Monthly Archives: June 2012

Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar with the President of China National Petroleum Corporation, Chen Geng in Beijing on January 13.

In 2006 the India’s Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and the Head of the National Reform and Development Commission Ma Kai, (the chief economic for planning and energy minister),signed an agreement “aimed at preventing the two nations’ competition for oil assets pushing up prices.[…]Co-operation between China and India could benefit international energy companies by reducing the ferocity of the bidding.[…]Under their agreement, Chinese and Indian oil companies will establish a formal procedure to exchange information about a possible bid target, before agreeing to co-operate formally”(source: Financial Times)(read also: China Daily; Asian Times.

In the 18th century China and India accounted for half of world economy (source: The Economist). Then they’ve been surprised by the Western economic and scietific model and fell in disgrace. What’s happening today is just the re-equilibrium of forces. The combined population, industrial output and economic growth will make the two defining axis of the future.
And they are already trying to understand each other, because the confrontation will be though and every move will count towards vital interests. They are too big, too close. They cannot fight each other directly,but they cannot simply coexist. They are too big, too close to peacefully play the boy-scouts. Any rise in one’s prestige, influence and power is inversely affecting the other. They will benefit each other, but they can’t just mind their own business.

courtesy AP

Recently they showed a series of reciprocal disturbances, with China even sending patrols inside the Indian borders of the Himalaya. At the moment they are playing the game of mutual encirclement. India is warming its relationships with Japan and Korea via USA, its also courting Vietnam for cooperation in the South China Sea, with much disappointement by Beijing. On the other front, China is cementing a military and industrial partnership with Pakistan. It became also an essential partner for Sri Lanka. Not only economically, president Rajapakse owns everything to Beijing.

Maybe it will be only competition rather than confrontation, but China and India are rising the stake on each other.

East West Shipping lane. Any goods moved from Europe, Middle East and Africa to South East and to Far East Asia, pass on this lane.

Sri Lanka lies few miles away from the busiest shipping lane of the world: the East-West route. All the maritime transport of goods from Europe, Middle East and Africa towards Asia, pass through that lane. The strategic valued of Sri Lanka cannot possibly be overstated. 70% of China oil supply from Middle East and Africa, travels through that lane (see Christopher J. Pehrson,2006 String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies. Institute). To protect this vital artery, China developed what has been dubbed the “String of Pearls”, a series of strategic ports to secure this line in Pakistan, Maldives, Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka (see ibidem).

Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean

Any of these pearl has its own value. In Pakistan for example the Gwadar is connecting the Xinjiang region with the Indian Ocean. It is only 240 miles distant from the Strait of Hormuz . Myanmar has its own gas reserve to be exploited and refined. But Sri Lanka case is peculiar.
It’s on very the route of the East-West Shipping lane. And it is only 20 miles from India.

courtesy Xinhua/Zha Chunming)

Chinese premier Hu Jintao affirmed that the Indian Ocean will become an example of “harmonious ocean”. The argument goes that you don’t need to fear the Chinese naval expansion. Clearly the first reaction is that probably Chinese are in the business of re-semantization. Harmonious here sounds to much as hegemonic. But Mr Hu Jintao is building also at home an harnonious society…Probably the source of misunderstanding is that Beijing wants in good faith establish a new order. But it is not ready to negotiate it. The suspicion comes only from the fact that Beijing expect everyone to gladly accept its plans. They are probably good plans, but without discussion, the harmony looks pretty much imposed.

The String of Pearls theory started in 2005. In that year aid from China jumped from few handful of millions to a staggering $ 1 billion in 2005. In 2011 more than $ 3.7 billion have been allocated for the project. The construction of the port was launched in January 20087.
China bankrolled the project, but also heavily supported the government in its war against the LTTE. Not only Beijing sold military technology desperately needed by Colombo, in order to build an edge against the guerrilla of the Tigers. China also backed institutionally Sri Lanka in front of the United Nations. Essentially with its vote in the security council guaranteed to Colombo impunity for any possible misconduct committed during the war.

Few doubt that Colombo is a pearl for China; the question is: why India was so happy to underwrite the same strategy that is tightening the string in its own sphere of influence?

Sri Lanka must have very good arguments.


India is not on the side of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, but Tamils are on the side of India. So it seems that in the IV Eelam War, the Tamils were an impediment on the path of New Delhi to achieve its goals: it didn’t want them on its side.

Hence New Delhi backed Rajapaksa up and not the Tamils. The policy of Rajapaksa has been defined by three main poles: to annihilate the LTTE, to increase wealth and to concentrate power and wealth in his own hands.

The military campaign seems instrumental to guarantee a firm support, blinding the Sri Lankan citizens in favor of the increasingly despotic attitudes of the President.

The hunt for deals ranged from Iran (biggest supplier of oil and biggest donor in 2008 with more than $1 billion) to Pakistan (bilateral trade stands at $400 million but is expected to reach $2 billions in a year time), not to mention the Chinese aid: from few millions in 2005, Beijing pledged more than 3.7 billion in loans for infrastructures and related project, but the real figures could be much higher, including the military assistance and undisclosed deals. And Rajapaksa put under tight control this expansion: 70% of the national budget is under direct family control ( source: The Economist ).

The conclusion we can draw from India’s conduct in the IV Eelam War is that New Delhi blesses the business enterprise of Mr. Rajapaksa.

Lalgarth, assembly of Adivasis women.

Almost unknown in India there are more than 80 millions of indigenous people, the Adivasis. These people are living in the continent before unmemorable time. You may say that they always lived there. Recently their situation has been publicized due to severe injustice against their rights. Prevarication and disempowerment have been the constant attitude of the central government towards the Adivasis, but the situation deteriorated for a simple reason: in the territory inhabited by Adivasis, huge deposits of mineral resources have been found. Mine companies keen to put their hands on that wealth have supported para-military groups in an effort to drive out of their homeland these millennial inhabitants of India.
The case of Adivasis has been analysed to describe a general trend in the Indian: basically the dynamics subsequent to the independence has been characterized by a reverse colonization: a powerful, dominant Indian elite has been handed down the previous British dominion. The outcome is that an anglophone, foreign ruler has been substituted with an Hindi (but also anglophone), local ruler. Even worst: the European master was obliged to follow principle of civilization such as a generalized empowerment of human rights and citizenship. The impossibility to fairly and correctly grant this empowerment was the driving force the self-collapse of the British dominion. In fact it has lost a moral authority to rule other people, primarily under its own matrix of judgement. The new, local masters on the contrary didn’t feel the need to respect any principle. This is why such a vast portion of Indian society lives in extreme poverty and a complete disempowered state.
The new masters had the authority to rule only granted by their local ethnicity, in front of the British and by their strength to crush any other rival, in front of their people.
Therefore you can see that in the union process many actual battle have been fought against small rulers who didn’t recognize the new master. The unification of modern India passed through, also, sheer military conquest.
The centrifugal forces are always running underground because of this purely violent force of cohesion. The separation from Pakistan has been a miracle of pacific transition only because of the unique personality of Mahatama Gandhi: otherwise it could have been a bloodbath of inhumane proportion. The persistent tensions in all the are, from Bagladesh to Sri Lanka, from Kashmir to Maldives, from Nepal to Myanmar are the resultant of this despotic rule.
Politics in India is governed by local chieftains who administered the empire of the central rulers, as representative of the strength, not the law.
The new Hindi ruler are of course incarnated in the first place by the Gandhi family, though not exclusively. And they are paradigmatic for two reason: in the first place, because with peace to democracy, the central power in India is handed down dinastically. Second, because this supreme power is far from being uncontested: the tragic history of the family is the mirror of the centrifugal forces in the kingdom ruled by the family itself.

The LTTE was a small, yet very determined army. It was a clandestine outfit, with no international recognition, therefore its capacity of supply, its movement and its organization were quite restricted. On the other side, the Sri Lankan army could count on almost unlimited access to military equipment (everything in their range cost), no problems in delivery and much larger and secure sources of funding. Moreover, the base for enrolment was significantly different: the Sinhalese are 20 millions, while the Tamil in the Northern provinces 800 000. The LTTE was disadvantaged, but its cadres were single-minded, extremely motivated and probably with no other choice.

The courage and bravery of the Tigers became legendary and in fact they were surrounded by an aura of invincibility. Amongst these warriors, on top within the LTTE itself, were the Black Tigers. They were voted to fight till death and it was considered a huge honour to be enlisted in their ranks. The Black Tigers were a terrific weapon also in the psychological war: image a Sri Lankan patrol, facing an ambush. They knew that their enemy didn’t want to survive the battle, the most fundamental principle of self-conservation was lost. Your opponent wants your elimination so strongly, that he’s ready to give up his own life. There is clearly no braver soldier. You would consider ‘brave’ a man who desire so much to live on his terms, that is ready to die for them. He’s definitely a man of principle and courage. Further on his ideals are not selfish or despicable: he simply desires to live peacefully in what he defines as his homeland. No surprise that amongst their people, the Black Tigers were highly estimated.

So an offensive of Black Tigers, a suicide operation against a military target, could lead us to define them as ‘heroes’ for their people.

But here lies an immense difference. Indeed the operations for the Black Tigers could be against a military patrol, but also against a coach, transporting troops right in the middle of a big city. And further on: an institutional figure speaking in public places or working in office open to the public. In other words a military target could include civilians, more or less directly at the centre of the attack. The training is the same, the determination, the purity of principles, the courage, almost exactly the same person. But one is destined to hit other soldiers, other people who commit to a risky job for equally valid principles or money. Adult who made a choice to confront violently their opponents, with the accept possibility of dying. The other storms lives of innocents, whose only blame is to be right on the worst spot at the worst time. One is a warrior, a hero, the other is a terrorist and a criminal. For the Tamils, for the supporter of Tamil Eelam, the two are fighting the same battle. This is a mistake. One is fighting a war, the other civilization. And the lack of distinction brings the two on the same, wrong side.

Aranthalawa Massacre
June 2, 1987 The LTTE terrorists massacred and brutally mutilated 33 young monks at Aranthalawa in Amapara.
Courtesy Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka

IAF aircrew being congratulated by the ground crew at Bangalore Airport on the evening of June 4th, 1987.
Courtesy Indian Air Force

On the 4th of June 1987, India stopped the siege of Jaffna by the Sri Lankan army. It was a humanitarian intervention but also a symbolic gesture: you don’t have the right to take this. And the Sri Lankan president Jayewardene took this action as a military one,calling it “a naked violation of our independence” (1). Allegedly he threatened to fight Indians till the last bullet, but actually he sought to find an agreement with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Rajiv Gandhi, India Prime Minister in 1987
courtesy Corbis – Bettman

New Delhi couldn’t simply tolerate the massacre of Tamil civilians, that was about to happen due to shelling and starvation. At the time Mr Gandhi stated that “As the offensive progressed, […] hundreds of civilians were dying from intense shelling and air strikes, undercutting hopes of India’s negotiating a political settlement.”(2)

It is fair to remember that in 1971 India also intervened to guarantee the independence of Bangladesh, at the time integral part of Pakistan. The move could be seen as the prodrome to support secession. There was a genuine fear that of annexation from India. So the reaction of Colombo can be easily understood. But the plan of Mr Gandhi was different: he soothed the fears of Mr Jayewardene, in talks that culminated with e Indo-Lankan agreements few months later. So the mission wasn’t to help the insurgents in their struggle.

You may say that it was dictated by the sheer compassion for the civilians of Tamil ethnicity. Well, of course it was probably an influential factor. But you need to judge it also from the perspective of the consequences: the liberators turned very soon in to invaders. The tension clearly escalated because the LTTE didn’t want to hand out their weapons. The suspicion was that New Delhi wanted simply to exercise its rule on the other side of the Strait.

Mullivaikal Massacre of Tamil civilians, May 2009

Today we can only assist to the uncanny resemblance of the siege of Jaffna in 1987 and the massacre of Mullivaikal in 2009. In between there is the murder of Mr Gandhi by the LTTE. It was probably one of the biggest, strategic mistake of Mr Prabhakaran. But he did what he did, because he felt that the Tamil cause was endangered by New Delhi as it was by Colombo. I’m not suggesting that he was right, but I take his fear as an insight in the Indian intention towards the Sri Lankan situation.

Finally, if New Delhi saw the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi as a condemnation of the LTTE, why the entire Tamil population had to be involved? Rumours in the last phase of the war were saying that another humanitarian intervention could be send. The LTTE was done, but it was still possible to give relief to the civilians. It was possible and it was a moral obligation for India to intervene for the Tamil people, for the hundreds of thousands innocents, who were just in the middle of the Sri Lankan triumph and the LTTE’s defeat.Mr Gandhi himself couldn’t bear the sight of such a massacre: why 25 years later his heirs could?

(1), (2)Weisman, Steven R., New York Times (5 June 1987). “India airlifts aid to Tamil rebels”.

The Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka

India and the Tamils in Sri Lanka are intimately connected. From a pure geographical proximity, the distance between the sub-continent and the island is tiny. The patch of sand extends till almost touching the northern coasts of Sri Lanka; this strip is known also as the Adam’s Bridge or the Ram Setu, the bridge built by the god Rama to take back his wife. The mythological narrative of an almighty Indian entity and take what he claims, can be considered disturbingly real.

India needs to keep track of what is happening in its own backyard, because of the direct repercussions in domestic politics. Its eye must have been fixed on the Tamil dilemma in Sri Lanka.

To one extent the ethnic continuity with its own population in Tamil Nadu establish a link of blood tie with to the far shore of the Palk Stait.

Ram Setu: the god Rama builds a bridge to take back his spouse, Sita.

The flip side of the coin is that too pronounced an expression of Tamil identity could have centrifugal forces within India; it could reinforce the nationalism in Tamil Nadu, and could in general feed separatism all over the country.

 For these reasons, the relation between India and Sri Lanka is characterized by a complicated balancing of competing forces.

New Delhi feels of being connected to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, attached to their actions, yet it doesn’t want them to fulfill their aspirations. If you claim that a group belongs to your party, but your party doesn’t negotiate and recognize with that group its requests, you impose an asymmetrical relationship with that group: with you as the master.

 This is precisely the position of New Delhi regarding the Tamils: to master, to use and to control them. Like a demi-god, who decides when it’s time to intervene and when it’s time to retreat.