A Tough Act

Sri Lanka faces the tough job of stay­ing on neu­tral ground with its big­ger neigh­bors to the north – Pak­istan and In­dia.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Asna Ali The writer is a business grad­u­ate. She has in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal and so­cial is­sues.

Sri Lanka faces the tough job of jug­gling re­la­tions with both of its big­ger neigh­bors - Pak­istan and In­dia.

All coun­tries en­e­mies or al­lies, spy on each other. This is well known and is only brought up when some­one ends up with egg on their face – such as when Ed­ward Snow­den dis­closed the spy­ing ac­tiv­i­ties of the U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency in coun­tries around the world.

A few months ago, the In­dian me­dia broke a story re­gard­ing sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­i­ties of a Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence agency, ac­cus­ing it of us­ing Sri Lanka as a home base. Ac­cord­ing to the ex­pose, one of the diplo­mats at­tached with the Pak­istan High Com­mis­sion in Sri Lanka was in fact an in­tel­li­gence agent. The per­son in ques­tion, Amir Zubair Sid­diqui, was ac­cused of be­ing the han­dler of a Sri Lankan na­tional who was al­legedly ar­rested with photographs of the U.S. and Is­raeli con­sulates in Chen­nai and Ban­ga­lore.

Since then, the diplo­mat in ques­tion has been with­drawn from Sri Lanka. Pak­istan has is­sued a state­ment denying all al­le­ga­tions and la­bel­ing them a ploy to de­stroy its close re­la­tion­ship with Sri Lanka.

The al­le­ga­tions are se­ri­ous enough to put yet another dent in Pak­istan’s in­ter­na­tional stand­ing and to fur­ther ce­ment its im­age of be­ing a coun­try which sup­ports ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties. How­ever, the most alarm­ing as­pect of the al­le­ga­tions is that the Pak­istani in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are re­cruit­ing for­eign na­tion­als and us­ing neigh­bor­ing coun­tries as home bases for ac­tiv­i­ties from which they wish to con­ve­niently dis­tance them­selves later.

How much truth there is in this re­port re­mains to be seen. How­ever, its ef­fects are be­ing felt. Sri Lanka has with­drawn its visa on ar­rival fa­cil­ity for Pak­ista­nis and has started en­forc­ing stricter con­trols on asy­lum seek­ers. Some 88 Pak­ista­nis were deported from Sri Lanka for ‘se­cu­rity

rea­sons’. The num­ber of Pak­istani asy­lum seek­ers head­ing to Sri Lanka was in­creas­ing at a very fast rate and the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment had termed this in­flux as a risk both in terms of law and or­der and health­care.

How­ever, the de­por­ta­tions are mainly viewed as an at­tempt to ap­pease the con­cerns of the In­dian au­thor­i­ties about Pak­istan-Sri Lanka re­la­tions. The majority of the asy­lum seek­ers be­long to mi­nor­ity groups fac­ing per­se­cu­tion in Pak­istan. Although the de­por­ta­tions are not likely to ruf­fle any feath­ers in Pak­istan, the ac­tion has not gone down well with the UNHCR which la­beled it as a con­tra­ven­tion of in­ter­na­tional law and is try­ing to stop them.

If in­deed th­ese de­por­ta­tions are a re­ac­tion to In­dia’s con­cerns, they amount to lit­tle more than lip ser­vice and are not likely to harm Sri Lanka’s re­la­tion­ship with Pak­istan. The Pak­istani gov­ern­ment is not ex­pected to show much con­cern over the mem­bers of mi­nor­ity groups try­ing to get away from their home coun­try. This could also be an ef­fort to quell the con­cerns of hard­line groups within Sri Lanka. Th­ese groups have been tar­get­ing the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity in re­cent months.

Sri Lanka and Pak­istan en­joy cor­dial re­la­tions. The two coun­tries have a free trade agree­ment and Pak­istan was a ma­jor weapons sup­plier to Sri Lanka dur­ing the civil war. In the past, In­dia has also ex­pressed its reser­va­tions on Pak­istan’s in­creas­ing ties with the Mal­dives. It feels that Pak­istan’s re­la­tion­ship with any coun­try in the re­gion will mark the be­gin­ning of that coun­try’s de­scent to­wards re­li­gious ex­trem­ism and may give rise to ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity di­rected to­wards In­dia.

The In­dian me­dia has fur­ther claimed that a dossier was pre­pared about the ac­tiv­i­ties of the al­leged Pak­istani oper­a­tive which would be handed over to the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment. How­ever, no such doc­u­ment has so far been pre­sented to Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties. If there were any ev­i­dence, it would con­firm the al­le­ga­tions and ru­mors against Pak­istan. It would be a fi­asco of mas­sive proportions if the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment had to de­fend some­thing like this in front of the world. While the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment will pre­fer not to have the coun­try’s soil used as a breed­ing ground for ter­ror­ism, it can also un­der­stand the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of be­ing em­broiled in the com­pli­cated saga that is the Pak­istan-In­dia re­la­tion­ship. In the past, both In­dia and Pak­istan have flung al­le­ga­tions at each other that were never sub­stan­ti­ated. But there is also an es­tab­lished his­tory of covert acts of sab­o­tage and vi­cious ma­lign­ing of each other’s rep­u­ta­tion in the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Over the past sev­eral years, Pak­istan has be­come in­creas­ingly iso­lated. The Tal­iban have seen to it that for­eign na­tion­als are wary of en­ter­ing the coun­try and of bring­ing any in­vest­ment. The in­abil­ity to erad­i­cate po­lio has re­sulted in in­ter­na­tional travel bans. Even sports have suf­fered, as no for­eign team is will­ing to visit Pak­istan. Dur­ing the past sev­eral months, var­i­ous air­lines sus­pended their flights to Pak­istan tem­po­rar­ily – again be­cause of ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Through­out this time, Sri Lanka has re­mained one of Pak­istan’s stead­fast al­lies. It has been a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship and re­gard­less of var­i­ous al­le­ga­tions, the Sri Lankan es­tab­lish­ment ap­pears to be in no mood to sever its ties with Pak­istan.

In fact, in the wake of the In­dian news­pa­per’s re­port and the de­por­ta­tion of Pak­istani asy­lum seek­ers, sev­eral high level meet­ings have taken place be­tween diplo­mats and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials from both sides, in­clud­ing a meet­ing be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif and Sec­re­tary to Sri Lanka's Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs Min­istry, Mrs. Kshenuka Senevi­ratne. Dur­ing the meet­ings, both coun­tries af­firmed their con­tin­ued ded­i­ca­tion to main­tain­ing co­op­er­a­tion in mat­ters of econ­omy and trade as well as com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism and transna­tional crime.

Sri Lanka has the tough job of stay­ing on neu­tral ground with both its big­ger neigh­bors in the north. It must also jug­gle this with lo­cal con­cerns and the tough choices as­so­ci­ated with hav­ing open bor­der re­la­tion­ships and the re­sult­ing di­ver­sity in its pop­u­lace and econ­omy. The up­heaval has not gone down well with cer­tain seg­ments of Sri Lankan so­ci­ety which have turned to vi­o­lence and dis­cord to ex­press their dis­plea­sure at what is seen as a threat to the tra­di­tional or the ‘real’ iden­tity of the coun­try.

How­ever, it is not pos­si­ble to per­fectly pre­serve the tra­di­tional – or ‘the right way of life’ for some – if a coun­try wishes to ben­e­fit from the fruits of in­ter­na­tional trade. Even na­tions like Bhutan, that have in the past kept them­selves shut off from the world for this very rea­son, are grad­u­ally com­ing around to the idea purely due to eco­nomic ne­ces­sity. Whether the hard­line groups want it or not, Sri Lanka will have to embrace di­ver­sity and change and also try to main­tain good re­la­tion­ships with its trad­ing part­ners re­gard­less of their in­fight­ing. It is a tough act but one that is es­sen­tial for the coun­try’s eco­nomic sur­vival.

For good or for bad, th­ese neigh­bors are here to stay. It would be far bet­ter to leave be­hind Cold War era tac­tics of es­pi­onage and blame games in fa­vor of eco­nomic gains through mu­tual co­op­er­a­tion. One won­ders how many more years all sides will take to un­der­stand this.

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