An Indian Viewpoint: Managing Colombo in A Changed Situation

If Sri Lanka’s strategic thinking, that the Lankan Navy will handle security at the Colombo port city, holds, and the sell-out to China during Rajapaksa’s tenure is pushed back, one of New Delhi’s worries can end

by Ashok K Mehta

( February 15, 2017, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lankan foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera recently suggested that the new Constitution was designed to provide devolution for Tamils and hence, reconciliation with them will have priority over accountability. India should have no problem with this formulation. It has advocated maximum devolution within a united Sri Lanka and opposed the use of military force to resolve the ethnic conflict. India got involved after the 1983 pogrom against Tamils (Black July), politically and militarily training the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the non-LTTE groups.

In 1987, Sri Lankan Army launched Operation Liberation to snuff out the LTTE from Jaffna. Just as they were close to nabbing LTTE leader V Prabhakaran, India intervened in an early version of R2P to prevent a military solution. The rest is history, which ended surprisingly in the rout of the LTTE in 2009, and in 2015 the fall of the key architect of that victory, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

India had pegged its hopes on substantial power-sharing with as much if not more devolution for the Tamils than was envisaged in the 13th Amendment which was never implemented in full despite India sacrificing 1,200 of its soldiers in maintaining the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. India has been in it for the long haul but now, New Delhi is not hassled by the proverbial Tamil Nadu factor as the BJP-led Government enjoys a commanding majority in Parliament.

India-Sri Lanka relations are about the best that can be, given the grave indebtedness of Colombo towards Beijing inflicted during the profligacy of the Rajapaksa era. Two military commanders have given outstanding assurances to India on its security concerns. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the real victor of the war and the Minister for Regional Development, who was in New Delhi for the Raisina Dialogue, acknowledged that Sri Lanka is located within India’s sphere of influence, is part of its security strategy and will not jeopardise New Delhi’s security.

He added that Sri Lanka was considering offering the Trincomalee port to India — after Hambantota and Colombo ports were given to China for development, upgrade and commercial use during the Rajapaksa period. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Beijing, Karuna Kodituwakku, said: “Sri Lanka will not allow China to set up military facilities at any port in the country.” Sri Lanka is the key anchor for China’s Belt and Road initiative cum string of pearls.

On a visit to India this month, Sri Lanka’s cerebral Navy chief, Vice Admiral Ravi Wijeguneratne, who has been Defence Advisor and also attended the National Defence College in New Delhi, put it plainly: “We assure the Indian Government that nothing against India will happen on Sri Lanka land and waters around it.” He clarified that security at the Colombo port city will be handled by the Sri Lanka Navy and not the Chinese. If this strategic thinking stays, and the sell-out to China is pushed back, one of New Delhi’s worries would be allayed. The other is the Tamil national question that Samaraweera has spoken about, on which Rajapaksa has reservations.

Rajapaksa has been dodgy on devolution. Before and during the war he was consistently promising the implementation of 13A, even going beyond to 13A plus plus. In his interviews to The Hindu, he would define his policy with five Ds: Demobilisation, Demilitarisation, Democracy, Development and Devolution. After vanquishing the Tamil Tigers, the last D (for Devolution) went missing. This was replaced with ‘no outside solution’.

His brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, would explain the President’s denial of devolution saying: “As there is no LTTE, there is no Tamil problem.” In the post-war period, the Army’s new mission was portrayed with five Rs: Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation Reintegration and Reconciliation. The first four Rs were accomplished successfully. Reconciliation is contingent upon devolution and the Government embarking on the process of accountability through the use of established Truth and Justice seeking mechanisms.

So how have we reached where we have in a journey which Sri Lanka and India begin together in 1987, with the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord? Like in dealing with its domestic insurgencies, India has always rejected the use of force for resolving a political problem. It included no eelam for the LTTE. After the ignominy of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s (IPKF) virtual eviction from Sri Lanka, following the double jeopardy of friend LTTE turning foe, President Premadasa reneging on ISLA and the two locking in a fatal embrace, New Delhi’s Lanka policy swung from one of a Monroe Doctrine to hands off. After Sri Lanka’s biggest military debacle, the loss of Elephant Pass in April 2000 and threat posed by LTTE to Jaffna peninsula, India refused to consider any military bailout. “Heavens will not fall if Jaffna falls”, ruled then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, a former military officer who was convinced Jaffna would not fall. India refused to provide Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers to the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) which Pakistan did and saved the day for the mauled SLA.

A Defence Cooperation Agreement sought by Colombo never saw the light of day despite persistent requests and its redrafting, avoiding reference to military assistance of the IPKF kind. Only supply of non-lethal weaponry and training was on the cards.

Within days of Rajapaksa becoming President, he dashed to New Delhi and handed over a wish list of weapons to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his emissaries knocked on Delhi’s doors but failed to break its maun vrat on arms supply till National Security Advisor MK Narayanan famously said: “Why does Sri Lanka go to Pakistan and China for arms when we are there?”

It was India’s most laughable comment during Eelam War IV, but only next to the charade of fasting on Marina Beach by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in support of Tamils trapped in the war, which was called off within hours of Charade 2.0: Non-use of heavy weapons days before the LTTE’s capitulation. The hypocrisy of Chennai and New Delhi was stark. New Delhi, tacitly joining the war facilitating a military solution against the LTTE, is a mystery wrapped in a riddle?

A Minister in Rajapaksa’s Cabinet said: “We were very surprised that India did not ask us to stop the war after the fall of Kilinochchi on January 1, 2009.” Later, another Minister, Siripala DeSilva, said in Parliament: “Without India’s help, we could never have won the war.” Gotabhaya Rajapakse would refer to this as the art of ‘our managing India’. Devolution in fact was the quid pro quo for New Delhi allowing itself to be managed by Colombo.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert)


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