India under the tenure of the Modi government has religiously worked towards its neighbourhood first policy. India’s rescue of seven Maldivian nationals from Wuhan is a testament to this fact. Such has been the diplomacy that even the formerly pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa has now tilted towards India. The return of the Rajapaksa brothers at the helm of Sri Lankan politics marks a start to the new dawn for Indo-Sri Lankan as Sri Lanka increasingly tilts towards India.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is on a visit to India who in the past had earned India’s ire over his regime’s atrocities against the Sri Lankan Tamils. When Rajapaksa met PM Modi, the Indian Prime Minister was quick to remind Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan government to ensure equality, justice, peace and respect for Tamils in the island nation.
Rajapaksa, who is on his first official visit abroad since assuming the office of Prime Minister held delegation-level talks with his PM Narendra Modi. Prime Minister Modi highlighted the importance of safeguarding the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils and was quoted, “I am confident that the Sri Lankan government will realise the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within united Sri Lanka.”
PM Modi further added, “India and Sri Lanka are neighbours as well as close friends. We share common bonds. Terrorism is a big problem in our region. Both of us have fought it befittingly. We will further increase our cooperation against terror.”
PM Modi speaking about the economic ties between the two neighbours said, “Whether it is security or economy or social progress, our past and our future are connected in every region. Stability, security, and prosperity in Sri Lanka are in India’s interest, but also the interest of the entire Indian Ocean region.” He further added, “India has been a trusted partner in the development efforts of Sri Lanka. The new Lines of Credit announced last year will give more strength to our development cooperation.”
The mention of ensuring peace and justice for Sri Lankan Tamils is significant. Sri Lanka has a sizeable Tamil population and there were fears that the island country will plunge into yet another civil war when it became clear that Sinhalese strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa was all set to return to the corridors of power in Sri Lanka.
The island country witnessed a bloody war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government which lasted for decades. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government which ended the civil war by eliminating the LTTE but allegations of human rights violations and heinous war crimes continue to haunt Sri Lanka. “Our investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a news release in 2015. The report indicates that war crimes and crimes against humanity were most likely committed by both sides to the country’s conflict – the Government of Sri Lanka and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Among the most serious crimes documented in the report are numerous unlawful killings, sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, torture, child recruitment, attacks on civilians, denial of humanitarian assistance, and violation of the rights of internally displaced persons in closed camps. The report also documents “years of denials and cover-ups, failure to carry out prompt investigations, stalled investigations and reprisals against the family members of victims and others who have pushed for justice,” states the news release issued by the UN human rights office (OHCHR).
In 2012, the then UPA government under severe pressure from the Tamilian parties like the DMK led to India voting against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. “One has to weigh the pros and cons. What we did was in line with our stand on Sri Lanka. We do not want to infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka but concerns should be expressed so that Tamil people can get justice and lead a life of dignity,” said the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Before the crucial vote, Manmohan Singh had been warned that if India did not vote against Sri Lanka, his key ally, the DMK, would pull out of the government.
In hindsight, India’s decision to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC prompted the island nation to gravitate towards China as the latter along with Russia had backed Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. This led to Sri Lanka incurring massive debts from China, falling into the infamous Chinese debt trap after which Sri Lanka had to lease its Hambantota port to China for 99 years, sending shock-waves across the world.
However, times have changed now, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm – Sri Lanka is looking forward to having better relations with India. Gotabaya after becoming the President, Rajapaksa said, “We don’t want to get in between the power struggles of superpowers… We are so small and we can’t survive to get into this balancing act. We want to work with all the countries and we don’t want to do anything which will harm any other country for that matter, we understand the importance of Indian concerns, so we can’t engage in any activity which will threaten the security of India.” Throwing more emphasis on India’s concerns he further elaborated that Sri Lanka’s involvement with China during the presidency of his elder brother Mahinda (from 2005-2015) was “purely commercial”, he said, “I invite India, Singapore, Japan and Australia to come and invest here. Don’t allow only China to invest.” He vowed to create an investment-friendly environment in Sri Lanka. He also said that giving away the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease was a mistake by the previous government headed by former President Maithripala Sirisena. He assured that the deal would be renegotiated.
As Rajapaksa brothers seek India help in undoing the debt crisis the island nation has fallen into, Prime Minister Modi has subtly reminded them to take care of the Sri Lankan Tamils as a pre-condition for stronger ties.