N Sathiya Moorthy
Whether Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans can live without the northern neighbour India, they just cannot live without naming India’s external intelligence agency, ‘Research and Analysis Wing’, R&AW, popularly known as RAW, for most if not all their woes. This has been proved one more time this week with news reports alleging that none less than President Maithripala Sirisena has personally named the agency for attempts to assassinate him.
Better or worse still, media reports spoke about Sirisena naming R&AW in this regard, in the weekly Cabinet meeting, of all venues. The last time he mentioned the ‘assassination plot’, it was in public. It does not make any difference if anyone in the Sri Lankan politico-administrative hierarchy said anything of the kind in public or in a supposedly-secretive Cabinet meeting. Both have the same effect. The Cabinet stuff reaches the required constituency faster and deeper than any public announcement.
There is another reason why the President’s Cabinet pronouncement stirred the Palk Straits that connect the two nations and beyond, up to ‘distant’ Delhi and other capitals, too. In the public announcement a couple of weeks ago, Sirisena reportedly said that the intelligence agency of a foreign country was involved in the so-called assassination plot. Other than reporting it in a sketchy manner, no Sri Lankan newspaper or any other from any other interested country sought to follow it up. No ‘Exclusives’, no nothing, until this week’s Cabinet meeting. He had promised to come up with details as and when the investigators had more information.
This time round, Sirisena reportedly talked not only about the assassination plot in the Cabinet meeting. He also named names, and the name, ‘RAW’, a phrase more familiar in the Sri Lanka of the past three or four decades than possibly those like the CIA, KGB, Mossad and even ISI, put together. The Sri Lankan love with RAW started long before the alleged Indian role in Sri Lanka’s Tamil militancy, which followed ‘Pogrom-‘83’. It started with the ‘Bangladesh War’ and earlier.
For instance, no one knows the name of the Chinese intelligence agency, no one Sri Lanka has even cared to know if China has an intelligence agency on the lines of those mentioned. It is named the ‘Ministry of State Security’ (MSS). This does not mean that China and/or MSS is involved. It only shows the deep affinity and affliction for Sri Lankans towards India and RAW, whenever it comes to ‘negative publicity’ of the kind.
Identifying the ‘leak’
Thankfully for both nations and their friends in each other, and elsewhere, too, President Sirisena himself ended further speculation, both in the mainline media and the social media, within hours of the ‘news’ of his purported allegations at the Cabinet meeting made international headlines. Without losing further time, Sirisena called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and sought to clear the misgivings, if any. Going by Indian official reports of the telephone conversation, which is said to have taken all of 20 minutes, the mist has been cleared even before it had formed.
Good it is for bilateral relations. Neither nation can survive without the other. Sri Lanka has identified with India on a host of issues and arrangements. As has been acknowledged officially, it costs less for Sri Lankans to import drugs and food, cars and white goods from India than anywhere else, the friendly China with its ‘cheaper’ goods, included. India continues to need Sri Lanka as ‘the’ bulwark against sea-way aggression, if any.
So, naturally, there will be those who want to upset the improving bilateral relations, however halting and slow they may be. That is beside the point. It is also easier to blame it all on the ‘media messengers’, and leave it there. But the ‘sources’ of those ‘leaks’ and their motives need to be ascertained, if only to avoid repeats of the same in other contexts and circumstances, in relation to other ‘friends’ of Sri Lanka.
The immediate concern is thus for Sri Lanka and Sirisena to identity those that had leaked to the media what he says did not happen at the Cabinet meeting. Cabinet Media Spokesperson and senior Minister, Rajitha Senaratne, who does not always see eye-to-eye with his President, too was on the ‘denial-mode’, even after the ‘media reports’ had given the lead.
For Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his majority UNP partner in the Sirisena-led Government, it is yet another embarrassing moment in their own relationship, and also in relation to India. For now, the presidential clarification, in person to the Indian PM and also to their nations through media statements from both sides, may have saved the day for PM Wickremesinghe’s week-end India visit. But more needs to be done, to restore the good relations between the two nations.
‘Zone of Peace’ and more
There is no denying the hiccups in bilateral relations through the past decades. As coincidence would have it, it had all begun around the time that erstwhile ‘Ceylon’ re-christened itself as ‘Sri Lanka’. No, it is not about astrology or numerology or whatever. It is about the way Sri Lanka began looking more and more inwards, and began personalising every Indian decision and action in the collective neighbourhood.
It was thus that the ‘Bangladesh War’ of 1971 became an ‘experience’ for Sri Lankans of the time, viz India in particular. They began having nightmares about an impending Indian ‘intervention’ of the Bangladesh kind. But when one actually came, the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) came to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the host Government of President J R Jayewardene, not otherwise.
The IPKF, and India, felt cheated when successor President Ranasinghe Premadasa joined hands with the common LTTE military/terror adversary, to have the former out. As subsequent Sri Lankan experience with the IPKF would show, the latter left the moment the host Government wanted them out. It is anybody’s guess why President Premadasa, Sr, did not consider asking the IPKF out, if he had wanted it only as much, and see if it worked — before shaking hands with the nation’s internal enemy to have the external friend, out.
Before Premadasa, JRJ too committed the same mistake viz India. Taking off from where predecessor SLFP Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had left, he steadily moved away from the Sri Lankan call for making the shared Indian Ocean a ‘Zone of Peace’. Instead, he moved closer to the US, and wanted to be seen as doing so, that too by India, and at the height of the ‘Cold War’, where India was caught in between, but Sri Lanka need not have involved itself otherwise.
Sri Lankans at the time gave in, to the ‘island mind-set’, and began believing that South Asia, if not the whole of Asia and the IOR, revolved around Sri Lanka. So, India became a suspect at the end of the ‘Bangladesh War’, if not an outright adversary. The mind-set has continued to date, with minor modifications, now and again, but returning to the centre-stage, where it has otherwise remained.
India’s concerns at the time were much more and different, coming as it did mostly from the shared land-border with the ‘historic’ adversary, Pakistan. It is even more so for India now, what with China, a traditional and larger neighbourhood adversary becoming a bigger power than in the past. India, Sri Lankans need to acknowledge, would want all neighbours, including Sri Lanka, as friends, not as additional adversaries than those existing already.
That, however, is not happening, at least not to the levels India would like and need to see. The reported confrontation between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe at the much-mentioned Cabinet meeting of Tuesday, over allocating certain infrastructure projects to India, as Sri Lanka over the past years has given away to ‘distant’ China, may be a case in point. India does not come into the picture, as it is not going around Colombo streets with money-bags, as is being pictured at times.
Inquisitive Sri Lankan…
The inquisitive Sri Lankan would thus be looking at the outcome of the week-end Modi-Wickremesinghe meet in Delhi, and the physical outcomes of the same, for drawing his own conclusions. By talking directly to PM Modi, President Sirisena has cleared all airs on that very count, avoiding for his Prime Minister, the attendant embarrassment heralding his arrival at Delhi.
It is another matter that long before even Bangladesh War, and India’s role in the same, Sri Lanka’s fledgling ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ and yet ‘nationalist’ militant outfit in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP) had prepared the nation for the anti-India mind-set. This has since dominated the domestic political discourse, from time-to-time. Including the miniscule JVP of the present, every party and leader has made it a habit to turn to India for diversion, bordering on sheer entertainment, whenever caught in their own acts of commissions and omissions, nearer home.
To date, neither the JVP has done it, nor has any other party or leader in the country has asked them, why it is not doing it – of withdrawing all references to India from JVP founder Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘Five Classes’. India, or ‘anti-India’ finds itself in the middle of the ‘Five Classes’ and continues to remain there. So, for ‘renegade’ Wimal Weerawansa, now heading the breakaway ‘National Freedom Front’ (NFF) for about a decade now, to shed the past behind is equally difficult, if not an unavoidable political necessity.
Weerawansa has since come out with what he claims to be the RAW identity number of M Thomas, the over-staying Indian, arrested in connection with the ‘assassination plot’, when President Sirisena first mentioned it a fortnight back. If the said Thomas is whom Weerawansa says he is, and he actually belonged to R&AW, and still carried an identity document on his person or belongings, then the Indian High Commission (IHC) was right in saying that he suffered from ‘mental instability’, after all!
The IHC said as much when the name of Thomas first made it to Sri Lankan media headlines, again a fortnight ago. If he was a RAW agent, staying in Sri Lanka almost since before the presidential polls of 2015, then the local media is challenging the abilities of their own intelligence agencies, which played a very critical role in ending LTTE terrorism, as much for India as for Sri Lanka.
But then, beginning the mid-eighties, Sri Lankans are being told that India and RAW were behind the creation of LTTE-like Tamil militant groups. The fact was that those militant groups had begun operations long before ‘Pogrom-83’, which is being given out as the bench-mark for India and RAW getting involved in the ethnic issue, but visibly so in political and diplomatic terms.
If nothing else, LTTE’s Prabhakaran, who was then in his early teens, was known to have shot and killed then Tamil Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappah, as early as 1975. At least a couple of years before the Duraiappah killing, his and other Tamil militant youth groups had begun their operations, including robbing local banks to fund their militancy. The rest of it, including the PLA in Palestine, training Sri Lankan Tamil youth, in weapons-handling, followed, without India, without R&AW!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:firstname.lastname@example.org)