By Neville Ladduwahetty
This is not the first time that Indian Leaders have called on Sri Lankan Governments to “Ensure life of dignity and respect for Tamils”. This was repeated during the recent visit of Sri Lanka’s President to India. India’s Prime Minister Modi stated: “We hope that Sri Lanka’s government will fulfill the aspirations of the Tamil people. We expect that Colombo will take forward the process of reconstruction for ensuring equality, justice and peace. We hope that Sri Lanka will fulfill its commitment to implement the 13th Amendment and to hold provincial elections” (The Island, 23 July, 2023).
It is necessary to recognize that all the comments made by the Prime Minister exclusively addresses the concerns of the Tamil people. Furthermore, except for implementing the 13A, and holding provincial elections, all other issues relating to the Tamil people are intangible and unquantifiable notions that are influenced by perceptions. Consequently, the call to the Governments of Sri Lanka to ensure dignity and respect for Tamil people presents opportunities for India to exploit it to its advantage, at its choosing. As for the rest of Sri Lanka, it was all about tangible infrastructure projects to further connectivity and integration as incorporated in the five MOUs.
All the intangible notions are interrelated. For instance, IF Tamil aspirations for the separate State, that had led to a 30-year armed conflict, had become a reality, a life of dignity and respect for Tamils would follow, and the need for reconstruction to ensure equality, justice and peace would not have arisen. On the other hand, if the aspiration of the Tamil people had been limited to a Federal State with the right of self-determination, dignity and respect for Tamils would have been ensured, albeit not to the same degree, and the need for reconstruction to ensure equality, justice and peace would also be to a lesser degree. Therefore, the degree to which the intangible notions become relevant depend on what constitutes acceptable aspirations.
The irony is that because the aspirations of the Tamil people as hitherto articulated come at a cost to both India’s and Sri Lanka’s interests, mutual security and territorial integrity, the aspirations of the Tamil people as hitherto expressed cannot be fulfilled. This is an enigma for both India and Sri Lanka; if either aspiration of the Tamil people expressed thus far was to manifest itself in Sri Lanka, the inevitable reverberations in India would be a threat to India’s security and its territorial integrity, without which India would not be able to fulfill its aspiration of becoming a global power.
What is evident from this existential reality is that India’s and Sri Lanka’s security, territorial integrity, and its political arrangements in the form of 13A are already interlinked to a degree that makes Sri Lanka apprehensive and insecure arising from the denial of Sri Lanka’s right of self-determination. Against such a background, it is imperative that its economic connectivity conveyed in the five MOUs be handled with extreme caution if Sri Lanka is not to become even more dependent and at the mercy of India.
Under the circumstances, the most that India can accept without compromising its own interests and aspirations is devolution under the 13th Amendment, which clearly is not the aspiration of the Tamil people. The same goes for Sri Lanka’s aspiration, too, unless its form and scope is reformulated from the form and scope imposed by India in 1987 into an arrangement that better serves all Sri Lankans without exception. Taking into account these hard realities, India’s PM would be doing a great service to the Peoples of both India and Sri Lanka if he was to call on the Tamil leadership to “get real” and scale back their aspirations, because of its impact on the interrelated and interdependent interests of both India and Sri Lanka.
FIVE MOUs BETWEEN INDIA and SRI LANKA
As far as India is concerned, 13A is the most India can accept if it is to protect its national interests and its global aspirations. In such a context, 13A in Sri Lanka is being used to enhance India’s connectivity with Sri Lanka and thus bring Sri Lanka within India’s sphere of control with economic projects that on paper appear attractive, would not be in Sri Lanka’s interest in their operations. The five (05), yet unpublished MOUs signed with India during the visit of Sri Lanka’s President is all about connectivity to the point of integration and eventual dependence. These MOUs have little to do with “dignity and respect for Tamils or their aspirations. On the other hand, it has everything to do with India’s policy of Neighbourhood First and Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR), thereby furthering India’s interests.
Although the five MOUs signed do not have a legal status, they clearly outline specific points of understanding. In particular, they describe the projects on which India and Sri Lanka have agreed to explore areas of mutual interest. However, it is of vital importance to recognize that while some projects would be mutually beneficial, others would compromise the self-reliance and independence of Sri Lanka, and in the process further the dependence of Sri Lanka on India through these physical connections.
The construction of a multi-product petroleum pipeline from Southern part of India to Sri Lanka.
To establish high capacity power grid between India and Sri Lanka.
The decision to designate INR as currency for trade between the two countries.
To establish land connectivity between India and Sri Lanka for developing access to ports of Trincomalee and Colombo.
Establishing physical connections in respect of a pipeline for petroleum products and a power grid between India and Sri Lanka could be disrupted at any time as experienced by Europe, when the pipelines that had delivered natural gas and petroleum products from Russia were sabotaged by interested parties. On 26 September, 2022, a series of clandestine bombings and subsequent underwater gas leaks occurred on the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipelines. Following the sabotage, “the European Commission has unveiled an ambitious and far-reaching plan, aptly coined “REPower EU”, to achieve full energy independence from Russia by 2027″ (euronews). Earlier, the pipeline had delivered 45% of natural gas from Russia to Europe; a dependence that the US had perceived as being hostage to Russia. Since similar acts of terrorism cannot be ruled out in the case of any underwater pipeline from India to Sri Lanka, the lesson to be learnt from Europe is to develop independent sources of energy and not rely on external sources that could exploit such dependence to advance the interests of others.
Similar vulnerabilities exist with power grids, too. Whether the cables are over-water or submarine cables, cyber hackers have exploited the vulnerabilities of power grids in Europe and in the US. Since such hackers could be induced by geopolitically motivated interests, the vulnerability associated with trans-national grids are greater than with national grids. Therefore, confining power grids within national boarders is more prudent.
The land access to ports of Trincomalee and Colombo presents multidimensional threats. Access to ports would mostly be by road. This means the routes they traverse and their surroundings would be subjected to serious environmental hazards arising from vehicular emissions. Furthermore, since road access would encourage human traffic, Sri Lanka would be forced to deal not only with unfamiliar health issues but also equip itself to deal with increased drug traffic, both by land and sea.
The decision to designate INR as currency for trade between India and Sri Lanka appears favourable to Sri Lanka, at first glance, given the fact that Imports from India to Sri Lanka in 2022 were around $4.5 Billion while Exports from Sri Lanka to India were only $ 850 Million. Under these circumstances, Sri Lanka would be able to save follars because currently the US Dollar is the currency of trade with India.
However, the very fact that using INR for trade may be an advantage to Sri Lanka, there is a strong possibility that imports from India would not only increase but also be at a cost to quality, as experienced with the pharmaceutical products that are imported from India on a Line of Credit. The net effect would be for Sri Lanka to become more and more indebted to India.
After having issued the usual platitudes, such as fulfilling aspirations of the Tamil people, ensuring “dignity and respect for Tamils” and “equality, justice and peace for them, Sri Lanka was admonished for its lack of commitment for implementing the 13th Amendment by Prime Minister Modi during the recent visit of the President of Sri Lanka to India. India wrapped up the visit by securing agreements conveyed in five MOUs to engage in infrastructure projects that consolidate India’s connectivity with Sri Lanka thereby ensuring the dependence through its policy of neighbourhood first. In short, Sri Lanka came home with the short end of the stick.
No serious attempt was made by Sri Lanka to explain to India that the reason for not fulfilling Tamil aspirations is simply not a lack of commitment or the unwillingness, but because the aspirations of the Tamil people run counter to the aspirations of the rest in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, no attempt was made to explain that the 13A imposed by India was from the beginning drafted and crafted from the outset ONLY to meet Tamil aspirations, and not as a mechanism to improve the lives of ALL Sri Lankans through effective devolution. Consequently, 13A has turned out to be a trap where the choice boils down to aspirations of Tamil people or improved livelihoods for all. No attempt was made by Sri Lanka to explore ways and means of getting out of this trap. This should have been Sri Lanka’s focus. Instead, what turned out was control of Sri Lanka by India through connectivity and integration.
It has to be granted that some issues contained in the MOUs are mutually beneficial. However, issues such as connectivity of land access to ports of Trincomalee and Colombo, power grids, under sea pipelines to convey petroleum products and trade in INR have vulnerabilities that are influenced by geopolitics as experienced by Europe when the Russian pipelines were sabotaged; a dependence that was described as being a hostage to Russia according to the US. The very quick lesson, learnt by Europe, was to be free of connectivity. This should be Sri Lanka’s lesson too. Therefore, extreme caution will have to be exercised when issues contained in these MOUs, are transformed for implementation.