By G. Parthasarthy
The scars of 30 years of bloody ethnic conflict and terrorism are gradually disappearing from Sri Lanka’s landscape. Visiting Colombo barely three years ago was a traumatic experience. With the country torn apart in a seemingly endless civil war, one could sense a nation on edge, even while disembarking at Colombo’s International Airport. The airport itself then looked like an armed citadel. The security screening across the country was suffocating. Colombo felt like a city under siege, with roadblocks virtually at every street corner and traffic light, monitored by armed police and army check posts.
Returning to Colombo last week, I was immensely relieved to see Sri Lanka’s capital virtually devoid of irksome security presence, with thousands of Indian tourists being welcomed with a smile from the moment of disembarkation. Colombo’s roads are full of Bajaj auto-rickshaws, easily the most popular mode of public transport. More interestingly, unlike in Indian cities, one finds large numbers of Tata Nano taxis in Colombo. The Nano and the auto-rickshaws are seen as symbols of Indian transportation ingenuity. A Pakistani friend who I met in Colombo told me after a ride in a Nano taxi that if Pakistan had free trade with India, the roads of Karachi and Lahore would be flooded with Indian buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws!
In the midst of this changed environment, one found that the LTTE had been replaced by the US and its NATO allies as the greatest threat to national security and well-being. Slogans and billboards across Colombo proclaimed loudly that the west was out to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, seeking to ostracise and isolate Sri Lanka internationally. The Americans are moving a resolution in the United Nations Council on Human Rights (UNCHR), suggesting intrusive measures to censure Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations in the last days of the ethnic conflict. Moreover, there is considerable bitterness over US moves to make imports of oil from Iran impossible, despite the fact that Iran is the major supplier of oil for Sri Lanka’s only oil refinery, which refines light Iranian crude. A Sri Lankan friend ruefully noted that while India had the economic and diplomatic clout to resist such coercive sanctions, Sri Lanka was finding its energy security and economic progress threatened.
After failing to get Sri Lanka censured in the UNCHR earlier last year, the western countries led by the US — which are opposed by China, Pakistan and South Africa — have now come up with this draft resolution seeking to get Sri Lankan President Rajapakse to implement the provisions of the report of Sri Lanka’s “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC). The Sri Lankan government has agreed to implement the November 2011 LLRC recommendations.
The government claims that it has completed rehabilitation of 3 lakh displaced Tamils and that sections of the economy such as fishing and agriculture, which were closed during the ethnic conflict, have been revived; 1,200 LTTE fighters granted amnesty; and 1,000 former LTTE child recruits rehabilitated. The LLRC also concluded that the Sri Lankan military had not deliberately targeted civilians, adding that “the LTTE had no respect for human life”, evidently referring to the propensity of the LTTE to use innocent Tamil civilians as “human shields”, in conflict situations.
The commission acknowledged that it had received reports alleging serious abuses by the Sri Lankan army, such as “disappearance” of Tamil civilians after arrest and detention. It felt that these allegations warranted further investigation and punishment of military officers found guilty. While 5,556 military personnel were killed in the last phase of the conflict, 22,247 LTTE cadres lost their lives, of which 11,812 had been identified by name.
India welcomed the public release of the LLRC report, expressing the hope that Sri Lanka would act with vision on the devolution of power and genuine national reconciliation. India noted: “It is important to ensure that an independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights violations, as brought out by the LLRC, in a time-bound manner.” While the British, with a dubious record of supporting separatism in former colonies, and international busybodies like Norway have pontificated about what needs to be done, the reactions of the US, EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and the Canadians have been measured and nuanced.
It appears evident that like in the past, the western countries will be unable to muster adequate support for adoption of the present draft resolution moved by the US. Separatist causes have little support in today’s world. India would, however, be well advised to support nuanced measures that promote national reconciliation and guarantee that Sri Lanka fulfils its assurances to devolve power as envisaged in the 13th Amendment to its Constitution, enacted after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.
A majority of the 2.7 lakh-strong Sri Lankan Army — comprising 14 divisions under six operational commands, two independent divisions and several independent brigades — are deployed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. While there has been some loosening of what is seen as a suffocating military presence in these provinces, Sri Lanka would be well advised to ensure that the army profile is reduced significantly. India should continue partnering the Sri Lankan Government in ensuring that there is no infiltration across the Palk Straits. India is playing a key role in the development and restoration of rail communication links between Colombo and the Tamil-majority north of the island. Indian assistance is also developing air and sea transportation links with the Northern Province.
The key to India’s strategic influence in Sri Lanka lies in the development of Trincomalee Port, where it inherited antiquated petroleum storage facilities in 1987. India should aim to emerge as a major hub for finished petroleum products in the Indian Ocean Region. With Sri Lanka experiencing problems with its obsolete refining facilities, India should consider majority equity participation by its public and private companies in the development of a major petroleum refining and storage facility in Trincomalee. This would augment its existing indigenous facilities for export of refined petroleum products across the Indian Ocean Rim. It would also enable the development of north-eastern Sri Lanka. It would ensure that the Chinese involvement in Hambantota Port is matched by an Indian presence in the ethnically mixed Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Ethnic harmony and economic development in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces is the key to the security of our southern shores. We have serious security challenges on our northern and western borders. Astute and pro-active diplomacy is needed to guarantee our security across the Indian Ocean Rim.
Source: The Tribune, 15 March 2012