The Neighbourhood Reader

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The Neighbourhood Reader
Sri Lanka: The rise of ultra-nationalism and elections

  Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Four factors will propel Sinhalese Buddhist ultra-nationalism to impact elections. There is a high possibility of an ‘India-Out’ campaign in Sri Lanka, just like in Maldives.

A day before Sri Lanka’s 76th Independence Day, INS Karanj, a Kalvari-class diesel-electric submarine of the Indian Navy, arrived at the port of Colombo. The welcoming Sri Lankan Navy participated in a submarine awareness program. The Indian submarine arrived after the Sri Lankan government declared a moratorium on Chinese research vessels a month ago due to security concerns raised by India on mapping Sri Lanka’s EEZ for submarine warfare. When Sri Lanka closed its door to Chinese research vessels, the neighbouring island Maldives, with its newly elected regime, opened its doors to Chinese research vessels. 

The strategic imbalance created by Sri Lanka and Maldives siding with India and China respectively could lead to a gradually heightening geopolitical tension. Further, the moratorium, the Indian submarine visit, growing ‘Tamil nationalism,’ and Kachatheevu Island are underlying geopolitical themes that will undoubtedly impact the domestic political space, especially with upcoming elections in India and Sri Lanka. 

Geopolitically, Katchatheevu Island is equidistant to India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Straits. The 284-acre uninhabited island was administered by Sri Lanka and was a disputed territory claimed by India until 1976. It is viewed by Indian media as an island ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indian administration under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974, under the "Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement" aimed at resolving maritime boundaries in the narrow Straits. For Indian territory to be ceded to a foreign country, it is obligatory to amend the Indian constitution, which was not attempted for Katchatheevu. Therefore, it was not ceded. Thus, India accepted Sri Lanka's sovereignty over Kachchateevu. A subsequent agreement signed in 1976 restricted fishing activity by both nations in each other’s, which has been breached multiple times. There were tensions during Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), in the surrounding waters of Katchatheevu island between Indian Tamil fishers and the Sri Lankan navy. Despite the Indian government intervening, dispute between the fishermen continued. 

Tamil nationalism has focused on securing Katchatheevu, which it considers as lost territory to Sri Lanka, especially echoed during Indian elections. The state has also challenged handing over Indian territory to Sri Lanka without the parliament’s ratification, in the Indian Supreme Court.   Winning back Katchathiu Island through the New Delhi administration is a usual election rhetoric in Tamil Nadu’s politics. The concern is the rhetoric is now echoed in New Delhi directly by Prime Minister Modi, after he blamed Indira Gandhi, for handing over Indian territory to Sri Lanka. The South Indian claim and Modi’s position on Katchatheevu could factor in Tamil separatist nationalism in Sri Lanka.Tamil Nationalism has spread north of Sri Lanka with a different separatist agenda. The recent victory of the new Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) party leader in Sri Lanka was a result of the successful use of Tamil nationalism to propel the grievances of the Tamils from the past. 

Among the two candidates who contested for the leadership position of ITAK, the largest Tamil political party in the North and East of Sri Lanka, Sivagnanam Shritharan won the election, defeating Sumanthiran, a mainstream Tamil national politician who refrained from a hardline Tamil Nationalism. Shritharan managed to reach out to the younger demography with his hardline stand on Tamil nationalism, ‘which precedes the LTTE and continues after its demise, does not necessarily entail a separate state, but is compatible with federalism and other variants of power-sharing,’ according to Dr Jehan Perera from National Peace Council. Shritharan’s Tamil Nationalism will impact the upcoming presidential elections at the end of the year. 

The absence and loss of moderate voice in the Tamil political arena is also to be blamed on the Sri Lankan government, where the Tamil grievances were never genuinely addressed by subsequent governments. Issues of missing persons, the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), failure to return the land belonging to the Tamil people and the absence of a genuine reconciliation process were reasons for Tamil Nationalism to rise and be viewed as the only solution. 

The state of Sri Lanka has four-pronged challenge: first, the rise of Tamil Nationalism with a separatist agenda; second, India’s sub-colony mentality due to the acquisition of strategic assets; third, the Tamil Nadu factor over Katchatheevu; and fourth, India’s geopolitical manoeuvres through security measures to ward off Chinese influence on the island. These four factors already influence the domestic political arena, where Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism will have a high impact and result in the next presidential election. Mainstream presidential candidates will require the Tamilian vote and, simultaneously, require the Sinhalese Buddhist majority vote over 70 per cent. If the India threat is projected well by the Sinhalese Buddhist ultra-nationalists towards an ‘India Out’ campaign, China may be required to support the majoritarian camp to lead to a clear victory. The Maldivian election pattern was also on the same lines, where domestic security and sovereignty, and the ‘India Out’ campaign favoured the present leadership to victory.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a commentator from Sri Lanka. Views expressed are author’s own.

The Neighbourhood Reader is a new column within NIAS Global Politics; it aims to bring the views and perspectives from India’s neighbourhood. 


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