The Era Of Coercive Diplomacy Is Over
By Col R Hariharan
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has now clarified her recent action in sending back Sri Lankan football teams and pilgrims as a symbolic act to register her protest against the continued aberrations in Sri Lanka’s handling of Tamils. Sri Lankan pilgrims and others are welcome to visit Tamil Nadu she has added wisely, as a lakh of people come to Chennai from Sri Lanka.
Secondly, her call to boycott trade with Sri Lanka comes at a time when Indo-Sri Lanka trade is flourishing; it’s worth nearly four billion dollars now. Tamil Nadu has a lion’s share of this trade. With global economic downturn shrinking trading volumes, it would be unwise to ban on trade with Sri Lanka. The chief minister’s statement was probably a political rhetoric to upstage her rival M Karunanidhi, leader of the DMK, from exploiting the Sri Lanka Tamil issue. Of course, she is genuinely concerned about the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Thirdly, issues of Centre-state relationship are also behind Tamil Nadu’s assertive call for New Delhi to act on what you call ‘ethnic nationalism’. The chief minister’s insistence on New Delhi to take serious notice of her concerns is her way of asserting her national presence. Other regional satraps like Ms Mamta Banerjee and Mulayam Singh are also doing the same. Comments on foreign policy issues by them does not mean belligerence. It is only a call for New Delhi to consider the state’s sensitivities in policy making. We can expect more such calls from regional leaders in the coming years as national parties need them to form coalition government at the Centre.
Fourthly the era of coercive diplomacy is over. The US, with all its might, has not been able to force a regime change in Syria. So there is no question of India forcing Sri Lanka to act according to its will. Cooperation, coordination and concern for each other with some carrots and a little stick can produce results in international relations.
India already enjoys enormous influence in shaping Sri Lanka’s policy with its international status, and economic, cultural, religious and strategic clout. If we use this clout to ‘coerce’ a proud nation like Sri Lanka, we will only alienate it.
No nation – not even India or the U.S. – can really force Sri Lanka government to carry out the reconciliation process with Tamil minority. They are Sri Lankan nationals. As the strategic context now is different from 1987, India cannot exert the same type of pressure as it did in the past to speed up the reconciliation process.
India’s efforts in the past on this issue resulted in the signing of India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987. It provides for the creation of provincial councils with certain amount of autonomy. This was formalised by the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Despite this, the powers enshrined there have not been fully extended to provincial councils due to various political reasons.
After winning the war, President Rajapaksa has emerged unchallenged leader and Tamils have limited political clout. With the LTTE no more there, Rajapaksa is going through the reconciliation process at his own speed. This has alienated not only the Tamil support but also some of the goodwill Sri Lanka enjoyed in India, USA and EU countries.
However, Rajapaksa feels as a national leader it would be demeaning to be seen as bowing to external pressure on this issue. So he is taking his own time. India can only use the tools of diplomatic and economic pressure to push him into action.
Prabhakaran had an autocratic leadership style and the leadership vacuum left by the exit cannot be filled up by democratic leaders. It cannot be filled up by any Tamil politician from India or elsewhere because they are not accountable to Sri Lankan people.
Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka are experienced and quite capable; they are raising their voices in parliament strongly on key issues. Unfortunately, Indian media rarely considers them or their views as newsworthy and flashes only some ill informed or inflammatory statement from Tamil Nadu as important news.
Sri Lanka Tamil leaders have not gained the confidence of Tamil people as they are traumatised by war and are yet to resume normal life and live with confidence and dignity. Sri Lankan government has failed to give them the feeling of security and trust to improve their mindset.
Sri Lanka, has an elected democratic government in which Tamil minority also voted. So it is not in the same class as military dictatorships or monarchies. President Mahinda Rajapaksha has been elected twice as President by popular vote. He is an executive president unlike the President of India, who is only the head of state and prime minister wields the executive powers.
Rajapaksa as President wields enormous powers which he does not hesitate to use, frequently in authoritarian style. This has naturally caused its own reaction. In spite of this, there is no question of India adopting “a policy of toleration” because he enjoys the confidence of the majority of Sri Lankans.
He considers relations with India as “brotherly” and crucial to further Sri Lanka’s interests. He has consulted India in all major issues and has worked hard to build close relations with India. We should understand that he would act only on what he considers as Sri Lanka’s national interest. We should respect that as he is accountable to his people; however, we should start using our influence a little more boldly to give his regime a more humane face.
Not only in post colonial states but even in Western states there are majority-minority problems. A good example is Belgium, a tiny state by Asian standards, where the French and Flemish speaking people get into log jam.
Though India has been trying to address it politically, it has not succeeded fully; the Bodos, Nagas and Meiteis took to arms because of the minority syndrome. Not only India and other Western nations but even other political parties of Sri Lanka have been suggesting the need to carry out devolution of power to minorities side by side with reconstruction.
However, Sri Lanka leadership believes in the war torn zones, reconstruction of habitats and infrastructure would improve the life style of the people and devolution being a political process can be progressed at its own pace. So we have a lopsided picture in post-war Sri Lanka where massive development projects and restoration of infrastructure have not won over people who had been struggling for equitable rights on par with Sinhala majority.
Col R Hariharan served as a MI specialist on Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka as well as terrorism and counter-insurgency for nearly three decades. His operational experience includes India-Pakistan wars in Kutch (1965), and East Pakistan 1971, and counter insurgency operations in North Eastern States, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.