Upul Joseph Fernando
There are many who question the validity of the much-bandied about contention that Mahinda Rajapaksa ultimately succumbed to Indian pressure to hold the Northern Provincial Council election with the 13th Amendment in place in its original form. Not so, those who doubt, argue, and come up with another more likely explanation. They are convinced that in addition to Indian, American and Western influence, Russia too was instrumental in helping change Rajapaksa’s mind about the election. This has also been confirmed by sources at the Ministry of External Affairs.
Russia is a close friend of India. In this backdrop, it confers strong credibility to reports of Russia advising the Sri Lankan Government not to antagonize India under any circumstance, especially in relation to the 13th Amendment. It was Russia and not India as commonly believed at the beginning that stoked the separatist war in Sri Lanka. It was due to the J.R. Jayewardene Government’s mollycoddling of America as evidenced by the Voice of America relay station deal and the Trincomnalee oil tank lease arrangements, which were then being earmarked to be entrusted to an American consortium.
Divulged by Russian media
News of these developments was first divulged by the Russian media. India then had strong ties with the former Soviet Russia; just as strong as its alliance with America today. It was the cold war era and both America and Russia were keen to have Sri Lanka on their side. However, with the 1977 electoral defeat of the Russia-friendly Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and with the United National Party (UNP), considered an American stooge, coming into power, the Russian resolve to prevent Sri Lanka from strengthening its alliance with America hardened. Thus, Russia stoked a separatist war in the country through the direct intervention of India.
The Indo-Lanka Agreement and its off shoot, 13A, were virtually imposed on the country with Russia’s blessings. The Left parties came out in strong support of it, which in itself is ample proof that Russia was the true sponsor of the peace agreement and the 13th Amendment – of course acting behind the scene. When JR was virtually forced to sign the Indo-Lanka Agreement, he sought American help in desperation, only to be told by the Americans to work with India, amicably.
Rohan Gunaratne, in his book ‘Indian intervention in Sri Lanka’ discusses this in detail.
Was Indian dominance over Sri Lanka a loss to the US? The letters exchanged in the July 1987 Accord was a clear loss for the United States in the Indian Ocean region, but in spite of this implication, the US Government praised the Accord. The letters refereed to the availability of ports, particularly Trincomalee, the Trincomalee oil tank farm deal, the broadcasting facilities and the presence of foreign military and intelligence personnel. Even though all of these concerned US interests in the region, US policy, which is based on long-term strategic interests, was to ignore and establish a strategic alliance with India. This explained the US reaction to the Indo-Lanka conflict and the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.
An official of the Bureau of Research and Intelligence of the US State Department, Washington DC, informed the author that the letters of the Accord was a direct attack on American interests. The then US Ambassador in Colombo, James Spain, disagreed. He said: “(It) depends on which pair of glasses you put on. Nobody wanted the facilities the Indians were scared of.” Commenting further on the accord, Spain said: “Both the Sri Lankans and the Indians got what they wanted out of each other.” When asked whether the Americans were aware of the Accord in advance, Spain said: “We first got to know about it when the ongoing discussions between the Voice of America and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation were suddenly suspended. These weekly meetings were going on for about a year. When the US asked why, it was indicated to us that Sri Lanka was working out an agreement with India to solve the ethnic issue.” After the Accord was signed, Spain said that “Jayewardene wanted to demonstrate to the world that Sri Lanka had not lost its independence to India.” So Jayewardene requested the US, the UK, France, Pakistan, China and the USSR for military assistance. The request to the US was for helicopter spare parts, 45 calibre ammunition and maritime radar. Spain said: “We had congressional budgetary constraints. But I sent our Defence Attache to meet General Attygalle, the then Sri Lankan Defence Secretary. He explained that this was to meet the impending threat from the south.”
But President Jayewardene had a different story to say. “When I asked the US Ambassador, James Spain, for some helicopter spare parts, Ambassador Spain asked me to obtain the approval of India and when the spare parts were to be flown in, once again Spain asked me to obtain the approval of India, which I obtained.” When Spain was asked why the US requested Sri Lanka to obtain the concurrence of India before considering and later before transporting the helicopter spare parts to Sri Lanka, Spain said: “Sri Lanka had entered to an agreement with India without our knowledge. It would have been improper for us to disrupt the cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.” After the concurrence of India was obtained, spare parts worth US$ 2 million were given to Sri Lanka on low-interest concessionary terms under a US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Loan.
The Sri Lankan people have short memories – in fact, very short ones. Ambassador James Spain told the author: “Bringing in the IPKF resulted in the up-swinging of the JVP. We still blame the Japanese, but ironically in Sri Lanka, the people do not blame India.” Ambassador Spain, a soldier with a service record in the Pacific and in Japan, and a scholar with a doctorate on the orient from Columbia University, who is a diplomat with 40 years’ service in countries such as Sri Lanka, Turkey, Tanzania and Pakistan, as well as in Washington, DC and at the United Nations, has now retired and settled in Sri Lanka. He said: “For the first time when I retired in 1989, I could do whatever I wanted – I chose to live among a fine and a sincere people, and in an old country than in a new one.” Speaking affectionately of Sri Lanka and its people, Spain said: “A military or a political solution may be possible. Even in the rose years, I have been reasonably optimistic. Sri Lanka will not become a Lebanon, but it will never be paradise again.” Perhaps, Spain was assessing the cost of foreign intervention.
‘Do not antagonize India’
One would not be wrong to surmise that when India started exerting pressure to hold the Northern Provincial Council election, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have sought a helping hand from Russia and China. Their reaction most probably could have been more like America’s advice to JR on a previous occasion; do not antagonize India, and work out an amicable solution, albeit with some added wisdom so they could to protect the government from war crime charges in the UN but not go against India. India’s massive market is invariably a defining matter in Chinese relations. Now it is known the Tamil National Alliance has also built some sort of rapport with China.
All in all, the idea which is fast gaining ground among cognoscenti in political analysis that it was Russia who set Mahinda Rajapaksa on course for the Northern polls, could in all probability be true.