India cozies up to Sri Lankan strongman
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - As in Myanmar, so in Sri Lanka India's policy seems to be dictated
by strategic interests rather than principles of democracy and justice.
Its invitation to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the closing
ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi has earned it the ire of Tamils and
pro-democracy activists in Sri Lanka and abroad.
Rajapaksa's conduct of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
(LTTE), especially in the final stages last year when thousands of Tamil
civilians were killed and many times that number displaced, has been criticized
by many, with the Tamil
diaspora and several international organizations even calling for the setting
up of a tribunal to try him and some civilian and military officials for war
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group said it had a "substantial
body of evidence" that provided "a compelling case for investigation of the
conduct of hostilities and the role of the military and political leadership"
of the government and the LTTE.
Rajapaksa has been accused of authoritarian rule as well. Over the past year,
his government has crushed political opposition and silenced the media. Former
army chief Sarath Fonseka, who dared to challenge Rajapaksa politically, is in
jail, put away by a military court for 30 months. Journalists critical of the
Rajapaksa regime have "disappeared".
Power is concentrated in the Rajapaksa family. The president, his brothers and
their sons control important portfolios and much of the funds allocated by the
national budget. What is more, a recent constitutional amendment, the 18th to
the Sri Lankan constitution, has removed the two-term limit on the presidency,
easing the way for Rajapaksa to remain president for life.
The prestige India bestowed on Rajapaksa by making him a guest of honor at the
Commonwealth Games' closing ceremony has angered Tamils and rights activists.
While Suren Surendiran of the Tamil Global Forum described it as "a shame",
protesters led by V Gopalaswamy (better known as Vaiko) – a politician in the
southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu who is among the LTTE's strongest
supporters – waved black flags and burned effigies of Rajapaksa on the day of
the closing ceremony.
Indian officials clarify that Rajapaksa was not a chief guest as reported in
sections of the media but a "guest of honor". It appears that Rajapaksa's
public relations team pumped up his status at the Games' closing ceremony.
Some analysts have said that invitation to Rajapaksa is part of a campaign
supported by some Commonwealth member countries to strengthen the Sri Lankan
government's bid to host the Commonwealth Games at Hambantota in 2018.
However, there is more to the Indian invite. It is part of a charm offensive to
ensure that its island neighbor remains firmly in its sphere of influence.
Except for a few years in the 1980s, relations between India and Sri Lanka have
been cordial. Its failed "peacekeeping" effort in the island between 1987 and
1990 contributed to Delhi adopting a hands-off policy towards the ethnic
conflict in Sri Lanka. This and the liberalization of the Indian economy in
1991 resulted in economic and strategic interests coming to dominate India's
agenda in Sri Lanka.
Right through the war, India, while maintaining a public position of support
for a political solution to the ethnic conflict, backed the military operations
against the LTTE. It did raise its voice against aerial operations that
resulted in thousands of civilian deaths but it did little to push the
government to correct its course. In fact, it seemed that Delhi and Colombo
were acting in tandem to defeat the LTTE.
Since the defeat of the LTTE, India has contributed significantly to
rehabilitation of displaced Tamils and to reconstruction of the war-ravaged
north. But beyond a bit of nudging, it has done little to pressure the
Rajapaksa government to find a political solution to the conflict. It has been
careful not to tread on Rajapaksa's toes.
Growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, especially since Rajapaksa became
president in December 2005, appears to be behind Delhi's reluctance to do
anything that could push him into a closer embrace of the Chinese.
There is reason for India to be wary. China's aid to Sri Lanka was a few
million dollars in 2005 but jumped to US$1.2 billion in 2009, making it the
island's largest aid donor. Beijing has provided Sri Lanka with $3.06 billion
in financial assistance for various projects. It has built and funded a major
port development project at Hambantota (Rajapaksa's home town) in the south of
Colombo has been skillfully playing India and China against each other. And
India has gone out of its way to keep it happy. The invitation to Rajapaksa to
the Games' closing ceremony is part of its assiduous wooing of the powerful Sri
There are parallels between India's courting of Rajapaksa and its wooing of
Myanmar's generals. As in Sri Lanka, in Myanmar India's main competitor is
It was in a bid to counter China's influence in Myanmar that India decided to
move away from its criticism and isolation of the generals to engaging them.
Over the past 15 years it has repeatedly rolled out the red carpet for the
junta top brass and rarely has it condemned them for their human-rights
violations. Even after the military's ruthless crushing of the monks' protest
in 2007, which evoked sharp Western condemnation, Delhi remained silent for
several months, breaking that silence eventually to issue a bland statement of
Similarly, Delhi's feting of Rajapaksa comes at a time when some Western
countries and international organizations are calling for his trial for war
crimes. In contrast to Myanmar's military rulers, however, who were roundly
rejected by voters in elections 20 years ago, Rajapaksa is an elected leader,
who won a second term as president by a convincing majority.
Instead of supporting pro-democracy activists in its neighborhood as it used to
some decades ago, India is serenading authoritarian rulers and strengthening
them domestically, rights activists complain. Pragmatism rather than lofty
principles is increasingly determining its foreign policy.
Indian officials admit that Rajapaksa's growing authoritarianism and "seeming
reluctance to address the ethnic conflict is worrying". But "public criticism
of his government will not bring the desired change", an official in the
Ministry of External Affairs said. As for the war crimes allegations: "Western
countries have never allowed a probe into their own conduct or that of their
allies, preferring to use this against Asian and African countries where their
influence is limited." Besides, Rajapaksa has put in place a probe through the
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the official said.
But the LLRC's mandate is to assess why a cease fire in February 2002 broke
down in 2008 and led to renewed fighting, not to probe allegations of war
crimes or even human-rights violations during the war. Set up in May this year,
the LLRC has conducted several hearings where officials and public have
However, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis
Group have refused to appear before the LLRC because it "did not meet
international standards for independent and impartial inquiries". They have
said the LLRC is flawed as its members were appointed by the government, it has
no real mandate to investigate war crimes in the last stages of the conflict,
it lacks any mechanism to protect witnesses and it falls short of minimum
international standards for a commission of inquiry.
Accusing several members of the LLRC of being government loyalists, who have in
the past defended the government publicly against war-crimes allegations,
critics have said that "accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka demands an
independent international investigation".
Several of those believed to have been part of the decision making that
resulted in war crimes are citizens of Western countries. The president's
brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is Sri Lanka's defense secretary, is a
naturalized US citizen, while former army chief Fonseka is a US green card
holder. Both have been the focus of a campaign by the Tamils against Genocide
to have them prosecuted in the US for genocide and war crimes.
"As a matter of policy, the US should fully investigate war crimes and crimes
against humanity allegations against its citizens and residents on the basis of
any available theory of responsibility, and where appropriate prosecute," the
International Crisis Group report on Sri Lanka says.
That will not happen. It would mean opening the door to international calls for
prosecution of several US presidents, civilian and military officials for war
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in