Tamil issue remains unresolved

New Delhi has moved an inch forward to secure the Indian Ocean from growing Chinese influence. It has seized the right opportunity with a change in leadership in Sri Lanka. New Delhi struck a civil nuclear deal with its nearest island nation and agreed to take defence and strategic cooperation forward, including “the trilateral format”  with the Maldives. The civil nuclear pact is the first of its kind that Colombo has signed with any country. This can be seen as India’s attempt to preempt any such move by the Chinese to ink a similar deal with the island nation.

China has been extending its “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has recently developed the island nation’s Hambantota port and offered an investment of $1.4 billion for the Colombo port-city project. During the election campaign, new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had criticised their opponent and former incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa of incurring huge loans from China for building roads, ports, and other infrastructure. They also opposed the proposed Colombo port-city project with Chinese assistance, since this would entail huge ecological damage. After assuming power, however, President Sirisena took a U-turn and preferred not to displease the Chinese and gave the go-ahead for the Colombo port-city project.

Former President Rajapaksa, during his tenure, opted to move closer to China, much to the annoyance of India. He allowed Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo port twice and threatened to turn Sri Lanka into a strategic asset for China at New Delhi’s expense. Indian officials now hope that President Sirisena will balance the interests of his country without embittering relations. Apart from commercial relations and other ongoing areas of cooperation, both countries recently inked pacts on extending their cooperation in the spheres of culture and agriculture.

The civil nuclear deal with India intends to facilitate cooperation in transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building, and training of personnel for peaceful use of nuclear energy. Such an agreement was necessary. Colombo had earlier expressed apprehensions over India’s Kudankulam atomic power project on the coast of Tamil Nadu. It was thought that in case of a Fukushima-like disaster, the island nation would have to bear the consequences. This civil nuclear pact, therefore, will not only allay Sri Lanka’s apprehension but also help in its energy security programme.

India’s concern surrounds securing the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOC) in both Indian and Pacific oceans, which handles two-thirds of the world’s energy trade, half the global container cargo and a third of the world’s bulk cargo. Considerable amounts of India’s trade pass through this region. Strengthening ties between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives is therefore, necessary for ensuring security in the region. India is also party to other trilateral ties in the region, with nations such as  the United States of America, Japan, Australia and Indonesia, to mention a few. India is already a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit, Asia Europe Summit Meeting (ASEM), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting plus Eight (ADMM+8), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

During recent talks between delegations led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan President Sirisena in New Delhi, contentious issues related to Sri Lankan Tamils were not resolved. Issues include the devolution of powers under the 13th Amendment of the Lankan Constitution, rehabilitation and repatriation of Tamil refugees in Indian relief camps. Even the troubles faced by Indian fisherman off the coast of Tamil Nadu were not resolved. These issues are likely to be taken up when the Indian Prime Minister Modi visits Sri Lanka in March.

At the time of elections, President Sirisena had assured the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that Colombo would devolve political and financial powers to the Tamils, but retain its military presence in the north and northeastern provinces. There are about 130,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in various relief camps in India, of which 90,000 are in Tamil Nadu.  The Tamil refugees are waiting for normalcy in the region before they come back  home. The rehabilitation process has been slow and tardy. To make matters worse, Sri Lanka had refused to hold an independent inquiry into the state-sponsored deadly massacre of thousands of Tamils in 2009, despite being pulled up by the United Nations.

There is, however, relief for President Sirisena. The UN Human Rights Council has decided to postpone the release of the report on alleged war crimes committed during the 2009 civil war till September 2015. Initially the UNHRC had decided to release the report on March. On the request of President Sirisena, however, it has been deferred on the pretext of the island nation is conducting an internal inquiry. India had so far been soft on the issue, whenever it came up before the UNHRC. But with the recent change in the Indian political dispensation, it now depends on the Modi government.

Another contentious issue is related to the fishermen in both countries, who are being apprehended and put in jail for crossing territorial waters. The problem was accentuated after India handed over the uninhabited Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. It has caused a loss of territorial waters and has placed Indian fishermen at a disadvantage.

Sri Lanka has become a partner in the Nalanda University project. The Buddhist majority island nation is more than interested in developing Buddhists sites in India and President Sirisena has said that Buddhism and Hinduism have close relations. It depends upon him on how effectively he resolves the Tamil issue in his own country, keeping in view the closeness between the two religions. Prime Minister Modi intends to give some time to President Sirisena to settle down and resolve the issue and make Sri Lanka an effective security partner in the Indian Ocean region.        IPA
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