Lanka-India resolution row goes
nuclear By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Sri Lanka's Minister of Power
and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka's recent
announcement that Colombo was considering raising
the issue of the safety of India's nuclear power
plants with the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) has been widely interpreted in the Indian
media as retaliation for India's vote supporting
an anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the United Nations
Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently.
respect the right of India to have nuclear power
stations," Ranawaka told journalists in Colombo.
"But our concerns are on the possible radiation
affects they could have on Sri Lanka," he said.
Ranawaka drew attention to nuclear plants
located in southern
India and pointed out
that in the event of a nuclear disaster in India,
Mannar in Sri Lanka's northwest would be hit hard.
Just a narrow, 20 kilometer-wide strip of
shallow sea separates Mannar from the Indian
coastline. It is a mere 250 kilometers from the
Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu's
Coming in the wake
of the UNHRC resolution, Ranawaka's statement was
interpreted in the Indian media as aimed at
India's support of a
UNHRC resolution that urged the Sri Lankan
government to "credibly investigate" allegations
of violation of international humanitarian law by
government forces in the final stages of the civil
war has raised hackles in Colombo.
run-up to the vote in Geneva and in the wake of
the resolution's passage, Sri Lanka has been
engulfed by a tidal wave of nationalist emotions
especially among the island's Sinhalese majority.
Demonstrations led by monks and Sinhala
nationalists have hurled abuse at the United
States, which sponsored the resolution, and India
for its "betrayal" of Sri Lanka.
Commentators in the Lankan media have
accused India of "backstabbing". Reports have
sought to malign India. The Island, a
pro-government English daily, for instance
reported that 150 terrorists trained in Tamil Nadu
"have returned to Sri Lanka and are hiding in the
north and the east to carry out a destabilization
campaign" in the island. A statue of Mahatma
Gandhi in the eastern city of Batticaloa was
Ranawaka's comment on
the safety of India's nuclear plants comes at a
time when Delhi is struggling to quell a mass
protest in Tamil Nadu over the safety of the
Kudankulam nuclear plant. The protest, which has
captured global media attention, has embarrassed
An Indo-Russian collaboration, the
Kudankulam nuclear power plant has been beset with
delays. Then August last year, just months ahead
of the scheduled commissioning of one of its
units, a mass protest erupted. Villagers in its
environs went on fasts to pressure the government
to shut down the nuclear plant.
blocked roads and laid siege to the project site
to prevent employees from entering. In a highly
publicized campaign activists claimed the plant
was unsafe and called on the government to make
safety analysis and site evaluation studies
public. Local residents raised fears that
radioactivity from the plant and unsafe disposal
of nuclear waste would endanger their health.
Fishermen expressed concerns that water
used to cool reactors and flushed into the sea
would contaminate fish in the Gulf of Mannar.
Villagers said that in the event of a
Fukushima-type disaster, a rapid evacuation would
be impossible as over one million people live
within a 30-kilometer radius of the plant.
The government deployed experts to
convince locals that the nuclear plant was safe
and extended development packages to the region.
But locals are unconvinced and the agitation
Ranawaka's raising of the
nuclear safety issue in such circumstances is
bound to have irritated Delhi, particularly since
talks on nuclear technology-related issues,
including that of nuclear safety, are reportedly
continuing between India and Sri Lanka at the
Both governments have
clarified that contrary to Ranawaka's claims,
Colombo taking the issue to the IAEA is not on the
cards. It seem Ranawaka was engaging in some
empty muscle flexing aimed at impressing his
Sinhala Buddhist supporters, who are livid with
India for its support of the UNHRC resolution.
Ranawaka is general secretary of the
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by radical
Buddhist monks that is part of the ruling
coalition and has been at the forefront of the
rallies opposing the UNHRC resolution.
JHU has called for a rethink of economic ties with
India. "We should not grant favors to countries
merely because they are our neighbors. India was
the only Asian country that sided with the US" in
voting on the UNHRC resolution, JHU spokesperson,
Udaya Gammanpila, has said.
resolution has provided an excuse for hardline
Sinhalese politicians, several of them ministers
in President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government, to
burnish their "patriotic" credentials as
"defenders of the motherland". Each is seeking to
outdo the other by announcing punishment to be
meted out to those who "betrayed the motherland"
by supporting the UNHRC resolution.
JHU wants Sri Lanka to downgrade its economic ties
with India, the Jathika Nidhahas Peramuna wants
the US to be punished. Its leader Wimal
Weerawansa, who is minister for housing and common
amenities, has called for a boycott of American
brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and
Google's e-mail service Gmail.
for Public Relations Mervyn Silva, who belongs to
Rajapaksa's party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) has gone a step further and warned certain
Sri Lankan activists and intellectuals at a public
rally that he would break their limbs in public.
Contrary to claims that they are true
"patriots", some analysts say the politicians and
parties calling for defiance of the UNHRC
resolution are harming the interests of their
"motherland", while others have drawn attention to
the perils of a confrontationist course.
"Hereafter Sri Lanka will be an agenda
item of the UNHCR and if it defies the Council,
the Council will refer the matter to other UN
bodies with more teeth," warned Kumar David in The
Island. "It is dangerous for Colombo to defy the
international community and set itself on
collision course; the consequences will be
drastic," he writes. "Make no mistake, going
before the Council next time with a fail grade on
its report card will reduce its support to zilch;
even the Chinese and Russians will duck as they
are now doing at the Security Council about Syria.
Defying the UN High Commission is the road of
Economic boycotts and a
downgrading of economic ties are options that Sri
Lanka can ill afford.
confrontationist calls for "taking on India" may
boost support for help Ranawaka, Weerawansa and
others, India remains Sri Lanka's largest trade
partner and source of FDI. Every fifth tourist to
Sri Lanka is an Indian. The US accounts for 21% of
Sri Lanka's export market. "Teaching them a
lesson" by downgrading ties is bound to boomerang
on Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is in the midst of
an economic crisis. With fuel prices rising by 40%
in recent months, prices of food and other
essential commodities and transport have soared.
The Sri Lankan rupee has fallen by 15% since the
beginning of this year and is showing no signs of
stabilizing. There have been mass demonstrations
protesting the economic crisis.
resolution might be a headache in the long-run for
the government but for now it's likely proving a
It "came at a good time for
Rajapaksa", R V Radhakrishnan observes in
Frontline, an Indian fortnightly news magazine.
Sri Lanka was roiled in anti-government
protests against price rises when the UNHRC
resolution came up. The ruling coalition then
focused on mobilizing protests against the
"external enemies" and "internal traitors." In the
process, it was able to turn public attention away
from the government to "enemies of the
Thus the UNHRC
resolution provided the government with an issue
to deflect public attention away from its own
The question is, how long
will public attention remain diverted?
"There is only so much of diversion that
people can put up with," points out Radhakrishnan.
"Conventionally, a full stomach produces a vocal
patriot. As pressure mounts on the common man to
make ends meet each day, he is unlikely to bother
about what the man in the White House is up to in
the cozy comforts of climate-controlled hotels in
Geneva. He might just decide to trek to Temple
Trees - the Sri Lankan president's official
residence - and demand his meal. And, he is
unlikely to be alone."
popularity in Sri Lanka remains high for now. Sri
Lanka's "victimization" at the UNHRC has helped
tone down the heat at home.
president's cheerleaders should realize that steps
to downgrade ties with Sri Lanka's main economic
partners would deepen the island's already serious
economic crisis, providing momentum to more power
protests against the government in the future.
"Bigger economic protests" will surface in
another year or two, warns David.
Lankans are hailing support Colombo received from
its "true friends", China and Pakistan at the
UNHRC. They are saying that India must be made to
pay a price for its treachery. They are calling on
the government to "teach Indian a lesson" by
deepening relations, especially military ties with
Given the geographic proximity
between Sri Lanka and India and the close ethnic
and other ties between them, working with Delhi
rather than baiting or defying it would be
Colombo's best option.
However tempting it
might be for a jilted Colombo to court China this
would be a perilous path. "If thumbing its nose at
the international community is slow asphyxiation,
a military game with China, such as a naval base,
will be sudden death," warns David.
Colombo must heed these voices of sanity.
It is in danger of cutting its nose to spite its
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in
Bangalore. She can be reached at
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