India chose to ‘abstain vote’ on the Resolution critical of Sri Lanka at the 46th Session of the UNHRC held from 22 February to 19 March 2021. The Statement issued by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN prior to the Resolution said, “We [India] believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community, including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we advocate that delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interests of Sri Lanka”.
The Sri Lankan government conveyed appreciation to those countries who ‘abstained’ for their tacit support, after the Resolution failed to muster minimum 25 ‘for’ votes. The Global Tamil Forum on the other hand expressed its satisfaction by stating, “By making a public statement before the vote and by abstaining, India has clearly shown its displeasure at the lack of progress on addressing the alleged violations of human rights and international laws and the non-implementation of Sri Lanka’s numerous public commitments of the past in addressing the grievances of the Tamil people, since this Rajapaksa government came to power”.
At the heart of these abstention and statements is the 13th Amendment to Sri Lankan Constitution adopted by the Sri Lanka that aims to devolve powers to provincial councils as envisaged in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. In September 2020, when both leaders of India and Sri Lanka met in Delhi, and during Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s visit to Colombo in January 2021, ‘full implementation’ of the Accord was part of the bilateral discussions. Sri Lankan President Gothabaya Rajapaksa reportedly sought India’s help on the upcoming UNHRC Resolution when he met Prime Minister Modi on 12th March 2021. Earlier in March, the Sri Lankan President had even called for holding Provincial Elections.
While these events pertained to UNHRC Resolution, other developments were also taking place in Sri Lanka. The Hambantota port had elicited global attention on the way President Mahinda Rajapaksa had leaned towards China for financial assistance. Failure of the port in attracting anticipated volumes of business led Sri Lanka into a debt trap and resulted in a 99 year lease of the port to a Chinese firm. Furthermore, the compulsions of Covid-hit economy and burden of external debt has again sent Sri Lanka seeking an additional US$150 million in loan from China.
Tamils sentiments in Northern Sri Lanka and compulsions of Tamil Nadu politics in India have been used as a trump card by Sri Lanka in its relations with India in the past. In the evolving geopolitical scenario of the Indo-Pacific, together with its own internal economic and political compulsions, Sri Lanka seems to have added the China factor to its collection of trump cards. An aggressive Cheque Book diplomacy adopted by China for expanding its maritime BRI objectives also appears to be suiting Sri Lanka to play its cards vis-à-vis India purely for opportunistic advantages.
This perception is supported by the swiftness (immediately after UNHRC vote) with which Sri Lankan Prime Minister on 23 Marchstated “…nations should not meddle in the internal affairs of our country”. Though he was referring to ‘some European nations’, the statement made in a public rally ahead of the general elections is significant. While the Prime Minister was indirect and subtle, President Gothabaya Rajapaksa was more explicit in his address in yet another political rally by stating, “Sri Lanka will not allow other countries to achieve their geopolitical needs by introducing separatism under the guise of power devolution in the island nation”. He even specifically pointed out India’s support to the international community’s call for devolving political authority on the basis of 13th Amendment.
Sri Lanka’s actions, viz., parley with India for support at UNHRC against the Resolution; and seeking additional Chinese funds for its economic while playing the ‘no-meddling-with-internal-affairs’ card to domestic audience in election rallies, point to the duality of purpose with which the delicate Sino-Indian relations are being played upon by Sri Lanka to its perceived advantage.
India-Sri Lanka relations have been tumultuous, to say the least. Soft political overtures like resolving Katchathivu amicably to Sri Lanka’s advantage, indecisive approach over fishing rights in Palk Strait and the Eelam Migrants Question, etc., do not appear to have yielded anticipated (if at all) outcomes.That Sri Lanka is abdicating its responsibilities under Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 by such opportunistic actions is rather evident.
At this juncture, developments in Indo-Pacific call for recalibrating India’s relations with Sri Lanka through long term foreign policy objectives, than diplomatic overtures in response to temporary geostrategic compulsions. Even as India hastens to enhance its military capabilities to address direct threats posed by China to its territorial integrity, how it chooses to drive neighborhood policies unfettered by such temporary considerations will be the litmus test for its foreign policy and diplomatic acumen.
Dr R Srinivasan is an independent researcher and publisher cum Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Journal of Social and Strategic Studies.