The strategy and security of Sri Lanka and what direction the country must move to make it productive
Posted on November 23rd, 2009

By Dr Ramesh Somasunderam

Sri Lanka is strategically situated geographically, as it is set off the South “”…” east cost of India and the Palk Striait, and the Gulf of Mannar, which separates the country from India.

The country is also ideally located to the Far East and Europe and its natural assets, namely its location, as it is in the high way of air and sea traffic, the Trincomalee harbour and natural resources, such as titanium, and the possibility oil, make the country one the most important form a strategic perspective within the Indian Ocean and South Asian region. I covered this aspect in detail in my book entitled: Strategic Significance Of Sri Lanka, which I intend to update in the near future.

In international relations like in politics, countries view their interests primarily based on a realistic position. Therefore, ideology and philosophy is non existent in international relations, based from an historical perspective. Hence, I view the internal problems in Sri Lanka as factors primarily based on external forces, and not based on internal forces, as many writers have evaluated and analysed. 

My view is based on examples on how the British used John Pybus, which is illustrated by Lord Pigot’s letter to Pybus on 6th of April 1762 where he states as follows:

“The King of Kandy  and Emperor of Ceylon having sent here Makandar Moodiar as an Ambassador to solicit and obtain our assistance to protect him and his country from the oppression and usurpation which the Dutch had long endeavored to establish and to prevent which he has maintained wars against them these two years. We have onsidered the representations of his Ambassador of which you will receive a copy and resolved to send thither a trusting person to treat the King”.     

The British also used John D”ƒ”¹…”Oyly consciously as a main architect to use and adopt “infiltration”, which Britain used as a policy consciously and strategically in South Asia to established British rule. In this case, it was the Kandyan Kingdom in 1818.

My PhD thesis entitled: British Infiltration Of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) In The Nineteenth Century: A Study of The D’ Oyly Papers Between 1805 And 1818, which will be published as a book shortly by Stamford Lake (Pvt) Ltd will expand, highlight and analyse this position in depth and detail.

The other key example of this in my view was the training of the LTTE by the late Mrs Ghandi, when she was the Prime Minster of India. This position was changed by her son, the late Mr Rajeev Gandhi, when he was the Prime Minster of India with the signing of Indo / Sri Lanka Pact of 1987, with the then President of Sri Lanka, the late Mr J. R. Jayewardene.

The key mistake, which the LTTE made, was that they thought that they defeated the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987. In my view, the Indian government of the day decided to remove its troops from Sri Lanka, when Russia pulled out its troops from Afghanistan, as the “Cold War” was coming to an end. This was based on Soviet Union’s coalition with India as partners during the “Cold War” period.

This was therefore a significant error of judgement and evaluation on the part of the LTTE, plus the view that the western nations, namely the United States of America will assist them and will view the problems in Sri Lanka from a humanitarian position or perspective, which has been incorrect, as shown by events to date. This was primarily due to a lack of understanding of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical and strategic position and India’s situation domestically, especially the political “forces” within the state of Tamil Nadu.  

The issue to understand in regard to international relations is that it is viewed on winner takes all attitude or approach, such as the case in politics and business.

The other significant factor was the September 11th terror attacks on the United States, which made the US to revaluate its foreign policy in South Asia, and based on it, India becoming a much more significant and a pivotal force, especially regionally within South Asia. This made smaller states in the region, such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal to revaluate and restructure their foreign policy, especially from a regional perspective.

The current government of Sri Lanka does understand this position. Nevertheless, the key factor is about establishing a proactive foreign policy understanding that apart from the Trinclomalee harbour, the existence of titanium, and the possibility of oil off the Gulf of Mannar, will make world and regional powers more interested in the country from a strategic and security perspective.

This factor of strategy was the reason the British signed a defence agreement with the then leaders of Ceylon in 1947, before the nation got independence in 1948. The defence agreement was signed by Henry Moore on behalf of the government of Britain and D.S. Senanayake on behalf of the government of Ceylon. Its preamble states as follows:

“Whereas Ceylon has reached the stage in constitutional development at which she is already to assume the status of a fully responsible member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, in no way subordinate in any aspect of domestic or external affairs, feely associated and united by common allegiances to the crown”. 

This highlights how the British viewed Sri Lanka strategic importance in comparison to India, as they did not sign a military agreement such as this, with India.        

The other issue is about nation building, which in my view is extremely vital at this stage of Sri Lanka’s history. For this to happen, quality governance both in the civil and district administration sectors, education, employment creation, housing, infrastructure development, especially the railways, ports and roads, youth issues, such as substance abuse and depression, and using good role models, who were and are model citizens of Sri Lanka, must be promoted consciously by the state.

I do not believe the problems in Sri Lanka should be solved primarily from a political perspective, because basically it is about all Sri Lankns thinking first that they are Sri Lankan, irrespective of their ethnicity, caste, religion or gender. For this to prevail, moderate Sri Lankan Tamils must be fostered and promoted consciously by the government of the day, like the west promoting moderate Muslims.

The next key point being Sri Lankans must feel that they are contributing proactively and positively to society in all areas, sectors and spheres of life. The problem will never be solved by dividing the nation and trying to solve the problem politically. In fact in my view a political solution is not a practical or wholesome solution, as it  will only give avenue for external forces, both regional and world powers to play upon the differences that exist within Sri Lankan society. It is more appropriate to nation build on the right platform of good governance, equity, accountability, vision and purpose. Also ensuring that practicality of wealth creation to disadvantage communities will make people more content and self satisfied. If the pie is shared, everyone will feel satisfied and this is very important indeed to keep the nation together socially, intellectually, politically and economically. 

Finally it is vital to establish an independent centre to evaluate, analyse and study Sri Lanka’s strategy, security and foreign policy in depth, clarity and substance. This I believe is of paramount importance, because Sri Lanka’s future will be determined very largely by its foreign policy, and based on it, quality governance domestically, and understanding the “forces” externally primarily, before addressing the “forces” internally within the country must be a key factor and focus in this process. I will expand on this, in my paper that I presented to the Bandaranaike Centre For International Studies in 2003 entitled: Sri Lanka In The Context Of Naval And Military Rivalry In Contemporary South Asia in which, I discussed about the importance of having off shore banking and establishing a convention centre of world and regional significance in Sri Lanka. 

In conclusion it will be very interesting to see how things pan out. But, I view it positively, as there is a great window of opportunity for the country to move forward as one, if the correct steps are adopted, advocated and carried out, which every Sri Lankan, who values the country, looks forward to with eagerness.    

Dr Ramesh Somasunderam
1995 “”…” 1998: 
Completed a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria.Australian Studies was the Major.International Studies was the Minor. 1999 “”…” 2000: Completed a Graduate Diploma in Applied Heritage Studies from Curtin University of Technology in Bentley, Western Australia. As a major component of the course work related course a 20, 000 words thesis was submitted entitled:  Sri Lankan Tamils In Western Australia: Prospects and Problems of Integration.
2001 “”…” 2003: Completed a Master of Arts Degree in History by research from Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria.The area of study was:  The Strategic Significance of the Island State of Sri Lanka

2004 “”…” 2008:  Completed a PhD in British Colonial History from The University of Western Australia. The area of study was: British Infiltration Of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) In The Nineteenth Century: A Study of The D’ Oyly Papers Between 1805 And 1818.

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