x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Powerful friends put Sri Lanka in a dilemma

The country either is caught in the middle of Pakistan and India's stance on the Cricket World Cup.

COLOMBO // When Tamil rebels threatened to oust troops from the besieged northern city of Jaffna in April 2000, India placed ships at Sri Lanka's disposal to evacuate the soldiers. But Pakistan, at Colombo's request, quickly sent powerful multi-barrel guns, which helped stall the rebel offensive and save the day for Sri Lanka's troops. Given India's role as a regional superpower and Pakistan's military support to Sri Lanka, Colombo has for years walked a tightrope to please both of its powerful neighbours.

Now, a week after winning a bloody and bruising victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is being called upon to choose sides between the South Asian rivals - this time on the cricket field. Both Pakistan and India are seeking Sri Lanka's support in a fight over the 2011 Cricket World Cup, which was to be held in all three of the subcontinental countries. Pakistan has been upset by the International Cricket Council's (ICC) decision to remove previously scheduled World Cup matches from its cities, citing security reasons. Concerns over the safety of players proved to be too much after the Sri Lankan team was attacked in Lahore in March.

Pakistan obtained a stay order against the ICC decision from a local court while Pakistan's chairman of the World Cup Organising Committee, Ijaz Butt, visited Sri Lanka and India earlier this month to encourage support in opposition to the decision. At the very least, the Pakistan Cricket Board would like to exchange places with Australia and New Zealand, which are hosting the competition in 2015. Pakistan says South Asia can host the tournament that year, pointing out that security is also an issue in India and Sri Lanka.

Indian cricket authorities, however, want to keep the 2011 tournament in the region, sensing huge commercial benefits with some part of Pakistan's quota of matches being played in India instead. So who should Sri Lanka back: India or Pakistan? "That's a real dilemma. Both countries are extremely important to Sri Lanka - India in particular," said a Sri Lankan foreign affairs commentator. "On the other hand we cannot sideline Pakistan."

The analyst, a retired Sri Lankan diplomat who declined to be named, said India would be seeking a bigger role in Sri Lanka in coming months as the post-conflict reconstruction and rebuilding takes off after last week's defeat of the LTTE, ending 30 years of conflict. India has been interested in Sri Lanka's political and economic developments for decades. When Sri Lanka's then president, Junius Richard Jayewardene, negotiated a deal in the 1980s with a US company to use the port of Trincomalee to store oil, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi objected, saying it would be used to supply US warships, endangering India's security.

As a result, India helped train Sri Lankan Tamil rebel groups after 1983, formalising a movement that turned into the one of the world's most ruthless militant organisations. Mohan Samaranayake, a Sri Lankan foreign affairs analyst, said nothing can happen without "India's say so". "India is a regional superpower and to perpetuate and sustain that power it needs to dominate weaker countries in the region. Call it bullying or whatever you like, Sri Lanka and smaller countries like us have to be kept in check. This happens all over the world," he said.

Mr Samaranayake said soon after the LTTE's leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed last week, India's foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, and defence adviser, RK Narayanan, flew to Colombo for talks with the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mr Menon suggested Colombo fully implement the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution, which provides for the ceding of some federal power to the provinces, including Tamil-dominated areas, through provincial councils.

These amendments came into force after the 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord. "India has a hand in everything we do," noted Mr Samaranayake, adding that whenever Sri Lanka reaches out to the world for support it has to be done in a way that does not displease India. Sri Lanka on the other hand has used the arch rivalry between India and Pakistan to its advantage, often inviting investors from both countries to use Colombo as a trade gateway.

With the conflict ending and the country set for an economic boom after years of stalled progress, analysts say India is waiting on the sidelines and hopes to be a big part of the action. Pakistan's military support, however, proved crucial in winning the war with the LTTE - often when the rest of the world, including India, was not receptive to Sri Lanka's needs - and will not be forgotten. Analysts say it was this friendship that led to the Sri Lankan cricket team to Lahore last March. The Sri Lankans had replaced the England team, which had pulled out of a tour of Pakistan.

Yet, the political reality of India's economic dominance will take precedence over long-term friendships. "Sri Lanka doesn't like to be placed in such a situation but given a choice, it would have to back India," said a former Sri Lanka Cricket Board official, referring to the World Cup dispute. fsamath@thenational.ae