While the tragic fate of Jamal Khashoggi, the US journalist of Saudi Arabian origin is dominating the news cycle globally, a rather intriguing report alleging an ‘assassination plot’ has caused a mini-stir in the South Asian teacup.
A Diplomatic Bombshell
Media reports emanating from Colombo on 16 October made for dramatic headlines – the gist being that the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena had alleged at a cabinet meeting, that an Indian national was part of a plot to assassinate him. The exact quote attributed to Mr Sirisena reads as: “The Indian national must be a RAW agent trying to kill me. The Indian PM may not be aware. That is often the case. Trump may not be aware of CIA’s similar moves.” Was the latter a subtle reference to the Khashoggi case?
Be that as it may, the RAW reference was a diplomatic bombshell and came on the eve of the Sri Lankan Prime Ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Delhi on Thursday, 18 October, for a meeting with his Indian counterpart.
To calm the storm in the India-Sri Lanka teacup, Sirisena called Indian PM Narendra Modi on 17 October, and said that his remarks had been misquoted / distorted by the media and assured Modi that his government was cognisant of the importance of the bi-lateral ties they shared. Both leaders reiterated the importance of the friendship between the two countries.
Sri Lanka’s ‘Assassination Paranoia’
Concurrently there was frenzied action on Wednesday, 17 October, and as many as three different statements were issued by Colombo to contain the damage and embarrassment. While the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs gravely noted that it was “disappointing” that the President’s remarks had been distorted and taken out of context, the office of the Cabinet of Ministers (equivalent to the Cabinet Secretary) noted that the news items in the media as reported on Tuesday, 16 October, “are totally false.”
To add to the medley of denials and clarifications, the Sri Lankan President’s media division asserted that while, “discussions have taken place on the alleged plot to assassinate the President”, “the President has not mentioned any involvement of an Indian intelligence service in the alleged plot to assassinate him.”
The Indian national in question is one M Thomas who was in the news in September for ostensibly being part of a plot to assassinate the Sri Lankan President and the former Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The Sri Lankan anti corruption department apparently exposed the plot and in a rather convenient manner; it was alleged that Kumar was found carrying his RAW identification documents.
Sri Lankan political leaders have a deeply embedded paranoia about assassinations and these are not unfounded. It may be recalled that Sri Lanka’s founding political leader SWRD Bandaranaike (who sowed the seeds of Sinhala nationalism), the Prime Minister of erstwhile Ceylon in the 1950’s met a tragic end when he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Subsequently, his wife, and later their daughter, led the island nation at different points in time.
Is India’s RAW Behind Major Political Upheavals in Sri Lanka?
The emergence of the Tamil movement for a separate identity that morphed into the LTTE, led to a spate of killings/assassinations and the better known among these include another President Ranasinghe Premadasa (1993) and a presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake , who, with 51 other victims, was killed in a bomb blast during an election rally in Colombo in 1994.
More recently, Sri Lanka’s widely respected foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was shot dead near his Colombo home in August 2005, though the LTTE denied any involvement and many conspiracy theories did the rounds at the time.
Along with the deeply-embedded anxiety about assassinations per se in Sri Lankan politics, there has been a deeply-held conviction bordering on certitude, in some quarters in Colombo, that India and its external intelligence agency R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) are behind every major political upheaval in the island.
This perception which was latent in the early 1970’s after the birth of Bangladesh, has gained strength in Sri Lanka after India’s disastrous attempt to play the role of a broker and later peacekeeper, in the complex ethnic politics of the island nation.
1980s Colombo, A Kind Of Casablanca
The feckless policies pursued by then PM Rajiv Gandhi and the contradictory politics that had Delhi and Chennai on different tracks not only resulted in the loss of precious Indian lives (the ill-conceived IPKF operation) but added to the abiding suspicion about Delhi and the larger than life profile accorded to the RAW in the internal dynamic of Sri Lanka.
In the 1980’s, Colombo had become a kind of Casablanca, with intelligence agencies from different countries milling around and an anti-India orientation was also nurtured by Pakistan and its ISI.
Professionals recall a widely publicised event at the time when an Indian RAW officer was honey-trapped by the CIA in a Colombo-Chennai trapeze. It is now averred that Beijing has a robust but little noticed presence in the island that is seeking to exploit the distinctive maritime location of Sri Lanka for futuristic intelligence operations in space and cyber.
Espionage and high profile political assassination plots are sensational when they are brought into the public domain but often evaporate under objective scrutiny. So, was it domestic politics in Colombo that stirred the India-Sri Lanka tea-cup so visibly?
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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