My op-ed in Mint: Leverage in Sri Lanka

A stable balance between Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups better serves India’s interests than a partitioned island

In an op-ed in Mint I suggest how India might acquire greater leverage over the Sri Lankan government and use it to shape post-civil war situation.


New Delhi’s half-apologetic, half-embarrassed attitude towards providing military assistance to Sri Lanka pushed Colombo into the arms of China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya. India was too timid to support, or oppose, any one side. As a result it not only finds itself little more than a bystander, but grasping for ways to avoid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war from destabilizing its domestic affairs.

It is possible to arrest this loss of leverage and, indeed, to reverse it. First, New Delhi should restate its position—to Sri Lankans as much as its own citizens—that it does not favour an independent Tamil Eelam. A stable political balance between the two main ethnic groups will better serve India’s interests than a partitioned island. Those who contend that an Eelam will be more sympathetic to India should contemplate the lessons of Bangladesh. Neither gratitude nor ethnic-cultural links will prevent a sovereign state from pursuing its interests. For India’s smaller neighbours, this means playing India against China, Pakistan or the US. Moreover, if an independent Eelam were ever to come about, its Sinhala counterpart is likely to align with China.

Second, New Delhi should signal to Colombo that it will calibrate bilateral relations to progress in rehabilitating the Tamil minority. Even as Colombo has sought to engage distant benefactors, it is aware that rebuilding its war-ravaged economy is impossible without good relations with India. Colombo needs urgent assistance from the International Monetary Fund. Given Western criticism over its human rights record, it will need India’s support to tide over even its short-term difficulties.

Third, India must play a constructive role in rebuilding Sri Lankan Tamil politics. In this regard, instead of merely grandstanding on behalf of a terrorist organization, politicians in Tamil Nadu would do well to cultivate ties with moderate Sri Lankan Tamil political formations. This would not only serve India’s interests, but also help secure peace and stability in Sri Lanka.

The LTTE’s defeat is an opportunity for India to re-craft its approach towards Sri Lanka. Unless New Delhi acts decisively, it risks its strategic frontiers being shrunk by Colombo’s wartime benefactors.[Mint]

Getting Colombo to listen

Post-war Sri Lanka can’t do without strong bilateral ties with India

Western countries are considering blocking an US$1.9 billion IMF load to Sri Lanka, not least due to pressure from human rights groups and Tamil diaspora groups. The Sri Lankan government, whose public finances and balance of payments are under pressure both due to the war expenditure and the global economic crisis cannot hope to entirely rely on China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya—countries that have provided military and economic assistance in the last few years. Colombo knows that it needs a good bilateral relationship with India not only to drag its economy out away from the approaching rough weather, but for long-term prosperity.

Many analysts lament that New Delhi has lost its leverage over Colombo. Here’s the way to regain it: the new Indian government must calibrate its bilateral relationship with the manner to the extent it listens to India. That includes encouraging President Rajapakse to rapidly move towards reconciliation, face down triumphal Sinhala chauvinism and deliver on his manifesto promise of equal rights for all Sri Lankans.

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.

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.


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.

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.