Myanmar President Thein Sein’s visit to Washington, DC has brought about interesting coverage in the media about that country and about US policy. The Burma policy of the US and Indian governments holds important lessons for Eelam Tamils.
The similarities of the Myanmar and the Sri Lankan states are obvious. Majority of the people in both countries practice Theravada Buddhism. And both countries are plagued by ethnic conflicts. The conflict is mainly due to the tyrannical imposition of the permanent, majoritarian, ethnic mindset over the other nationalities: the Sinhala Buddhist mindset in Sri Lanka and the Burman Buddhist mindset in Myanmar. Both states came out of the colonial rule at the same time.
Are there also similarities in the US, Indian, and Chinese policy towards both countries?. The answer is an obvious yes. Caught up in the strategic game play of the powers, other nations (namely Shan and Kachin) in the Myanmar union are left high and dry. As is also the case with the Eelam Tamils. How these stateless nations extricate themselves out of this dilemma while still retaining the means to further their strategic objectives is very important.
Given the current state of transportation technology and global travels we enjoy, many are surprised that big state policies are still driven by maritime trade and the security of that maritime supply. Energy security is the primary concern. Most international trade is still done through the cheaper ocean cargo. The ancient spice trade routes in the Indian Ocean which led to the colonial conquests are now revived for different commodities.
Myanmar’s enormous geo-strategic importance in this “great game” is well known. Myanmar is also a country with large natural gas and oil reserves in addition to other mineral resources. The possibility to expand bilateral trade is also big. On the other hand, Sri Lanka is co-opted into this game due to its geo-location. Its impact on maritime security or (rather insecurity) on the Indian Ocean shipping lanes is significant. Lacking the natural resources and a sizable import market, however, Sri Lanka does not get the same priority as Myanmar. And Sri Lanka depends heavily on export, tourism, and her services sector. Taking an isolationist path, as Myanmar did for so many years, would be a much more painful option for Sri Lanka.
The rising priority of Burma, however, only furthers the importance of Sri Lanka in the geo-strategic calculus. As China succeeds in being a real bi-coastal country when it completes its access to the Bay of Bengal, cutting through Myanmar, Sri Lanka is one of the next pearls on the string. The attached picture shows the shipping routes and their density in the Indian Ocean region.
It is an easier visualization to see the importance of Sri Lanka in those trade routes. Most of the trade that feeds into the Strait of Malacca Choke-point passes past southern Sri Lanka. More than 25% of world trade and more than 80% of the oil supply to China passes through the Malacca Strait, thus making it one of the most vulnerable and protected areas. When China gains access to the Indian Ocean at the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka sits directly across from that access. Sri Lanka’s eastern and northeastern coasts gain significance from a forward basing and rapid deployment aspects. India has secured the Trinco storage facilities just as China has secured one in Myanmar on the Bay of Bengal. Sri Lanka’s southern coast, however, is directly on the shipping lanes capable of providing a logistical support base. China has secured a spot on the southern coast at Hampantota already. Recent developments show the Indo-US partnership has gained an upper hand in the Maldives directly across from the Sri Lankan southwestern coast and moving further up in the supply route. US also has a base in Diego Garcia south of the Maldives. China has courted Bangladesh, building a port at Chittagong similar to the one at Hampantota.
However, all this geostrategic jockeying also happens within an agreed policy framework between all three powers.
As far back as the early 1960’s, when the US started the process to acquire base rights to Diego Garcia as the British we drawing down from the region, there has been a common policy consensus between the US, India and China regarding Indian Ocean territories. It has been centered on territorial integrity, stability, and economic growth. And it started in that order as they are prerequisites leading to economic growth. This has been faithfully abided by all three in public pronouncements with few exceptions. As the 21st century strategic focus pivots towards Asia Pacific (1) and the Indian Ocean, these pronouncements have only gotten louder since the 90’s. While each country pursues its own strategic end, stability and economic growth are shared goals of all three. There are corporate and other stakeholders in all three countries publicly advocating and influencing policy to maintain regional stability. The US enjoys an inherent advantage in an interconnected market economy.
While the war on terror was the public face of the 2009 war, all three powers coalesced together in support of the genocidal Sri Lankan government under the shared policy of regional stability: War was waged for the elimination of an entity that was uncompromising, and committed to the cause of separation. An entity which was viewed as an unnecessary variable for the region. How states view regional stability and how they make policy trade-off decisions are not secret. When each state has pliable countries and multiple levers, having to deal with an extra player in the game only increases the risk for all. More so when that player is not amenable to manipulation. The LTTE, fully aware of this jockeying and consensus on territorial integrity, concisely seems to have elected to stay out of the game. And then tried to chart its own course. Can Sri Lanka, having elected to play the game, keep this up?
Why the attack on the Sri Lankan International Airport in Colombo by the LTTE led to the 2002 ceasefire and then to the peace talks should also be seen in this context. It was to protect a state from collapse and a bid for time to “stabilize” the situation. The cleverness of the Sri Lankan government was in seizing the opportunity that was presented by the powers.
Myanmar’s military junta, regardless of its means, has still provided stability to the Burma union.
Myanmar’s relationship with its once distrusted neighbour, China improved in the 1980’s. India reversed its policy of non-engagement with the junta in the 1990’s. Curiously enough, around the same time, the US toughened its policy towards the Junta. While India “engaged” Myanmar through trade ( Burma had a trade surplus with India) and diplomacy, the US used international, multilateral platforms (UN, World Bank) to squeeze the regime. The current bad cop, good cop routine of the US and India at the UN on the Sri Lanka resolution this year should come to mind. China poured money into Myanmar for infrastructure developments as it now does in Sri Lanka and Africa.
Myanmar has now been “turned” towards the US and India. The Indo- US strategy has yielded the desired results. The US is now discussing allowing Myanmar duty-free access to the US market(2). Ford is expanding its showroom in Myanmar(3) and US oil companies are flying in.
The Myanmar regime has relented and Aung San Suu Kyi has also been co-opted. Neither India nor the US are insisting on constitutional reform. None of them talk about the plight of the Shan, Kachin people or their right of self determination. US media now, as expected, refers to them as minorities. This was achieved within the stated framework of territorial integrity and stability. In the same way, the co-optive pressure on the TNA from India to play an Aung San Suu Kyi to the Rajapakse Junta is obvious to everyone. Similar to the Myanmar case, this is to bound the Tamil national question to the 13th Amendment, guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, and to use the mirage of the LLRC to divert the issue of accountability away from the Tamils.
As I tried to make a case in a previous post on the China-Sri Lanka relationship, China is now left with limited choices on Myanmar. Even though China cannot treat Myanmar as a client state anymore, it can still benefit from a stable and prospering Myanmar. So the Myanmar leadership leaning towards the Indo-US axis is not necessarily a win-lose development for China. China has heavily invested in the transnational Burmese Shwe pipeline that will be operational this year. And it is a national security initiative for China as it tries to solve for the “Malacca Dilemma” (4). This land pipeline bypasses the Malacca Strait choke-point by giving China direct access to the Bay of Bengal. Civil war or armed militants along the pipeline is an unpredictable security risk for China. Unrest also has unintended consequences as China found out in summer of 2009 when Myanmar launched an offensive near its border sending thousands of refugees into China. Just as the utility of a Tamil fighting force diminished for India as soon as Sri Lanka signed the agreement with India in 1987, the utility of other ethnic groups in Myanmar is diminishing for both China and India. Unilateral and direct interventions are now not necessary in the Indian Ocean territories. The same coercive results can be achieved through co-optive means.
All three big powers are happy as long as one person controls the Pie in Burma & Sri Lanka and is willing to hand out a piece to each. It is better than having to fight for a piece from multiple owners the logic goes.
While Myanmar had to be worked hard to incentify it out of isolation, it would not take much to “turn” Sri Lanka. Unlike the isolationist Burma, Sri Lanka has been a market economy and is heavily dependent on trade with the US and now with India. As popular as the Rajapakses may be for securing Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over the Tamils, Sinhala citizens won’t tolerate an isolationist path that takes the economy down. The US and India clearly know this and will exploit this dependency as needed if the regime continues to play hardball. Sri Lanka seems to be taking lessons from Myanmar in handling world powers. But now, high on triumphalism, it over-estimates its ability for leverage.
The Myanmar regime, unlike that of Sri Lanka, has shown an accommodative spirit that gives the US and India a moral escape route. Transition to civilian rule, discussions with dissidents, elections, ceasefire agreements are all showpieces. The Sri Lankan government is going in the opposite direction. The Myanmar constitution (of 2008) in not unitary in character. While separation is outlawed, the political space for a full federated solution is left open at least in spirit even if it is not in practice. The other nations in this union can still demand implementation of this if they trigger a crisis in the future.
But in Sri Lanka, that accommodative political space has never existed. As history has shown, Sri Lanka is structurally not capable of such accomodation. The 13th Amendment has been rejected as inadequate but the Sri Lankan state still refuses to truthfully implement it. At this juncture, the TNA has a historical responsibility to ensure the Tamil future is not mortgaged forever to regional interests if those powers don’t reciprocate. Tamils are equal partners, as are the Sinhalese, in working out a solution even if it is within the articulated framework of the powers. These powers may want a single, Sinhala Buddhist control over the Sri Lankan pie since their pieces have been carved out. But Tamils don’t need to accept the solution that is thrust on us under military occupation and structural genocide. Other nations in the Burma union extracted from Aung San, in the form of the 1947 Panlong Agreement, a promise of federation ahead of Burma’s independence from the British. Our leaders failed us in that same year by mortgaging the Tamil future to political incrementalism and betting on Sinhala Buddhist magnanimity.
Sri Lanka is practising what China is doing in its Yunnan province bordering Myanmar, building roads and bridges and then aggressively assimilating the ethnic minorities by colonizing the province with ethnic Han Chinese. This tactic has proven to be successful so far.
India, working with Sri Lanka since the 1990s, has ensured there won’t be a Tamil refugee flow across the Palk Strait into India, a crisis trigger that impacts policy. That was the case even at the peak of the 2009 war. Note that Sri Lanka is now taunting Australia with this crisis trigger.
The military occupation of Eelam is overtly encouraged in order to maintain this “stability”. Single control over the pie.
Knowing this and seeing what is happening in Myanmar, this is the time for the TNA to openly and boldly make the case for a political solution that brings a genuine stability and economic growth to the area. Not accept an imposed one.
Sivaram, one of the highest intellectuals Eelam has produced, wrote this in 2003 (6), soon after the ceasefire and way before 2009. Emphasis is mine.
“Any foreign force can have its way in a country only if its people are divided, politically obfuscated and are irredeemably sunk in political stupor. The creeping intellectual/political barrenness in the northeast should be stopped without further delay. LTTE officials too should stop making pedestrian,boringly predictable utterances on public forums and,instead, make every endeavour to stir the people’s reason, intellectual curiosity, their sense of community, their imagination and their intellectual fervour. This is the only way forward to decisively break the vicious circle of political obfuscation by which our people are deeply but blissfully afflicted today.
America may be the mightiest nation on the earth today but that cannot detract an iota from our right to live with honour, dignity and freedom in the land of our forebears. It cannot for a moment make us give up an inch of our lands to help India or the US Bloc stabilise the Sri Lankan state for the sole purpose of furthering their strategic and economic interests.”
Eelam Tamils are steeped in struggles and dissent. They have shown remarkable political awareness and resoluteness. In the face of structural genocide, they have kept up their pockets of resistance. and they will continue to do so.
Can the TNA trust and stand with them? And boldly ask the powers to restructure the current Sri Lankan state for a stable and equitable peace to materialize? Provincial elections are not the answer. Constitutional reform is. Reform leading to a union by consensus and not by oppression. A union of equals not of conquerors and the defeated. This is not antagonizing the powers. It is consistent with their policy of stability and growth.
What good is the Pie for the powers if they can only stare at it?
Tamils won’t stand aside when the neighbour promises our Pie to wayward travellers. Our parents did teach us to share.