The dog-eat-dog world rarely offers convergence between opposing goals of promoting human values and national interests.
Usually, democratic States adopt illiberal policies that go against their own core beliefs, but which serve economic or strategic ends. However, the ruckus over the upcoming vote in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on a US-sponsored resolution seeking investigation of crimes committed in the final phases of Sri Lanka’s war presents a chance for India to mix morals with statecraft.
That the Lankan armed forces indulged in extreme violations of international laws in prosecuting the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a fact. Media revelations of brutal conduct by the Sri Lankan military are only the tip of the iceberg. I have witnessed the iron fist of Sinhalese chauvinism first-hand during my years as a civilian peacekeeper in eastern Sri Lanka. It has far too many unaccounted graves and disappearances.
Moreover, mass detentions of suspected LTTE sympathisers and the heavy militarisation of the north and east of Sri Lanka by Sinhalese armed forces are continuing unabated. After winning the war against the LTTE in 2009, the majoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa regime is at war with its Tamil speaking people at large.
India has been repeatedly frustrated by the Rajapaksas, who parry the critical issue of devolution of powers to the minorities by dangling the China card. Colombo’s game plan is to emotionally blackmail New Delhi against pushing too hard on autonomy for the north and east via the threat of embracing Beijing. Unfortunately, across South Asia, we have been allowing regimes in Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to replay variations of this same song: ‘Pamper me or else I land in China’s lap’.
Wary of China’s looming strategic penetration of our backyards, we have permitted political processes in these countries to drift away from our core interests. Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa clan keeps playing off India against China and gets away with mass murder. India is not benefiting from the status quo, which is a unitary Sri Lanka with a simmering minority population whose civil and political rights haven’t improved one whit since the decimation of the LTTE.
Hence, it’s time for New Delhi to change track from treading softly on the Rajapaksas’ failure and refusal to usher in post-war political solutions that are crucial for security in the Indian Ocean. As the vote next week at the UNHRC nears, India is proffering technical alibis about our foreign policy ‘tradition’ of not voting in favour of country-specific resolutions in this international institution. But why did we bypass this ‘tradition’ of supporting non-intervention in the internal affairs of States when we voted against the government of Syria recently in the UN Security Council?
Bailing out the Sri Lankan regime, which is guilty of crimes against humanity, in international fora hasn’t served our offic-ially unmentioned but intended purpose of keeping China ‘out’ of the Indian Ocean. The American writer, William Avery, has written that India must “Finlandise” Sri Lanka and kick China off the island nation. Has the policy of coddling the Rajapaksas and buying into their China bogey helped us one bit in achieving this objective?
New Delhi is facing pressure from political parties in Tamil Nadu to reverse its gingerly approach to the cry for justice in Sri Lanka and to side with the American resolution. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s open letter to his coalition partner M Karunanidhi indicates that we aren’t planning to change the present policy of bilaterally appealing and begging the Rajapaksas to make incremental changes towards ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Can there be healing in a post-war society without holding heinous crimes to justice? India could be enabling the rise of another wave of insurgency in the Tamil-speaking provinces of Sri Lanka by siding with a regime which is bent on rubbing salt into the wounds of minorities.
It is imperative that New Delhi reassesses why it has lost all leverage over Sri Lanka and how that can be regained. Colombo is no less closer to China today than it was during the endgame of the LTTE. We can regain respect and influence in Sri Lanka through tough love and collective multilateral action with western powers that are showing greater concern for redressing grievances of its minorities. Letting the Rajapaksas off the hook yet again would be a costly blunder of strategy and of principle.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal