Sri Lanka: Diplomatic Dilemma

The US had been seriously interested in developing a close relationship with Sri Lanka during the cold war era though it never got the opportunity until JR Jayewardene led UNP to victory, at the 1977 general election. India reacted furiously.


by Shamindra Ferdinando

( December 28, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A veteran Sri Lankan diplomat asserted that India wants Sri Lanka to be an Indian aircraft carrier. “China wants Sri Lanka to be a Chinese sub dock yard. The US wants it to be a back-stop for Diego Garcia. The previous SLFP-led Rajapaksa administration caused chaos in foreign relations. Unfortunately, the incumbent administration is far worse.” The expert was responding to former Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1997-2000), Foreign Secretary (Oct. 2006-July 2009) and National Security Advisor (January 2011-May 2014) Shivshankar Menon’s assertion, ‘Sri Lanka, an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off Indian coast.’ Menon, in his recently launched memoirs, ‘Choices: Inside the making of India’s foreign policy,’ acknowledged India’s fear of Sri Lanka being used as a launching pad for hostile action, directed at India.

Since the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009, the US has intensified its relationship with Sri Lanka, with high level visits, including US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Harris B. Harris participating at the 7th edition of the Galle Dialogue. Such high level US presence has prompted India to send Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of the Naval Staff, Indian Navy.

Decades ago, India covertly intervened in Sri Lanka fearing Sri Lanka’s relationship with the US. No less a person than Menon’s predecessor, J.N. Dixit, had admitted that in his memoirs, Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram, Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha.

New Delhi destabilised Sri Lanka to such an extent to pave the way for the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern Provinces (July 1987-March 1990). The Indian deployment covered the strategic eastern port city Trincomalee, the home to Sri Lanka’s Eastern Naval Command. India always feared US military presence in Sri Lanka, particularly Trincomalee. India’s premier intelligence service Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had been engaged in Sri Lanka since Tamil youth took up arms in the 70s.

The US had been seriously interested in developing a close relationship with Sri Lanka during the cold war era though it never got the opportunity until JR Jayewardene led UNP to victory, at the 1977 general election. India reacted furiously.

By the time, Sri Lanka’s war against the monster, created by India, was coming to an end, in 2009, New Delhi feared Beijing’s intentions here. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, in early the 90s, India gradually turned towards the US. Today, they are best of friends with US ally Israel being one of the major weapons suppliers to India. India has joined forces with the US and Japan to face the growing Chinese influence in the region. Vietnam, too, has been brought into the grouping. India has been always wary of Chinese, and the Rajapaksas relationship with Beijing definitely unsettled New Delhi.

Menon acknowledged that India had felt that their intervention, on behalf of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, would certainly give competing power China an edge over India in dealings with the Rajapaksa administration. As there hadn’t been any doubt about war-winning President Rajapaksa comfortably securing a second team, India tacitly backed the annihilation of the LTTE. Remember, the war-winning Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had been in the Rajapaksas’ Camp and there was absolutely no dispute among them as the war was brought to an end. Real internal trouble erupted, in the Rajapaksa camp, following the conclusion of the war.

Menon declared that had New Delhi thrown its weight behind desperate US and Norwegian efforts to save Prabhakaran and his top lieutenants, competing powers would have taken advantage of the situation. Menon said: “If India had stood aside or asked him (Mahinda Rajapaksa) to desist, in effect, defending the killers of an Indian Prime Minister, we would have effectively written ourselves out of Sri Lanka for the next decade or more, sacrificing our maritime and other interests in Sri Lanka and abdicating a geopolitically strategic neighbour to other powers. More than 90 per cent of our foreign trade and most of our energy supplies came along the sea-lanes that Sri Lank sits astride., and we could hardly abandon Sri Lanka to potentially hostile influences. In effect, Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier parked 14 miles off the Indian coast. This is the perpetual dilemma of India’s Sri Lanka policy: we must engage in order to keep Sri Lanka free of antagonistic outside influences while also trying to prevent the growth of Tamil extremism and separatism that could affect Tamil Nadu.”

Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, recently explained to the writer how India threw its weight behind the political project here to oust President Rajapaksa. According to him, the project had been authorised in the wake of Narendra Modi becoming India’s Prime Minister, in May, 2014. The war veteran recalled him meeting Menon’s successor, Ajit Kumar Doval, in New Delhi, and subsequently, in Sri Lanka, in late 2014. Doval had demanded an end to Sri Lanka’s growing post-war relationship with China. “Doval wanted us to stop the Port City Project, terminate the agreement with the China Port Holdings Company for the operation of Colombo International Container Terminals, stop all major Chinese infrastructure projects and, finally, deny Chinese a role at the Hambantota port.”

President Rajapaksa earned India’s wrath for not heeding Doval’s warning.

Rajapaksa asserted that the controversial decision to hand over the Hambantota port control to China Port Holdings Company, currently operating a major terminal at the Colombo harbour, should be studied against the backdrop of Indian demands. “Nothing has changed due to change of government in January 2015. In fact, Chinese projects are underway in spite of problems at the onset of the new administration.”

Wiki leaks revelation

India obviously despised the growing Chinese relationship with the Rajapaksa government. Chinese submarine visits to the Colombo port caused further deterioration of Indo-Lanka relations with Beijing, in no uncertain terms, reiterating its right to such visits. The Indian media caused a major furore alleging that Colombo was accommodating Chinese nuclear submarines, though China and the previous Sri Lankan government denied such accusations.

A diplomatic missive, originating from the US embassy, in New Delhi, on April 27, 2007, revealed New Delhi’s assertion of the ground situation in Sri Lanka as the war entered the final phase, in the Eastern Province. The military brought the entire province under its control, in June 2007. The world wouldn’t have known about India’s attitude if not for whistle-blowing website, Wiki leaks.

The cable, quoted Joint Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry, Mohan Kumar, as having said that “The situation in Sri Lanka is bad, really bad – beyond bleak.” Alleging that neither the government nor the LTTE had any regard for the international community, Kumar sought a briefing from the US regarding Sri Lanka’s growing relations with China.

The cable: “Kumar confirmed reports that the Indian Navy has stepped up patrols in the Palk Strait, and said that India and Sri Lanka are doing coordinated patrolling to prevent the smuggling of weapons from the Tamil Nadu coast. Kumar said it would be helpful to get the American assessment of the port being built in Hambantota, which, he estimated, China was willing to spend US $500 million to help develop.” He noted that China has increased its influence with President Rajapaksa, opining that Rajapaksa had a ‘soft spot’ for China, following his visit to Beijing, in March, 2007.

President Rajapaksa commissioned the first stage of the Hambantota port project, in 2007.

In spite of Kumar’s claim of coordinated patrols in the Palk Strait, the Sri Lankan Navy intercepted and destroyed many trawlers carrying weapons after they entered Sri Lankan waters. There had never been coordinated patrols.

According to the leaked cable, which dealt with Burma, the Maldives and Bangladesh, the Indian Joint Secretary of External Affairs has expressed concern over the Hambantota Port building project. A New Delhi – based British diplomat, Alex Hall-Hall, too, had been involved in the discussion. The British had been always a part of the Indian strategy on Sri Lanka. This was evident when the British Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, during bilateral talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, in London in early 2015, raised the contentious issue of the Chinese naval build-up in the region, as well as Sri Lanka’s military ties to China.

President Maithripala Sirisena, at the time of his meeting with Fallon, wouldn’t have thought the economic crisis would compel his government to reach an agreement with China Port Holdings Company. In fact, President Sirisena wouldn’t have envisaged being compelled to go ahead with Chinese projects, launched during his predecessor’s time. Today, Sri Lanka is in turmoil over Chinese investments with former President Rajapaksa struggling to maintain a balance amidst backlash against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government seeking a bigger role for China.

Recently, former External Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris, described impending Chinese presence in Hambantota as a country within a country. Prof. Peiris, recently accompanied former President Rajapaksa on a week-long visit to China where they discussed Chinese projects/investments. Obviously, the Rajapaksa Camp had been wrong-footed by emerging China-Sri Lanka relationship. Those who accused the former President of turning Sri Lanka to a Chinese colony are defending new government’s China policy. The Rajapaksa Camp had been so confused now it couldn’t even remember China Port Holdings Company held 85 per cent shares of Colombo International Container Terminals whereas the Sri Lanka Ports Authority owned the remaining 15 per cent.

Bogollagama’s version

Menon dealt with US-Norwegian efforts to save Prabhakaran’s life as the Sri Lankan Army rapidly advanced on the Vanni east front. Menon wrongly compared LTTE tactics, on the Vanni east front, where the Army had cornered the group, with the situation faced by the Indian Army during its operations in the Northern Province (1987-1990). The two situations couldn’t be compared under any circumstances. Menon indicated that the Indian Army operations had been affected by what he called standard LTTE practice of using civilians as human shields. Unfortunately, Menon resorted to cheap propaganda by calling the Sri Lankan Army Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s Sinhala Army which the wartime Foreign Secretary asserted wouldn’t be deterred by presence of civilians.

Menon hadn’t taken into consideration ICRC acknowledgment that the Army could have finished off the LTTE much faster had it ignored the civilian factor. The relevant Wiki leaks cable, originating from US Geneva mission, has been in public domain for several years.

Sri Lanka’s wartime Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, recollected the US-Norway project to throw a lifeline to the LTTE in the wake of British and French governments sending top envoys to meet President Rajapaksa. President Rajapaksa had absolutely no intention of calling off the rapidly developing offensive, under any circumstances. US Ambassador Robert O. Blake, over the phone, had told Bogollagama of forthcoming US Navy intervention to remove Prabhakaran from his hideout. Blake had asserted that there could be a massive bloodbath unless the LTTE was evacuated to bring the military campaign to an end. Blake had proposed Prabhakaran could be evacuated to a US warship. However, President Rajapaksa had emphasized that there couldn’t be such a surrender to a third party, under any circumstances, and the LTTEers should give themselves up to the Army. Bogollagama had alerted the wartime Indian High Commissioner in Colombo regarding the US move. However, India couldn’t have been unaware of the US-Norway move. Most probably, India felt it couldn’t get involved in the rescue mission though New Delhi reached an understanding with US-Norway regarding the operation. In other words, India couldn’t have been unaware of the operation and it certainly didn’t oppose the rescue mission. Had the US succeeded, New Delhi could have had achieved its overall objectives, including blessings of Tamil Nadu community. Sri Lanka, too, couldn’t have found fault with India for US-Norway intervention. The role played by top UN official, Vijay K. Nambiar, in the attempt to force a ceasefire, during the final phase of the offensive, should be examined, taking into consideration he had been a veteran Indian diplomat. Nambiar had been Chef de Cabinet under UNGS Ban Ki-moon at the time he flew into Sri Lanka to negotiate a deal. Unfortunately, the Indian had given his plan away when he discussed his mission with a person overseas while using a toilet at the Bandaranaike International Airport. A Sri Lankan diplomat who had heard the conversation brought it to the notice Bogollagama who alerted President Rajapaksa.

Wartime Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo, Tore Hattrem, had been in Malaysia to discuss rescue mission with Kumaran Pathmanathan, at that time a top LTTE financier responsible for the procurement of weapons. Bogollagama recalled how he contacted Hattrem over satellite phone before calling the Norwegian to the Foreign Ministry to discuss Norwegian interference.

A further boost for China military ties

China recently set up an aircraft overhaul wing at the Katunayake air base to service military aircraft. Chinese specialists recently overhauled two Chinese built PT 6 training aircraft. The project, initiated during the Rajapaksa administration, disturbed New Delhi, particularly because it was to be established at China Bay, Trincomalee. A section of the media severely criticised the continuation of the Chinese project. Those who couldn’t stomach the LTTE’s crushing defeat depicted the new facility as former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s project. They have expressed concern over taxpayers’ money being utilised for the upkeep of the military. Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for not acquiring required systems during the conflict. A case in point is delay in acquiring 3 D radar due to external factors. In other words, an external factor jeopardised Sri Lanka’s security by thwarting deployment of Chinese radar. In late March, 2007, at the onset of the Vanni offensive (only 57 Division had been deployed then), the LTTE nearly succeeded in destroying the Katunayake-based jet squadrons (Kfirs and MiG 27s) for want of radar. Had LTTE aircraft succeeded in hitting the jet squadrons, the war effort would have suffered an irreparable loss. In fact, the Vanni offensive couldn’t have proceeded without air power.

Sri Lanka wanted to acquire and instal a proper air defence system during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. Kumaratunga acted on the recommendations of the then SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Donald Perera to acquire air defence system, though the UNP led-UNF government (Dec 2001-Nov 2003) did not pursue the initiative. Sri Lanka re initiated plans in March, 2005, to acquire air defence system. Kumaratunga approved plans to go for Chinese radar. But, due to Indian pressure, Sri Lanka couldn’t proceed with it. Instead, New Delhi offered to install, operate and maintain an integrated air defence system covering the entire country. Sri Lanka was told that an Indian 2D system was more than adequate to meet the LTTE threat. India was of the opinion that Sri Lanka didn’t require personnel from any other country to man radar stations as it could take care of the system on its own. India reiterated its position in September, 2005, ahead of the Nov 2005 presidential poll (Govt. rejects UNP charge, CBK initiated air defence plan – The Island April 5, 2007).

The March 2007 LTTE attack exposed the deficiencies in the SLAF air defence system. The fact that LTTE aircraft, involved in the March 26, 2007, raid on the Katunayake air base, had survived some 400 kms of flying distance, and that, too, in the night, highlighted the urgent need to upgrade the system.

While the Chinese offered 3D radar, India installed 2D radar, thereby causing a major shortfall in the system. Sri Lanka had to accept the first generation 2D radar as New Delhi strongly opposed the installation of Chinese radar. Investigations revealed that the Indian radar didn’t even detect the approaching enemy aircraft until the radar sited adjacent to the BIA identified them. The BIA radar made the detection as the LTTE aircraft were about three kilometres off the air base.

In the aftermath of the strike, the LTTE declared that about 40 per cent of the SLAF’s strike capability was gone.

Immediately after the raid, Sri Lanka raised the issue with the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The government stressed the urgent need to fully activate the air defence system as vital military and economic installations were at risk of being bombed. Although three out of four radars promised by India had been installed by that time, there were operational problems. The fourth radar was to be installed in the north. Sri Lanka requested India to install it quickly.

In June, 2005, the then Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, voiced concern over the LTTE acquiring an air capability. In his last visit to Washington, Kadirgamar pointed out the danger of allowing the LTTE to go ahead with its plans. Kadirgamar said that the international community should take tangible action to thwart LTTE plans as the acquisition of air capability could threaten not only Sri Lanka but also international civil aviation and commercial shipping. The issue was taken up at the highest level, with Kadirgamar explaining the situation to the then US Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Dr. J.H. Croch.

Having received credible intelligence as regards LTTE efforts, Sri Lanka, in early 2005, briefed the five-member UN Security Council, plus India, of an air threat. Sri Lanka went to the extent of providing a comprehensive dossier, including a short video footage obtained by Israeli Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), in service with the SLAF of some LTTE assets.


Shamnidra is the news editor of The Island, a Colombo based daily newspaper, where this piece first appeared


 

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