Geopolitical Trends in Sri Lanka Today

by Dr. Shelton U. Kodikara
(Professor of International Relations, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka)


The subject I have been assigned to speak on this morning is "Geopolitical Trends in Sri Lanka Today". By this I understand that I am expected to address myself not so much to problems of internal politics as to those issues of Sri Lanka politics which have an extra-territorial frame of reference, more especially on those issues which impinge on security and territorial integrity.

Now I am aware that you cannot neatly compartmentalize problems of internal politics from problems pertaining to foreign policy and security in any country. The two are intertwined. There are domestic pressures bearing on decisions in foreign policy and on security-related questions, just as the international environment impacts on processes of domestic politics as a general rule.

In the case of Sri Lanka, when we talk of linkages between internal politics and foreign policy, we have to think in terms of our only near neighbor India, and it is in the domain of Indo-Sri Lankan relations that we can conceptualize a Sri Lanka geopolitical perspective at all. India became concerned with Sri Lankan geopolitics for two main reasons, especially in the 1980s. First, India perceived a threat to its own security from certain tendencies in Sri Lankan foreign policy since the J.R. Jayewardene government came to power in 1977, and second, India became involved in the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, partly because the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 was having an effect on the politics of Tamilnadu and making India the guardian and host to nearly 200,000 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, and partly because any separatist tendencies in Sri Lanka, as advocated by the Tamil Tigers, would have their repercussions across the Palk Strait in Tamilnadu itself.

It has been my view, which I have constantly reiterated elsewhere, that the threat to India’s security perceived to be emanating from trends in Sri Lankan foreign policy was, in fact, a problem of misperception. India did indeed feel peculiarly sensitive to the realities of its geopolitical situation after the 1965 war with Pakistan, when Chinese intervention in that war became a near possibility. The vulnerability of India’s long coastline also became an issue in Indian strategic decision-making after Indonesia dispatched a small flotilla of naval vessels to Karachi in support of Pakistan in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, and after the appearance of an American naval task force headed by USS Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly in support of Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. Advertising to India’s current large naval build-up, which was causing concern amongst other Asian naval powers, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told former Prime Minister Bob Hawke of Australia:

‘We have a very long coastline. We are determined to never again lose control over the approaches to India from the sea. Confronted with the growing presence of outside naval forces in the Indian Ocean, we are left with no alternative but to strengthen our naval defences and resist any attempt to undermine our independence or integrity from the direction of the sea. We are also determined to exercise our legitimate rights in our exclusive zone."

India’s concern over Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was based on the premise that under a West-oriented foreign policy, the Jayewardene government was permitting the strategic Sri Lanka port of Trincomalee to become a base facility to the United States Navy. Although in fact no such contingency had arisen as far as Trincomalee was concerned. India’s interest in this port was increasing rather than diminishing, and found expression in the provision, inscribed into the Letters of Exchange which were attached to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 29 July 1987, that "Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India’s interests."

India’s attitude towards the United States has changed in fundamental respects contemporaneously. The US role in the western Indian Ocean may even be tacitly acknowledged by India today. Even so, the Indian conception that Sri Lanka lies within its security perimeter has not changed, and Trincomalee will continue to be an object of perennial concern for India. Therefore, Trincomalee, which now figures in Sri Lanka’s treaty commitments with India, and its environs, will have to be fairly and squarely within the jurisdiction of the Central government in any scheme of devolution of power, unitary or federal, which might be evolved to resolve the ethnic question in Sri Lanka.

India’s involvement with Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis also had many dimensions. First, there was the questions of Sri Lankan refugees, which gave India a locus standi in the Sri Lankan crisis. Second, there was the pressure exerted by successive governments and oppositionists in Tamilnadu on the union government, engaging in a sort of competitive contest to be recognized as the stronger defender of the Tamil interest in Sri Lanka both government and opposition at one time or another supporting the Tamil Tigers, and urging a more active interventionist policy on behalf of Sri Lankan Tamils on the part of the government of India.

The picture has, of course, now changed radically in Tamilnadu and as far as the government of India is concerned, in respect of the LTTE. The Rajiv Gandhi killing has made not only the LTTE, but Sri Lankan Tamils generally, persona non grata in Tamilnadu. Tamil students are now being debarred not only from Tamilnadu universities, but from other universities in neighboring states as well. The Tamilnadu government has asked the Sri Lanka government to take back all Sri Lankan Tamil refugees now given sanctuary in Tamilnadu. And most important of all, the Tarnilnadu High Court investigating the killing of Rajiv Gandhi has arraigned Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, in connection with this killing, and follow-up action on this might even involve issue of summons, and a request to the Sri Lankan government for extradition.

These recent developments have already had the effect of stalling the dialogue which the government of Sri Lanka was hoping to build up with the LTTE with a projected visit of Minister Thondaman to Jaffna. The government of Sri Lanka is now taking the position that it will not engage in discussions with the LTTE in view of the subjudice status of the Rajiv killing, and present trends seem to indicate a renewed military offensive against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan security forces, possibly materially aided by India.

India’s past experience with military intervention in Sri Lanka was both painful and embarrasing, and it does not seem likely that it will repeat the exercise. During its brief tenure of power in India, Foreign Minister Shukla of the Chandra Sekhar government spelt out quite unequivocally the principles which would guide India’s dealings with Sri Lanka, in an address to Parliament’s Consultative Committee on External Affairs. The four parameters which would guide India’s policy toward Sri Lanka, he said, were:

  1. India will not be a party to a process of political integration of Sri Lanka.
  2. India will not allow foreign forces to interfere in Sri Lanka.
  3. India’s armed forces will not be sent again to Sri Lanka; and,
  4. Indian territory will not be allowed to be used as a base for terrorist activities directed against Sri Lanka.

It has been an oft-repeated premise, which was even inserted into the Preamble of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, that India considered Sri Lanka’s territorial unity and integrity as inviolable. In whatever other ways India might, on occasion, have strayed from the path of good faith and good neighborliness, India has been consistent in always upholding the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. From a geopolitical perspective, this is a great plus factor in Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

In the light of this premise, and in view of the Indian policy declarations referred to earlier, it might be said that the prospects for Indo-Sri Lanka relations in the 1990s look far brighter than they did at anytime in the 1980s. Foreign Minister Shukla’s approach to Sri Lanka had already been spelt out by his predecessor in office in the V.P. Singh government, Inder Gujral, who had made clear that the Indian government would never send its army to intervene militarily abroad and stressed that Tamil security and welfare was ultimately the responsibility of the Sri Lanka government. The Gujral-Shukla assertions that India would not in future get involved in military interventions abroad can hardly be taken at their face-value as a self-denting ordinance for all time, although they were certainly expressions of goodwill towards Sri Lanka. Future governments of India may well take a different view depending on the existential circumstances, and K. Subrahmanyan may well have expressed the reality of the situation better when he said:

‘We have had a lot of questioning, self-doubts and hand-wringing.., on the JPKF operation. All that shows that we are a sober, balanced, pluralistic and democratic nation and we ought to be proud of that. But let us not rush to the conclusion that this is the last of our foreign interventions. Let us hope and pray that it should be so though one doubts whether the curtain has come down on the Sri Lanka imbroglio and India would not be involved again at all. By all means let us decide that we shall think many times in future before sending our forces into a foreign country even at their invitation."

That the curtain has not come down on "the Sri Lanka imbroglio", as Subrahmanyan called it, is clear for all to see. The ethnic crisis has defied solution so far. A new element of acrimony has been inculcated into the ethnic debate by the so-called Thondaman proposals and an escalating Sinhala nationalist backlash against them. Federalism as the panacea to Sri Lanka’s political problems is being increasingly discussed by eminent people. My own view is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with federalism, but it must be introduced together with a re-drawing of the present provincial boundaries of Sri Lanka. The present provincial boundaries, coming down to us as a British legacy from the 19th century, must not be treated as sacrosanct. I myself have been proposing a five-province scheme. An eminent academic has proposed a seven province formula based on the concept of river basins. There can be permutations and combinations of these various formulae. Devolution of power does not seem to present insurmountable problems. The big problem, and one to which a great deal of attention must be focused, is the question of the northeast merger. I have myself in the past advocated a modified form of northeast merger, but the signs are increasing that making the merger permanent will be resisted by a majority of the Sinhala people.

All Tamil political parties in the island, including the LTTE, have now giving up the demand for a separate state, in the case of the LTTE this being dependent on implementation of a federal scheme. In Sri Lanka, responses to the idea of federalism amongst the Sinhala people especially, have been negative because of the association of this term with the Federal Party founded by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam in 1949. But federal polities have successfully met the aspirations of separatist Quebecois. Multiculturalism is an essential feature of Canadian federalism. Like in Canada, Sri Lanka has now recognized Sri Lanka’s linguistic duality, with English also featured as a national link language. The Canadian constitution does recognize Quebec’s right to preserve and promote its identity as a distinct society within Canada, but nowhere is it stated that Quebec in only for French-speaking Quebecois. On the other hand, the basic premise of multiculturalism is that there are English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians in all parts of Canada.

The amending process is the most important part of any constitution and in a federal constitution one can have various procedures for amendment. The general rule has been, in most federal polities, that the consent of the federal parliament and at least two-thirds of the state or provincial legislatures is required for constitutional amendment, and in Canada the latter must represent at least half the population. But in Canada the consent of parliament and all legislatures is required for some of the most important amendments, including the amending formula itself. Some of these amendments in Canada relate to the office of the Queen, the Governnor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province, the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting senators, the number of members by which a province is entitled to be represented in the Senate, the use of the English or the French language, the Supreme Court of Canada, the extension of existing provinces into the territories, the establishment of new provinces, and so on. Parliament can, of course, exclusively make laws amending the constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.

It is my view, that in devising solutions to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka today, a great deal can be learned from the Canadian experience. We must give up the idea of demarcating particular parts of the island as exclusive areas for particular ethnic groups. We must approach this problem from the broader perspective that the whole of Sri Lanka is a habitation for all the people of Sri Lanka, whether they belong to different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups.

[This paper was presented at the 23rd CCA-URM Committee Meeting, 11-15 February 1992, Colombo, Sri Lanka.]