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#316, 17 March 2010

India-Sri Lanka Relations

Chair: Amb. IP Khosla, Former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Ambassador to Bhutan and Afghanistan and currently Editor-in-Chief of South Asian Survey
Speaker: H.E. Mr. Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India

Chair's Introductory Remarks

The 1980s were marked by an escalating level of tension between India and Sri Lanka. Some of the decisions taken by the Sri Lankan government were not appreciated by New Delhi. Fascinatingly, in the last one decade there has been a complete turn around in this relationship, which seems to be an irreversibly cordial one. The free trade agreement has been a crucial factor in this regard. Perhaps, this is also an upshot of change in attitude of both countries toward one another. Even so, it is essential to have a deeper analysis to understand the reasons for this momentous change.

H.E. High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam

Reading history is vital in understanding the relationship between India and Sri Lanka. Both countries have historical baggage. Sri Lanka has a recorded history of 2500 years. Emperor Ashoka is one of the most prominent historical landmarks for the majority of Sri Lankans as he brought about a striking transformation in society with the introduction of Buddhism. Sri Lankans have been comfortable with the large geographical area of India that was once ruled by their beloved Emperor Ashoka who influenced the modern civilization of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans appreciate that they received Independence benefiting from the freedom struggle led by India. Even so, in 1980s the relationship between the neighbours reached rock bottom. Except for that phase, the relationship has been genial with Sri Lanka benefiting from India’s history, culture and values and sharing a common link with respect to democracy, way of life and thinking. Sri Lanka is comfortable with what India is today. It recognizes India as a regional power and an aspiring global power.

Ethnic Issue in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has three major communities which include Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Interestingly, Muslims in Sri Lanka prefer to identify with their religion than ethnicity.  Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex and Tamils are a minority with a majority complex. Tamils constitute 18 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka and they have an ongoing common active link and brotherhood with Tamils in Tamil Nadu. Sinhalese in comparison to Tamils feel that they do not have any other place to live in in the world. They are heir to a well-preserved Buddhist civilization that seems to have vanished from the sub-continent. Therefore, the feeling of being beleaguered builds a complex behaviour among the Sinhalese. Sinhalese feel isolated and this is one critical tool in understanding the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, over the years there has been an earnest effort to mitigate the majoritarian tendencies of Sinhalese, which is a result of their insecurities. Sri Lanka needs to work out a package or political dispensation that would make every Sri Lankan comfortable with each other and this remains a challenge before the government.

Sri Lanka in 2009

All efforts by the government to bring the LTTE to the mainstream and accommodate their grievances within a united Sri Lanka failed. They used violence to assert their demand for a separate state for Tamils. When terrorism became unbearable and uncompromising, the government had no option but to resort to strong actions. It is essential to eradicate violence when it is used as a tool for political purposes anywhere in the world. Presently, Sri Lanka is in the process of consolidating peace through reconciliation and re-democratization of the North and the East. There is a need for more enlightened leadership to emerge from the north and east to consolidate peace in Sri Lanka. The upcoming general election is expected to be the first step toward empowerment of north and east. Sri Lanka’s effort to find peace for all communities has resulted in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Further, there is an idea for power sharing at the centre by having a second chamber.

Sri Lanka and the world

Sri Lanka occupies a strategic location. World trade today is shifting toward Asia and most of the trade passes through the Indian Ocean below Sri Lanka. Today, Colombo port is the largest transshipment port in South Asia. 70 percent of Indian cargo comes through Colombo. Sri Lanka has good friends across the world. Sri Lanka’s largest market is the United States. Even so, affirming a strong partnership with India, President Rajapakse recently stated that all countries are friends of Sri Lanka but India is Sri Lanka’s relation. Sri Lanka will not initiate any action with any other country against India as it would be a self-defeating act. Sri Lankans do not see India’s prosperity and power as detrimental to them. In fact, Sri Lanka stands to benefit from India’s prosperity.

India and Sri Lanka in Future

President Rajapaksa is clear on certain ideas with respect to Sri Lanka’s interaction with the region and the world. He is a popular leader and considers India a natural ally. The end of terrorism in Sri Lanka has given rise to new opportunities for improved relationship between India and Sri Lanka. One important aspect of this relationship is to reinvigorate lost contacts with Tamil Nadu. It is essential for Sri Lanka’s security, well being and peace. Sri Lanka is determined to rebuild the relationship with the Tamil population in India. An initiative to revive the Gopalan Trophy Cricket tournament that was played between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu and resume the ferry service between India and Sri Lanka through Rameswaram and Talaimannar would help in rebuilding this relationship. Last month the Kachativu festival was restarted.  Around 3000 people from Tamil Nadu took part. There should be an opportunity for interaction between politicians from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The decade old free trade agreement between India and Sri Lanka is witnessing massive increases in trade. Today, India is the second largest investor in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has always been with India. It was one of the earliest supporters of India’s bid for a permanent seat in the Security Council.

Regional Cooperation in South Asia

For the first time Bhutan is going to host the SAARC Conference in its 25th year. This is an outcome of the emerging belief that SAARC, as a concept, is working. Indubitably, SAARC is a project that India needs to nurture. India should be able to use SAARC as a regional instrument to consolidate cooperation and peace. Sri Lanka believes that it is a natural leadership that India has within SAARC. Through SAARC India could venture to provide benevolent leadership in the region. This would make the neighbouring countries in the region comfortable with India’s dominating geographical volume and profile.


LTTE and Tamil Aspirations
  • Along with the 13th Amendment, which focuses on the devolution of power, the Sri Lankan government is interested in power sharing at the Centre to restrict majoritarian tendencies. At the moment, the provisions of the 13th Amendment have been implemented except for devolution of power in relation to land and police. After losing 100,000 people, Sri Lanka does not want to leave any stone unturned to assure that violence does not erupt in future. Therefore, the devolution will be discussed after the general elections in order to prepare the regions. Sri Lanka wants a credible Tamil leadership to emerge from the upcoming elections to enhance their political legitimacy to assist in reconciliation process.
  • The government understands the need for empowerment of Tamils in the North and the East. The pressure from international community is due to their local political compulsions arising out of separatist agenda of the Tamil diaspora.
  • The government favours political accommodation of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Mainstream Tamil Nadu is seemingly in favour of working with Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu has to be cautious of the Tamil diaspora politics that is moving away from the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka.
  • Tamil language is an official language in Sri Lanka today, but full implementation has been a difficult issue due to paucity of Tamil staff in the government. It is happening by default. Many Tamils have migrated from the country and there was a time when LTTE prevented Tamils from joining the government.
China Factor
  • Sri Lanka supports the rise of both India and China as this would help in the development of Sri Lanka and Asian region as well.  Sri Lanka provides China with commercial space and not strategic space. India has been relatively less interested in commercial engagements infrastructure developments in Sri Lanka in comparison to China. Even so, any economic growth of Sri Lanka will inevitably benefits India as well.
  • Sri Lanka engages in active discussions with India in order to ensure that India’s strategic interests are not adversely affected. It is mindful of India’s sensitivities, but at the same time need to work for the good of the people.
Resettlement of Internally Displaced Person (IDP)
  • Resettlement of IDPs is happening in record time in Sri Lanka. Presently, there are about 70,000 people in the camps and everyday about 1,000 people are leaving. The delay is in setting up infrastructure and de-mining areas for safe return of the people. Sri Lankan Tamils in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu are welcome to return on voluntary basis anytime to Sri Lanka.
Report by
Ms. Annapoorna Karthik
Research Officer, IPCS


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