Some lessons in international politics

by Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu

The international dimension of the ethnic conflict and peace
process is perhaps the one most opined on and yet, least
understood in terms of the incentives, strictures and punishments
the international community or any members thereof can visit
upon the two main protagonists.

It is worth reflecting on this for a moment, especially since the role
of the international community was also an issue in the general
election and following it, positions taken in the election campaign
have mellowed, even fundamentally changed. The visit of the
Foreign Minister to Delhi followed by President Rajapakse’s state
visit, has brought this issue to the fore as well.

Central to the role of the international community is the role of
India. The southern nationalists who saw India in the past as the
godfather of Tamil militancy and who mouthed the argument that
India, by taking on this role revealed its vested interest in slowing
the take off of the post 1978 Sri Lankan economy until it took off
and overtook us, now look to India as the ultimate protector of Sri
Lankan sovereignty and territorial unity.

India is the bulwark against the Western led international
community – it should replace Norway, be a Co-Chair and take on
any number of roles which are now being filled by imperialists of
yore. That India does not want to take on any greater and higher
profile role in the conflict transformation process at least for the
moment, is a cause for disappointment, incomprehension and

Political ideology

There is a certain schizophrenia here, a love and hate, damned if
you do /damned if you don’t attitude towards India. And the
Indians know this, post IPKF at least. The very political actors
calling for their greater involvement were those calling for their
withdrawal and more in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The political
ideology of the most vociferous of them was founded on the
realpolitik assumption of Indian imperialism.

The two trips to Delhi must have introduced the new dispensation
in Colombo to certain geopolitical and strategic realities, most
importantly it must have revealed to the new Foreign Minister and
President, India’s self perception of itself as a putative great
power, playing not just a national and regional role, but
international one as well.

They may have gleaned that in order to do the latter, the ability to
demonstrate regional clout and credibility is crucial. And they must
also have realised that putative great powers know that in order to
become a great power and to be seen as such, one has to
demonstrate economic clout and capability.

Self styled patriots

Despite the noise, the sound and fury of the self styled patriots in
the election campaign, a number of factors are now clear and

• The Indians have always been in the "loop" regarding the
Norwegian facilitated peace process and have had the
opportunity to convey their concerns, even misgivings with regard
to the manner and modalities of that facilitation directly to the

• India will support a peace settlement that maintains the unity of
Sri Lanka. This means maximum devolution amounting to
meaningful federalism in contrast to President Rajapakse’s
current mantra of maximum devolution within an unitary state. It
does not mean confederation. Delhi may not be so particular
about labels, focusing more on the substantive powers. In our
case, given the 13th Amendment judgement for one, a rose may
not smell as sweet by any other name.

• More high profile Indian involvement can be expected at the
point at which core political issues and constitutional structures
are being considered. There has never been any doubt in any of
the actors’ minds on this score.

• India is not interested in a defence agreement which will tie it to
pre ordained commitments in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic
conflict. At the same time, it will not allow a rout of the Sri Lankan
armed forces with far reaching strategic consequences for the
political architecture of South Asia.

• As the communiqué following the presidential visit indicates, the
emphasis is on the economic – a high profile political role carries
with it high risks and could seriously detract from the steadily
increasing Indian stake in the Sri Lankan economy. Hence there is
no advantage or indeed pressing need to become a Co – Chair.
The Co –Chairs will not be doing anything New Delhi is opposed
to, anyway.

Power status

• Sri Lanka could be a test case of the Indian ability to
demonstrate great power status in political and economic terms.
Were the local nationalists in the south to get over excited by this,
competition between India and China in Sri Lanka could be
advocated by them as the most feasible foreign policy strategy
that avoids excessive dependence on India and a diminution of Sri
Lanka’s sovereignty. So far the West and the Norwegians are
being branded the threats to sovereignty and there has been no
comment on the Indian stake in the Sri Lankan economy or of the
implications for sovereignty of the Rajapakse - Thondaman
meeting in India House presided over by High Commissioner Rao.

• ‘India’ probably means in the Sri Lankan context, a number of
state agencies, each with its own competences, functioning not
always according to an agreed upon and well coordinated division
of labour, as is the case for all powers, both big and small.

Economic plans

• As in the case of Sethusamudram, Delhi will go ahead with its
economic plans and the only way Colombo is going to save face is
if it gets its technical and professional act together in meetings
with Indian counterparts. Our sensitivities and our interests are
our own and therefore for us to protect. We will not be able to rely
upon others solicitousness, even hypocrisy, in this regard.

The test of Colombo’s comprehension of all of this and its ability
to fashion this comprehension into a foreign policy, will no doubt
come in the course of the year, if not in the very near future. And
the sovereignty obsessed nationalist may well put up and shut up
or else go kicking and screaming into history.