have sparked off the impulse towards Tamil separatism – continue to prevail in spirit.
Possibly the most ironic and perverse era of India’s relations with Sri Lanka was in the late eighties. It was a time when Rajiv Gandhi’s peacekeepers were engaged in full-frontal battle with the Tamil Tigers, while wounded Tigers were being treated by the boatload on Indian territory and sent back to continue fighting Indian soldiers. It was also a time when the LTTE, supposedly the enemy of Sri Lankan sovereignty, was being secretly armed by the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa himself, all in an effort to settle political scores with Rajiv Gandhi. It’s probably representative of just how deeply twisted the transpirations were that both Gandhi and Premadasa were summarily assassinated by the Tigers shortly thereafter.
There is, then, an overwhelming expectation from India not to allow the ghosts of the past to revisit this stunningly beautiful island. They say conflict is power. It certainly is political and diplomatic power. But if India is to live up to its Big Brother sobriquet, without any of the devious Orwellian connotations, it will be expected to act sensitively, act prudently, and most importantly, act now.©Copyright 2009 FORCE Magazine