Background to the Srilankan Tamil problem is well understood by most of us. It is not necessary to delve into the historical aspects for the purpose of this article. At the same time it will be useful to remember some, not often stated dimensions, to the problem:
- Srilankan Tamils do not have a monolithic identity. There are at least four different groups with divergent political aspirations – Jaffna Tamils, Colombo Tamils, Plantation Tamils, and Tamil speaking Muslims.
- At the core of the Sinhala state is the alliance between the Colombo based elite and extremist Buddhist clergy. This group does not want any concession to be made to Tamil aspirations. At best they envisage second class citizenship; while at worst they may prefer deportation of ALL Tamils to India. All previous Presidents / Prime Ministers came from the Colombo elite, while Mahinda is an outsider, who has gate crashed into the ‘system’
- Despite all the ‘inroads’ made by China and Pakistan recently, India’s influence is still the most impactful in Srilanka – be it in terms of Trade, Investment, Culture, Religion or even Politics
India’s Objectives: One clearly enunciated aspect of foreign policy of the new Government in India is the concern for India’s Diaspora irrespective of their current nationality. With this clarity we can define the objectives for India in Sri Lanka as follows:
- Return, Rehabilitation and Rebuilding of life of Tamils in their homelands in the North and East
- Tamils should be able to lead their lives in their traditional homelands, paying sufficient attention to their interests in the areas of – Economy, Education, Religion, and Culture.
- Achieve Closure in the conflict through appropriate means of Justice and Reconciliation.
War Crimes Issue: Some elements in Tamil Nadu politics have chosen to focus exclusively on the Justice issue (i.e. excluding reconciliation aspect) and have defined it over-simplistically as retribution to Rajapakse. Responsible leading political parties have chosen to play along cynically in their belief that such extremism is harmless to their own local political interests. Reality is however that there is little possibility of even a capture cum trial of Rajapakse even on the scales of Milosevic, leave alone Kaltenbrunner. This is not to absolve him of the responsibility for the excesses during the Civil War, but based purely on current possibilities. Further such an excessive focus on one issue pertaining to the killed Tamils drains energies from the other more pressing issue, which is that of the Tamils who are alive now and their livelihood!
Options for India to achieve its Objectives: Essentially there appear to be only three potential ways –
Open War: This can be ruled out given the current military priorities of India and geopolitical situation
Sanctions: A South Africa type sanctions regime will not be feasible in today’s environment. While such an initiative (i.e. to the scales of the South Africa sanctions) will certainly be effective, global consensus for the same necessary simply does not exist today. To put cynically, United Nations Organisation is dealing with far too many ‘villains’ today! Further Srilanka’s level of economic development and integration with the global economy are such that sanctions will hardly cripple them. In short, India simply does not have the means to create the necessary environment of coercion through sanctions
Diplomacy: In our assessment the only option available. Surefooted, Persistent, Competent Diplomacy fortified with well defined Goals and Political Support can possibly have a good shot at reaching the objectives. But then one should also concede that in negotiations the ‘opposite’ side should perceive some benefit, else nothing will be achieved. If Rajapakse is to be called only discuss his prosecution or embargo on his country, it should be reminded that it is unlikely that he will be a willing accomplice to the process!
Possible Next Steps: While diplomatic moves cannot be road mapped along certitudes, we stick our neck out and suggest the possible next steps:
India can use the visit of Rajapakse to Delhi to get him to accept a process to be defined. Clearly such a process cannot be defined in this week’s meeting in Delhi, given the likely paucity of time both in preparing for the meeting as well as its duration
The new EAM should pick it up as a priority. Whatever the approach and principles formulated, the Government must explain to the people of Tamil Nadu. It is quite likely that the current political leadership in Tamil Nadu may be obstructive, in which case the EAM should talk to the people over their heads through print and TV media. Appointing a dedicated Special Envoy may be considered.
India must put on fast track all the reconstruction activities going on. Srilankan leadership should be gently reminded that outsourcing development of the Northern and Eastern regions to India may not be wise idea in the longer term – they should play their role befitting a national government to ensure their ‘hegemony’!
On top of the reconstruction projects, improved connectivity can be a next step followed by greater economic integration of the Northern and Eastern regions with Tamil Nadu
For far too long, there has been excessive focus on the means. It is time we define our objectives, and, channelize our energies towards them!
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