What economic and political role can India play to assist Sri Lanka, and the mercurial President Rajapaksa, in making the environment more inclusive for minorities?

The ad hoc manner in which Sri Lanka’s first woman Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached earlier this year and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech earlier this month both lead to a criticial conclusion — the administration does not intend to use its mandate, the large parliamentary majority granted to it in 2009 by Lankans, to provide greater autonomy to the largely voiceless Tamils.

Add to this the progressive Sinhalisation of Tamil areas and the marginalisation of minorities — Tamils and Muslims — seems complete.

It is in such a situation that photographs of Prabhakaran’s 12-year old son, just prior to and after his killing in the last stages of Eelam War IV, have been made public via Channel 4. This comes just a week ahead of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) meet — during which the complete Channel 4 documentary is to be screened.

The US-sponsored resolution

The U.S.-sponsored resolution, just like it did last year, is set to review Sri Lanka’s record in implementing its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Last year, a resolution tabled by U.S. was adopted with 24 countries — India included — voting to censure the Sri Lankan government. Though India got the language of the resolution considerably toned down, by making a departure from its track record of not voting for country-specific resolutions, it did irk the Rajapaksa administration.

The first draft of this year’s resolution is titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’. It is to be sponsored by the U.S. and Canada, Britain and the EU have decided to back it. Should India follow suit? The HRC apart, there have been calls from Tamil Nadu parties, including the ruling ADMK, to impose greater economic sanctions. So, is that likely to solve the problem?

U.N. Report: It might be pertinent to recall some of the important points under which SL government is to be held accountable. A report by, a U.N. panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka, released to the public on the 25th April 2011 pointed to the following broad categories of Human Rights violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka towards the end of Eelam ware IV (between September 2008 and May 2009):

(i) Killing of civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) Shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii) Denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both Internally Displaced Persons and suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre; and (v) Human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including attacks on the media and other critics of the government.

Calling the U.N. inquiry interference in its internal affairs, SL instituted its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in mid-2010 and made public the report in December 2011. Among its recommendations was: ‘good-faith’ efforts for consensus on power devolution, buliding on what (devolution) exists. This would be applicable to both the ‘periphery’and power-sharing at the centre. This recommendation has been effectively abandoned by the SL government.

So, should India abandon all economic ties with the country Mahatma Gandhi, during his 1927 visit, called ‘sister nation’ help?

India’s present economic relations with Sri Lanka

India provides the lifeblood to Sri Lankan economy by being its leading trade partner globally; and Sri Lanka reciprocates this by acting as India’s major trading partner in the conflict-torn South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region.

Bilateral trade between the two nations has shown marked improvement after the signing of Free Trade Agreement in March 2000. According to Sri Lankan statistics, the trade in 2011 reached $4.85 billion with Indian exports standing at $4.3 billion registering a year-on-year growth of 32%. India was the second-largest Foreign Direct Investment contributor to Sri Lanka in 2011, contributing $147 million out of the $1057 million received by the country with companies such as Indian Oil Corporation, the Tatas and Bharti Airtel choosing to set shop there.

This apart, India is also carrying-out negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Sri Lanka since February 2004 and thirteen rounds have taken place so far. Agreement on this is expected to be achieved in the near future.

Also, India is a major contributor to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry. Indian tourists – 176340 in number – made up nearly 18% of the total tourists visiting the island nation in 2010.

India is also one of the leading contributors to infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka. The Galle-Matara coastal railway track was inaugurated on 16th February 2011 and upgraded and handed over in April 2012. India is assisting Sri Lanka to restore Kankesanthruai Harbor (Memorandum of Understanding signed in July 2011).

This apart, our country has strong linkages in the culture, education, agriculture sectors. Regular people-to-people contacts are being maintained.

What about sanctions?

Sanctions would not only compromise on these ties, they would also make our country cede ground to others.

Past experience in relation to sanctions: India, following the refusal of the Tatmadaw to cede power to the democratically elected National League for Democracy (headed by Daw Aung Sung Syu Kyi), condemned the Burmese junta. During its sustained efforts to build democracy in the region, it had to yield considerable economic and military space to China (whose identically authoritarian government proved to be an ideal ally to the junta in a post-Tiananmen Square scenario). Also, Myanmar proved to be a safe haven for insurgents promoting separatism in the North-Eastern region with a highly porous border.

Having burnt its fingers once trying to act as a leading patron of democracy trying to beat a dead military horse, India would be well-advised against making any strategic miscalculation, especially at a time when China, with its $3 trillion foreign exchange reserves, is ready to grab any opportunity with both hands (we already lost our big chance to build Hambantota port due to bureaucratic indifference).


India remains committed to helping the Sri Lankan minorities – especially the Tamils and the Muslims – achieve their democratic rights. We had cultivated ties with successive administrations in Sri Lanka to greater provincial autonomy for the Tamils, which resulted in the 13th Amendment. The ‘hands off’ approach adopted in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi assassination can now be abandoned in favour of a carefully calibrated diplomatic engagement.

Former MEA official Rajiv Sikri pointed out it his book ‘challenges and strategy’ that though the island nation, as a small neighbour, suffers insecurities, India is not perceived there as the ‘bogeyman’ it is considered by its other neighbours. This places India in the best position to guide our neighbour gradually to constiutional democracy with greater devolution of powers.

However, as outlined by the U.N. panel as well as Mr. Sikri, there are some obstacles, including triumphalism among the majority; perpetuation of a climate of fear and intimidation (Mr. Sikri calls it ‘minority complex’); and restrictions on the media.

We need to create a level of cooperation and engagement where we can put greater pressure on the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its obligations under various national and international conventions. Sanctions have not worked against any of our neighbours (including Pakistan in the post 26/11 scenario) and they are unlikely to work in Sri Lanka’s case either.

However, voting in favour of the U.S.-sponsored resolution to put greater pressure on the majoritarian Rajapaksa administration to implement LLRC recommendations could be considered.

Writing his book well before the end of Eelam war IV, Sikri concluded that Sri Lanka would need an enlightened and united Sinhala leadership that does not suffer from a ‘minority complex; the exit of Prabhakaran from the scene; and India’s role guided by its overall national interests rather than just Tamil Nadu politics.

Sri Lankan military has accomplished one of these goals, India needs to play an active intellectual and diplomatic role to help its ‘sister nation’ achieve the other two.