If the fate of 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 Rajapaksa’s government to stop the military offensive at a time when the Sri Lankan army is close to a complete victory in the conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). And whether or not Tamil-Sinhala relations improve after this, the elimination of the uncompromising LTTE leadership cannot be a bad thing.
Photograph: Mark Blinch / Reuters
It is clear that Sri Lanka faces a massive humanitarian crisis in the coming weeks. The war-displaced Tamils will have misgivings about how they will be treated by the victorious Sri Lankan government in general, and by the security forces in particular. These misgivings will be shared, perhaps amplified, among sections of the Tamil population in India and among the Tamil diaspora around the world.
Let there be no mistake though: The LTTE bears the moral responsibility for bringing the Sri Lankan Tamils into this humanitarian crisis. LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran did not take advantage of the international mediation in the first half of this decade to transform a rather successful insurgency into a political process leading towards autonomy within a federal set-up. Now, the LTTE’s sympathizers might argue that it was the Sri Lankan government that upped the ante: Even so, Prabhakaran’s failure to reject violence and keep international peace brokers on his side allowed President Rajapaksa to prosecute the war.
But the LTTE’s moral responsibility ends the moment the civilians pass into the Sri Lankan government’s custody. From that point, the moral responsibility for their security, well-being and human rights rests unambiguously with Colombo. And it is incumbent on New Delhi to hold the Rajapaksa government to account on this. 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.
Now, while President Rajapaksa’s election manifesto promised to include in the Sri Lankan Constitution a charter to “uphold and protect social, cultural, political, economic and civil rights of all Sri Lankans”, there are some among his supporters who want to translate the LTTE’s defeat into a victory for Sinhala supremacism. The immediate task for Indian foreign policy, therefore, is to hold President Rajapaksa to the Longbottom standard: It takes a great deal of bravery for him to stand up to his enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to his friends.
To do this, New Delhi needs to find greater leverage over Colombo. India remained aloof from the Sri Lankan conflict in the first decade after a timorous prime minister V.P. Singh pulled Indian peacekeepers out. In that momentous second, it compounded this mistake by allowing outside powers to intervene, further weakening its leverage.
India’s failure to rein in the two sides in December 2005 led to the current war and bloodshed. And India’s failure to coerce the Tamil Tiger leadership to give up its maximalist aims caused Prabhakaran to break the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, the best chance the Tamils had since 1986 of securing an honourable settlement.
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.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at email@example.com