Colombo: India has committed to cleaning up the Jaffna harbour of sunken vessels, signalling its growing comfort with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s coalition government, and its support for his battle against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north of the island.
The commitment is part of India’s multi-layered Sri Lanka strategy that employs economic engagement to underscore a political point. The promise to clean up the harbour of sunken vessels at Kankesanthurai, off Jaffna, first made after the December 2004 tsunami and renewed recently, signals New Delhi’s backing for Colombo’s fight against the LTTE.
Telltale signs: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Colombo on 3 August. (AP)
India shrugged off Rajapaksa’s about-face on his promise to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (Cepa) with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of a South Asian summit in Colombo on 1 August. The agreement would have extended a free trade pact covering merchandise to services.
“The Cepa has already been initialled by the commerce secretaries of the two countries in July. That means Colombo is already committed and signature is merely a matter of time,” a senior Indian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
At home, India’s larger Sri Lankan strategy has overtones in Tamil Nadu politics.
After Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko, seen to be pro-LTTE, quit the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the government began to focus on balancing sympathy for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu with the stream of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fleeing the island for the southern Indian state over the last two years.
A home ministry official said 16,000 Sri Lankan Tamils had fled Sri Lanka in 2006. But, after Rajapaksa’s government began to win the military battle against the LTTE and sought to pacify the Eastern Province by holding elections there, the refugee influx has declined to about 2,000 a year.
The elections in the Eastern Province were won by S. Santhira Kanthan’s Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), a breakaway faction of the LTTE.
And in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government began to crack down on LTTE sympathizers.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that on the eve of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Colombo, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan met Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi in Delhi, and discussed the issues of refugees, fishermen and the 1974 ceding of the island of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
Around the same time, the home ministry official said, the Tamil Nadu police began to place pro-LTTE sympathizers such as Thambi Anna under arrest. With the DMK government agreeing to adopt a much harder line against the LTTE at home, it was easier for New Delhi to back Colombo’s fight against the LTTE.
So when the powerful bureaucratic triumvirate consisting of M.K. Narayanan, foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon and defence secretary Vijay Singh flew to Colombo in an Indian Air Force jet in June, they told the Sri Lankan leadership that India would help the island nation with non-lethal weaponry. In return, India wanted Colombo to begin a political process with Sri Lankan Tamils by implementing the 13th amendment to the constitution that promised devolution of powers to the provinces.
India has trained about 800 Sri Lankan officers so far, apart from giving it non-lethal equipment such as radars, night vision devices and trucks, a defence ministry official said. But when India promised to shore up the Rajapaksa government, both economically and politically, the Sri Lankan President agreed to take Indian sensitivities into account and remove Chinese-Pakistani facilities from areas where they would be able to monitor Indian installations in the south.
“China is a reality in the region,” a South Asian diplomat said. “The question is, what is the strategic space they occupy. If Sri Lanka allows China and Pakistan to set up facilities that can monitor Indian sites such as Kalpakkam and Kudankulam (nuclear power projects in Tamil Nadu) then India will surely protest,” he added.
Meanwhile, Colombo and New Delhi also agreed that moderate Tamil leaders such as chief minister of the Eastern Provincial council S. Santira Kanthan, alias Pillayan, should be allowed to consolidate their base. After the Saarc summit, Pillayan was taken to Kandy where he met a number of Sri Lankan Buddhist clergymen, in an attempt to make him acceptable to that powerful Sinhala group.
But Sri Lanka analyst P. Sahadevan, professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that all the agreements between Colombo and New Delhi notwithstanding, “India has refused to put pressure on Rajapaksa to implement a real power-sharing arrangement with the Sri Lanka Tamils.”
Sahadevan noted that India’s focus on the implementation of the 13th amendment was at least 20 years old, now things had gone much beyond that, and that New Delhi should now call for a “restructuring of the Sri Lanka constitution, where regional councils would be given real powers.”
According to Sahadevan, Rajapaksa was a “shrewd mind, a combination of both (Ranasinghe) Premadasa and (Junius) Jayewardene.” Jayewardene, as Sri Lankan president, invited the Indian peace-keeping forces to the island nation in 1987, and his successor Premadasa pressed them to leave. Rajapaksa is only focusing on a military solution, to break up the LTTE, without conditioning it with political power-sharing offers, Sahadevan said.
Sri Lankan watcher M.R. Narayan Swamy, a journalist who has written a biography of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, said that “it was extremely difficult to know what India was doing, since everything was done in secret,” unlike in the case of the Americans and the British. He agreed that India was playing a key role in Sri Lanka, but wondered if the secrecy was also a diplomatic weapon in its arsenal.