The Great Neighbour Tilts: Lessons In Geopolitics

Dayan“…Contiguous polities, in Kautilya’s analysis, existed in a state of latent hostility. Whatever professions of amity he might make, any ruler whose power grew significantly would find that it was in his interest to subvert his neighbor’s realm…The wise ruler would seek his allies from among his neighbor’s neighbors.” – Dr. Henry Kissinger, World Order (2014)

“Common to all countries of Southeast Asia is the existence within each state of an ethnic majority that forms the core, alongside numerous ethnic minorities. These latter are made up of groups that are more or less indigenous, as well as groups of people that arrived later as a result of history or migration”. – Huu Ngoc, Wandering through Vietnamese Culture (2006)

Up close and personal, India’s Prime Minister Modi has a presence, even a bit of an inner radiance born of confidence. This is the shared observation of my wife and me after the gracious introduction and handshakes at the India House reception two evenings back. Asia is lucky to have produced such a leader. We were lucky to meet him. That said, Sri Lankans were taught a firm lesson in Realism, in geopolitical realities and the balance of power, over the last few days.

No sagacious foreign leader on his visit to a neighboring country with a contentious, polarized domestic situation would make public remarks which implied or could be perceived as a tilt to one side. This is more so, if the side that is being tilted towards, is a numerical minority and the side that may perceive itself as being tilted against, is a large majority. There is only one set of circumstances in which a neighboring leader on a visit would actually say something that came across as a tilt. That is if there is no competition or counterweight.

China is regarded as having lost the game in Sri Lanka. India and the US are seen as having won. Mahinda Rajapaksa leveraged China for economic, strategic/security and diplomatic advantage for Sri Lanka. He used China as a counterweight to the West and India. He lost and China lost, and taken together that meant Sri Lanka lost something. Several weeks after, with Sri Lanka wide open and the playing field no longer level, the leader of our giant neighbor visited and shifted the goalposts by calling for a political solution beyond the status quo. He even mentioned the f word- federalism.

“ On the second and final day of his visit to Sri Lanka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi bonded with the Tamils of the Northern Province with aplomb…The audience went into raptures when Modi began his speech with a full throated “Vanakkam” (greetings)  in Tamil. They clapped lustily as he unreservedly acknowledged the sufferings the Tamils had gone through during the 30 year war, and assured them that India is committed to alleviating their sufferings and will never let them down…At the ceremony to lay the foundation stone of the India-funded Jaffna Cultural Centre, Modi …recalled that he told the Lankan parliament that “cooperative federalism” is necessary for the all-round development of a country”. (Modi Bonds with Lankan Tamils with Aplomb, PK Balachandran, New Indian Express, March 14, 2015)

All of this was picked up by the Northern Tamil politicians:

‘…Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran …praised Modi for advocating “cooperative federalism” as a model for Sri Lanka. “Modi has implanted the idea of cooperative federalism and devolution in the minds of Lankan leaders,” the CM said.’ (‘Mixed Feelings in Sri Lanka on Modi visit’, PK Balachandran, New Indian Express, March 15, 2015)

Before (in the interview given to Meera Srinivasan of the Hindu), during (in his welcome speech) and after (in remarks to the media) Prime Minister Modi’s visit, Chief Minister Wigneswaran had clearly articulated the political perspective of departing from and moving beyond the 13th amendment. In his speech welcoming the visiting Prime Minister, he clearly flagged the powers of an Indian state, in “internal security, law and order, policing and protection pertaining to lands and so on within the state” as the desired immediate objective, saying:

“…Thirteenth Amendment can never be the final solution. The current 13th Amendment Framework and the existing Sri Lankan constitutional architecture that had evolved since the first Republican Constitution of 1972 without the consent and participation of Tamils of North and East of our Country, poses formidable challenges and hindrances in realizing the quantum of devolution required to fulfill the needs and aspirations of the Tamil Speaking People of North and East of Sri Lanka. Indian Constitution provides for the facilitation of sustainable development, internal security, law and order, policing and protection pertaining to lands and so on within the State…

…Especially the inadequacies of the Thirteenth Amendment. Even when the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was signed there was a historic communication by our leaders to the then Indian Prime Minister, late Shri Rajiv Gandhi on 28 October 1987, pointing out   hollow and inadequate the 13th Amendment had been. They sought the then Indian Government’s intervention on behalf of the Tamils of North East Province of Sri Lanka. When Indo Lanka Accord was negotiated ostensibly as a solution to the Tamil Question, India whilst addressing Indian Security and Strategic concerns, stood as a guarantor on behalf of the Tamils of North-East. That situation prevails in North-East Provinces in Sri Lanka even today. We need the services of a guarantor and it is our considered view that the Government of India under your stewardship is best suited for this role!

The emaciated Thirteenth Amendment has not brought the required and expected devolution to the North and East. Even today parallel administrative structures exist one directed by the Centre and the other by the Province despite the appointment of an amiable Governor!

…We seek positive action to be taken to resolve our problems. May I suggest Sir, that there be talks among the Indian Government, Sri Lankan Government and the NPC and the EPC without taking refuge under the current constitutional provisions and protocols to find ways of resolving the central problem of the Tamil speaking people in an innovative and creative manner bearing in mind the root causes of our ethnic conflict and post war needs and priorities of the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces?…” (Excerpt from Welcome Speech by Chief Minister Wigneswaran, Saturday March 14th 2015)

After Prime Minister Modi’s remarks which have been construed as an endorsement and a guarantee of support to “never let them down”, Chief Minister Wigneswaran and the Northern Provincial Council have more political space and are demonstrating a greater propensity to behave as an autonomous third player in Sri Lankan politics and more dangerously, in relations with the outside world. The visiting Indian Prime Minister’s political signal has strengthened a new assertiveness in the Northern Tamil political discourse, and to mix the metaphor, lifted the bar of Tamil expectations. This would not be an intrinsically bad thing except for the fact that the bar of expectation would be raised well beyond the achievable. Therefore, the entire shift would be damaging rather than conducive to the task of political reconciliation through the accommodation of those Tamil aspirations that are compatible with the overall national interest.

The slogan of going beyond the 13th amendment and the introduction of the term federalism runs up against the most obvious of obstacles, namely how it would get past a referendum. Given that the 19th amendment didn’t quite make it past the Cabinet in its undiluted form, it is wildly utopian to expect something qualitatively beyond the 13th amendment and invested with a federal spirit, i.e. something that goes beyond the unitary framework of the state, can get a two thirds majority in parliament, and secure a majority at a referendum.

Even if the UNP and the SLFP Right wing (CBK-Sudu Nelumites) unite to guarantee the passage through parliament, it is just the kind of single issue that can trigger a grassroots radical nationalist-Statist movement to successfully oppose it at a referendum. On an issue this emotive, it would take a foolhardy administration to attempt a JR Jayewardene 1982 type coercive Referendum, with political opponents jailed on trumped up charges. (Vijaya Kumaratunga was arrested, allegedly with a nod and a wink from then Opp. Leader, a Bandaranaike, on the charge of being a ‘Naxalite’).

The slogan of “going beyond” the 13th amendment with Indian-model federalism as the stated goal is most likely to achieve its exact opposite, namely a buildup which results in the scrapping of the 13th amendment itself or a political atmosphere after the referendum which makes the 13th amendment so radioactive as to be unworkable. There is after all, a direct line of political and ideological descent between the Tamil call for 50:50 (50% for the Sinhalese who constitute three quarters and 50% for those minorities who comprise a quarter of the citizenry) in 1947 and Sinhala Only in 1956.

With Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s stinging, insolent rebuke to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe after the latter’s free and frank interview with Indian TV, we have a lesson to learn. While a President and a Prime Minister from two traditionally opposing parties may be a good thing for balance, it can, in the specific political circumstances of Sri Lanka, provide a dangerous gap for manipulation. The North is politically ambitious and therefore needs to be contained. In order to close the gap in the field placing as it were, that would permit a politically restive North to play off one power center against the other, the citizens need to pick at the upcoming parliamentary election a Prime Minister from the same matrix as the President. Obviously that cannot be Mr. Wickremesinghe. Nor can the present Leader of the Opposition beat Mr. Wickremesinghe, and is therefore also not an option

By Dayan Jayatilleka –



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