It is debatable whether Colombo would have put itself at the mercy of Beijing to this extent had it not been for the Indian factor.
It seems distant, but newspaper footage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla attending a Hindu puja to unveil a massively expanded version of Ashoka’s Lion Capital atop the new Parliament building in New Delhi could explain the bitterness underlying Sri Lanka’s current crisis. Because, as Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of the Reserve Bank, recently warned, no nation can hope for peace and growth if it marginalizes its minorities.
India has a role to play in helping Sri Lanka find a long-term solution to the challenge of ethnic differences – perhaps in terms of the failed Rajiv Gandhi-JR Jayewardene agreement of 1987 which recommended federalism – and to reach the “samanjasya(harmony) which Mr. Modi singlehandedly speaks of by setting an example of cultural tolerance and federal integration and not by aggravating the Islamophobia that has plagued Sri Lanka since the 2019 Easter Massacre. this context that beyond being an expression of personal faith, the pujas make a public statement, as political as the burqa or the hijab.
At the time of independence, the Sinhalese had quietly decided to make Sri Lanka a unitary Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist nation where the minorities would remain outsiders. Leaders like the late Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, highly anglicized, Christian born and initially unable to speak Sinhalese, who chose to drop his pants for a sarong, sacrificed national cohesion and the economy for this ruinous goal. The cost is of little concern. If the “new” New Delhi can cost 20,000 crores, the port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka would cost 1.3 billion dollars. It was commissioned by Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005 to 2015, then prime minister under his brother Gotabaya, who borrowed the money from China.
It is debatable whether Colombo would have placed itself so much at the mercy of Beijing had it not been for the Indian factor. Even a bankrupt Sri Lanka cannot relish depending on a militarily powerful neighbor across the narrow Palk Strait for funds, food, fuel and medicine. Like other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka seeks a counterpoint to the obvious regional hegemony. Moreover, the Sinhalese cannot get rid of the suspicion that the “Ceylon Tamils”, who constitute more than 11% of the population, and the “Indian Tamils” (former plantation workers), who still total 4% and more , are sort of the fifth column of Chennai, if not of New Delhi. The sad history of India flirting with and then abandoning Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, has only deepened skepticism on both sides of the island’s racial barrier.
Sri Lanka’s economy is hostage to the geopolitical implications of its hysterical ethnic fanaticism. Driven by race and religion, the ambitious and selfish Rajapaksa clan appears to have been willing to risk local wrath by courting China with programs that meant infrastructure projects displacing residents without creating jobs, flouting all environmental standards and seriously aggravating India’s security problems.
That racial animosity is alive and active was proclaimed in November 2019 when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as president in an ancient Buddhist temple built by King Dutthagamani (161 BC at least in part, with religious motives”, according to BH Farmer standard Ceylon, a nation divided. Although currently on the run, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed at the time that he was “the president of all Sri Lankans, whether they voted for [him] or not and regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs”. But his choice of a sacred temple in Anuradhapura was as poignant as the New Delhi puja to unveil Ashoka’s lion capital. He informed Sinhalese Buddhists (75% of the population) that the new regime would consolidate their hegemony. Obsessed with this goal and busy promoting his various kin, Mr Rajapaksa has completely mismanaged the economy so that a country that once boasted the highest standard of living in Asia defaulted on its foreign debt. $51 billion and desperately needs a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Poor governance has also made Sri Lanka almost a pariah state among democratic nations, with India, Canada and Mauritius citing an appalling human rights record for boycotting the 2013 Commonwealth summit. Mr Gotabaya was nicknamed the “Terminator” for his deadly role during the island’s 26-year civil war. The United States and many international organizations have expressed concern, drawing particular attention to atrocities such as the 2009 assassination of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the popular and courageous editor of The Sunday Leader who failed to reveal the wrongdoings. of the Rajapaksa brothers only days earlier, and was due to testify about allegedly corrupt arms deals during the civil war.
Wickrematunga wrote in an editorial shortly before his death, and published posthumously: “When at last I am killed, it will be the government that will kill me”.
Hindu Tamils are not the only perceived adversary. There is a long history of anti-Muslim violence – Moors claiming Arab descent make up 9.3% of the population – although it has been overshadowed by the war against the LTTE. In the frenzy following the Easter bloodshed, a prominent Buddhist leader demanded the stoning to death of Muslims and accused Muslim-owned restaurants of using ‘sterilization drugs’ to reduce the fertility of Buddhists Sinhalese. A member of Gotabaya’s legal team was reportedly filmed telling Muslims they would receive “a massive beating” if they did not vote for the now self-exiled president.
These cracks must be filled in order for Sri Lanka to regain its rightful place in the concert of nations. As Dr Raghuram Rajan has warned, an ‘anti-minority’ image can cause a country’s export markets to be lost abroad and persuade foreign governments to view it as an unreliable partner. The former RBI governor was addressing Indians, but the warning also applies to Sri Lanka which has lost tourism which accounted for around 20% of its foreign exchange earnings.
Nothing can happen until stability is restored and Colombo once again has a functioning government. Once this goal is achieved, a recovery plan is available in the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 which aimed to secure peace by devolving power to the provinces. This is the only way to achieve national reconciliation and unite Tamils behind the government to heal the wounds of conflict and rebuild a once prosperous but now devastated nation.
Meanwhile, Indians must be wondering how Mr Modi reconciles his puja with banning the use of “the precincts of Parliament for any demonstration, dharna, strike, fast or for the purpose of performing any religious ceremony”.