A Tough Act
Sri Lanka faces the tough job of staying on neutral ground with its bigger neighbors to the north – Pakistan and India.
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Since then, the diplomat in question has been withdrawn from Sri Lanka.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 Sri Lanka has withdrawn its visa on arrival facility for Pakistanis and has started enforcing stricter controls on asylum seekers.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.