How India Can Offset China in Sri Lanka Through Buddhist Ties

As President Rajapaksa looks set to win Sri Lanka polls, India must reach out to Buddhist clergy to offset China.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to emerge with a comfortable majority in Sri Lanka parliamentary elections.
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The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections on 5 August 2020 is positioned to change the course of Sri Lankan polity with far-reaching domestic and foreign policy implications. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a favourite of the Sinhala majority – and his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP), are likely to emerge with a comfortable majority. The minority Tamils could impact the electoral outcome if the eastern and northern provinces voted collectively to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as seen in the 2013 provincial and 2015 parliamentary elections. Or, at least this is what political observers sympathising with the Tamils are hoping for.

Expert commentary on this likely scenario indicates that Sri Lanka could slip further into the Chinese ambit.

The question therefore is: how can India navigate its way at this crucial juncture in Sri Lankan politics? The answer lies in drawing a realistic assessment of Colombo’s domestic political concerns and developing ties with the powerful Buddhist clergy.

New Delhi: President Ram Nath Kovind, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his ceremonial reception in Rashtrapati Bhavan on Nov. 29, 2019. (Photo: IANS)
New Delhi: President Ram Nath Kovind, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his ceremonial reception in Rashtrapati Bhavan on Nov. 29, 2019. (Photo: IANS)
Snapshot
  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP), are likely to emerge with a comfortable majority in the parliamentary elections.
  • Expert commentary on this likely scenario indicates that Sri Lanka could slip further into the Chinese ambit.
  • To offset the growing Chinese influence, India has lately been liberal in extending financial support.
  • The issue of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka has been a long-standing aspect of bilateral relations.
  • India must reach out to the Buddhist clergy to persuade peaceful changes in Sri Lankan politics.
  • The Buddhist clergy suffers from an insecurity that is described as “majority with a minority complex”.
  • Addressing Tamil grievances, it could be favourable to appeal to Buddhist philosophical tenets such as compassion and reconciliation rather than Western norms of human rights protection.

Why Sri Lanka’s Internal Politics Matters to India

Observing the elections closely are India, China and the West owing to their deep interests in Sri Lanka’s political stability. India’s interests have both domestic and national security dimensions. On the national security front is the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka’s economy and polity.

China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of an extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor projects of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This certainly gives China an economic advantage, but more importantly poses a threat to regional stability by harming the interests of India and the West. China’s investment practices have been dominated by unethical practices like corruption, lack of transparency and unfair competition in infrastructural projects that bear little business potential.

As a consequence, Japan has been the only nation whose investments in Sri Lanka quantitively compete with China, although the latter is soon catching up.

Can India Offset China’s Influence in Sri Lanka?

To offset the growing Chinese influence, India has been liberal in extending financial support.

Last week, as Sri Lanka continued to battle the dire effects of Covid19, India agreed to Colombo’s request for a currency swap facility under the SAARC framework. Further, a request has been made for a bilateral swap of $1.1 billion.

The Sri Lankan economy which is suffering under a massive foreign debt crisis is expected to utilise the bilateral swap in “dealing with foreign exchange issues”. This move by New Delhi is extremely crucial since Colombo’s growing proximity to China is owed in large part to its foreign debt crisis. In fact, the decision to lease the Hambantota Port to China for a sum of $1.12 billion was driven by the need to manage the nation’s foreign reserves and tackle the balance of payment crisis.

Arguably, New Delhi has been playing the right cards in trying to extricate Sri Lanka from China’s grip. However, this is just part of the story. The more important issue haunting Sri Lanka’s politico-economic stability as well as providing Beijing an edge over other international actors is the Tamil question and its domestic and international implications.

India Needs to Tread on the ‘Tamil’ Line Carefully

The issue of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka, which echoes with the popular sentiments in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, has been a long-standing aspect of bilateral relations. Even in the last visit of Mahinda Rajapaksa in February, the implementation of the 13th amendment was brought up during the prime ministerial meetings and press interactions.

The real issue here is that the TNA, when it was given an opportunity to build bridges with Colombo, tried to internationalise the Tamil issue by allying with the US and moving the UNHRC on “war crimes”. The Buddhist-Sinhala majority views such acts as an attack on sovereignty.

Women fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stand on the rebel side of a border crossing in Omanthai in north-central Sri Lanka on 15 February 2002. 
Women fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) stand on the rebel side of a border crossing in Omanthai in north-central Sri Lanka on 15 February 2002. 
(Photo: Reuters)

As a way out of this imbroglio, SLPP ideologues have called for a strong government that can implement constitutional changes in favour of the Buddhist-Sinhala majority while Tamil sympathising commentators have urged the TNA to seek India’s help to protect the 13th amendment.

This, once again, puts China in a comfortable position to lure Colombo through its everlasting principle of non-interference in domestic affairs while India will be forced to protect the interests of the Tamils. What then is the way out for India? The answer could well lie in reaching out to the Buddhist clergy to persuade peaceful changes in Sri Lankan politics.

Buddhism to Build New Bridges

The Sri Lankan constitution provides Buddhism the foremost place and directs the government to “protect and foster the Buddha sasana”. The Buddhist clergy, as the most powerful section in Sri Lanka, has been perceived as anti-minority.

However, an objective analysis of the majority–minority relationship has led to a revised understanding among security and policy analysts that the Buddhist clergy suffers from an insecurity that is described as “majority with a minority complex”. Accordingly, the numerical majority of the Buddhist-Sinhalese is actually incapable of matching up to the size of the Tamils when taken together with the Indian Tamils. The fact that Tamils over the years have been able to garner support from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu as well as the Tamil diaspora across the world has reinforced this belief.

The irony is that although the Indian strategic community realises this paranoia, which is termed as the “Chola complex”, repeated references to the historical ties between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka continues to be made provoking unnecessary anxieties among the Sinhala majority.

The fact that Buddhism itself is of Indian origin has been largely lost on New Delhi. And unfortunately, lost in this mishap is the recognition of the pivotal role played by India in defeating the LTTE, which receives far little attention in comparison to the accusations of India training the LTTE.

China Is Wooing the Buddhist Clergy, India Can Do it Better

China, on the other hand, has been quick to capitalise on this aspect. As the election approaches, media reports indicate that China has been cultivating Buddhist monks to influence the outcome of the polls. Attempts at luring the clergy range from the construction of the Lotus Tower in Colombo last year to payment of large sums of money to popular monks.

Compared to what India can do in this sphere, China’s efforts are purely short-term oriented. Beijing is acutely aware that it cannot appeal to the Buddhist monks at a cultural and religious level given its own mishandling of Buddhists in Tibet.

Increased opening up of Buddhist holy places to Sri Lankans and interaction between Indian and Sri Lankan Buddhist luminaries can provide significant political benefits. When the question of Tamil grievances is being raised, it could be favourable to appeal to Buddhist philosophical tenets such as compassion and reconciliation rather than Western norms of human rights protection. Some analysts have suggested that it is the Buddhism factor that has led to excellent relationship between Sri Lanka and Japan, which can provide a blueprint for India to pursue.

To be sure, Prime Minister Modi has made Buddhism an integral part of India’s cultural outreach to Sri Lanka and others such as Nepal, Bhutan, South Korea and Japan. In May 2017, Modi also inaugurated the UN Vesak Day in Colombo. These measures do constitute a partial breakaway from India’s historical practice of not appealing to the “venerable Mahanayakas and other seats of Buddhist temporal and spiritual power”.

Why the Buddhist Clergy May Be Wary of India

However, given the penchant for interpersonal ties between the heads of states such piecemeal efforts have not translated into development of pockets of influence. Recently, reflecting on India’s foreign policy with the US, a former R&AW officer wrote in an opinion piece that New Delhi ought to be maintaining influence in the Congress rather than investing heavily in the White House.

The Buddhist clergy only insists on two aspects: respect for Sri Lankan sovereignty and honour of Buddhist-Sinhala culture. In the past, it was on the perceived violation of these two conditions that the clergy always viewed India and the West with suspicion while welcoming the Chinese. However, the situation is changing. There is an increasing realisation among the clergy that China’s loans and investments have implications on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. In fact, the Buddhist monks have been on the forefront protesting against the handover of the Hambantota Port and its surrounding areas to China. Subsequently, Gotabaya was forced to take security control of the Hambantota Port away from the Chinese.

From Myanmar to Sri Lanka, the political dispensations do not prefer China over the West, but the West’s intransigence has offered them no other options but to turn to Beijing. The Rajapaksa brothers are capable of bringing the much-needed political stability to Sri Lanka and also hold genuine intentions to accommodate the Tamils in the political process.

However, if the West continues to insist on norms that essentially provoke the insecurities of the Buddhist-Sinhala majority, the three least desirable outcomes will be: continued influence of China, empowerment of ultra-nationalist like the Bodu Bala Sena, and the weakening of the Tamil minorities by seeking unrealistic goals like Eelam or separate homeland. Barring the uncomfortable human rights issue, it appears that the Indo-Sri Lankan-Western trilateral interests in the cultural, economic and security spheres are perfectly aligned. Ergo, the route to regional stability and communal harmony in Sri Lanka lies in the Buddhist clergy – one that both India and the West will need to watch out for.

(The author is a doctoral scholar in Intelligence Studies at the University of Leicester, U.K.)

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