A Cyprus-style ‘solution’ for Sri Lanka?

By Izeth Hussain

In recent weeks there have been several references in local newspapers to the possible imposition by the international community of a Cyprus-style solution to our ethnic problem. I myself have had in mind the possibility of such a ‘solution’ .being imposed by India, with that country playing a role analogous to that of Turkey in Cyprus.

I first referred to this possibility about two and a half years ago in the course, of a meeting at the Centre for Society and Religion and thereafter at a meeting of the World Solidarity Forum. My statements evoked no responses at all during the discussions that followed, probably because it was thought that the possibility to which I was referring was a rather fanciful one. I did not write about it because the possibility seemed more theoretical than practical at that time. Besides, writing about it could easily provoke anti-Indian hysteria.

Today with the peace process in a shambles, and the future looking uncertain, the possibility of a Cyprus-style ‘solution’ is clearly seen as having come into the realm of the practical and is no longer merely theoretic. It is time to look at it as a worst-case hypothesis. The risk of provoking anti-Indian hysteria has to be faced.

My argument is premised on three points. The first is the contrary to all appearances India is deeply concerned and involved with the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. The second is that India will go to any extent, incurring any amount of international opprobrium, to safeguard its territorial integrity and political unity. The third point is that while the breakup of a neighbour through the rebellion of an indigenous separatist movement will set a dangerous example for India, its breakup under Indian aegis will not.

There is widespread impression in Sri Lanka that India is strangely indifferent to the possible implications for India of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, and even that it has been irresponsibly unmindful of the security threat posed to India by the overweening ambitions of the LTTE. This impression certainly accords with appearances, and is understandable among the general public. What is strange is that it has been shared by Sri Lankan with professional diplomatic experience, including former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. They have been vociferous on the subject and even censorious over India’s supposed irresponsibility.

My own impression is that India has one of the very best Foreign Services in the world, in which every single officer owes his position to merit and not to pull, a service which has displayed over the decades the highest standards of professionalism. To charge it with irresponsibility seems to me bizarre. It is surely otiose to ask India to be mindful of threats to its security. It is also richly comic, the minatory wagging of fingers comes from Sri Lankans whose Governments over the last fifty years and more have been among the most irresponsible in the world.

The truth very probably is that India has been indifferent to our ethnic problem only in appearance whereas in reality it has been active and active in a way helpful to Sri Lanka, from behind the scenes. The important point is that it has not wanted to play an overtly active role, for which it could have excellent reasons

The background to India seeming indifferent might probably be found in a perception that the time had not come to meaningfully reach out for a political solution. I recall a meeting at the ICES, some months after Norway assumed its facilitatory role, at which the British writer Michael Ignatieff made a presentation. During the discussion that followed he made the point that the peace process had been started prematurely. He argued that while there was war in the Northeast there was none in the South, where economic development was taking place and people went about their business peacefully. Consequently there was no sense of urgency about the need for a peaceful solution. Retrospectively it seems to me that Ignatieff was quite right.

In addition to that perception, India could have reasons of its own for believing that the peace process has been premature. One has to do with the personality of Prabhakaran. It seems useful to recall a conversation that I happened to have with an Indian official on the evening of April 19, 1995, the day on which the LTTE broke negotiations with the PA Government and unilaterally resumed hostilities. He asked me whether I was surprised, and I confessed that I was. He on the contrary was not surprised at all because of the experience he had had as an official in Rajiv Gandhi’s Secretariat, in conducting several rounds of discussions with the LTTE headed by Prabhakaran. At the end he came to the conclusion that Prabhakaran was a psychopath, and there will never be a peaceful solution to the ethnic problem as long a Prabhakaran heads the LTTE. Very probably that was, and has remained, the view of the Indian Government.

Another specifically Indian reason for regarding the peace process as premature could arise from a sense of legitimate national pride. The LTTE is certainly not the sole representative of the Tamils but it is their sole representative with credible fire power. That means that at the present stage the LTTE has to be given pride of place both in the negotiation process and in its outcome. But the present leadership of the LTTE consists of persons who were directly responsible for the Rajiv Gandhi assassination or were complicit with it. In terms of legitimate Indian national pride such persons merit public hanging, and not the award of power in Northeast Sri Lanka. India can be expected to enter the peace process without qualms of conscience only with a reconstituted LTTE or after its elimination.

There are thus excellent reasons why India should refuse to play a direct and overt role in the peace process. Underlying it all is a peculiar Sri Lankan ambivalence about foreigners. We are famously welcoming to them at a superficial level, for instance as tourists, but we greatly fear their involvement in our internal affairs, which is doubtless a heritage from the long periods of invasion and conquest to which the island has been subjected.

Today the term “international community” has negative connotations for many Sri Lankans, whereas for the rest of the world it is simply a neutral term designating the member States of the United Nations. Today many Sri Lankans in influential and powerful positions, inclusive of many in the Government, are convinced that Norway has been playing a diabolical role the peace process. It is not a perception shared by any other government in the entirety of the rest of the world. For well known historical reasons our fear is greatest about India. Its direct and overt involvement in the peace process at the present stage will prove to be a seriously counterproductive factor. Doubtless successive Indian governments have been mindful of the possibility.

I have made the point above that India has been helpful to Sri Lanka on the ethnic problem from behind the scenes, in which connection I have mainly two developments in mind. One is the Karuna rebellion, the mighty blow so far struck on the LTTE solar plexus. I find it impossible to believe that the rebellion has been sustained so far and so effectively without Indian involvement. Very probably RAW was involved in it right from the inception.

The other development is the emergence of the US as the foremost champion of Sri Lanka on the ethnic front. This should be seen in terms of international geopolitics. The US became the globe’s sole superpower after 1989 but it has been able to make its will prevail only to a derisory extent because of a lack of manpower and economic clout. It therefore needs allies, auxiliaries, clients, and the obvious choice as ally in South Asia has to be its regional great power, India. Alliances are based on reciprocity, and that meaning that the US has to be prepared to act as proxy of India to some extent.

The US can intervene in Sri Lanka with some degree of impunity where India might be loathe to do so because of a feared reaction from Tamil Nadu. I believe that this geopolitical factor, and not the US obsession about international terrorism provides the greater part of the explanation for the US emergence as Sri Lanka’s champion.

The above material should suffice to show that India so far from being indifferent to Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem, has been deeply involved with it. The reason for this arises from the second premise on which my argument is grounded, which is that India will do anything to safeguard its territorial integrity and political unity. Developments on the ethnic front in Sri Lanka can pose a threat not just to India’s security in the normal sense, but to India’s very existence.

The important point to be borne in mind here is not just that India consists of multiplicity of races, ethnic groups, languages, religions, and cultures. The important point is that many of those ethnic groups can claim all the attributes requisite for the form of nation-states. That is probably why Indian anxieties about threat to India’s unity run very deep. How deep they run is suggested by the fact that any reference to India’s possible breakup is usually taken by Indian diplomats as implying hostility towards India. Many a dignitary visiting India has been stunned by the angry reactions to any reference to the Kashmir ‘problem.’ We Sri Lankans must never underestimate India’s anxieties about its unity.

The third point on which my argument is premised is that the breakup of a neigbouring country under India will not necessarily be detrimental to India. At one time many Sri Lankans were convinced that India was all out to break up Sri Lanka and thereafter they became convinced that India would never be agreeable to the breakup of Sri Lanka because that would provide a fillip to separatist movements within India. We must remember that the breakup of Pakistan under Indian aegis in 1971 actually strengthened India.

It would be idle to speculate on the various possible exigencies that could drive India to try to impose a Cyprus-style ‘solution’ on Sri Lanka. The important point to be borne in mind is that India could come to feel driven to do that, incurring any amount of international opprobrium, if it/that its existence as a unit is at stake. [Source: DailyMirror]

(The writer is a retired career diplomat)

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