Delhi’s Lankan limp

The recent local council elections in Sri Lanka threw up a surprise for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ruling coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) bagged 18 out of 26 seats in the Tamil-majority northern and eastern provinces. Until the destruction of the LTTE two years ago, the TNA was under the Tigers’ sway.

In the run-up to the general elections last year, it dropped its separatist agenda and declared itself in favour of regional autonomy for the north and east. The UPFA had put up an energetic campaign, hoping that success in the elections would uphold its claims about working for the development of these areas. An electoral endorsement would also have come in handy at a time when the government’s conduct of the war against the LTTE is once again attracting international attention.
The unexpected electoral reverse may not be of immediate political significance. But it is likely to turn the spotlight on Mr Rajapaksa’s solemn assurances of a “political solution” for the Tamils. This, of course, is a matter of some interest for India as well.
Even before the war was formally terminated, Mr Rajapaksa declared that a political settlement would follow in the wake of the military victory. Two years on, there has been little progress. Admittedly priority had to be given to dealing with the immediate problems posed by the decades-long conflict. Yet, both the pace and the manner in which the post-war reconstruction has been tackled raise serious doubts about the government’s intentions.
Contrary to claims about speedy repatriation, nearly a third of the displaced people continue to be held in internment camps. An estimated 180,000 people remain in these camps and other temporary dwellings. Those released from the camps did not necessarily end up in their homes. For much has changed in the northern and eastern provinces. Almost 150 permanent Army camps now dot the landscape in these parts of the country. Large slices of land have been converted into high-security zones, from which erstwhile occupants and owners are debarred. The Jaffna peninsula, for instance, has 15 such zones amounting to a fifth of its total land mass and displacing about 130,000 residents. There are reports of land grabs and forcible displacement of owners being undertaken to promote ventures by non-Tamil businessmen.
Almost all reconstruction activities are controlled by the military and a Presidential Task Force. The governors of the northern and eastern provinces are former generals. Unsurprisingly, priority has been given to the construction of housing for soldiers and their families. The military has insinuated itself deeply into the political economy of these provinces. An officers’ mess in Jaffna has even been made over into a luxury resort.
There is a discernible pattern to the settlement and militarisation. And it suggests that the government is less than sincere about its desire to devolve power to the provinces as part of a political settlement. Mr Rajapaksa and his officials routinely brush aside such suggestions. Speaking recently to an Indian newspaper, he observed that the camps in the north were no different from those in other parts of the country. Behind the smokescreen of such dissembling the government seems to be working towards hollowing out the idea of provincial autonomy. It is no coincidence that Mr Rajapaksa has openly stated that subjects like land and law and order will not come within the purview of the provincial governments in any future dispensation. Viewed in conjunction with the vastly enhanced powers of the President under the 18th Amendment, it is not clear just what provincial autonomy will amount to. Unfortunately, the results of the recent local council elections might end up strengthening the prevailing conservative views on a “political settlement”.
So far, the Indian government has been quietly urging Sri Lanka to capitalise on the victory against the Tigers and forge a settlement. Its position is neatly encapsulated in the joint statement issued by the foreign ministers of both countries a couple of months ago. India sought the “expeditious implementation of measures” towards resettlement and “genuine reconciliation”. These included early return of displaced persons to their homes, early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations and restoration of normality. The statement also noted that a “devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation”.
It should be obvious to New Delhi that the Sri Lankan government is at some remove from substantial realisation of these measures. India’s reluctance to lean more heavily on Colombo stems from two related factors. First, it does not wish to be seen as ganging up with other (primarily Western) powers against Sri Lanka and so accentuate the hyper-nationalist, not to say xenophobic, mood of the current government. Thus India is willing to urge Sri Lanka to look into instances of human rights violations, but will not support calls for an independent war crimes investigation. Second, New Delhi realises that its leverage with Colombo is limited. Over half of all the foreign aid and loan to Sri Lanka in the past year flowed from China. By contrast, India’s financial contribution and, more importantly, its ability to deliver on projects seems pale.
Neither of these, however, is good reason to adopt a hands-off approach. India would rightly want to avoid getting bogged down by the Tamil question the way it did in the 1980s. But such overt intervention and our current stance are not the only alternatives open to us. Besides, by allowing the issue to drift we may be setting ourselves up for problems in the future. If moderate Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka are unable to achieve an acceptable constitutional settlement, the agenda of the Tamils will be usurped by the more militant diaspora. India’s Sri Lanka policy has for long been hamstrung by the absence of credible, democratic Tamil parties. The results of local bodies elections in Sri Lanka present a window of opportunity that we can ill-afford to miss.

Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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