Foreign Policy Blogs

What Modi’s Visit to Sri Lanka means for the Tamils

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received at the airport by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, in Colombo on Friday. (The Hindu)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received at the airport by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, in Colombo on Friday. (The Hindu)

Ahead of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka on Friday, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar announced New Delhi’s cooperation with Sri Lanka’s new government on the repatriation of 100,000 Tamils currently residing in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.  The ethnic minority Tamils had fled Sri Lanka in the wake of a nearly four decade separatist war which exacerbated ethnic tensions.  Modi is expected to visit the former war zone and the Tamil heartland of Jaffna as part of a three-day visit.

Ethnic tensions among the largely Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority have long existed, with legislation discriminating against Tamils sparking violence in 1956 and leading to anti-Tamil pogroms in 1983 and to the civil war, which ended bloodily in 2009.

With the upcoming visit to Sri Lanka, Modi is counting on newly-elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena to carry out or improve upon a previous agreement, ignored by prior president Mahinda Rajapaksa, to provide Tamils with greater autonomy and economic empowerment, the so-called “13th amendment” of the constitution.  Ahead of Modi’s visit, Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran spoke this week of replacing the 13th Amendment with a “more dynamic system that would ensure maximum power sharing for the North and East”.  Modi will also be encouraged by the recent appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, who is expected to to deliver a peaceful resolution of Tamil issues.  Modi also welcomes the appointment of a seasoned diplomat, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, as new civilian governor for the largely Tamil Northern Province to replace Major General G. A. Chandrasiri.

Yet the Sri Lankan government has a long way to go in satisfying New Delhi.  Sri Lanka’s army still maintains a 20,000-strong presence in the north, ostensibly engaged in “development projects”.  As the military retreats, Sirisena’s new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, will need to act swiftly to relocate displaced Tamils whose land had been taken over by the military.

Modi will also need to be satisfied that Sirisena can fend off pressure from a fragile coalition partner, the anti-Tamil extremist party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), when addressing the question of autonomy. There are still strong sectarian tensions remaining after the civil war, and Buddhist fundamentalists such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya have been involved in attacks against minority communities.  Several mosques in the north were recently attacked while construction of national monuments honoring Buddhist kings continues.

On Thursday, Sri Lankan Navy troops threw petrol bombs at a Tamil fishing boat, with the five fishermen onboard escaping unhurt.  The day prior, Sri Lanka released 86 Indian fishermen arrested for poaching in Sri Lankan waters, as a gesture of goodwill ahead of Modi’s visit.  Modi, however, may be skeptical of Sri Lanka’s long-term treatment of Indian fishermen caught poaching – the week earlier Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramesinghe warned Indian fishermen they will be fired upon should they cross international maritime borders.

Modi’s visit will likely bring Tamil issues in Sri Lanka to the forefront, and New Delhi will need to count on assurances from Sirisena that Tamils will receive proper treatment by the new Sri Lankan government, including the repatriation of the Tamil refugees abroad and those displaced internally during the long civil war.  How Sirisena manages to placate nationalist critics at home while restoring friendly ties with its large and influential neighbor north will be interesting to watch in the coming months.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]

Great Decisions Discussion group