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The Sri Lankan Ethnic Morass and China-India Geopolitical Manoeuvres

The Sri Lankan government has embarked on a balancing act in the Indian Ocean engaging itself with two competing regional powers, India and China. The rising importance of the Indian Ocean in the global economy has also increased Sri Lanka's centrality in international geopolitics. In this vortex, Sri Lanka is openly trying to mollify India and the us on the one hand and China on the other. The internal ethnic morass and the unsolved political conflict have added another dimension to the complex situation that the country finds itself in, even as its government has been increasingly authoritarian.


The Sri Lankan Ethnic Morass and China-India Geopolitical Manoeuvres

Ameer Ali

The Sri Lankan government has embarked on a balancing act in the Indian Ocean engaging itself with two competing regional powers, India and China. The rising importance of the Indian Ocean in the global economy has also increased Sri Lanka’s centrality in international geopolitics. In this vortex, Sri Lanka is openly trying to mollify India and the US on the one hand and China on the other. The internal ethnic morass and the unsolved political conflict have added another dimension to the complex situation that the country finds itself in, even as its government has been increasingly authoritarian.

Ameer Ali ( is with Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia.

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hen peaceful change becomes impossible, violent change becomes inevitable. Nowhere is this dictum proved more incontrovertibly than in the postcolonial history of Sri Lanka. Successive governments democratically installed through the ballot box failed to deliver democracy’s peace dividend by ignoring the legitimate aspirations of the island’s ethnic minorities, particularly of the largest group, the Tamils. The Tamils’ desire to protect and promote their Dravidian cultural identity and Tamil language is no less legitimate than the Sinhalese-Buddhists’ desire to protect and promote their Buddhist religion, and the Sinhala language. All that was required during the early years of independence, when the country’s economy was relatively prosperous before confronting structural problems in the 1960s,1 was a constitutional recognition of the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils. A golden opportunity was sadly missed by politicians of various hues. Instead, democracy was misused “for the expression of the rights of an oppressive ethnic majority” (Kaplan 2010: 199). Successive satyagrahas or peaceful sit-ins, protest marches, riots, pogroms, and ultimately a civil war pushed the island to descend from its zenith of political harmony and social tranquillity to the nadir of turmoil. Inter-ethnic animosity coupled with economic stagnation, all within a period of just four decades transformed the country into a burning cauldron. The tragic consequence of this historic foolhardiness is that the country has been shoved into the vortex of a brewing geopolitical storm in which two rising regional powers, India and China, with the United States on the sideline, are threatening to gnaw away Sri Lanka’s political sovereignty. In the aftermath of the civil war, changed circumstances have pressured the Sri Lankan government to perform a balancing act. What follows is a brief analysis of this geopolitical entanglement with a historical perspective.

An Ambivalent Dependency

The geographical proximity of Sri Lanka “so close to India so as to lose its insular character” (Panikkar 1945: 20), the cultural congruence between the island and the subcontinent, and the demographic concentration of two ethnic Tamil communities – one occupying the southern landmass of India and the other inhabiting the northern peninsular of Sri Lanka, are three historical determinants that have set the pattern of Indo-Sri Lankan relationship. While on the one hand, geographical propinquity and multiple cultural and economic influences from India did not automatically turn Sri Lanka into an Indian satellite state, Sri Lanka on the other, “more often than not...found itself drawn into the wars of the south Indian kingdoms, either in


self-defence, or in alliance with one or other of (the) warring princes” (Ludowyk 1966: 6).

Even the path to political independence from British colonia lism in the 20th century was, in a sense, according to one historian, an “Indian derivative” (Arasaratnam 1964: 2). The British, having vacated the house in India obviously did not want to take the Sri Lankan garden shed with them. Yet, as de Silva (1999: 4) writes,

the narrow stretch of sea which separates it from the subcontinent ensured that the civilisation which evolved in Sri Lanka was not a mere variant of the Indian prototype but something distinctive or autonomous though the Indian element was never obliterated.

Thus, Sri Lanka’s “connections with India” to borrow Ludowyk’s (1966: 6) words, “always tended to express itself in ambivalent terms”. Behind this ambivalence, however, there had developed over centuries a sense of “otherness” that separated the Sri Lankan Sinhalese community from the Indians in general and from those living across the Palk Straits, the Tamils, in particular.

At times India was the non-west and looked upon as the mother country by Sinhalese…At other times, when cultural symbols were more prominent, and nationalism was the preserve of the Sinhalese community, pride of place was given to north India. All those who came later from south India were considered aliens (Wickramasinghe 2006: 122).

This feeling of otherness, especially in relation to south India, was translated politically by the Sri Lankan Buddhist elite into a feeling of existential fear and anxiety of a possible invasion from south India especially when the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic divide began to widen after the 1950s. It was the fear of India that prompted the Sri Lankan government to sign a defence treaty with Britain soon after independence.

Yet, in times of domestic insecurity and natural disasters such as the abortive coup d’etat in 1962, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led youth insurrection in 1971, and the tsunami in 2004, Sri Lankan leaders did not fail to appeal to India for emergency assistance. During the JVP insurrection for instance India sent in 100 Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) Gurkha soldiers to guard the Katunayaka airport (Bandarage 2009: 56). However, from an Indian perspective neither the independent entity of Sri Lanka nor its domestic politics did raise any concern to Delhi. However, the strategic location of the island in the Indian Ocean with attractive natural harbours like that in Trincomalee is a crucial variable in India’s geopolitical equation. Developments in Sri Lanka therefore cannot escape the Indian radar.

Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

During the closing years of British rule in India, one of India’s eminent historians and a brilliant essayist, K M Panikkar, wrote with penetrating perspicacity on the crucial importance of the Indian Ocean to India’s prosperity and security. Quoting Khaireddin Barbarossa’s advice to sultan Suleiman, “He who rules the sea will shortly rule on the land also”, Panikkar (1945:7) presented a geo political interpretation of the centrality of Indian Ocean which was to lay the foundation later for an Indian Ocean-centric foreign policy of that country.

He observed,

While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the impor

tant oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her life lines are con centrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that vast water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free and her own shores fully protected. The Indian Ocean must therefore remain fully Indian (emphasis added) (ibid: 84).

Panikkar also reminded the first generation of India’s postcolonial rulers, of the intention of China to “embark on a policy of large scale naval expansion” (ibid: 85), and in that context he went on to suggest that

The control of the Indian Ocean, must, …be a cooperative effort of India and Britain and other Commonwealth units …with the prime responsibility lying on the Indian Navy…(ibid: 95).

Given the naval supremacy of the British at that time and the enormous cost involved in protecting the open coastline of over 2,000 miles, his suggestion for cooperation with Britain and the Commonwealth underlined a policy of political and strategic pragmatism. With the annihilation of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805 British naval supremacy remained unchallenged until the rise of the US as a superpower in the second half of the 20th century, and even then the US, especially in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour incident and the Korean war, became more interested in the Pacific than in the Indian Ocean until the rise of modern China by the end of the last century. “So far as the Indian Ocean was concerned, it was...a British Lake” (ibid: 72). Therefore cooperation with Britain while remaining “as an independent and free unit of the Commonwealth”, according to Panikkar, was the necessary “external organisation” to develop and implement an Indian Ocean policy. At the same time he also recommended the need for an internal organisation “in association with Burma and Ceylon” (ibid: 95).

From the time of Panikkar’s publication in 1945 and especially since the last quarter of the 20th century, two important but parallel developments have forced India to focus on the need to reassert her control over the Indian Ocean. First, the rise of modern China, the most populous and the third largest nation in the world, as an economic and industrial power house desperately seeking resources, markets, and supply routes in competition with a reawakened India, the second-most populous and the seventh largest nation, which is also equally desperate to match China’s growth, marks a fundamental reshuffling of players in the Asian “Great Game”; and second, a militarily overreached, financially debt- ridden, and economically under-performing superpower, the US, and its agonising concern over China’s increasing threat to American hegemony in the east, has set the scene for a new geopolitical power play in the Asian region. Overriding these two developments is India’s shift in foreign policy focus from the Nehruvian obsession with non-alignment and third world liberation to the realpolitik of “greater India”, an ancient vision which actually signified the spread of Indian culture and spiritualism beyond the Indian subcontinent proper and into Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries however, this vision has been reinterpreted by some Indian nationalists to portray an imperialistic dream which included even a programme of Indian colonisation of certain parts of Asia notably Sri Lanka and Malaya (Keenleyside 1982: 210-30). Ironically, this new interpretation has been

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inspired by India’s colonial past particularly by the writings of George Curzon, a former viceroy who wrote in 1909 that “the master of India, must…be the greatest power in the Asian continent” (Kaplan 2010: 181).

Robert Kaplan, a Washington based security analyst, in a provocative analysis of the rising tensions between India and China draws Sri Lanka into the Great Game and predicts a worrying future to that island. In his view, the looming Indo-China rivalry over the control of the Indian Ocean and the American interest in Asia in between is setting the agenda for India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Kaplan predicts, that “China and India will play a ‘Great Game’ Bangladesh and Sri Lanka”.2 The former has natural gas to be exploited and the latter has natural harbours to be controlled. It is in this geopolitical complexity that one should look at Sri Lanka’s balancing acts with India and China before and after the island’s civil war.

Indian Involvement in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Troubles

Until 1983, the year of the “Black July” infamy, when sections of riotous Sinhalese let loose their orchestrated collective anger on the Tamil minority in Colombo and its suburbs, causing an orgy of death and destruction,3 India was not seriously concerned about her neighbour’s ethnic troubles. Several reasons could be adduced to rationalise this apparent indifference. Among them, first, is the universal respect for a country’s national sovereignty. As far as India was concerned the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka was a domestic problem and the Indian government was not going to intervene unless there were compelling reasons such as the involvement of another foreign power, or, a direct but negative impact to Indian interests like for example, the influx Sri Lankan Tamil refugees along the shores of India. The fact that there was an absence of such impact during the previous riots in 1956 and 1958 might have added to India’s complacence. Second, in the 1960s and 1970s it was the issue of the status of Tamil plantation workers of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, a legacy of British colonialism, rather than the island’s domestic ethnic problem that demanded greater attention from Delhi. The Sirimavo (Bandaranaike)-(Lal Bahadur) Shastri Pact of 1964 and the Sirimavo-Indira (Gandhi) Pact of 1974 settled this matter amicably between the two nations and India was not going to jeopardise the cordiality that emerged out of these efforts by overtly interfering in the ethnic issue (Wickramasinghe 2006: 174-75). Third, both nations until the end of the 1970s were more or less pursuing a similar ideological path of democratic socialism and non-alignment, which meant that they both found themselves on the same side of the cold war camp. Finally, India itself had experienced an ethnic Tamil separatist problem almost immediately after independence, but it was ultimately resolved politically within the Indian federal framework and without any outside interference. Naturally therefore India would have expected that a similar resolution would ultimately emerge in Sri Lanka also.

However, the events of July 1983 provoked a change in Indian attitude from one of benign neglect to benevolent intervention. In this new role India was to become an honest broker between the two quarrelling parties. There were several reasons for this

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change. One was the fear in Delhi that a successful secession of the two Tamil provinces from the rest of the island, the core demand of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the most dominant of the Tamil political groups, would spur a similar agitation in Tamil Nadu, which is the home of over 60 million Tamils. “(O)ur interest in the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka” said, J N Dixit, the Indian high commissioner in Sri Lanka, “… was based on maintaining our own unity, our own identity in the manner in which we have been trying to build our society”.4 The second was the influx of refugees from Sri Lanka into the southern coast5 which was creating a law and order problem to the central government. Following this was the pressure exerted on Delhi by Tamil Nadu politicians led by its then populist chief minister M G Ramachandran, who urged the central government to intervene on behalf of an “oppressed minority”. And fourth, Sri Lanka’s attempt to seek military and intelligence assistance from external sources, notably from the US, United Kingdom, Israel and Pakistan became a serious threat to India’s security aspirations in the Indian Ocean. Above all, the mayhem in Colombo in 1983 seemed to provide a golden opportunity for prime minister Indira Gandhi to accomplish another victorious mission, like what she did in former East Pakistan in 1971, that would lift the ailing popularity of her Congress Party in the electoral arena. These reasons prompted New Delhi to dispatch a special envoy, G Parthasarathy to Colombo, which eventually led to the Indian government’s Thimpu initiative of 1985 and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 (de Silva 1993: 112-55). Although the initiative and the accord collapsed in the face of LTTE resistance it set the pattern for India’s future in Sri Lankan ethnic affairs.

On 26 May 1987 when the Sri Lankan army unleashed its planned military offen sive, code named “Operation Liberation”, against the LTTE, India wanted to prevent an outright victory for the local army, and to do that the Indian air force provocatively intruded Sri Lanka’s air-space and dropped 22 tonnes of relief supplies on the Jaffna Peninsula on 4 June 1987 following the failure of an earlier attempt the day before to send a flotilla of 20 boats loaded with similar cargo. President J R Jayawardene, powerless to challenge India militarily could only register his contempt by calling the intrusion as India’s “seventeenth invasion of Sri Lanka” (Bandarage 2009: 131). The Indian foreign minister Natwar Singh justified India’s aggressive response and couched his explanation in geopolitical terms. It was the “increasing influence of external elements inimical to security and stability to peace in our region” (ibid: 130-31) according to him, appears to have triggered the air force action. However, the military intrusion and the landing of 7,000 soldiers of the IPKF a day after the signing of the accord, all went to prove to the Sri Lankan government and perhaps to the regional neighbours as well that India was even prepared to flex its military muscle to force a solution to an otherwise escalating domestic conflict. Yet, from an Indian perspective however, the solution to the ethnic problem had more to do with India’s realpolitik and “projection of Indian power” than with Sri Lanka’s peace and development. That became very clear with subsequent developments.

Delhi’s approach to the war was one of “coerce diplomacy”. While agreeing to send the IPKF to Sri Lanka apparently on the


invitation of the Sri Lankan government Delhi dispatched her forces deliberately “unprepared” and “ill-equipped”6 even though the Indian military had the capacity and the rationale to defeat the LTTE military outfit comprehensively. After all it was the LTTE’s intransigence that largely jeopardised all of India’s negotiation initiatives hitherto, and therefore there was every reason to bring the LTTE leadership to account for its defiance. Instead, the IPKF went to the extent of arming and training two other militia (Wickramasinghe 2006: 292) and even alleged to have equipped and funded certain Muslim armed groups in the Eastern Province.7 These actions demonstrate that India intended to escalate and prolong the war to achieve an outcome that would enhance its strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean region.

Starting with Parthasarathy’s negotiations with Colombo in 1983 right through the collapsed accord in 1987 and beyond the underlying principle of all proposals put forward by India was that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity should be protected while granting maximum autonomy to a north-east provincial council. This principle was never compromised even when military pressure was exerted on Colombo by providing battle training and armed support to various Tamil rebel groups on the Indian soil. This “double-track strategy” of negotiation on the one hand and military pressure on the other was a puzzle even to the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, who until the arrival and operations of the IPKF misread India’s accommodative approach towards the Tamil rebels as supportive of their cause.8 Thus, while Jayewardene was gleefully watching the confrontation between the IPKF and the LTTE hoping that Indian military might would wipe out his adversary, Delhi was more concerned with the “great game” and was moving its pawns to checkmate Sri Lanka rather than to bring the conflict to a quick conclusion. Although the IPKF had the capacity to capture the LTTE leadership it did not have the determination to do so because the government in Delhi wished for a different outcome.

Even after the IPKF was sent home to a humiliating welcome9 by the Premadasa government in March 1990, and in spite of the assassination by the LTTE of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, Indian involvement continued and became more assertive with the dawn of the new millennium. The on-again-off-again support to the Tamil struggle for selfdetermination on the one hand and India’s resolve to preserve Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity on the other was a calculated ploy to enhance India’s own interest within and outside Sri Lanka. On the one hand by vocally raising concerns in international forums about Sri Lankan government’s human rights violations and injustice to the Tamil community, Delhi was appeasing the Tamil Nadu lobby. On the other hand, by supporting the Sri Lankan government’s insistence on protecting the island’s territorial integrity, Delhi was demonstrating its unwillingness to alienate Colombo because of the greater damage it would cause to India’s geopolitical interests. It was a balancing act deliberately designed by India to maximise her own strategic interests.

Entry of China

This so-called double-track strategy changed dramatically and Indian policy towards Sri Lanka took a u-turn with the turn of the century. The need for this shift became urgent in 2005 when the populist Mahinda Rajapaksa entered the presidential contest, defeated his rival Ranil Wickremasinghe by a narrow margin – thanks to another strategic blunder by the LTTE-supremo Prabhakaran who forced the Tamils to boycott this election – and at once resolved to eliminate the LTTE militarily. To achieve this objective, the Rajapaksa government went on a weaponsprocuring spree at the global arms bazaar where the Eurasian alliance involving Beijing, Tehran and Moscow became the willing supplier. Of the three, it was China, by signing a deal with Sri Lanka in 2007 to build a massive naval base at Hambantota and thereby gaining a foothold in the Indian Ocean that took India by surprise. In addition, Sri Lanka’s allocation to China an oil exploration block in the Mannar Basin brought China even closer to the Indian borders. These developments were seen as part of China’s overall effort to craft an “arc of influence” around India, which incidentally was the sort of danger that Panikkar envisaged when he wrote in 1945.10

In spite of China’s economic and military support, India’s friendship was crucial to Colombo in the fight against the LTTE. The presence of over 60 million Tamils across the Palk Straits in Tamil Nadu and a large concentration of Indian-Tamil plantation workers in the central highlands of Sri Lanka – most of whom are Sri Lankan citizens now – are two vital pawns that Delhi could move at will to checkmate Sri Lanka if it were to turn overtly “anti-Indian”. Thus from the point of view of Sri Lanka the weaponry and financial support from the Eurasian alliance had to be balanced with at least logistical support and diplomatic sympathy from India. It was this counterbalancing act that compelled President Rajapaksa and his cabinet caucus to shuttle between Delhi and Colombo since 2005. Winning the favour of India also meant winning the support of the US, because the two are in a strategic partnership to arrest China’s naval expansion in the Indian Ocean (Kaplan 2009).

With the physical presence of China in Hambantota and Mannar the Indian policy of ambivalence towards the LTTE had to be sacrificed in the interest of the great game. The comprehensive defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 was ultimately decided by India’s covert but tactical silence during the final phase of the war which has been acknowledged by the Rajapaksa government.11 “India did not try to hamper the counter-insurgency operations of the Sri Lankan security forces”.12 In a strange twist of irony even the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, a literary and vocal champion of Tamil language, culture, and Tamil interests was rather mute in his criticism of the Rajapaksa government when its army was on the verge of annihilating the LTTE. In spite of the mass support to the LTTE inside Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi described LTTE’s demand for a separate state “unrealistic”. This attitude towards Colombo by the chief minister demonstrated, above all, the success of Delhi’s domestic diplomacy.

Geopolitics after the Civil War

The military victory over the LTTE was Pyrrhic not only in terms of 10 if not hundreds of thousands of human lives lost, physical destruction and social dislocation but also, more seriously, in

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terms of the country’s political sovereignty. It is now common knowledge that the forces of globalisation have increased the gaseousness of previously erected solid structures of nation states and national sovereignty.13 However, in the context of strategically situated island nations like Sri Lanka, more than the forces of globalisation it is the regional power politics that presents clear and present danger to national sovereignty. This is bound to create xenophobia.

China’s presence in Sri Lanka is not a new development. Even in medieval times China had interfered in Sri Lankan politics. In the 15th century, for example, Zheng He, a Muslim eunuchadmiral invaded Sri Lanka, captured the Sinhalese monarch Vira Alakesvara, his queen and some of his notables, took them to China as prisoners and enthroned a pretender in Alakesvara’s place (Fernandez-Armesto 2010: 223-27, de Silva 1993: 87). De Silva (ibid) interprets this event as the reflection of “the importance attached by Chinese to Sri Lanka as a centre of inter-Asian and international trade”. But the historian Armesto (ibid) sees the strategic reasons of security and imperial motives behind the expeditions of Zheng He. Robert Kaplan (2010: 194-95) also in his broad sweep of the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean littoral paints Zheng He’s Sri Lankan exploits with a security brush. In more recent times in the 1960s and 1970s during the prime ministership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the country’s foreign policy although officially described as non-aligned was actually pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese. The grand Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) built in Colombo in the 1970s entirely with Chinese capital, labour and engineering is a lasting testimony to this pro-China tilt. Thus, Sri Lanka was always under the Chinese geopolitical radar, and the completion of the Hambantota harbour marks the culmination yet of China’s longterm interest in the island.

However, it is Delhi that is close to Sri Lanka and not Beijing, and Kaplan is on the money when he argues,

there is no guarantee that China will have ready access to the very

port facilities it is building. …China might eventually find itself in the

same frustrating position as the US, with ports and bases it cannot use

in time of need because of unforeseen political tensions (ibid: 196).

While China is building her base in Hambantota and exploring for oil in Mannar, India is concentrating more on her domineering economic relationship with Sri Lanka. The signing of the Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ILFTA) in 1998 – which began implementation in March 2000 – and negotiations that started in 2005 for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which was scheduled to be signed in July 2008 but still remains in limbo due to protest from local entrepreneurs, were two milestones in Indo-Sri Lankan economic relationship. As a result of these agreements India emerged as the fifth largest destination for Sri Lankan exports, an elevation from a rank of 14 in 1999, while in terms of imports India ranks second, a position which she held even before the ILFTA. Whilst total trade between the two countries has increased substantially, Sri Lanka’s absolute trade deficit with India has also increased. In addition, India has become the second largest investor in Sri Lanka, exceeded only by Malaysia.14 Although for a small economy like Sri Lanka, access to a large and growing market like India promises a

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number of economic benefits, those gains are conditional upon whether Sri Lanka can diversify its exports, enjoy economies of scale and gain a competitive if not comparative advantage for its exports. However, there is also a negative side to this Indo-Lankan economic link which needs to be balanced and will be discussed later.

The US Variables

Where does the US fit into this geopolitical equation? After the debacle in Vietnam the US interest in the Indian Ocean appears to have taken a backseat. It is the Atlantic and the Pacific that are of more strategic and security value to the US than the Indian Ocean. This policy was the product of the cold war and of a bi-polar world which are no more in existence. While the US remains by far the only hegemonic power, its relative economic decline and financial fragility has made it vulnerable to challenges from other regional powers like China and India. Of the two it is China’s naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean along with its rising economic dominance that is threatening the US hegemony. Does the US want to confront China in the Indian Ocean directly or in alliance with another regional power, i e, India? Ashley Tellis who specialises in Asian strategic issues conceptualises the US option as follows: Given the superiority of its growth rates in the last three decades relative to both India and the US, it is China that is growing stronger of the two regional powers.

The presence of two rising powers in the international system … makes the weaker of the two states an especially attractive partner for the reigning hegemon, which sees its interests enhanced by an association with the weaker that limits the potential threats posed by the more powerful rising competitor (Tellis 2009: 222).

If the naval base in Hambantota satisfies China’s need to protect its oceanic routes of energy-supply the control over the Trincomalee harbour becomes absolutely essential for the US to checkmate China’s expanding naval power. The US may wish to accomplish this for the time being by using India as a proxy and that explains the close alliance between India and the US. To reduce US’ capability to prevent China’s challenge, China is also strengthening its economic and diplo matic relationship with India as part of its “multipolarity” agenda (Medeiros 2009: 27-29, 142-47).

It is within this triangular competition and cooperation to assert control over the Indian Ocean that Sri Lanka is forced to stage its balancing act. In the words of Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan diplomat,

there are elements in America who would like to raise China bogey. This is not a zero sum game where our relationship with China is at the expense of our relationship with India. We cleverly balanced the relationship.15

However, this balancing act is not costless. In the worst scenario, if the struggle for dominance over the Indian Ocean between China and US-India intensifies and culminates in open confrontation, Sri Lanka will certainly become an important theatre of action. Even otherwise Sri Lanka is in a sad predicament of having to serve two “masters”, India and China. As an old adage goes whether elephants make love or do fight it is the poor grass underneath that gets trampled.


Chindianisation16 and Potential Xenophobia

China has been awarded contracts to build a special economic zone, a 1,000 acre Tapioca farm, the Hambantota port, one 900 MW coal fired power plant at Nurachcholai, the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, the Pallai-Kankesanturai rail line, a Jaffna housing complex for the army and many other projects (Ranasinghe 2010). India also has secured a block to drill for oil in the Mannar Basin, has entered into a $200 million joint venture project to build a 500 MW coal power plant in Sampur near Trincomalee, has contracted to build the Palaly Airport in the north, and is building the rail link between Talaimannar and Madhu and the Galle-Matara express railway track. Above all it signed the ILFTA and hopefully will also sign the CEPA. By opening three more consulates in Kandy, Jaffna and Hambantota India has deepened its diplomatic reach in Sri Lanka. It is natural that in agreements like these there will be gains and losses for both parties. Given the global desire for free markets and free movement of economic resources one can understand the exuberance of the politicians and businessmen especially in India and Sri Lanka over these economic deals. However, there are other disturbing elements that arise from these bilateral agreements. In the case of the economic projects undertaken by China the presence of more than 20,000 imported convict Chinese labourers in the island has wider ramifications. Will this labour return to China after completion of the projects or will it prolong its stay and create a Chinese enclave in the island? The growth of a Chinatown either in the north or south of the country, as happened elsewhere in the world is a possibility.

Similarly, with the opening of trade, communication, investment and security links with India the spectre of a possible Indianisation of sections of the commanding heights of the Sri Lankan economy cannot be totally discounted. Where is the comparative advantage for Sri Lanka to compete with Indian mega – manufacturers and global investors? Be that as it may, there is another development that is happening in the local scene. The young descendants of the Indian plantation workers who are now more educated and better skilled than their parents are increasingly moving away from the tea and rubber estates like their counterparts in Malaysia, and are entering the commercial sector notably into its wholesale and retail branches. Indian-owned and Indian-financed textile, groceries, white goods and other retail businesses are on the rise in Colombo and other suburban towns. Since these young men and women are Sri Lankan citizens it is their democratic right to establish private businesses like any other Sri Lankan citizen. However, past history tells that the Indian retail establishments have a hidden advantage over their local Sinhalese or Muslim competitors when dealing with businessmen and traders on the opposite coast.

This was exactly what happened in the 19th century which ultimately led to the 1915 racial riots. In that instance the Indian Moor businessmen unfortunately became the target of mob attack even though the real issue was alien domination of the national economy. The Indian Moors’ shops were the most visible symbol of that alien element at that time and therefore they bore the brunt of Sinhalese xenophobic anger.17 There is a danger that such anti-Indian feeling may grow and explode again especially when the local petty bourgeoise begin to experience the adverse effects of an unfair economic competition. Ethnic tension is always present in Sri Lanka and its explosiveness or dormancy lies in the ebb and flow of economic prosperity. For the time being although the dividend of an open economy is not equally shared by all ethnic groups, employment opportunities in west Asia and worker remittances from abroad act as a safety valve to many families. One cannot expect that avenue to remain open for ever. With dwindling economic opportunities and increasing urban poverty civilian unrest can become nastier. An already politicised Sangha cannot be expected to sit on the sideline when such explosions eventuate.

Authoritarianism and Developmentalism

The “Gaullist” presidential constitution of Sri Lanka from its adoption in 1978 and as amended in 2000 has gradually pushed the government of the country from a popularly elected Westminster parliamentary model to an authoritarian presidential system. The descent towards authoritarianism seems to have reached a new height after the civil war. The cry against human rights abuses and the demand for democratic freedom has become louder not only from the ethnic Tamil quarter but also from segments of the majority Sinhalese. Their ultimate target of attack is the all-powerful presidency. Authoritarian regimes are not uncommon in Asia. In fact, the miracle economies of east Asia such as South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China achieved their Newly Industrialised Economies (NiE) status under authoritarian regimes. The combination of political authori tarianism and economic nationalism has given birth to the “developmental state”, a nomenclature originally introduced by Chalmers Johnson in his 1982 seminal study of the “MITI and the Japanese Miracle”. In these east Asian economies people were prepared to sacrifice their fundamental liberties and democratic rights so long as they directly experienced the economic benefits of the developmental state in the form of food on the table, roof over their heads, hospitals for the sick, schools for the children, and employment for the youth. Is Sri Lanka also trying to imitate this model?

A report compiled by the Bureau of Infrastructure Investment in 1997 expre ssed the government’s hope of achieving the NIE status by 2005. The number of infrastructure projects undertaken with private sector participation and foreign assistance shows the government’s commitment to improve the nation’s public assets to promote economic development. That some of these planned projects have already been completed is an index of government’s partial economic achievement. This achievement and the total military victory over the LTTE appear to have given the confidence to President Rajapaksa and his close advisors that the regime could ignore the protest about human rights and democratic freedom. This is to misunderstand and misinterpret the east Asian political experience. The east Asian countries never or rarely experienced the fruits of political democracy when they embarked on the project of economic nationalism in the 1960s. To many of them it was a shift from a feudal or colonial regime to authoritarianism. It is only now after reaching a respectable level of national development and economic affluence that the citizens are demanding democratic political

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rights. Sri Lanka on the contrary, like India, had enjoyed the control over the strategic government ministries and departfruits of parliamentary democracy over the last five decades, ments is a political gamble with very high stakes. This is the most however imperfect that democracy might have been. There is serious of the government’s balancing acts in the domestic arena. also a significant and articulate middle class schooled in the poli-The balancing act in the Indian Ocean is a very delicate affair. tics of protest which is not prepared to surrender its political The rising importance of the Indian Ocean in the global economy rights and freedom to the authoritarian rule of any political has also increased its centrality in international geopolitics. In dynasty however enlightened and benevolent that dynasty may this geopolitical vortex Sri Lanka is openly trying to mollify India turn out to be. The failure of the Senanayakes and Bandaranay-and the US on the one hand and China on the other. The economic akes to establish dynastic rule and the collapse of coup d’etats benefits expected to accrue from this balancing act have the and insurrections to create authoritarian regimes have all failed potential to create an anti-Indian and anti-Chinese xenophobia. in the past and this historical political trajectory of Sri Lanka is An authoritarian regime is certainly not the solution to confront unlikely to change in the future. An all powerful presidency with this problem.

Notes 17 For a comprehensive account on the different Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe (2010): 1492 The Year facets of the 1915 riots see the contributions by World Began (London, New York, Berlin:

1 According to one estimate, Sri Lanka’s per capita various authors in Ceylon Studies Seminar, 1969/ Bloomsbury).

real GDP in international prices in 1950 was twice

that of India and 80% of Japan. On the economic

70 series. Also, Ali (1981: 1-20). Kanapathipillai, Valli (1990), “July 1983: The Survivor’s Experience” in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of conditions of Ceylon in the 1950s see Bruton

Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in

(1992: 30-44). For the economic structural crisis


South Asia, New Delhi.

see Snodgrass (1966). Ali, Ameer (1981): “The 1915 Racial Riots in Ceylon Kaplan, Robert D (2009): “Centre Stage for the Twenty

2 See Kaplan (2009: 16-32). For a brief introduction to

the historical importance of the Indian Ocean in (Sri Lanka): A Reappraisal of Its Causes”, South first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean”,

international geopolitics see, Ranasinghe (2010: Asia, New Series, Vol IV, No 2, December. Foreign Affairs, 88: 2.

35-38). Arasaratnam, S (1964): Ceylon (New Jersey: Prentice – (2010): Monsoon (New York: Random House).

3 The available literature on this shameful episode Hall, Inc), p 2. Keenleyside, T A (1982): “Nationalist Indian Attitudes

is vast. For a brief assortment of different analysis Bandarage, Asoka (2009): The Separatist Conflict in Towards Asia: A Troublesome Legacy for Post

including a bibliographic guide however see, Race Sri Lanka (Bloomington, New York: iUniverse, Independence Indian Foreign Policy”, Pacific

and Class, 26.1, 1984. For an eyewitness account Inc).

Affairs, Vol 55, No 2. see Kanapathipillai (1990: 321-44). Bauman, Zygmunt (2000): Liquid Modernity (Cam-Kumar, Amit (2006): “China’s Growing Influence in 4 Sachi Sri Kantha, “Rajiv Gandhi’s IPKF Folly” in bridge: Polity).

Sri Lanka: Implications for India”, Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, Article 2079, 26 July.

Ilankai Tamil Sangam, Bruton, Henry (1992): Sri Lanka and Malaysia, 2010/05/IPKF_Folly.php. published for the World Bank by the Oxford Ludowyk, E F C (1966): The Modern History of Ceylon

5 According to one count the number of Tamil refugees University Press.

(London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson). had reached 13,000 by 1987 (Chalk 2003:11, note 11). Castells, Manuel (1997): Information Age: Economy, Medeiros, Evan S (2009): China’s International 6 Josy Joseph’s interview with general S Kalkat, the Society and Culture, Vol II, The Power of Identity,

Behaviour, RAND Corporation. man in charge of the Indian operation, http:// Blackwell Publishers. Panikkar, K M (1945): India and the Indian Ocean www. Chalk, Peter (2003): “Liberation Tigers of Tamil (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd).

7 From personal communication with a retired Sri Eelam Insurgency in Sri Lanka” in Rajat Ganguly Ranasinghe, Sergei Desilva (2010): “Dominating the

Lankan Tamil civil servant who was close to presi-and Ian Macduff, Ethnic Conflict and Secessionism Waves” in Himal Southasian, September.

dent J R Jayawardene. in South & Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Sage Publi-Snodgrass, Donald R (1966): Ceylon: An Export Eco

8 See Mervyn de Siva, “IPKF Quits but Coercive cations). nomy in Transition, Homewood (Illinois: Richard

Diplomacy Continues’ in Lanka Guardian, 1 May de Silva, K M (1993): “The Making of the Indo-Sri D Irwin, Inc).

1990, pp 3-5. Lankan Accord the Final Phase: June-July 1987” Tellis, Ashley J (2009): “US and Indian Interests in

9 Josy Joseph’s interview with general S Kalkut, in Peace Accords and Ethnic Conflict, K M De Silva India’s Extended Neighbourhood” in Alyssa Ayres

op cit.

and S W R de Samarasinghe (ed.) (London and and C Raja Mohan (ed.), Power Realignments in New York: Pinter Publishers).Asia (New Delhi: Sage Publications).

10 Somini Sengupta, “Take Aid from China and Take a Pass on Human Rights”, New York Times, – (1999): A History of Sri Lanka (Chennai: Oxford Wickramasinghe, Nira (2006): Sri Lanka in the Modern

9 March 2008, Also, Kumar (2006).

University Press), fifth impression. Age (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).

11 S Narapalasingam, “Sri Lanka Wants India’s Help to Defeat LTTE Politically”, http://transcurrents. com/tc/2009/12/post_463.html.

12 B Raman, “India’s Role in Sri Lanka”,

13 This subject is extensively explored under global governance and the literature is vast. For a summary of arguments see Castells (1997: 243-348). On the phenomenon of liquidity or gaseousness see Bauman (2000).

14 Saman Kelegama, “India-Sri Lanka Bilateral Free Trade Agreement: Sri Lankan Perspective and Implications”, presentation to the “Asian Regional Workshop on Free Trade Agreements: Towards Inclusive Trade Policies in Post-Crisis Asia”, jointly organised by IDEAS, GSEI, & ITD, Bangkok, 8-9 December 2009.

15 Quoted in, Sergei DeSilva-Ranasinghe, “Sri Lanka’s Balancing Act”, The Australia Financial Review, Friday, 4 December 2009.

16 Chindia is a portmanteau name referring to China and India. It was coined by an Indian politician Jairam Ramesh who used it in the title of his book, Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China and India, India Research Press, 2006. Because of the domineering performance of the economies of these two giants the 21st century is sometimes described as the Chindian century.


May 28, 2011
Global Crises, Welfare Provision and Coping Strategies of Labour in Tiruppur – M Vijayabaskar
Extending the Coverage of Minimum Wages in India:
Simulations from Household Data – Patrick Belser, Uma Rani
Labour and Employment under Globalisation: The Case of Gujarat – Indira Hirway, Neha Shah
Impact of the Economic Crisis on Workers

in the Unorganised Sector in Rajasthan – S Mohanakumar, Surjit Singh

For copies write to: Circulation Manager, Economic and Political Weekly, 320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013.


Economic & Political Weekly

August 20, 2011 vol xlvI no 34

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