The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) organised a webinar on “India and Sri Lanka: Changing Dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region” on September 17, 2020. The webinar featured Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo and Dr SY Surendra Kumar, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science at Bangalore University. The session aimed to provide intricacies of the Sri Lankan political system, assessing the new regime in Sri Lanka and how India and Sri Lanka can further their relationship. The discussion was moderated by Gazi Hassan, Senior Research Associate, CPPR.

Professor Uyangoda began the discussion by throwing light on the new political situation and the uncertainty that are unfolding in Sri Lanka with the proposal of having a new Parliament and how Rajapaksa government became popular among the masses and won 2/3rd majority with relatively weaker opposition. He pointed out that the UNP formed in 1947 has no member in Parliament this time, showing the decline of once dominant parties of Sri Lanka. With the aim of revisiting the 19th amendment and the new Constitution unfolding, he said, Sri Lanka is moving towards a one-party system. This amendment will give more power to the President placing him above the executive and even the judiciary. He also discussed how democracy in Sri Lanka has always sustained challenges and now it is facing major challenges because of the new proposed reforms. Apart from political uncertainty, the economic crisis is also getting worse day by day, the main cause being the debt crisis. As quoted by economists, debt costs about 83 per cent of Sri Lanka’s GDP. The challenges like loss of employment and inability of the economy to generate new employment are aggravated by the ongoing pandemic. The combination of economic crisis and political crisis will further lead to social crisis.

Dr Kumar, in his introductory remarks, highlighted three important aspects associated with Sri Lanka. The historical victory of Rajapaksa—assessing how India views the new regime and India’s role in the Sri Lankan economy. He shared the opinion that the emergence of the new regime will not alter Indo-Sri Lanka relations. The second aspect was the issues pertaining to Tamils (Sri Lanka’s minority). India has taken a passive role, knowing that the prominent Tamil parties are fragmented and absorbed into ruling parties of Sri Lanka. The final aspect being how Sri Lanka and India can form stronger alliances and converge and negotiate more on forming regional partnership, and issues related to the Indian Ocean Region, etc.

Mr Hassan began the discussion by putting forward the question of how the Rajapaksa government is seen in Sri Lanka and with the changing political structure, what is the future of Tamil parties. Professor Uyangoda said that the new government seeks to consolidate its power and become more powerful. The reform (bringing in the 20th amendment) will create a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity within the ruling party as well. The Prime Minister will have to give up his existing power and give it to the President. Hence, it will be interesting to note the new configuration of power between the President, Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers. However, this new reform has to pass through many processes and needs public’s approval before becoming a law.

On Tamil issue, the new regime wants to abolish the 13th amendment, but cannot do it as it encompasses Indo-Sri Lanka relations. Sri Lanka cannot take a decision over the 13th amendment unilaterally and needs cooperation and negotiation between Colombo, New Delhi as well as Chennai. Presently, there is a shift of focus within Tamil parties demanding economic development at par with political rights. Tamil nationalist parties want to have economic devolution before political devolution.

To the question on how New Delhi sees the new regime of Sri Lanka and its leaning towards China, with major infrastructure projects handed over to the Chinese in Rajapaksa’s Presidential term, and the future of India-Sri Lanka relations, Dr Kumar replied, China is the biggest creditor to Sri Lanka and India cannot ignore its prominent role in Sri Lanka. He also stressed the existence of China in Sri Lanka even before Rajapaksa’s term. India has to play smart and cannot put pressure on Sri Lanka to disengage with China, but instead focus on improving its relations with Sri Lanka.

Continuing the discussion on Tamil politics, Dr Kumar stressed that there is a decline of Tamil Eelam in Tamil Nadu politics. Tamil parties in Sri Lanka are sceptical of Rajapaksa because of the massive Sinhalese support. After the military elimination of LTTE, the Tamil parties demand more economic rights than political rights. No cry for anti-Sinhalese sentiments could be seen as very proactive. However, Tamil Nadu plays a prominent role in framing policies towards Sri Lanka.

On the issue of political and security concerns faced by Sri Lanka, Professor Uyangoda said Sri Lanka does not face any major issues right now. The present government has rectified domestic security concerns that prevailed during 2018 and 2019. State’s surveillance capacity has increased enormously during the COVID-19 pandemic. Minority rights are not on the government’s agenda concerning security threats.

To the question on China’s debt trap diplomacy, Dr Kumar pointed out that smaller countries look up to China for loans and grants than going to IMF or World Bank. China being a robust economic nation is a more reliable source to get loans. Amidst the standoff between India and China, Sri Lanka took a neutral stance. Regarding a question on how the development aid can be used by India to have a stronger relation with Sri Lanka, he replied that India has not yet used the development aid in a fruitful way. He also stressed that other than minority issues, India has to focus on other aspects as well and needs to strengthen its platform and improve people-to-people relations in order to remove scepticisms.

The concluding remarks made by CPPR Advisor PK Hormis Tharakan, IPS, duly summed up the important issues discussed during the webinar.

The report is made by Sakshi Gemini, Research Intern of CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies.

To watch the video recording of the webinar, click here

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