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Since the end of Sri Lanka’s thirty year-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the island is often evoked internationally in relation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. The UNHRC remains the only supranational body where the case of Sri Lanka has been evoked on a regular basis since the 1980s. Right from the outset of Eelam War IV, Sri Lanka attracted much criticism from policy research lobbies and senior personalities such as the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and present ICG chief Dr Louise Arbour. The UNHRC’s scrutiny of Sri Lanka was intensified in the aftermath of the final military offensive of May 2009. This was a justifiable move, given the substantive civilian casualties and the humanitarian catastrophe resulting in the displacement of some 300,000 civilians. Colombo’s treatment of displaced Tamil civilians caused considerable international alarm, as civilians were held in temporary shelters (which the government emphatically termed ‘welfare centres’ and critics categorically described as ‘concentration camps’), with accusations and considerable evidence over acts of violence and human rights violations.
NB: This article was originally published in the New Delhi-based Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs magazine, in its November 2013 edition.
Over the past few weeks, analysts, policymakers and civil society activists in India (and especially in Tamil Nadu) have been debating whether the Indian Prime Minister should attend the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. It has emerged that after much deliberation, Dr Manmohan Singh will not attend the Colombo CHOGM. This is a decision that has its definitive place in the annals of Indian diplomacy. Its significance is multiplied by the fact that it comes in the backdrop of Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma’s strong endorsement of the Colombo CHOGM. Whereas Ambassador Sharma operates in his capacity as Commonwealth chief, The Congress government’s decision can be explained by domestic political concerns, in the context an impending national election. However, it is somewhat inadequate to ascribe this decision only to domestic electoral politics. Despite its tremendous salience, the Tamil Nadu variable is not the only determining factor behind Dr Singh’s decision. More importantly perhaps, this decision carries much weight in terms of regional geopolitics.
The Manmohan Singh government was by far one of the strongest endorsers of Sri Lanka’s Eelam War IV against the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the absence of Indian endorsement, Colombo’s May 2009 military victory would not have been possible. Delhi had pertinent reasons to extend strategic, intelligence and logistical support to the Sri Lankan government, which notably involved the legacy of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and the regional implications of the LTTE secessionist threat. Delhi perceived a counter terrorist offensive as a necessary evil, on one condition – that Colombo would pursue a programme for inclusive political reform in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka once the LTTE threat was contained. Over the years, a repeated emphasis on political reform has continued to be the lynchpin of Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka’s ethno-national question. This, to cite but one example, was the rationale behind the BJP government’s refusal to extend military support to the Kumaratunga administration in the aftermath of one of the most devastating military defeats suffered by Sri Lankan forces at the hands of the LTTE in the year 2000. It was a means of encouraging Colombo to pursue a programme for political reform, as the Kumaratunga administration had by then drifted into a robust military offensive, making its repeated commitment to devolution sound rather ambivalent. If segments in the Sri Lankan military and government are to interpret that reaction (as well as Dr Singh’s stance on attending the 2013 Colombo CHOGM) as a case of Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy being captured by Tamil Nadu dictates, they are somewhat mistaken. Instead, it is much more insightful to read such decisions as intended at highlighting priorities in Delhi’s regional agenda at given points of time.
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