Neighbours in distress : The Tribune India

Neighbours in distress

Turmoil in Sri Lanka and Myanmar is both a challenge and an opportunity for India

Neighbours in distress

BREAKDOWN: Sri Lanka makes for an instructive case study that combines many strands that are germane to regional instability. Reuters

C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

RECENT developments in Sri Lanka, where an elected President had to flee his country, and in Myanmar, where the military junta chose to execute political dissidents, point to increased socio-political turbulence and related instability in India’s neighbourhood. This trend began in 2021 when the US exited Afghanistan and that war-ravaged nation is in a state of extreme poverty under Taliban rule as human security indicators are worsening.

India needs to craft a long-term policy that takes into account the grim reality that regional turbulence will only grow in the years ahead.

These developments pose both challenges and opportunities for Delhi. While the former have the potential to adversely impact India’s security interests and degrade the regional environment, the opportunities are embedded in how India responds to, what are likely to be long-term regional exigencies. Hence, they need to be reviewed in a country-specific manner.

Sri Lanka is an instructive case study that combines in it many strands that are germane to the regional turbulence. Once among the most successful states in South Asia by way of human security indicators, Sri Lanka boasted of a per capita of $4,157 (December 2021), in contrast to India ($1,961); Bangladesh ($1,715); and Myanmar ($1,292).

A combination of divisive domestic politics, authoritarian one-family governance, and imprudent economic/fiscal/trade and agriculture-related policies landed the nation in its most serious socio-economic crisis. Shortage of food, fuel and medical care has driven the people to extreme deprivation.

India has provided aid to Sri Lanka on many occasions and the bilateral ties have a history of adversarial phases. The most complex experience was the Indian military assistance during the Rajiv Gandhi years, as part of an ill-conceived peace-keeping effort. Domestic political compulsions in both nations and Delhi's inability to assess the minefields in the relationship compounded the policy errors. Consequently, India provided support to a sectarian group (Tamil minority) that morphed into the LTTE, designated as a global terrorist group well before the Al-Qaida.

Inadequate strategic acumen and feckless military intervention — ostensibly to keep peace — led to a fiasco and tarnished Delhi’s image. Apart from the loss of life (the Indian military lost almost 1,200 personnel in the IPKF operations), India has the dubious distinction of having supported the LTTE in the first phase of the civil war, only to end up fighting the terror group later, even while its intelligence agencies were providing covert support to elements engaged in combat against Indian troops, and injured LTTE cadres were being provided medical aid in India!

This episode ended with the assassination of former PM Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in 1991 — and points to the unintended and little anticipated consequences of domestic politics getting tangled with regional strategic developments that impinge on India’s national security — both external and internal.

Sri Lanka, like many of India’s neighbours, has played the big-brother card to malign Delhi when it suited the domestic agenda and tried to seek the support of other major powers. In the last two decades, China has emerged as a major factor in the affairs of the island nation and the debt-trap syndrome that has resulted in a land-grab (99-year lease of critical real estate), and the ignominy of a President of a democracy having to flee his nation.

While India has provided humanitarian aid and a credit line-cum-loan deferment of $3.8 billion to Colombo — the macro assessment is bleak. It will take three years, if not more, for Sri Lanka to get back to some semblance of normalcy, and in the interim, political stability is imperative. That appears fragile, for President Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as a cat’s paw for the ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

If the peoples protest is revived and continues, the internal situation will only get worse. The possibility of refugees fleeing to find succour in India is high and an immediate exigency plan in states like Tamil Nadu will have to be put in place.

The fine balance that India would have to maintain is to be seen as a credible neighbour, who, while providing much-needed assistance (in contrast to China), is not perceived to be aligned with a regime that the people despise; and yet not be accused of interfering in the Sri Lankan political churn. To that extent, this crisis is also an opportunity for India to demonstrate its ability to provide aid in a sustained manner, without the crippling usurious cross associated with China.

Myanmar poses a similar challenge, plagued by a multiple crisis affliction but with a distinctive sub-text. India has a land border of over 1,600 km with Myanmar, which has a historical linkage with some Indian Northeastern states, particularly Manipur. Since the 1962 military coup in then Burma, the democratic aspirations of the people of that nation have been jeopardised and the current execution of political prisoners is illustrative of the Indian dilemma.

As the world’s largest democracy and the regional big power, the people of Myanmar have looked to India for assistance in their aspirations and this has been a challenge for Delhi — to ensure that its core security interests are not adversely impacted in the normative support of democracy and freedom. Again, the Rajiv Gandhi years were tempestuous, and at one time, the Myanmar army prepared for an invasion by India! The China card has been deftly used by the Myanmar generals in the last three decades, and yet, in the current instance, it appears that Beijing has been rebuffed over the executions.

Political refugees from Myanmar (not part of the Rohingya exodus) are already in India — one estimate is over a lakh. This number may increase. Delhi needs to evolve a refugee policy that would be empathetic and not clouded by domestic political and electoral imperatives. And concurrently, craft a long-term policy that takes into account the grim reality that regional turbulence and instability will only grow in the years ahead — given the Covid fallout, climate change and the global economic slowdown due to the war in Ukraine and related geopolitical factors.

#Afghanistan #sri lanka

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