Ensuring stability in the IOR | Sunday Observer

Ensuring stability in the IOR

18 September, 2022

The Indian Ocean is perhaps the busiest sea region in terms of shipping, being the epicentre of the East-West trade route. But this very strategic importance has led to an intense rivalry between world and regional powers in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). With the QUAD (Australia US, India and Japan) on one side and China on the other, the power play in the IOR has rattled the nerves of smaller countries in the IOR such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

In fact, the recent debate in the IOR and beyond about the arrival of the Chinese research ship “Yuan Wang 5” in Hambantota has brought into sharp focus the acute need for the IOR to become a “Zone of Peace”. It is in this backdrop that President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently said that the IOR should be opened to all to ensure freedom of navigation for commercial viability.

Addressing a gathering at the National Defence College in Colombo, President Wickremesinghe said that Sri Lanka will not participate in military alliances and do not want the problems of the Pacific coming into the IOR.

In this scenario, the President urged the IOR countries to come together to look at how best to maintain stability of the region. As the President said, “We have to remember that the bulk of the energy supply to the world goes through the Indian Ocean. We do not want this to be an area of conflict and an area of war.”

The President is correct in saying that Sri Lanka “cannot afford” a conflict spurred by big power rivalry in the IOR as such a conflict could adversely affect the security and peace in the region. Hence his firm commitment not to join any big power or take sides. Still, one cannot totally ignore the geopolitics in the region, as evinced by the debate over Hambantota, which is operated by the Chinese. Sri Lanka must make it clear to the rest of the world that Hambantota is purely a commercial port and not a military port, otherwise there could be negative perceptions about the actual use and purpose of this Southern port.

Leaving geopolitics apart, Sri Lanka cannot also ignore the geography of the IOR. India is our neighbour and it goes without saying that any factor that affects the security of India will affect Sri Lanka (and the Maldives) as well. The President articulated this concern well. “We are of the view that in looking after the security of Sri Lanka, we must also ensure that nothing adverse happens to the security of India. That we have been committed to, and we will go ahead with it. That is why we work with India on the Colombo Conclave, on the trilateral security arrangements and many other fields, especially outside the military field of piracy, of human trafficking and of drugs.” As the President rightly pointed out, Sri Lanka should also not allow any other country to use it to attack third parties in any manner.

But peace begins at home and a stable Sri Lanka will be an asset to the IOR. Hence Sri Lanka must make all efforts to establish lasting peace and stability. This is why in the course of his NDC speech the President explained the importance of establishing peace following a dialogue with minority parties and other stakeholders.

Sri Lanka won the battle against terrorism in 2009, but is yet to win the peace. It is therefore, vital that the authorities continue their deliberations. with the Tamil parties here and Tamil Diaspora groups abroad to arrive at an amicable solution.

In this regard, the de-proscription of certain Tamil Diaspora groups was a step in the right direction. There should also be a credible domestic mechanism to address any human rights and accountability concerns.

This is exactly what the Sri Lankan delegation to the current UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions has said in the face of attempts by certain countries to force an international mechanism on Sri Lanka. We can of course learn from countries such as South Africa and the UK which have gone through a peace process vis-a-vis the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the former and the Good Friday Agreement in the latter.

Nevertheless, the actual peace process must be a home-grown one that takes Sri Lanka’s unique factors into account. There is no doubt that we should come to terms with the past to look towards a brighter future.

Perhaps a separate judicial mechanism could be established to address any accountability and HR concerns stemming from the final days of the battle against terrorism in a transparent manner. This should help to assuage the concerns of the international community.

But establishing peace and stability does not mean that Sri Lanka can neglect its defence and security. First, even if LTTE terrorism has been defeated, other terror groups may use Sri Lankan soil or citizens for terror attacks, as seen in April 2019.

As the President said, there are other challenges including sea piracy, human trafficking and drug trafficking not to mention cyber terrorism.

Thus it is essential to enhance the operational readiness of our Security Forces and equip them with new technologies such as drones and hacking monitoring systems. Indeed, some politicians and others who question the need for a high defence budget have not seemingly thought of these emerging threats that can adversely affect small countries such as Sri Lanka.

The world is vastly different from what it was in 2009 and we have to adjust our priorities accordingly to face new challenges and opportunities.