Colombo is in no mood for lectures

India’s (and the world’s) priority should be to avert a humanitarian disaster

If the fate of the hapless Tamil civilians is the world’s principal consideration with regard to the war in Sri Lanka, then it stands to reason that that war itself must come to an end as soon as possible. It is unrealistic to expect Mahinda Rajapakse’s government to heed calls for pausing the military offensive—at a time when the Sri Lankan army believes it is close to a complete victory against the LTTE, and after the LTTE leadership rejected a call to surrender and decided to fight to the finish. Colombo, as James Traub writes in the New York Times, is in no mood for lectures.

Also, regardless of whether ethnic relations between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Sinhala minority improve or worsen after the current phase of the war, the elimination of the uncompromising LTTE leadership cannot be a bad thing.

There are conflicting reports on how bad a situation the civilians find themselves in: absent independent reports, one has to choose between claims made by the two combatants. Even so, it is clear that Sri Lanka faces a massive humanitarian crisis in the coming days and months. Given the state of ethnic relations, it is reasonable to expect that the displaced Tamils will have misgivings about how they will be treated by the victorious Sri Lankan government in general, and by the Sri Lankan security forces in particular. These misgivings will be shared, perhaps amplified, among the Tamil population in India as indeed among the Tamil diaspora around the world.

The LTTE bears a moral responsibility for bringing the Sri Lankan Tamils into this humanitarian crisis. But only till the point that they come under the custody and protection of the Sri Lankan government. From that point on, the moral responsibility for their security, well-being and human rights rests with the Sri Lankan government. And it is incumbent on the Indian government to hold the Rajapakse government to account on this. One the one hand, India should demand greater transparency and access to the displaced civilian population and a fixed timetable for their return to their original homes. At the same time, India should offer financial, technical, logistical and military assistance to the Sri Lankan government to ensure that the humanitarian crisis does not turn into a humanitarian disaster. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy is to ensure that the Rajapakse government delivers on this.

Related Link: Colonel Hariharan’s answers to inconvenient questions.

And who said terrorists don’t attack cricketers?

Pakistan is the jihadi prize

It is too early to arrive at a conclusive assessment on the motives behind the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. [Update: See Prem Panicker’s take.] But it is compelling to see this attack as the latest in the series that include the ones on Benazir Bhutto in 2007 and the Islamabad Marriott in September 2008. The possibility cannot be ruled out completely, but there is a small chance that the hit was ordered by LTTE (and carried out by sundry terrorists recruited in Pakistan). [Update: See B Raman’s post] However this is contra-indicated by the fact that so far, the Tamil Tigers have not claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attacks on Benazir Bhutto, to the ones on the Islamabad Marriott and many others across Pakistan suggest an attempt to destabilise the existing political order prevailing in the country. What next is an open question. Do the jihadis want to use the ensuing state of turmoil to turn Pakistan first into a war zone and then into a Taliban state? Or is the purpose to reinstate the Pakistani military establishment into the corridors of power? Or worse, are these not separate questions, but two different formulations of the same question? Would the next Pakistani military dictator care whether he is the president of the Pakistani republic or the Amir-ul-momineen of an Islamic emirate?

The answers are uncertain. In the face of the uncertainty, and in the light of past evidence, the prudent course is to treat the Pakistani army as connected to the jihadi groups in a military-jihadi complex. It is unclear if the Pakistani army wants to sever these connections, and unclear if it can sever them even if it wants to. Transforming the Pakistani military establishment therefore is the first step in stabilising Pakistan.

And unless Pakistan is stabilised it is only a matter of time before attacks like the one on Sri Lankan cricketers, and earlier like the one in Mumbai will be common across the cities of the world.

Rioting lawyers are rioters

Watch out for the LTTE’s mischief in Tamil Nadu

The LTTE leadership probably calculates that destabilising Tamil Nadu by inciting widespread political violence will serve its interests. If you think that lawyers in the Madras High Court turned into violent mobs, torched police stations and got into street battles with riot police just like that, think again. Political violence doesn’t work that way. It is a deliberate attempt to spark off widespread violence across the state, disrupt internal order, divert the resources of the law enforcement machinery and create tactical space (in both the political and security sense) for the LTTE. In this, the media has played the usual role of sensationalising the entire issue and brazenly projecting a “neutral” morally equivalent perspective between those who broke the law and those who enforced the law.

As for police brutality—the Chennai police did not act with any greater harshness than is the norm. Those norms are not pretty. Those norms must change. But our shock and disapproval of the norms of riot control in India should not get in the way of repudiating the moral equivalence. The media coverage benefits the law breakers, and the law breakers know this.

Both the UPA government in New Delhi and the DMK government in Chennai must do whatever is necessary to control, deter and punish political violence. As the principal opposition party, the BJP must unambiguously signal its support for actions towards this end, and hold the governments to account. For their part, the LTTE’s supporters and their opponents should be welcome to pursue their agenda without resorting to violence. The next few weeks will test Tamil Nadu’s political and social stability: Indians should realise that there is a foreign hand behind the ugly scenes they see on TV.

Prabhakaran’s dilemma

Fly or die?

The anonymous Western diplomat got it right:

One Western diplomat said if Prabhakaran were to flee, it would be viewed as cowardice by his followers, ending Tamil militancy for a generation.

But the diplomat, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized by his government to speak on record, said the rebel leader’s death in battle or by suicide would make him a martyr to inspire future generations.

[AP]

Prabhakaran’s getaway plane?

Those planes can take passengers too

Sandeep Unnithan reports that the Sri Lankan troops who captured airfields and landing strips used by the LTTE didn’t find the two Zlin Z-143 planes that made up its air wing. Some analysts think that the light aircraft could have been dismantled and stowed away in the jungle. (via R Hariharan’s MI blog)

There is also another possibility. The four-seater planes with a normal range of over 1000km (according to the manufacturer’s specifications) could be used as getaway vehicles for LTTE’s top leadership. Given that these aircraft have successfully evaded radars and air-defence in the past, there is a good chance that the escape has gone (or will go) undetected. Indeed, an organisation as astute as the LTTE might well have set-up a contingency plan, with a camouflaged landing strip on a remote beach far away but within range of the planes; next to a jetty with a high-speed boat with an even longer range.

So Velupillai Prabhakaran & Co could be very much anywhere by now.

An editorial from the grave

A parting shot of wisdom

Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader was murdered in Colombo last week. The Leader published a posthumous editorial that appears to have been written by the late Mr Wickramatunga before his death (linkthanks Anand Sampath).

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering "development" and "reconstruction" on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me. [The Sunday Leader]

Cornered Tigers and after

Non-interference and its unhappy consequences

It’s not over until it’s over—and there is some fight left in the LTTE yet—but judging from available news reports, it is clear that the Tamil Tigers are cornered in Kilinochchi and a few other towns. The ripples of the situation have crossed the Palk Strait and have already rocked politics in Tamil Nadu state. There is a risk that they will rock the UPA government in New Delhi.

It has come to this pass because the UPA government’s policy paralysis on Sri Lanka. As the The Acorn had warned at that time, the critical moment was in December 2005. Failure to rein in the combatants at that time led to the inevitable war and bloodshed. Failure to coerce the Tamil Tiger leadership to give up its maximalist aims caused it to break the ceasefire. Failure to intervene pushed the Sri Lankan government into the arms of Pakistan, China and Iran for military support. India was too timid to support or oppose any one side. As a result it not only finds itself as little more than a bystander, grasping for ways it could avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilising Tamil Nadu, and indeed, New Delhi.

Let’s be clear about one thing: that the Tamil Tigers (not to mention the Sri Lankan Tamils) find themselves in this situation is due to the fault of their leadership. Velupillai Prabhakaran did not take advantage of the international mediation to transform the rather successful insurgency into a political process towards autonomy within a federal setup, at least as a first step. The LTTE’s sympathisers might argue that it was the Sri Lankan government that upped the ante: even so, Mr Prabhakaran’s failure to reject violence and keep the international peace brokers on his side allowed President Rajapakse to prosecute the war. In the event, rather successfully. And for all the drama in Chennai, the cornered LTTE leadership is yet to directly call for a ceasefire.

Now, as T S Gopi Rethinaraj has argued in the April 2008 issue of Pragati, as also in a recent op-ed in Hindustan Times, the prospect of a military victory for the Sri Lankan government can have negative consequences for India’s geopolitical interests. It is conceivable that a jubilant Sri Lankan government will swing over to its Chinese and Pakistani patrons. It will also not have any reason to deliver on its promises of equal treatment of its Tamil minorities. By this token, the survival of the Tamil Tigers is India’s insurance policy against this eventuality.

In fact, had the Indian government understood the realist logic underpinning Dr Gopi Rethinaraj’s arguments, it would have played a stronger role to freeze the balance of power in Sri Lanka in 2004-2005 and transform it into a political settlement. It didn’t. So it finds itself in an exceedingly satisfactory position now. It can’t close its eyes to the new reality on the ground—one of the Sri Lankan government achieving a victory on its own terms. But it also cannot ignore the reality that the war-ravaged Tamil minority will have to live under the victor’s rules. Despite their promises, it is by no means clear that the Rajapakse government will pursue an enlightened policy towards the Tamils and move towards healing the decades old ethnic conflict that underlies the civil war.

Whether the LTTE is practically wiped out in the coming weeks or manages to turn the tide of the war in its favour, India must set aside its policy of non-intervention into one of engagement. On the one hand, it must try to cobble up a Sri Lankan Tamil political formation that can play the part that the LTTE didn’t. And on the other, it must deepen its engagement with the Sri Lankan government in all spheres, to ensure that it can guarantee that Colombo keeps its word. It’s not going to be easy: there are few Sri Lankan Tamil leaders of the required stature, and elements within the Rajapakse government might well say “no, thank you”. But what alternatives does India have?

Pakistani arms for Sri Lanka

Should India really bother?

Let’s consider one narrative: India is opposed to the LTTE, but can’t support the Sri Lanka army because of a number of reasons—mostly having to do with domestic politics, but also perhaps for strategic reasons. So when Pakistan becomes a big supplier of small arms to Colombo, should India really worry?

Rather than go into a tizzy and attempt to counter the Pakistani move, a far more effective position would be to circumscribe the arms trade and Pakistan’s role. India has enough levers over Colombo to set limits on the type and quantity of arms that the latter can import, and ensure that arms suppliers don’t engage in other activities inimical to India’s interests. Indeed such a strategy might provide greater influence over Colombo’s approach to the civil war.

Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

Pragati April 2008: Give them their freedom

Issue 13 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents

PERSPECTIVE

The unkindest cut Salil Tripathi
The loan waiver keeps poor farmers where they are

Waiver of mass debt Vijay Mahajan
How that money could have been used to really change lives

Concerning senior citizens Mukul G Asher &? Deepa Vasudevan
Budget 2008-09 and the implications for a greying population

Waiting for modernisation Sushant K Singh & Nitin Pai
The dismal state of long term defence procurement planning

Letters
On the arms race in outer space

FILTER

Foreign aid to Afghanistan; Water and climate change

IN DEPTH

Dealing with China’s power projection Harsh V Pant
A rising China will not tolerate a rising India as a peer competitor

ROUNDUP

It matters what generals say K S Madhu Shankar
The army chief’s worrying remarks on the India-China border

Options in Sri Lanka T S Gopi Rethinaraj
And the risk of Sri Lanka falling sway to outside powers

New language formulas Sujay Rao Mandavilli
From an unsatisfactory compromise to a liberal decentralisation

BOOKS

Tagore in China Stephen S Hay
Edited excerpts from Asian Ideas of East and West

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