Geopolitics shape Sri Lanka’s conflict - study

[TamilNet, Monday, 12 May 2008, 06:12 GMT]
Politics between powerful states have always been integral to the dynamics of war and peace in Sri Lanka, several contributors to a collected volume exploring the international dimensions of the island’s protracted conflict say. The study by the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD) published this year comprises papers presented by academics and analysts at a conference held in Switzerland last June along with extracts of the subsequent discussions.

Among the papers published in the CJPD book titled ‘International Dimensions of the Conflict in Sri Lanka’ include the keynote presentations by Prof. Johan Galtung, a leading conflict and peace studies expert, Prof. Sumantra Bose, a scholar of nationalism, and Mr. Nadesan Satyendra, a former negotiator with the Tamil delegation at the Thimpu talks in 1985 and writer of 25 years on the Sri Lankan conflict.

Mr. Satyendra examines the emerging geopolitics of the Indian Ocean as precipitated by the rapid rise of China and India in recent years as potential challenges to the United States’ influence in the region.

Prof. Bose examines the specific role of India as the dominant power in South Asia and discussed the reasons behind Delhi’s ‘largely dormant’ role today in the island’s conflict.

Prof. Galtung reflects critically on the concept of the ‘Democratic Peace’ and discussed the implications of the decline of the global influence of the United States and the emergence of regional poles in the form of new security groupings amongst states.

‘A new Cold War’

“Today we are in the midst of a new cold war,” Mr. Satyendra writes. “The United States may be the sole super power, but it lives in an ‘asymmetric’ multi lateral world where strong regional powers (including the EU, Russia, China and India) have increasing global impact.”

“And the record shows that these international actors are concerned to influence the resolution of the [Sri Lankan] conflict in such a way that each of their own (conflicting) interests in the Indian Ocean region are advanced – or at least not undermined.”

“But at the same time each of these international actors often engage in public diplomacy which denies the existence of their own strategic interests.”

“The strategic significance of the Indian Ocean region existed before the conflict in the island of Sri Lanka, it continues to exist and will continue to exist even after the Tamil – Sinhala conflict in the island is resolved.”

“[It] contains an estimated 40% of the world’s oil production. But the significance of the Indian Ocean arises not simply from the resources it has. The Indian Ocean is a critical waterway. It includes half of the world’s containerized cargo, one third of its bulk cargo and two thirds of its oil shipments.”

“Access to energy resources is a very critical factor for continued Chinese economic growth. And, not surprisingly China has stepped up efforts to secure sea lanes and transport routes that are vital for its oil supplies.”

“The balance of power in the Indian Ocean region is not a simple black and white matter. The frame is multilateral and the interactions are nuanced and calibrated.”

“There is a word that was coined some years ago in a different context - in the study of multinational corporations and so on. The word was co-petition. You compete in some areas but you also co-operate in other areas.”

“For instance India and US do have a strategic partnership in some areas. But, New Delhi is not simply a partner of China or the United States. It seeks to march to the beat of its own drummer.”

It was in this context of simultaneous cooperation and competition amongst major powers, that Sri Lanka’s conflict must be understood, Mr. Satyendra says.

Noting that the strategic significance of Sri Lanka arises “not only” from the Trincomalee harbour, but from the island’s location and potential as a major communication centre in the Indian Ocean, Mr. Satyendra discussed the importance to China of keeping the sea lanes open for its oil and trade needs.

Reflecting how the Indian Ocean had long been a site of great power rivalry, Mr. Satyendra refers to how, when he was a negotiator with the Tamil delegation to the Thimpu Talks, Indian intelligence “spent some considerable time informing us of the threats that US submarines posed in the Indian Ocean and the difficulties they had and why it was important that some agreement must be achieved with Sri Lanka.”

“To the extent to which we can bring these strategic interests out of the closet, we may be able to take forward the resolution of the conflict in the island in a constructive way,” Mr. Satyendra says.

‘Time of Intervention’

Prof. Galtung also took up the theme of shifting geopolitical balances.

He began by dismissing the often-made claim that inter-state was has been declining (unlike intra-state war): “you can have inter country warfare without armies crossing the borders. All you need to do is to train the army of your favorite, to finance it, to support it politically, culturally, legitimize it, you can operate with your spy agencies.”

“The ways of intervention I have just mentioned are so numerous that it is very easy to forego the costly option of sending your own soldiers for the slaughter inside.”

Prof. Galtung also dismisses the equally often-made claim of the ‘Democratic Peace’: “the idea that democracies don’t attack democracies is plainly false.”

He cites international reactions to the Palestinian elections, where “the West deprived the obvious winner of up to three quarters of the vote its legitimate claim on power.”

“The “democratic peace” theory is correct if the democracy is a member of the club, known as, if you will, LDCP (Liberal democracy with catholic protestant leaning) – Japan is an honourary member.”

He argues there was a shift in global power underway: “I see the US Empire declining due to its absurdity and its extreme violence. The question then is obvious: What comes afterwards?”

He feels that while the US fears China would emerge as a challenge in global terms, the European Union is being neglected in analysis: “they [EU States] have the universalism, 11 of the 27 members are former colonial powers [and] also, they are filled with the idea they are a blessing to the world just like the United States.”

“I can give you one little hint: if you go to the European Commission you will not find a single person in uniform. [But] If you go to the Council of Ministers you will find uniforms all over the place. Have a little look, check it, and you will then find some doors that are closed.”

Prof. Galtung suggests regionalism “is a way of collectively fortifying in order to withstand pressure from outside, say the US Empire, through internal cooperation. But doing so, it may pave the way for a local hegemon like India.”

“The successor system to the US Empire will be regionalization all over the world,” says Prof. Galtung. “In that there is a message for Sri Lanka, which is not necessarily a happy one.”

‘Natural affinity’

Prof. Sumantra Bose says there are four dimensions to the Sri Lankan conflict: “not necessarily in any order of importance; first, the regional dimension and especially the role of India as the dominant regional actor; second, the global Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora; third, the relatively recent engagement of extra-regional players in the Sri Lankan peace process, particularly Norway of course but also Japan and the EU and to a lesser extent the US as well [and] fourth, the preoccupation of the international community of states as well as regional alliances of states with counter-terrorism.”

Wihthout laying blame, he says, “it is fair to say that there has been a rift, a rupture between the dominant regional actor in South Asia and the Tamil national movement led by the LTTE.”

He posits there are two reasons “at the root of the rift”: one reason for the rupture is India’s discomfort over the language of self-determination, given the numerous demands for self-determination within India – though not Tamil Nadu: “Tamil Nadu is quite well-integrated into the Indian Union” - and the other is India’s commitment to pluralism and the perception that the LTTE, “the dominant Sri Lankan Tamil political organization of the past two decades” does not accept political pluralism.

Apart from the messy history of the Indian expeditionary force going into Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, there were two other reasons for the “largely dormant Indian role” of present, he says.

The first is Delhi’s desire to avoid giving weight to regional perceptions of India as a bully in South Asia. The second is that whilst Sri Lanka’s conflict raged a few miles from India’s shoreline, it does not spill over unlike the insurgencies in Bangladesh or Pakistan-backed militancy.

Despite the difficulties of the recent past, Prof. Bose points to “the natural affinity” between India and Sri Lanka’s Tamils as a basis for a better future.

“The Indian establishment feels, with good cause, that it is surrounded by hostility in the region. In this unpromising regional neighborhood there is no doubt, despite the unhappy history of the last twenty years, that the Sri Lankan Tamil community has immense natural affinities with India. I can't think of any other community that has such powerful affinity of a historical and cultural nature with India.”

In this context, “the assurance needs to be given that the self-governing Tamil entity in North- Eastern Sri Lanka, which is essential if there is going to be any political settlement to the conflict, is likely to be an entity friendly to India.”

“Asymmetric federalism with a large degree of power-sharing at the centre [is] the only solution if the Sri Lankan conflict is ever to be brought to a negotiated compromise,” Prof. Bose writes.

Prof. Bose says that whilst he is not advocating any particular model as a solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict, India’s federal structure recognises the country’s diversity and was constantly evolving.

“India was relatively centralized among the world’s federal states, but because of various transformations that have been occurring in the Indian polity for the past two decades it is now tending in the direction of a more decentralized and robust federalism. It is becoming a more and more decentralized country as time goes on.”


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