Tamil issue unresolved: India, Sri Lanka cozy on security, nuke power
ASHOK B SHARMA
New Delhi has moved an inch forward to secure the Indian Ocean from the growing Chinese influence. It has seized the right opportunity with the change of leadership in Sri Lanka to strike a civil nuclear pact with the nearest island and agreed to expand defence and strategic cooperation, including “the trilateral format” with the Maldives. The civil nuke pact is the first of its kind that Colombo has signed with any country. This can be seen as India’s attempt to pre-empt any such move by the Chinese to ink a similar deal with the island country.
China has been extending its “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has recently developed the island nation’s Hambantota port and has offered an investment of $1.4 billion for the Colombo port city project. The new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe during the election campaign had criticized their opponent and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa for incurring huge loans from China for building roads, ports and other infrastructure. They also opposed the proposed Colombo port city project with Chinese assistance as this would entail huge ecological damage. But after assuming power President Sirisena made a U-turn and preferred not to displease the Chinese and gave a go ahead signal to Beijing for the Colombo port city project.
Just to recall, former president Rajapaksa during his tenure opted to move closer to China, much to the annoyance of India. He allowed Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo port twice and threatened to turn Sri Lanka into a strategic asset for China at New Delhi’s expense. It is now hoped that President Sirisena would be wiser to maintain a balance in the interests of his country and not embitter relations with a valuable and strategic neighbour like India. Apart from trade and investment relations and other ongoing areas of cooperation, both countries recently inked pacts to extend cooperation in the spheres of culture and agriculture.
The civil nuke pact inked with India during the recent visit of President Sirisena intends to facilitate cooperation in transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy including use of radioisotopes, nuclear safety, radiation safety, nuclear security, radioactive waste management and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation and environment protection. Such an agreement was necessary. Colombo had earlier expressed apprehensions over India’s Kudankulam atomic power project in its vicinity at the coast of Tamil Nadu as it thought that in case of any Fukushima-like disaster, the island country will have to bear the consequences. Therefore, this civil nuke pact will not only clear Sri Lanka’s apprehensions but also help in its energy security programme.
India’s concern is for securing sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) in both Indian and Pacific oceans that handle two-third of the world’s energy trade, half of global containerized cargo and a third of bulk cargo. A considerable amount of India’s trade passes through this region, including its energy requirements. The strengthening of India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral is, therefore, necessary for ensuring security architecture in the vicinity.
India is also a party to other trilaterals in the region like India-US-Japan, India-Japan-Australia, India-Indonesia-Australia, to mention a few. India is already a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit, Asia Europe Summit Meeting (ASEM), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting plus Eight (ADMM+8), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
During the recent Sirisena-Modi delegation level talks in New Delhi much of the contentious issues relating to Sri Lankan Tamils like the devolution of powers under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, rehabilitation, repatriation of Tamil refugees now in relief camps in India and the problems of Indian fishermen were not resolved. These issues are likely to be taken up when the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Sri Lanka in March.
At the time of elections, President Sirisena had assured the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to devolve political and financial powers to the Tamils, but would retain military presence in the north and northeastern provinces. There are about 130,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in various relief camps in India, out of which 90,000 are in Tamil Nadu. The Tamil refugees are waiting for return of normalcy and adequate environment for rehabilitation for their return to their home country. The rehabilitation process has been slow and tardy. Added to this Sri Lanka had refused to hold an independent inquiry into the state-sponsored deadly massacre of thousands of Tamils in 2009 despite being pulled up by UN Human Rights Council and other human rights organization worldwide.
However, there is a relief for President Sirisena. The UNHRC has decided to postpone the release of the report on alleged war crimes committed in 2009 civil war till September this year. Initially it was planned to release the report in March 25 during the 28th session of UNHRC, but on request of President Sirisena it has been deferred on the pretext of the island nation conducting an internal inquiry. India had so far soft-pedalled whenever the issue came up before the UNHRC. But with the recent change in the political dispensation in India, it remains to be seen how the Modi government deals with the issue.
Another contentious issue concerns the issue of fishermen of both countries being apprehended and jailed for crossing territorial waters. The problem has been accentuated by India handing over the uninhabited Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka, which has caused a loss of territorial waters to India and placed Indian fishermen at a disadvantage.
Sri Lanka has become a partner in the Nalanda University project. The Buddhist majority island country is very much interested in developing Buddhist sites in India and President Sirisena has said that Buddhism and Hinduism have close relations. It depends upon him how effectively he resolves the Tamil issue in his own country, keeping in view the close relationship between the two religions. Prime Minister Modi intends to give some time to President Sirisena to settle down and resolve the issue and make Sri Lanka an effective security partner in the Indian Ocean region.
(Ashok B Sharma is a senior Columnist writing on strategic and policy issues in several Indian and international newspapers and magazines. He frequently writes in Bangladesh’s The Daily Observer and The Diplomatist magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His mobile phone no +91-9810902204)