Geopolitics Of Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka Postwar Challenges In Reconciliation

Speech by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera at Ca’Foscari University in Venice

The prestigious Ca’Foscari University, School of International Relations in Venice invited Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Adviser to Minister of Finance, former Executive Director Kadirgamar Institute and Director General BIDTI, to deliver the 6th PISE (Philosophy, International Studies & Economics) lecture on 15th March 2016.  Abeyagoonasekera was the first Sri Lankan to deliver a lecture at the prestigious Ca’Foscari University in Venice, School of International Relations.  The lecture was on “Geopolitics of Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka postwar challenges in reconciliation”. Abeyagoonasekera was introduced by Professor.Sara De Vido.  Following is the full text.

Good evening, Prof.Sara De Vido, distinguished scholars ladies and gentleman,

I was told it’s the first time a Sri Lankan and a South Asian speaker is delivering a lecture at Ca’Foscari University PISE lecture series and it is a great honour and privilege to speak at this prestigious University in Venice. This is the 6th International PISE (Philosophy International Studies Economics) Lecture and I wish your program great success.

I am certain we will have more academics and scholars who will visit in the years to come from Sri Lanka. I thank Prof.MatteoLegrenzi and the University for the kind invitation. Venice has been one of my favorite places since I was a child and I enjoy your hospitality and the beautiful city. Byron called Venice "the city is like a dream", for me it's a chemistry of poetry of light and water surrounded by narrow and gloomy lanes filled with romance.

Before I begin my lecture on “Geopolitics of Indian Ocean: Sri Lanka postwar challenges in reconciliation” a topic which I have spoken in United States earlier and few other places, I would like to offer my deepest sympathy to the innocent victims of the recent bomb attack two days ago in Ankara. This is the third attack in the Turkish capital in less than six months which shows the multiple security threats that Turkey now faces. A stable corner of the Middle East and the West's crucial ally Turkey, now in a volatile region and at a dangerous moment.  Pain of one nation should be pain of another as we are all interconnected in this world.  This was the situation Sri Lanka faced for three decades and our streets were bombed by suicide attacks and we lost many lives.  With the right political and military leadership with the courageous Sri Lankan military officers we crushed the rebels in 2009.  From this day all Sri Lankans has enjoyed peace and we have not witnessed the ugly side of horror of war which I have witnessed since my birth and also became a victim due to the assassination of my father in 1994.

Let me begin by giving you a snapshot of Sri Lankan history, political system and demography of the Island. Sri Lanka was called in the ancient days by the Roman’s as Taprobana which Ptolemy drew in his map a larger island below Indian sub-continent, the Island was also called Lanka, Lanka Dweepa, Arabs called us Serendib and Ceylon was the former name before the Island became Sri Lanka.

Recorded history speaks of emissaries between Sri Lanka and Rome in the 1st century.  According to historian Pliny, there were four members from Sri Lanka who visited (Circa 50 A.D.) the Court of Emperor Claudius Caesar.  Another delegation from Sri Lanka arrived in Rome during the time of Emperor Julian (Circa A.D. 375).  This was during the reign of King Mahanama of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was known for its spices and specially the Cinnamon still the world’s best and today for its fine tea.  Marco Polo visited our Island according to his book of Travels and saw a huge sapphire which belongs to the King, even now Sri Lankan Blue Sapphire is known as the best in the world.

The country was colonized by Portuguese followed by Dutch and finally the British in 1815.  The country gained independence in 1948 from the British rule.

The country has little above 20 million population, with 12 million working age population. Ethnicity of the Island is close to 75% is Sinhalese, 11% Sri Lankan Tamils, 9% Moors and 4% Indian Tamils. There are smaller minority of Malays and Burghers.  Religious statistics are Buddhists make up 70.1% of the population, Hindus 12.6%, Muslims 9.7% and Christians 7.6%.

We have an Executive President our 1978 constitution similar to French constitution six years term for President and five years to the Parliament.

There are two main political parties, the green party United National Party and the blue party the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.  Both parties ruled the nation since independence and at the moment we have for the first time a bipartisan government the blend of green and blue.  The President newly elected last year, President Sirisena is from the Blue party and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe from Green party.

Geopolitics of Indian Ocean

With this brief introduction I will take you to the first part of the lecture geopolitics of Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka is seen by many Scholars including Robert Kaplan in his book “The Monsoon” as a Geo-strategic Hub.  In one of the interviews he clearly states “I consider Sri Lanka part of the new geography.  It’s part of the new maritime geography, and that makes it very important”.

From the ancient time Sri Lanka has been a geo-strategic hot spot due to its geographical positioning 6 degrees North and 79 degrees East at the center of the ancient maritime silk route.

It’s on the Rimland of Spykman and a connector of East-West shipping lines. The interest in the Indian Ocean has become a topic of “new geography” due to the large hydrocarbon energy deposits and a passage to bring the required energy resources for the emerging giant China.  China is already becoming the world’s largest consumer of petroleum and other energy resources to become the production house of the entire world.  The oil consumption growth was on 43% in 2014.  To maintain this and the future demand China requires a continuous supply of its energy resource.  The recent South China sea turmoils are all to secure the sea around them which will unlock to the Indian Ocean a priority for China.

Previous Sri Lankan regime of President Rajapaksa had a clear Beijing Centric Foreign Policy this was due to the great assistance given by China to defeat the terrorist group and for infrastructure development aid.

A small nation like Sri Lanka has tilted its foreign policy from non-aligned to Washington centric, New Delhi Centric and Beijing Centric directions in the past due to the interest of many key players in the Indian Ocean.

This massive Chinese development aid which came with a construction of a massive port “Hambanthota” became the most debated topic.  According to Robert Kaplan “The main sea lines of communication between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.  It’s part of China’s plan to construct a string of pearls – ports that they don’t own, but which they can use for their warships all across the Indian Ocean”. Therefore Hambanthota is the diamond in the string of pearl theory due to the position at the center of string of pearls.

Hambanthota port was seen at the southern tip of Sri Lanka which is closer to the busiest shipping lanes of the world few nautical miles just outside the port.  This is seen by some experts as a Chinese strategy for military presence in the Indian Ocean which China denies clearly stating as this is only for economic and trade benefit only.

If you refer Kerry’s report on Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, he urged the US government to forge closer ties with Sri Lanka to prevent it from drifting into the “Chinese orbit”.  The Rajapaksa foreign relationship with Chinese elevated to strategic relationship with the visit of Chinese President Xi to the Island.  The nuclear submarine which was docked in Colombo became a big issue for the neighboring India and threatened to some extent India’s security sphere in the region according to few New Delhi Scholars.

The Indian Minister of State for External Affairs informed the Upper House of the Indian Parliament that a Chinese submarine visited Colombo for “replenishment purposes” and the Sri Lankan government had assured Delhi that it would not do “anything against the security interests of India”.  The Indian Navy chief announced that Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean were being continuously monitored and his force was “ready to face any challenge” (Times of India, September 25, 2014).  However, the Indian strategic community warned that China was testing the Modi government to resolve not only on land but also at sea (Times of India, September 28, 2014)

This was seen as a strategy to remove the former President Rajapaksa and restore the balance with India and the West.  According to South China Morning Post, the former president blamed India’s spy agency RAW for conspiring to bring him down. “I asked the Indians, ‘Why are you doing this? … I assured them that I would never allow the Sri Lankan soil to be used against any friendly country, but they had other ideas,” Rajapaksa said.

It was a clear zero sum to a positive sum game working with west and the rest a balance restored by removing the former President’s Beijing centric regime.  But as I said the Island is a hot spot which can get heated really fast and reset really fast too as many key global players has interest in this place, only for its geographical position.


If you look at the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, Sri Lanka was one of the first nations to support Maritime Silk Road initiative of President Xi.  I have visited China twice to speak of the importance of this initiative as Sri Lanka is at the center of Maritime Silk Road.  Revival of the ancient MSR  will benefit many developing countries like Sri Lanka to bolster trade, tourism and perhaps security.

The six economic corridors and MSR is all sitting on the classical theories of Rimland and Heartland.  I call this a re-visit to Mackinder and Spykman.  A paper I have written recently. Classical Geopolitics explains whoever controls the Heartland or Rimland will be the power of the world.  OBOR with its 6 corridors include China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.

(CMREC),New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB),China-Central and West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC),China-Indo-China Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC),China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC). OBAR will connect 4.4b people around 60 Nations from a US$900b economy. All this will happen in the backdrop with ASEAN trade with China now $500b will reach $1trillion by 2020. US – India relations which has become very strong with Civil Nuclear Agreement signed in 2006 and Modi-Obama relationship showing very positive signs.

Sri Lanka needs to navigate its political economy in this environment.

China which has given so much of aid and assistance to Sri Lanka is a factor that needs to be managed and impossible to disconnect due to the recent relationship and the historical friendship. Suspension of Chinese projects by the present Government during election and commencement is a clear sign.  Prime Minister Wickramasinghe’s visit next month to China with his statement of further development of 10,000 Acres with Chinese investment closer to the Hambanthota Port is a clear indication of this.

According to statement made by Harry B Harris US Pacific commander clearly states to resume US-Sri Lanka ties an important strategic location “given Sri Lanka’s location it’s in America’s interest to increase military collaboration”.

If we revisit history of US Sri Lanka relations, Voice of America was broadcasted from Sri Lanka and during President Nixon’s visit in 1953 he states in his interview to Radio Ceylon the role US would play to suppress communism and using Sri Lanka as a strategic partner for this mission.

We can’t look at todays events without revisiting history and whatever we research today as scholars the same set of variables with a different time frame was researched during the past.  Sri Lankan politics will be affected time to time by the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean due to its positioning closer to India and closer to Maritime route.  Balancing New Delhi Washington and Beijing will be a priority for Sri Lankan foreign policy.

It is important the nation invest in Defence research, a research think tank on Defence is essential and I am happy our Secretary Defence is in the process of developing the first Defence related think tank.  We don't have much research done unfortunately on Foreign Relations and Defecne.  The only Foreign relations think tank owned by Government the Kadirgamar Institute which I was heading for the last four years is an underinvested institute, even the annual research publication “Kadirgamar Review” which was introduced during my time was not continued and 2015 this was not published a very unfortunate situation.

Without investing in research Sri Lankan policy makers could make ad hoc decisions and get into real trouble.  This is the reason I have been requesting the Government to look into this important area and invest in research.  Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers can come and go but publications and research developed will remain in the libraries for the future leaders to refer.

Sri Lanka postwar challenges in reconciliation

My second part of the lecture will be on Sri Lanka postwar challenges in reconciliation; if you look at the brief history of the insurgency which became a civil war, triggered by several incidents which threatened the rights of the minority Tamil community; which became a civil war demanding for a separate state.

Further LTTE transformed into a violent terrorist entity killing innocent civilians which had to be eliminated militarily since many negotiations failed for a political solution.  This is the part I need to bring in my late father Ossie Abeyagoonasekera a national political leader who negotiated for a political solution in 1986 and failed then assassinated by the LTTE along with Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in 1994.  When he negotiated with LTTE and believed in devolution of power as the solution, some southern extreme nationalistic groups called him and his party members’ traitors back in the 80’s. And he clearly states what the LTTE is doing at that time, by killing innocent civilians and children is not the way forward and Prabakaran the leader of the rebel group is not willing to come to a political solution.  Some LTTE say my father was never in the hit list but his friend Gamini, whatever they say now, doesn’t justify the killing.  I have reconciled with the perpetrators and ready to work towards reconciliation thinking of a better future for the children and the next generation.

When I conducted eight National conferences in Reconciliation at the Government think tank in various themes, the public was well engaged and gave important input to the process. We even got a team of experts who was involved during the TRC of South Africa to speak at the think tank along with Sri Lankan experts and military personal.  We can’t import or plug in models from other countries; we could take some best practices and create our own model. Unfortunately all this is reset after the new administration.  I hope they will commence from the place we stopped all this important work.  The former President Chandrika Bandaranaike is given the task of looking into reconciliation process, she possess lot of experience from the past and actually she is one of the survivors from an attack, who was also a negotiator with LTTE in the 1980’s.

During the role of religion in reconciliation Reverend Father Emmanuel who is part of Global Tamil Forum contacted me and wanted to participate which I was very happy to bring him in to listen to his presentation, but the former government declined. I was clearly told I can reconcile with Tamil community but not with LTTE.  During a discussion with the former Secretary defence he clearly stated we can’t reconcile with LTTE but we can do reconciliation with rest of the others.  This was difficult task.

One of the first points I made was we can’t reconcile with victors justice in mind.  Victory parade transform to a reconciliation day.  We can’t keep pointing the finger and blaming and do reconciliation.  LLRC report we should have fully implemented with assistance and expertise from international community.  When I tried to bring “Interpeace” to assist our process at that time it was rejected.  Now we have them discussing with Sri Lankan Government a positive sign. You can’t shut rest of the world and do your own reconciliation.  In the “Role of Education in Reconciliation” we sent an input to Government to introduce peace education to schools but all this was just inputs no action.  I even got the remarkable Sri Lankan, Justice Weeramantry who introduced peace education to the world but failed to introduce to his own country to speak at the think tank.  On the “Role of Business Community in Reconciliation” we sent an input to introduce to most CSRs in private sector to include elements of reconciliation.  The conference on “Role of Women in Reconciliation” we addressed issues to overcome challenges the 40,000 war widows are facing.  All this were not given priority and implemented and that was the reason previous Government failed to win the North Eastern community vote.  My article I wrote train to Jaffna clearly questions the former President if the train can actually get votes for him.  It was too late when he realized train to Jaffna never got him his expected votes since he underinvested in reconciliation which was a priority.  When you are in power sometimes you are frozen in your own world and if you have ill advisers you will be in deep trouble.  He had a foreign policy adviser a Monitoring MP who used foreign ministry money for gambling and claimed the bills signed by the former foreign secretary very sad situation for a nation.  A brilliant Rhodes Scholar and an Oxford Professor his Foreign Minister couldn't do much with this setup.  A person like him will be a great asset for another nation.

With all this we see positive signs of reconciliation with the present regime.  President Sirisena who survived an assassination attempt several years ago, created the first sign towards true reconciliation by forgiving the LTTE rebel who was a key suspect.  He even got the National Anthem to be sung in both languages Sinhalese and Tamil. These are positive signs of reconciliation.  Prime Minister Wickramasinghe setup an advisory council for Young Global Leaders to advise him recently. From a close administration we have moved into an administration more outward and now we have media freedom restored fully, there are no blocked media sites.  I see five challenges as a nation we need to overcome.

The first challenge we face is internal the political culture needs to change.  Close to 100 Ministers, even few weeks ago another Minster was sworn in, the wives and family members working at Ministries should be chased away.  All appointments should be on meritocracy only. Without meritocracy you will not have the suitable people to run the institutes of the country. Since there are so many institutions they are reset regularly today you could be a Minister with one profile and tomorrow another Minister with a very different profile.  More than 80% of state Institutions running at losses due to inconsistent policies.  Politicians don't retire in Sri Lanka. Give you an example the electorate I contested Kelaniya, the organizer has lost so many times and he is still the organizer even after losing this time.  Everyone wait until someone dies to get a position.

Second, to make reconciliation as a National priority and Declare national reconciliation day and work towards reform with the public including the overseas Tamil diaspora, a diaspora re-engagement strategy should be worked out by the Government not NGOs; Constitutional reforms to bring in essence of reconciliation, devolution of power all this with public discussion and debate a priority.

Third, to provide economic benefit especially to the deprived victims such as the 40,000 war widows and all others in the war tone area of North-East, to create a better economic condition with resettlement and rehabilitation which is in much progress now.

Fourth, International assistance and support for the process. Working with “Interpeace”, USIP with terms of reference agreed with Government.  International Hybrid court with mix set of local and international judges which was suggested by UNHRC could be looked at but this is not the only way as many nations developed their own process.  When developing the process youth engagement in reconciliation process and policy making is essential, as the whole process is about creating a better environment for the next generation.  It’s difficult for the youth to get involved in policy making now in Sri Lanka due to the political culture I explained in the first point.

Fifth and my final point is reconciliation should have a genuine effort with all stakeholders including the Tamil Diaspora.  The nationalistic group BBS was invited to participate and also raise questions at the national reconciliation conference, some said to keep them away but I made sure we invited them at our reconciliation conference. You need to get everyone onboard some may not agree but we could find solutions together and act, not only discuss, it’s important to act. As Dante Alighieri says “The secret of getting things done is to act!”

Thank you!