Sri Lanka's strategic position makes it vital to securing major sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean. To the south, the island's coast fronts the greater Indian Ocean, and to the north it opens to that ocean's marginal seas: the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay and the Bay of Bengal. It sits approximately halfway between the Suez and the Strait of Malacca, the key maritime chokepoints to the east and west, and along routes from the Strait of Hormuz, which most of Asia's energy supplies transit. The island has a number of natural harbors along its coast: Colombo and Galle in the southwest, Hambantota in the southeast, Trincomalee in the east and Jaffna in the north. A string of islands prevents large ships from passing through Palk Bay, preventing India's southern coast from becoming an international maritime hub and making Sri Lanka's ports a better option.
Sri Lanka is an outgrowth of the Indian subcontinent. The island's north is separated from India's southern tip only by the narrow Palk Strait. Adam's Bridge, a 30-kilometer (18-mile) chain of shallow limestone shoals and small islands, stretches across the strait from Tamil Nadu in India to Mannar in Sri Lanka. This area is traversable by boat, and a ferry connecting Sri Lanka and India ran along Adam's Bridge until 1983. The island's eastern littoral is essentially a continuation of the mainland coastal rim around the Bay of Bengal. For this reason, Sri Lanka historically has been a natural migration point for Indian populations.
An Island Divided
There have been two major population influxes to Sri Lanka from India. In the sixth century B.C., the Sinhalese people arrived from northern India and were later converted to Buddhism by Indian Emperor Ashoka. Hindu Tamils arrived from southern India around the second century. Over time, the Tamil kingdoms took full possession of the north and pushed the Sinhalese to their current position around the highlands of the south, resulting in a stark geographic division between the ethnic groups that has never been mended. This division eventually led to civil war between the government in Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka's south is the core of the modern nation state and is split into two distinct areas: Colombo on the sea and the Central Highlands farther inland. These areas roughly correspond to the two historically dominant Sinhalese kingdoms of Kotte and Kandy. The Kotte kingdom relied on international trade and in 1505 was the first area of Sri Lanka to fall under the colonial control of the Portuguese. Today this area is the most densely populated part of the island. It is here that Sri Lanka's main economic activities take place: trade and garment manufacturing in and around Colombo and agriculture in the nearby lowlands. Kandy is an essential part of the core as well. It is the cultural and strategic heartland of the Sinhalese people and also the site of Sri Lanka's iconic tea plantations. It sits at the center of a natural fortress, flanked by plateaus and shielded by thick jungle and narrow passes, which allowed it to resist colonial domination until 1815. The historical division between lowlands and highlands remains, with the highland areas more impoverished and nationalistic than the coast.
The proximity of the northern part of the island — the Sri Lankan Tamil homeland — to India has created strong ties between Tamil Nadu, a Tamil Hindu state in southern India, and northern Sri Lanka. The north is roughly divided between the Jaffna Peninsula and the densely forested inland plain called the Vanni. The Jaffna Peninsula is the northernmost point of Sri Lanka. It is virtually an island itself, connected only by a narrow isthmus called Elephant Pass. Jaffna has access to the sea, via the Bay of Bengal, and to the wealth of India across the Palk Strait. It has therefore been able to remain separate from the Sinhalese kingdoms and has even been a part of southern India at several points in history. The dry and sparsely populated Vanni, directly south of Jaffna, is under Jaffna's economic control. Trincomalee, on the eastern seaboard farther south, possesses one of the world's best natural harbors and grants broader access to international trade. The port was also under Jaffna's control when these areas were unified into the Jaffna Kingdom, which existed until the colonial period in the early 16th century.
The Sinhalese core in Kotte and Kandy, while distinct from the north, has not always been violently at odds with the Jaffna Peninsula. Intermittent clashes between the two occurred after the initial influx of Tamils pushed the Sinhalese into the island's southern areas. At other times, though, the two centers of power assisted each other as separate, allied entities. Enmity arose again once the British Empire took control of the island. The colonial strategy to rule the island centered on favoring the Tamil minority in government and education. This created deep resentments in the Sinhalese community that, after full independence in 1972, led to the formation of Buddhist nationalist movements and contributed to the outbreak of civil war.
The most recent manifestation of an independent Jaffna was when it was controlled by the Tamil Tigers rebel group in the north and east, an area they called Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers waged a nearly three-decade civil war starting in 1983 to make Eelam into a separate state. The conflict devastated the country and, until its conclusion in 2009, stopped Colombo from unifying the island. The Tigers' access to the sea and separation from Colombo was key to their longevity. They used their sea access to operate a miniature maritime shipping empire, with a fleet of 10 freighters supplied by an Indian businessman that shipped legitimate goods along with illegal arms and narcotics throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Moreover, the government of India's Tamil Nadu state provided the Tigers with extensive support and shelter. The civil war, rooted in the divisions between the north and south, has defined modern Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Imperatives
Sri Lanka's primary strategic imperative is to achieve internal coherence. Because of the division of the country between the Sinhalese in the south and the Tamils in the north, this can only be achieved by the Sinhalese core asserting control over the entire island. Sri Lanka also has a small Muslim minority that sides with either the Tamils or Sinhalese, depending on the situation. Only with these groups consolidated is Sri Lanka able to pursue its other imperatives. Whether through military, economic, or cultural means, Colombo strives to centralize control over the island and keep different factional interests in check.
Sri Lanka's second strategic imperative stems from its position on the Indian Ocean and its internal geography. Because the island sits at the center of the Indian Ocean, it is attractive to seafaring powers, and because it sits at the base of India, it risks being overrun by its northern neighbor. Sri Lanka does not have the option of isolation. In order to survive, it must balance outside powers against one another and focus on patrons that can counterbalance India's influence. It can also use these external patrons to achieve its first imperative — consolidating Colombo's control — and profit from its ports and access to lucrative trade.
However, Sri Lanka must be careful not to allow one party to outpace the others. The island's continued existence depends on its ability to maximize the advantages of outside influence while minimizing the threat of domination. Ideally, Colombo could find a distant backer that would help Sri Lanka maintain its independence and yet would be limited in its ability to directly interfere in Sri Lanka's domestic affairs. This would allow the island to diversify away from India, which will always be a major player on the island because of geography. Sri Lanka needs to guarantee that it can respond effectively if India attempts to pressure the island.
Sri Lanka has the ability to respond because, although India is a major regional power, the tiny island's position near the Indian coastline threatens Indian strategic interests. India fears that Sri Lanka will fall under the influence or control of a hostile power. Moreover, New Delhi is concerned that its peripheral states — Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh — could form a maritime ring around India that would constitute a substantial threat. India seeks to prevent this by interfering with Sri Lanka's internal politics. Because of Sri Lanka's internal divisions, outside intervention always involves favoring one of the island's ethnic groups over the other. This is particularly troublesome for India, which shares Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.
New Delhi can either bring Sri Lanka into its own sphere of influence by strengthening Colombo or it can weaken it, possibly by strengthening the Tamils, until it cannot pose a threat. Military and economic engagement with the Sinhalese core leads to unrest in India's own Tamil Nadu state. Subversion of the Sinhalese core via engagement with the Tamils pleases India's internal Tamil minority, but results in the loss of the Sri Lankan heartland. Because of its limits in dealing with either Sri Lankan ethnic group, India must try to maintain a balance between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. Its attempts to do so in the past have resulted in disaster.
India's ill-fated role in the Sri Lankan civil war demonstrates the dangers it faces in trying to manipulate Sri Lanka's internal divisions. In 1977, Sri Lanka liberalized its economy and began to move away from pro-Soviet India and toward the West. India reacted by arming and training Tamil Tigers, which allowed the rebels to take control of Jaffna. In 1987, Colombo's armed forces succeeded in besieging Jaffna and nearly ousting the Tigers, but India intervened at the last moment by airdropping supplies and negotiating a peace deal, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
In the aftermath of this peace deal, India attempted to give the Tamils civil autonomy in the north of the island and contain Tamil Tiger influence by supporting Colombo's navy. Instead, what followed was a three-year Indian Peacekeeping Force occupation of the north, violent backlashes by local Tamils and, following India's withdrawal, the Tamil Tigers' revenge assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Colombo continues to blame New Delhi for 30 years of instability. As Sri Lanka emerges from the civil war that India had a hand in starting, India has had to adapt its strategies for managing relations with the island.