Originally Published 2010-01-18 00:00:00 Published on Jan 18, 2010
The comfort levels between the West and the UNP, with shared perceptions of liberal democracy and market capitalism is mutual
Lankan presidential poll through the global prism
No other election in Sri Lanka has attracted as much interest across the world as the upcoming presidential poll. Leave alone the inevitable and varying Sri Lankan perceptions of an Indian interest, this is the first time that the West-oriented UNP and the China-centric JVP have come on the same side of the new political divide in the country. This is not to imply that the global super-powers one playing solo at present and the other seen as an emerging compatriot or competitor have a joint strategy for Sri Lanka. The longevity of the combine will depend more on the results of the presidential polls than any foreign diktat.

True, the large-scale presence of vociferous sections of the Tamil community in the West has added a new dimension to the interest of host Governments and their political class in Sri Lankan affairs. Possibly, even without the clout and vote of the Tamil Diaspora, the world would have taken notice of the Sri Lankan neighbourhood in the emerging global geo-strategic scenario. It is a repeat of the Cold War era, with China still seeking to claim the place left vacant by the Soviet Union, and a more organised European Union becoming increasingly assertive.

The comfort levels between the West and the UNP, with shared perceptions of liberal democracy and market capitalism is mutual. That can be said of China and the JVP, and even the SLFP, until the latter needed to broad-base its domestic constituency, to be able to challenge the UNP in electoral terms.

Today, you have the JVP wanting to forget the war years and do business with the Norwegian facilitator of the failed ceasefire between the Government and the LTTE. The JVP was the most vocal of all critics of the LTTE, the cease-fire and by extension, Norway. Today, it is critical only of the Government and not certainly of the LTTE-centric TNA, which it had not spared, either.

It’s a different ball game for China. Some analysts believe that Beijing is in no hurry to spread its strategic presence either in these parts or elsewhere in the world. It definitely does not have any great cause to spread the Leftist economic philosophy in which China does not believe any more. The political ideology, it seems, is only for domestic consumption.

Yet, China has not lost any chance to familiarise itself with the emerging rank of political leaders, from across the political spectrum in Sri Lanka confining mostly to the majority community, who alone have a greater chance of ruling from Colombo, whatver be the electoral permutation and combination. Beijing has also been taking extra interest in familiarising Sri Lankan leaders about China.

The JVP’s links with the Chinese Communist Party is known. Beijing hosts a UNP team every year on such familiarisation visits. SLFP leaders from the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Mahinda Rajapaksa have maintained excellent relations with successive leaderships in China. As President, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited China twice in as many years but did not lose to have the none-too-urgent Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with the US.

As coincidence would have it and as he himself recalled in a controversial context recently, the Opposition common candidate, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was in China when the end-game was enacted in Eelam War IV in May last.

More recently still, his US visit itself became a controversy. That the Rajapaksa Government’s cancellation of the last consignment of ammunition orders placed with China after the war had ended did not go unnoticed. Nor did the controversy attending on the US wanting to quiz the then serving CDS on war crimes got publicised even more.
There are no free lunches in global politics and diplomacy particularly if outside nations do not have an inherent imperative to offer help, cooperation or aid, one way or the other. If the West is listening to the Tamil voice, or China is investing heavily on and in Sri Lanka, it is not without reason. At times, such interests are both conflicting and contradicting.

There is no knowing, for instance, if the European Unions interest in Sri Lanka goes beyond creating a conducive human rights atmosphere. If so, the GSP-plus threat, if active upon, could only spread misery in the country, not human rights. How Sri Lanka would react to the emerging situation would be known, post-polls but there are inherent limitations across the board. India is a different cup, though it is New Delhi’s name that gets bandied about in Colombo over the poll issue as any other. India has an abiding interest in Sri Lanka’s strategic security and the demands and expectations, starting with trust, are all mutual.

New Delhi’s strategic concerns over neighbourhood waters too cannot be wished away. It goes beyond sovereignty. It involves strategic reality and relativity.
India also has a sub-serving interest in the welfare of the minority Tamil population. It goes beyond the narrowest of interpretations that links the welfare of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka to the politics in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu.  It involves the welfare of a substantial section of the Sri Lankan population where pragmatism, and not polemics, would pay, if at all.

The Upcountry Tamils of recent Indian origin were asked to pack off overnight after their poor forebears had lost all contacts and thus emotional attachment, too, were asked to pack off overnight, only a couple of decades later, Sri Lankan Tamils too were forced to take refuge in India.

A festering wound had broken open and the Sri Lankan State had done little to remedy the situation, which was one of its own making.

Despite what certain sections in Colombo would want to believe, New Delhi has been known to have worked with whichever Government that the people of Sri Lanka had elected in the past.

This Indian position is independent of the political changes in Delhi over the past decades.  And leaders of all parties, representing all communities in Sri Lanka, and not just the Tamils, want India to hear their views and want to hear Indias views. Some want to boast of it, some do it officially, and others more quietly. It is again for local political reasons, and has nothing to do with New Delhi.

The West has been given to be reactive even while believing to be pro-active. It ends up cajoling prospective partners when threat does not pay off. China, which is learning new lessons in geo-strategic perspective and also teaching some does not seem to believe in holding out threats, or so it seems.

Each of them wants Sri Lanka, more than the other way round. If nothing else, Colombo could play one against the other, to get things done but that comfort is not available to the other two. Whether there is a change of guard in Colombo or not, this one thing may not change, after all.

Courtesy: Daily Mirror, Colombo, Monday, 18 January 2010

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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