Sri Lanka and Maldives fall victims to regional and international hegemonic powers
By Satheesan Kumaaran
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Isolated in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka and the Maldives often fall victims to regional and international hegemonic powers that strive to bring the entire Indian Ocean rim under their control for their own economic, political and security gains. Unless the peoples of these countries realize the dire consequences of such action the hegemonic powers, in the form of indirect imperialism, will infiltrate these countries and severely threaten their sovereignty.

Sri Lanka dominated trade with the atoll state until the early 1970s, providing 65 percent of Male's imports from the South Asian region (India's share was only 32 percent). 10 percent of the country's export was to Sri Lanka, whereas another major neighbour India's share was a negligible 0.03 percent. As of 1988, it was Sri Lanka and not India that had a greater involvement with the Maldives-economically, diplomatically, politically and culturally.

As well as sharing the waters of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lankans and Maldivians also share close ties in the areas of history, culture and language. To a greater extent, regional and international powers have a vested interest in both countries, while these two states have no choice but to depend on those powers for the sake of their own survival. These two countries are, in fact, being used for imperialist exploitation, and the locals are barely aware of the importance of their respective countries. The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, correctly advocated that his nation build a strong blue-water navy to control the entire Indian Ocean. The ensuing governments worked hard to fulfil the Nehru's vision, and now India has one of the most well-equipped and well-manned navies in the world.

Sri Lanka and Maldives have been considered as crucial since time immemorial.

Because of Sri Lanka's position in the Indian Ocean, the country is attractive to those powers who have vested interests in Asia: Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Russia, Britain, and the United States. These regional and international players have sought to have influence over Sri Lanka's economy, security, and politics. Much of the present concern is due to the fact that Sri Lanka is located in a vital sea lane where ships travel between western, south-eastern, and eastern Asia. As the demand for oil and gas grows, international players increasingly view the Middle East and South-East Asia as vitally important and need to ensure the safety of the sea lanes through which gas and oil resources are transported. In addition, the need to combat terrorism requires increased security and new coalition partners.

For the Maldives, its geo-strategic position is a cause for its vulnerability which increased in the wake of militarization of the Indian Ocean and the culmination of Super Power rivalry in the 1970s and the 1980s. In this context, President Gayoom stated in 1982: "Let us not forget, the Portuguese invaded us because of strategic position. Many covetous eyes are focused on us right now for the same reason."

The Maldives' geo-strategic position has figured in its friendly relations with India. In the cold war period, one of the cornerstones of India's regional security policy was warding off extra-regional powers in South Asia. India considered any such involvement as inimical to its regional interests. In the 1980s, Sri Lanka sought to use its strategic location in the central Indian Ocean (buttressed by a natural harbour, Trincomalee) by involving external forces to neutralise the India factor in the island's security or gain an insurance against its vaguely formulated perceived threat from India. No doubt, in this context, India's behaviour in the region and Sri Lanka's foreign policy postures had contributed to each other's security concerns.

After Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, these powers, concerned about their own economic and security interests, exercised direct influence in Sri Lanka. Japan and China were, and continue to be, especially interested. In eastern Sri Lanka, where dozens of ships pass through the port city of Trincomalee every day, a Japanese company has constructed a base where ships are repaired and maintained. China operates fishing and ice factories. As the Chinese scholar, John W. Garver, rightly points out, "the aim of the Chinese is to establish and expand political and security relations with the countries of the South Asia - Indian Ocean region (SA-IOR)." Even though he did not elaborate on the specific contributions of Sri Lanka and the Maldives to China, it is evident that China is keeping a close eye on Sri Lanka. Garver further states, "the Chinese want to ensure the safety of China's sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean." It is also important to note that China gifted to Sri Lanka apart from the BMICH, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike International Exhibition Hall in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, worth American $5.2 million. In 2001, when he visited Colombo for the purpose of laying the building's foundation, the Premier of China emphasized that China would remain Sri Lanka's true friend forever.

Some international powers are active furthering their interests through munitions deals and indirect military intervention. China -- along with Pakistan -- is one of the leading suppliers of arms to Sri Lanka, which are used to fight the Tamil Tigers.

The Indian intelligence wing is very uneasy about the developments of military ties between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Sri Lankan leaders maintain the practice of visiting New Delhi following the conclusion of deals with Islamabad because Sri Lanka does not want to antagonise India. It is natural for diplomats and politicians in Colombo to be in India's good books not because they think Sri Lanka is inferior to India, but because Sri Lanka fears that if it antagonises India, India will support the LTTE. It is a well known fact that India, with the attitude of elder brother and giant elephant has a hand in the prevailing instability in Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as other countries in south Asia, especially Pakistan. One classic example is the issue over water. India does not want to allow waters flowing through India into Bangladesh during the summer, so it keeps the canals closed to irrigate its own crops. In the winter, India opens the canals, allowing the river waters to flow into Bangladesh, causing heavy Bangladeshi casualties and totally destroying their agricultural industry. Because Bangladesh earns a high income per capita through their agricultural industry, the results of this flooding severely affect its financial stability. India wants to keep all seven countries, and Afghanistan, under its thumb.

Colombo knows the sinister intentions of New Delhi very well. It would only take a matter of days for India to create instability in Sri Lanka should Colombo refuse to pander to its whims and fancies.

It was India that assisted Tamil militants of Sri Lanka to fight for Eelam. But, when the LTTE did not listen to the orders from New Delhi, India set out to degrade the LTTE militarily and diplomatically, blaming the LTTE for every single bomb blast that took place in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, even though the blasts had nothing to do with the LTTE. India wanted to brand the LTTE as a terrorist organization on its soil and elsewhere, and was the first to ban the LTTE. Other countries followed suit, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and the European Union.

All these events have brought Sri Lanka and India closer. But, although they cooperate with each other, Sri Lanka is still paranoid that India will turn hostile one day should it cooperate with other countries, such as China or Pakistan. Undeniably, India is a big brother in the region and has the potential to become one of the world's superpowers. However, India is worried about China's influence in the region because China has good relationships with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's self styled Marxist party, JVP, is pro-China and anti-India. India believes that the Chinese influence in Sri Lanka will help China monitor the activities of the Indian navy in the Bay of Bengal and the Palk Straits.

Other powers intervene in various ways. Even though Iraq is now under the control of the U.S., it once flourished in many sectors as a secular country under the leadership of the late Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government helped some of the villages in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, where there are large settlements of Muslims. Sri Lankan Muslims claim that the first Arabic settlers in Sri Lanka were Hashemites, a migratory tribe who left Arabia in the seventh century because of persecution following a change of the ruling dynasty. However, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Sri Lankan Tamil member of the Executive Council of Ceylon, believed that the Sri Lankan Muslims, including those settled in the north-east (the traditional homeland of Tamils in the island), originated from South India and were Tamils who embraced Islam. Many scholars also supported Ramanathan's point of view. The Arabs, well-known traders, used to make trips between West Asia to Southeast Asia. They always wanted transit points to stop over before continuing the passage between the two regions in Asia, so they used the shores of the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and southern Indian states, such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Arabic traders when they stopped over in those countries married local Tamil women. The Muslim villages in eastern Sri Lanka where they settled had pure Tamil names, like Kaanthankudi, Saainthamaruthu, Maruthamunai, etc. This clearly supports Ramanathan's argument that the Muslims of Lanka are not direct descendants of Arabs, but Tamils converted to Islam. However, these locals continue to live under the myth that they are direct descendants of Arabs. The modern day Muslims of the East managed to lure the Arabs to get political and economic support to build their villages. Saddam Hussein helped Lankan Muslims financially. As a result, one of the villages in the Batticaloa district of eastern Sri Lanka was named after Saddam Hussein. Many other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, still support the Lankan Muslims.

Britain has played important roles in Sri Lanka, directly and indirectly, because Sri Lanka was one of its former colonies. Britain cannot maintain a hands-off policy with respect to the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, as the British government believes it has a moral obligation to resolve the conflict. Since Britain is home to 300,000 Tamils, it is also under intense pressure from its local Tamil community to directly intervene in the conflict that was a result of, the British Empire in the first place. Britain continuously urges the warring parties in Sri Lanka to have genuine peace talks. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was to be appointed the special peace envoy for Sri Lanka, but the move was abandoned, and he was appointed the special envoy for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One cannot forget that many Tamil militant groups gathered in Britain in the early stages of their military campaign.

Russia also has vested interests in the area. Russia sees Sri Lanka as an important partner, as long as Sri Lanka gets along with neighbouring India. Russia was one of the few countries that sent aid to Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Russia, without a second thought, sent a military air force plane with goods. It is natural to assume that Russia still cooperates with India closely, and that both countries share military technology since Russian technology is still present in the Indian Ocean in the form of Indian warships, planes, submarines and radar.

The United States has vested interests in Sri Lanka in terms of security. Sri Lanka's strategic location in the Indian Ocean makes it a useful site for air and naval exercises. The United States provides special military training to Sri Lankan armed forces to fight the Tamil Tigers. Although, the U.S declared recently that it would stop providing military aid to Sri Lanka, senior officials recommended that the U.S. administration resume aid to Sri Lanka. Raja Mohan, an Indian journalist, observed that American policy towards South Asia changed in both intensity and quality after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. The United States wants Sri Lanka to be an important partner in fighting terrorism and started to focus on the deeper conflicts that have long troubled the region. When UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Presidents Clinton, and Bush, Senior, visited Sri Lanka in 2005, they were prevented from seeing some areas affected by the tsunami of 2004 because those areas were controlled by the Tamil Tigers. Like the UK, the U.S. wanted to appoint former president Bill Clinton as the peace envoy for Sri Lanka. That move was also cancelled due to local political reasons. The U.S. evinced a keen interest in eastern Sri Lanka, especially in the port city of Trincomalee. This move did not make neighbouring India happy, and, as a result, India signed the Indo-Lanka Accord (1987) not allowing any foreign countries to set foot in Lanka's soil without India's consent. But, because India has got closer to the United States, especially since September 11, 2001, India does not worry too much about the United States.

The Maldivian government maintains political neutrality and, therefore, cooperates with all countries. The Maldivian population has good relations with Pakistan because both countries share the same religion. It has a pro-India policy, and does not want to alienate China. In 2001, Maldives and China signed a deal allowing China to establish a naval base in Marao for the purpose of countering the rise of Indian and American naval forces in the region. This will definitely give the Maldivian government headaches in years to come, as India and the United States do not want a Chinese naval base on the Maldivian soil; however, the Maldives agreed to the deal because the nation needed the economic support from booming China.

In future, the Maldives may be a battleground for the major international players. Russia wants to have good relations with the Maldives so that it can conduct naval exercises with its Indian counterparts. The Americans are also active in the area. Historically, during the 1960s and 1970s, because the United States wanted to keep the Russians and Chinese at bay, it decided to establish a base at Diego Garcia. The chain of islands near Mauritius and Madagascar are still under the control of the British Queen. The British and American navies conduct daily exercises between the Middle East and Diego Garcia.

All the major players, including the United States, Britain, Russia, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Japan, and China, aspire to have direct influence on Sri Lanka and the Maldives. One reason is that these countries are located in the Indian Ocean, a location considered significant for economic, security and political reasons. Other reasons include the importance of oil and gas resources and their safe transportation, and the need to make new alliances in the new era of terrorism and counter-terrorism. However, it is up to the citizens of these two countries to decide whether they compromise their sovereignty for the sake of good relations with these powers.

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Source: The Midweek Review (The Island - February 27, 2008)