The international conference on the future and use of the Indian Ocean with the participation of countries that surround it with few super powers is a very apt event for Sri Lanka the host country. With its pivotal location on this ocean, Sri Lanka should have taken this initiative at the time when the island nation was a leading nation in the region and was a paradise. Even though the same opportunity did exist for Sri Lanka in the past seven decades following its independence in 1948, every government that ruled the island nation with the absence of an all-inclusiveness; kept them preoccupied opting for a divisive rule made them to miss these initiatives. In this backdrop, with strategic competition heightening in this part of the world once again; activities contributing to the proposed conference on Indian Ocean currently unfolding in the region is of significant interest to Sri Lanka. The leaders of Unity Government taking action to host the conference must accept the reality that only with a holistic rule in Sri Lanka would boost its Indian Ocean hub benefits; if not the country would face another failure as did the 1977 open economy policy.
Earlier in 1954 as the forerunner to the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian Nations, Sri Lanka then Ceylon did convey a meeting with leaders of many nations; later did played a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and was deeply involved in developing the ocean governance processes during negotiation of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); that articulated clearly established rules and principles such as freedom of navigation and freedom of trade to form the bedrock of this order in the maritime sphere. Yet regrettably as a nation Sri Lanka lost this momentum as rulers from the majority community with a precolonial mindset dominated politics, to preoccupy themselves for many decades without ruling the country as a whole, began oppressing the minorities that lead the country to a bloody and cruel civil-war. The civil-war that lasted three decades set the development of the country back by five decades to destroy the paradise and today the country is in heavy foreign debts. Therefore it is clear that absence of a holistic rule would make Indian Ocean hub role only a dream.
With the current geopolitical turn of events, the Indian Ocean region is one of the fastest growing regions is expected to reach middle-income status in the world by 2025. Further the ever present great power competition in the Indian Ocean result from the Indian Ocean sea-lanes being some of the world’s major trade and energy arteries, connecting the rapidly growing economies of East and Southeast Asia with the resource-rich Middle East and East Africa. Further, the linkages between the Indian and Pacific Oceans are predicted to create a maritime super highway to bring prosperity to all. The reality is that the corrupt government machinery is yet tuned properly with the international rules and the people are not trained properly to exploit the many economic opportunities available in the Indian Ocean region as it carry around one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and around two-thirds of its oil shipments.
Sri Lanka is a small trading nation that is centrally straddling the Indian Ocean sea-lanes; has long aspired to develop as a trade and maritime hub of the region, but it was made difficult by rulers who have for seven decades failed to provide a holistic approach of governance that has disintegrated the economic, racial and religious minorities to drive them away from the majority community that had ruled the country since obtaining independence in 1948. Regrettably, even after the bloody and cruel civil-war ended a decade earlier Sri Lanka is yet to put its house in order; but it needs to resolve this problem to maximise the economic opportunities presented from the Indian Ocean Hub role. Though the government has various development projects currently underway such as the Colombo International Financial City, the Hambantota Industrial Zone, and the expressways connecting Sri Lanka’s locality to its ports; they are yet to deliver the promises they made to the people when they came to power in 2015; to bring about a holistic rule to serve all communities equally; then need to retrain the many underemployed security forces personnel stagnating mostly in the army barracks in the previous war zone. For boosting the Indian Ocean security would minimise risks, for there has been an upsurge of maritime crimes as human smuggling, trafficking of illegal drugs and piracy that has been on the increase in the Indian Ocean region.
This Unity Government initiative in the Indian Ocean could bring stability and help to rebuild the traumatised economy of the country and recreate the open and free spirit of trade and commerce that existed in ancient times across the Indian Ocean for the benefit of all the communities living in the little island nation and give them their due place as direct stakeholders. To achieve it the leaders of Unity Government must first change the present divisive mindset of the law makers, in particular their own party members to enable Sri Lanka to thrive as a hub in the Indian Ocean region, like Singapore in the ASEAN region, New Zealand in the South Pacific and Netherlands in the North Atlantic.