Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa: A New Chapter with India?

14 Jan, 2015    ·   4804

Prof V Suryanarayan on improving bilateral relations between the two countries in the post Rajapakse era

The unprecedented democratic upsurge in Sri Lanka, which brought to an end the despotic regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been hailed as the harbinger of a new chapter in Sri Lanka’s turbulent history. While the minority votes tilted the balance in favour of Maithripala Sirisena, it must be underlined that the support base among the Sinhalese was also considerable. 
The media in India is very positive about the electoral verdict. It feels that India-Sri Lanka relations, which was subjected to stresses and strains, will be restored to the traditional friendship and cooperation. It should be recalled that whenever Sri Lanka faced threats to its security - internal or environmental - India was the first country to positively respond. However, Colombo, on many occasions, did not reciprocate with good will. This tragic phase is over. The new President’s statement that he will be visiting India soon is a positive signal.  
What gives substance to the optimistic view is the fact that the new President’s support base comes from political forces that are well known friends of India. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former President, used to consult New Delhi before undertaking new political initiatives. Her Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, with Indian assistance, internationalised the ethnic conflict to Colombo’s advantage.
The choice of Ranil Wikramasinghe as the Prime Minister is a master stroke of astute diplomacy. Ranil is rated high in India and in Western capitals. Under Ranil’s leadership, Sri Lanka will soon come out of diplomatic isolation. It may be recalled that it was the Ranil-Moragoida team which created an “international safety net” against the Tigers. When he was Prime Minister Ranil took the unilateral initiative to introduce visas on arrival in Colombo airport. It resulted in a quantum jump in the arrival of tourists to Sri Lanka.
One of the tragic consequences of Mahinda Rajapaksha’s partisan regime was vendetta against Sri Lankan diplomats who subscribed to multi-culturalism and pluralism. Some of them were victimised and sent into the political wilderness. Many posts were filled with political favourites. The new Government has decided to recall ambassadors who were political appointees and replace with people of eminence. 
The Maithripala-Ranil team is conscious of the fact that India and Sri Lanka are like Siamese twins; what afflicts one will affect the other. Ranil has frequently stated that the full potential of India-Sri Lanka relations can be reached only after ethnic reconciliation takes place.
What steps will the new Government take in this direction will be keenly watched by Sri Lanka watchers around d the world. It is essential to replace the present military Governor in the Northern Province by a Governor who enjoys the trust and confidence of the Tamils. All developmental activities in the Northern Province should be undertaken with the cooperation of the provincial government. The army should be discouraged from doing work that does not fall into its domain, like rice cultivation and marketing. These jobs should be given to the local people.
Steps should be taken to progressively withdraw the army from the Northern Province. It is estimated that the ratio of civilians to army personnel is 5:1. Army presence in civilian events - sports meet, cultural events etc - should be stopped. The Parliamentary Select Committee should be jettisoned and a dialogue between the Government and the TNA should immediately commence. 
As far as the UN enquiry into human rights violations are concerned, it had always been the Indian position to oppose international enquiries. New Delhi had suggested credible domestic enquiries into these incidents. It is heartening to note that General Fonseka, an important leader of the ruling coalition, has stated that he is not opposed to “legitimate probe into war crimes.” If such an enquiry is instituted, Sri Lanka will be in a position to defend itself on human rights issues. 
On the travails of fishermen in the Palk Bay region, the problem has arisen as a result of excessive trawling by Indian fishermen. New Delhi realises the need for trawlers to be progressively withdrawn from the Palk Bay. Tamil Nadu fishermen should be encouraged to go into deep sea fishing. With trawlers out of the scene the Palk Bay will once again become a tranquil area. On this issue the ball is in New Delhi’s court.  
Excessive dependence on China has resulted in huge debt burden. If Colombo does not repay the loan, China will insist that it should have a share in equity. Such a course of action will not be in Sri Lanka’s interests. Sirisena and his team are conscious of this danger. If Colombo boldly initiates policies to bring about ethnic reconciliation and economic diversification, India and the international community will respond positively.