‘Sri Lanka is that way’, photo from Rameshwaran, India, about 30k away.
Most foreign articles have a script for Sri Lanka. War, Rajapaksa bad, these things good, somebody should do something. It’s a bit of a broken record, and an outdated one at that. It’s one that Sadanand Dhune seems content to replay (in the WSJ).
Broad Point: To Impress America, Meddle With Sri Lanka
Even though Indian foreign policy is not the focus of Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Chennai, her trip to Tamil Nadu nonetheless flags an important issue: the dismal state of affairs across the Palk Strait in neighboring Sri Lanka…
This raises an awkward question about India’s quest for great-power status. Simply put, how can India expect more clout on the world stage when it wields so little influence in its own neighborhood?
His broad point is that India should influence Sri Lankan ‘To be taken seriously as a major power’. Well, really? Shouldn’t the basis for foreign policy be the nation’s interests, not ego? Honestly, I think countries should avoid messing with each other unless they need to. Last time India tried to project influence in Sri Lanka it blew up in their face (literally, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi).
I think that broad point is a bit immature. There are a number of reasons India should engage with SL – politics in Tamil Nadu, trade, tourism – but looking big on the world stage isn’t one of them. That literally sounds like throwing weight around for the sake of it, which generally leads to falling over. Indian foreign policy is thankfully smarter than that.
Classic Banana Republic? Not Really
Since his election as president in 2005, Mr. Rajapaksa has turned a former British colony once blessed with relatively strong institutions, an educated middle class and a robust press, into a classic banana republic.
If it makes you feel better, institutions, the middle class and the press have been periodically screwed over by multiple Presidents. It makes me feel worse. Rajapaksa has been especially bad (though better than Premadasa). But is Sri Lanka a classic banana republic? No. That’s hyperbole, and not a helpful stereotype. What is a classic banana republic?
Banana republic is a pejorative term that refers to a politically unstable country dependent upon limited primary productions (e.g. bananas), and ruled by a small, self-elected, wealthy, corrupt politico-economic plutocracy or oligarchy
Sri Lanka is a politically stable country dependent on a diverse economy and ruled by a small, elected, wealthy corrupt politico-economic plutocracy. Half out of three isn’t bad, but it’s hardly a ‘classic’.
One Of Asia’s Worst Human Rights Records
one of Asia’s worst human rights records
Sri Lanka’s human rights record sucks, but again Dhune obscures this point through hyperbole. Is it one of Asia’s worst? Hardly. Off the top of my head, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan and Afghanistan are dramatically worse. Based on political rights Sri Lanka is 25/39. And on Civil Liberties, Sri Lanka is 26/39 (Freedom House rankings). Pretty crappy, but hardly worst. Sadly, kinda in the middle. For reference India is at 15.
In reference to press freedom, Sri Lanka is deeply crap, but Dhune rights as if abductions and killing of journalists are still going on, ignoring that this intimidation dropped tremendously after the war. LankeENews et al are still harassed and it’s still difficult to work, but ignoring that things have gotten marginally better makes the argument too easy to dismiss.
The Usual Recommendations
Instead, India must retool its Sri Lanka strategy to play to its own strengths: pluralism and democracy. This means keeping open the option of throwing its weight against Colombo at the U.N. It means support for liberal elements in Sri Lankan society—Tamil and Sinhalese alike. It means working with Western democracies, Japan and thehuman rights community to demand a degree of accountability in Colombo as a step toward a lasting peace.
First sentence fine, but throwing weight around and demanding ‘accountability’ are the same non-starters which led to India’s declined influence in the first place. IMHO, the best thing India can do is encourage business and development in the North and East so those people can get jobs and send their kids to school.
Honestly, a truly self-interested policy is much more cynical than that.
Dhune identifies a problem (India’s influence in Sri Lanka) and then prescribes the same non-working solution. In the meantime, he backs it up with hyperbole and exaggeration, guaranteeing that his arguments are unpalatable to anyone that doesn’t already agree with him. It’s a copy-paste job of outdated analysis with no attempt to understand, persuade or even update the script. Thought leadership, not so much. It follows the same old script.