Colombo: India has quietly returned to the Sri Lanka amphitheatre, a far cry from its military intervention 21 years ago, preferring instead to work behind the scenes as it projects a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a moderate Tamil alternative in the island nation.
Strenghtening ties: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) greets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the closing ceremony of the Saarc summit in Colombo on 3 August. Singh has impressed upon Rajapaksa the need to undertake a political process in the north of the island nation. Photograph: Buddhika Weerasinghe / Reuters
For the first time since the Indian Army withdrew from Sri Lanka in 1990, bruised and beaten by the LTTE, New Delhi is hoping to restore some of its lost honour by encouraging the older Tamil parties to support the Tamil Makkal Vidhuthalai Pulikal (TMVP), the breakaway faction.
Heartened by the TMVP’s runaway success in provincial council polls held in Sri Lanka’s troubled Eastern Province in May, India moved quickly two weeks ago to gift 10 school buses to the newly elected chief minister S. Santira Kanthan, who is still popularly known by his LTTE nickname, Pillayan.
But as India sought to cover up its own tracks with the TMVP, it turned out that Pillayan was the only Tamil leader Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not meet in Colombo on the margins of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit, held 1-3 August.
Singh met representatives of all the other Tamil parties in Sri Lanka including the pro-LTTE Tamil National Front (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan, Sri Lankan Muslim leaders Hisbullah, who goes by only one nane, and Rauff Hakeem, Arumuga Thondaman of Ceylon Workers Congress as well as leaders from the traditional Tamil parties such as the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE,) and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), none of which won any seats in the Eastern Province elections.
In an interview in Colombo with Mint, the first to any Indian newspaper, Pillayan sounded sorrowful that the Indian Prime Minister had cancelled a scheduled appointment with him in Colombo.
Pillayan said that the LTTE had committed “a great blunder” by killing former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, that it had a “very short vision,” that his was the only elected Tamil party in the east and that he hoped that India would support his cause.
Clearly, as the Sri Lankan army begins to enter the LTTE strongholds in the north, such as Mannar, Vavuniya and Weli Voya just above Trincomalee, Tamil politics in Sri Lanka and its linkages with India have entered an interesting phase.
On the one hand, Singh impressed upon Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa the need to undertake a “political” process in the north, and insisted, once again, that a military solution to destroy the LTTE was not sufficient.
Secondly, during a secret visit to Colombo in June, national security adviser M.K. Narayanan met pro-LTTE leader R. Sampanthan and according to the Colombo-based Tamil newspaper, Sudar Oli, had a heated exchange with him.
According to the newspaper, Narayanan hinted if the LTTE wished to “atone” for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and wanted India to once again intervene on behalf of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, it would need to give up a senior LTTE leader like Pottu Amman, “who had planned and ordered the assassination”.
Since a suitably chastened Sampanthan “was unlikely to reply”, a South Asian diplomat with long links to the Tamil parties said, Indian officials sent out a “much more significant message” to all the other Tamil parties: Support TMVP’s Pillayan, do not undercut him in the east.
The South Asian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained that India’s refusal to publicly acknowledge Pillayan was based on a concern for Pillayan himself.
“Pillayan is important to both India and Sri Lanka because he represents the moderate face of the Tamils. Moreover, he broke away from the LTTE, which shows that the LTTE is not the united, fighting force it once was,” the diplomat said.
He said that in the highly complicated world of Sri Lankan politics, India’s public support for Pillayan could amount to a “political kiss of death for him”.
However, according to Sri Lankan analyst N. Manoharan, India’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka Alok Prasad has already met Pillayan.
“In the mangled web of rumour and counter-rumour that has been a reality of Sri Lankan politics for decades,” Manoharan said, laughing, “Pillayan is seen as an Indian agent. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister did not meet him.”
Meanwhile, the multiple balancing acts continue: Pillayan’s TMVP has received considerable, behind-the-scenes support, both political and financial, from President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Basil Rajapakse, who is in charge of development of the east.
Meanwhile, although the Sri Lankan President seems to have agreed to the Indian request not to allow Chinese and Pakistani defence installations to be set up in his country because that would open to risk India’s sensitive and strategic installations in the south, including the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, Rajapaksa pulled back from signing the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Manmohan Singh in Colombo last week, citing “domestic political risk” to his government if he had gone ahead with the accord.
An Indian official admitted on the condition of anonymity that India’s relations with Sri Lanka will depend “on what happens on the ground”. He said New Delhi was not really concerned about CEPA’s delay, adding that signing the agreement was only a matter of time.
Significantly, when New Delhi extended its ban on the LTTE in May, it was signalling to Colombo that it could “go-ahead” with its war against the LTTE on the basis of two conditions: start a political process with the northern Tamils, especially in the areas that had been liberated from the LTTE, and at the same time, start implementing the 13th amendment—devolve powers relating to land, finance and police in the Eastern Province.
When Singh met Rajapaksa last week, the South Asian diplomat said, he asked him directly, “Have you started giving police powers to the east?”
In turn, India has promised to send economic backup to Pillayan’s province.
Apart from the 10 school buses, a team from NTPC Ltd is travelling to Colombo and Trincomalee in the Eastern Province this week to take forward the talks on a 500MW power plant with the Ceylon Electricity Board in Trincomalee.
In Muslim-dominated Amparai district, India has decided to equip a series of kiosks with computers. And in Batticaloa, New Delhi is giving fishing boats and nets worth Rs3 crore to local fishermen.
The Indian official said it was all very well for Pillayan to win elections, “but if he is not able to give jobs to the people who have been at war for over 20 years, then he may lose the next time”. India estimates that there are at least 10,000 internally displaced persons in the Eastern Province alone.