The small island of Sri Lanka possesses an outsized geopolitical significance because of its position in the Indian Ocean along east-west sea-lanes vital for controlling the energy flow into Asia and port infrastructure not found in any nearby nation. In 2009, Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated national government ended a civil war against the Tamil Tiger insurgency that began in 1983, resulting in a heavy military occupation of Tamil territory and a relatively quiet four years.
However, the Sept. 21 elections to the local provincial councils in Northern Province — the first such election since the end of the civil war — have reawakened Sri Lanka's barely-suppressed ethnic tensions. While only 11.2 percent of Sri Lanka's total population is Tamil, 92 percent of the province's population are Tamils, and they share heritage with Indian Tamils only 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) across the Palk Strait. The Tamil National Alliance party — once supportive of the Tamil Tigers — enjoys support in Northern Province, and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has expressed doubts that his United People's Freedom Alliance coalition can win in the upcoming provincial council elections. Tamil local autonomy would threaten the centralized control and security that Colombo considers to be one of its strategic imperatives.
Colombo's Attempts to Integrate the Tamils
The provincial councils are administrative bodies that offer Tamils some of the autonomy that the Tigers fought for. In fact, they were originally a concession to the Tamil Tigers under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, after which Colombo enshrined them in a constitutional amendment and gave them the power to transfer land, direct economic development and field a police force. Although other councils are in place in other parts of the island, Northern Province's council is looking to be the first under Tamil control.
Other councils have already challenged Colombo; the council for North Western Province pushed for an exemption from Colombo's environmental law and for the ability to regulate its own resources. In July, Rajapaksa convened a parliamentary select committee (which is still meeting) with the goal of removing the councils' land and police powers. However, the councils are symbolic of the Tamil's distinct identity, and limiting them could create backlash against Colombo. Ongoing discoveries of Tamil Tiger weapons caches and a vocal militant Tamil diaspora are stark reminders of the possible implications of a failure on Colombo's part to incorporate its Tamil population — although any serious militant activity would be limited by Tamil war-weariness and a lack of support from India.
Since 2009, as an attempt to balance its own need for security and control with Tamil local interests, Colombo has tried to counteract the popularity of Tamil nationalists with development projects. Years of violence under the banner of the Tigers did little for the Tamil north but leave it poor and undeveloped, lacking the roads and electricity possessed by even remote areas of the Sinhalese south. Colombo has pushed ahead on major highway connections, electricity grid expansions, railway networks and the first stages of the $1.5 billion Northern Expressway project that will connect Colombo with Jaffna, Northern Province's capital.
These projects serve two purposes: economic and social integration, and the ability to rapidly deploy military into the area. Moreover, in August, Rajapaksa oversaw the opening of a garment factory in the northern city of Vavuniya — a move to increase employment for Tamil subsistence farmers and fishermen, and a potential opportunity for the southern Sri Lankan garment sector to take advantage of lower northern labor costs and pick up the slack from Chinese manufacturing. If it wins the provincial council elections, the Tamil National Alliance will have to compete with these large-scale projects with its own limited budget and administrative capacity.
China and India's Interests in the Tamil Issue
Many of the largest development projects in the Tamil north are made possible by heavy investment from China, which seeks to profit from Sri Lanka's newfound peace and establish an export market there. China is also interested in Sri Lanka as part of its energy security and long-term naval strategy in Asia. The island holds a key position for both.
In the first half of 2013, China and Hong Kong were the primary sources of investment capital for Sri Lanka, and China has become the second-largest source of Sri Lankan imports. For Sri Lanka, the cultivation of China as a patron over and above other major investors such as Malaysia opens to the door to diplomatic and military support and an ability to resist Indian interference. China provided Sri Lanka with the military equipment necessary to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and recent high-level talks in Beijing included promises of increased air force cooperation. Sri Lanka's ability to counteract New Delhi's political pressure and its invitation of Chinese influence has been a prominent foreign policy concern for India.
India seeks to maintain the ability to control its peripheral states — especially Sri Lanka, which also has a bearing on India's control of the seas. Simultaneously, it has a national security interest in keeping Sri Lanka calm and maintaining stability with its own Tamil population. Indian Tamils have long been vocal about the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils and offered local support for the Tamil Tigers. Because of China's patronage, Colombo can resist India's public calls for respect of Tamil rights, but India's backchannel efforts and Colombo's own interests in maintaining a connection with India have led Sri Lanka to hold off on removing the local provincial councils' powers granted by the aforementioned constitutional amendment. Colombo will delay any action on the matter at least until after the council elections, so New Delhi has some political breathing room with its own Tamil constituency. Both the Sri Lankan president and his brother, Defense Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, spoke in mid-September of India's continued importance in Sri Lanka's foreign policy, although they emphasized China's role as a key development partner.
For its part, New Delhi has continued courting Colombo, even as local politicians in India's Tamil Nadu state protest what they call the harsh tactics of Rajapaska's government. India announced Sept. 9 that it would give offshore patrol vessels to Colombo for the first time since 2000, and it is supporting Sri Lanka's claim in a territorial dispute between the island and the government in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi has even remained mute in the face of calls from home and abroad to boycott the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November. But India's current ruling national United Progressive Alliance government still enjoys the support of the local Tamil Nadu All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Party government, borne largely out of the central government's economic and energy support for Chennai and surrounding economies.
Other Concerns About the Elections
Sri Lanka faces human rights pressure from the United States and the West. In March 2012 and 2013, the United Nations passed non-binding resolutions urging Colombo to investigate war crimes against Tamils. Although Sri Lanka has support from China and Russia, its largest trading partners are the United States and the United Kingdom. Colombo wants to retain these economic ties and avoid a return to its previous status as an international pariah. The elections are a chance for Colombo to showcase its progress, although the vocal criticisms by Tamil politicians highlighting human rights violations and ongoing military occupation are a concern. On Sept. 9, Colombo announced that it would invite international election observers from five South Asian nations, including India, and from Commonwealth nations Australia, Kenya and Bangladesh. This is intended to enhance Colombo's legitimacy and head off accusations of vote rigging.
The provincial council elections on Sept. 21 will result in the return of titular local control to the Tamil north and an elevation of Tamil voices in the national dialogue. Internal distractions are always a risk for Sri Lanka, and Colombo is particularly interested in maintaining calm now as it expands its garments sector to remain competitive with Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. If the Tamil population begins creating problems, Colombo could decide to placate New Delhi, upon which it relies to prevent Indian Tamils from complicating the situation. Ultimately, though, Colombo will continue relying on the secure financing it receives from China in order to accelerate development efforts in Tamil areas in an attempt to stymie local control.