India's Sri Lanka problem

State Department

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Sri Lanka Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris after a bilateral meeting in Washington D.C. on May 28, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • At the heart of India's Sri Lanka problem lies the thuggish regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa

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  • How can India expect more clout on the world stage when it wields so little influence in its own neighborhood?

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  • Should India continue to get Sri Lanka wrong, it will be defensing against Chinese expansion in its own back yard

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When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Chennai today, both United States and Indian officials will be eager to emphasize the robust commercial and people-to-people ties that increasingly bind America to one of India's most dynamic regions. The consulate in Chennai issues more skilled temporary worker visas than any other U.S. outpost in the world. Tamil Nadu, the state of which Chennai is the capital, houses a flourishing Ford Motor factory, and is regarded as one of India's most business-friendly areas.

Even though Indian foreign policy is not the focus of Mrs. Clinton's visit to Chennai, her trip to Tamil Nadu nonetheless flags an important issue: the dismal state of affairs across the Palk Strait in neighboring Sri Lanka.

"At the heart of India's Sri Lanka problem lies the thuggish regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa." --Sadanand Dhume

The island nation's problems are not entirely of India's making. But New Delhi has failed to slow Sri Lanka's rapid slide toward authoritarianism, protect the rights of minority Tamils, or stem rising Chinese influence. This raises an awkward question about India's quest for great-power status. Simply put, how can India expect more clout on the world stage when it wields so little influence in its own neighborhood?

At the heart of India's Sri Lanka problem lies the thuggish regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. For many Sinhalese, Sri Lanka's dominant ethnic group, Mr. Rajapaksa is a hero for ending a 26-year-old civil war two years ago with a crushing military victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But while ending the war and eliminating the Tigers--a vile terrorist outfit whose chief claim to fame was the perfection of suicide bombing--are indeed laudable achievements, they are also the only bright spots in an otherwise dismal record.

Since his election as president in 2005, Mr. Rajapaksa has turned a former British colony once blessed with relatively strong institutions, an educated middle class and a robust press, into a classic banana republic. He has installed one of his brothers as the head of the defense ministry, responsible not merely for a bloated 200,000-strong army but also for all non-governmental organizations. Another brother heads the ministry of economic development, which includes the board of investment and the tourism promotion bureau. A third brother is speaker of parliament. Rajapaksa cousins serve as ambassadors in Washington and Moscow.

This nepotism on steroids has gone hand in hand with one of Asia's worst human rights records. A United Nations panel estimates that tens of thousands --most of them innocent civilians shelled indiscriminately by the Sri Lankan army--died in the closing months of the country's civil war. "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields," a documentary by Britain's Channel 4 released last month, contains graphic footage of troops shelling hospitals and brutalizing Tamils.

Nor has the Rajapaksa regime confined itself to mistreating minority Tamils. Kidnappings of journalists have become commonplace, and more than a dozen have been killed since Mr. Rajapaksa took office. Freedom House rates the Sri Lankan press as "not free."

Through all this, India's record has hardly been inspiring. In 2009, India's toothless admonitions failed to prevent the massacre of civilians. Two years later, it has failed to convince the Rajapaksa regime to extend an olive branch to its own citizens. (Most of India's 60 million Tamils opposed the LTTE, but support Sri Lankan Tamil demands for equal rights and a measure of autonomy.) Colombo has neither demilitarized the Tamil majority regions in the country's north and east, nor fulfilled its promise to devolve power to local authorities. An Indian project to build 50,000 homes for displaced Tamils has barely taken off, in part due to government apathy in Colombo.

To be sure, India is haunted by its own past blunders in Sri Lanka. Seeing itself as the protector of the Tamils against Sinhalese chauvinism, India helped arm and train the LTTE in the 1980s only to turn around and send its army to fight them in an ill-fated peacekeeping operation in 1987. A Tamil Tiger's assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 triggered a permanent change of heart in New Delhi, which helped Sri Lanka marshal much-needed diplomatic support on the long road to victory against the terrorist group.

To some extent, India's ineffectual policy can also be traced to a fear of losing influence to China. Chinese arms and money gave Sri Lanka the wherewithal to defeat the Tigers. China is Sri Lanka's biggest aid donor; it gave upward of $1 billion in 2008. The massive Hambantota port, regarded by many Indian and U.S. military commanders as part of a "string of pearls" strategy to encircle India, is another Chinese gift to Sri Lanka. Beijing's support at the U.N. means Colombo doesn't need to worry about being hauled up over human rights.

As in Burma, India has tried to compete with aid projects of its own, on the theory that hectoring Colombo would only push Mr. Rajapaksa into Beijing's arms. Ultimately this is a short-sighted strategy. India has neither the deep pockets nor the expertise to beat China at the aid and infrastructure game.

Instead, India must retool its Sri Lanka strategy to play to its own strengths: pluralism and democracy. This means keeping open the option of throwing its weight against Colombo at the U.N. It means support for liberal elements in Sri Lankan society--Tamil and Sinhalese alike. It means working with Western democracies, Japan and thehuman rights community to demand a degree of accountability in Colombo as a step toward a lasting peace.

Should India continue to get Sri Lanka wrong, it will likely symbolize a broader pattern of playing defense against Chinese expansion in its own back yard, let alone in the broader world. But if India succeeds in nudging Sri Lanka toward embracing pluralism and democratic values as the foundation of prosperity, New Delhi will have enhanced both its influence and its international prestige.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Sadanand Dhume writes about South Asian political economy, foreign policy, business, and society, with a focus on India and Pakistan. He is also a South Asia columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review in India and Indonesia and was a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. His political travelogue about the rise of radical Islam in Indonesia, My Friend the Fanatic: Travels with a Radical Islamist, has been published in four countries.

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