India’s dirty role in Sri Lankan war
Covert magazine, November 1-4, 2009
Six months after Sri Lanka’s stunning military triumph in the 26-year-old civil war at the cost of thousands of
civilian lives in the final weeks alone, the peace dividend remains elusive, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa setting out — in the name of “eternal vigilance” — to expand by 50% an already-large military. China, clearly, was the decisive factor in helping end that war through its generous supply of offensive weapons
and its munificent bilateral aid. It even got its ally Pakistan actively involved in Rajapaksa’s war strategy.
India’s role, although it has received little international attention, was also deplorable. For years, India had pursued a hands-off approach toward Sri Lanka in response to two developments — a disastrous 1987-90 peacekeeping operation there; and the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But
having been outmanoeuvred by China’s success in extending strategic reach to Sri Lanka in recent years, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo, lest it lose further ground in that island-nation.
From opening an unlimited line of military credit for Sri Lanka to extending critical naval and intelligence
assistance, India provided sustained war support in defiance of a deteriorating humanitarian
situation there. A “major turning point” in the war, as Sri Lankan navy chief Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda acknowledged, came when the rebels’ supply ships were eliminated, one by one, with Indian naval intelligence inputs, cutting off all supplies to the rebel-held areas. That in turn allowed the Sri Lankan ground forces to make rapid advances and unravel the de facto state the Tigers had established in Sri Lanka’s north and east.
Indeed, Rajapaksa deftly played the China, India and Pakistan cards to maximize gains. After key Tamil Tiger leaders had been killed in the fighting, Rajapaksa — to New Delhi’s acute mortification — thanked China, India and Pakistan in the same breath for Sri Lanka’s victory. Today, India stands more marginalized than ever in Sri Lanka. Its natural constituency — the Tamils — feels not only betrayed, but also looks at India as a colluder in the bloodbath. India already had alienated the Sinhalese in the 1980s, when it first armed the Tamil Tigers and then sought to disarm them through an ill-starred peacekeeping foray that left almost three times as many Indian troops dead as the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan.
India’s waning leverage over Sri Lanka is manifest from the way it now has to jostle for influence there with archrivals China and Pakistan. Hambantota — the billion-dollar port Beijing is building on Sri Lanka’s
southeast — symbolizes the Chinese strategic challenge to India from the oceans.
Even as some 250,000 displaced Tamils — equivalent to the population of Belfast — continue to be held incommunicado in miserable conditions in barbed-wire camps to this day, India has been unable to persuade Colombo to set them free. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said recently that India
has conveyed its “concerns in no uncertain terms to Sri Lanka on various occasions, stressing the need for them to focus on resettling and rehabilitating the displaced Tamil population at the earliest.” But India seems unable to make a difference even with messages delivered in “no uncertain terms.”
Yet, such has been the unstinted Indian support that even after the crushing of the Tigers, India went out the way to castigate the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in June for shining a spotlight on the deplorable human-rights situation in Sri Lanka. India accused Ms. Pillay — a distinguished
South African judge of Indian descent who has sought an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by all sides in Sri Lanka — of going beyond her brief, saying “the independence of the high commissioner cannot be presumed to exceed that of the UN Secretary General.”
Subsequently, India voted in the IMF for a $2.8 billion loan desperately needed by cash-strapped Colombo.
The costs for lending such support have been high. New Delhi today is groping to bring direction to its Sri
Lanka policy, even as it struggles to respond to the Chinese strategy to build maritime choke points in the Indian Ocean region. The current upsurge of Sinhalese chauvinism flows from the fact that the Sri Lankan military accomplished a task whose pursuit forced the mightier Indian army to make an ignominious exit 19 years ago. Consequently, Colombo is going to be even less inclined than before to listen to New
Against this background, the least India can do is to help improve the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka. It cannot impotently watch as the Sri Lankan government continues to hold more than a quarter of a
million innocent Tamil refugees as prisoners in internment camps in the north. The arrival of the annual winter monsoon rains is causing a further deterioration of living conditions in these camps, threatening the health and safety of the internally displaced persons (IDPs). To make up for the sins of its policy, India — more than 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees camping in Tamil Nadu — can do quite a few things.
●First, India must start exerting open, intense pressure on Colombo to free the more than 250,000 IDPs from internment. They must be granted freedom of movement. Also, the 11,000 suspected rebels being separately detained at military sites should be identified and not denied access to legal
●Second, it has to insist the government resettle the IDPs in their hometowns and villages. As Walter Kaelin, the UN secretary-general’s representative on the human rights of IDPs, recently said: “It is imperative to immediately take all measures necessary to de-congest the overcrowded camps in northern Sri Lanka with their difficult and risky living conditions. The IDPs should be allowed to leave these camps voluntarily and in freedom, safety and dignity to their homes. If this is not possible in the near future, the displaced must be allowed to stay with host families or in open transit sites.”
●Three, India must warn Colombo of serious consequences if it seeks to change local demography by settling Sinhalese in Tamil areas. With overt official encouragement, thousands of Sinhalese already have flocked to the east to regain farming and other land from which they claim to have been driven out in the 1980s by the Tamil Tigers. Attempts to “Sinhalise” the north and east will not only deprive local Tamils and Muslims of their livelihood, but also sow the seeds of another cycle of conflict. Rajapaksa, post-victory, has not only rejected federalism and regional autonomy, but also — to the chagrin of Tamils — demerged the northern and eastern provinces.
●Four, India should demand that the IDP camps be opened up for effective monitoring through the grant of full access to humanitarian organizations, including the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and to the media.
●And five, India ought to join hands with the co-chairs of the so-called Friends of Sri Lanka — the US, European Union, Norway and Japan — to oppose further disbursement of the IMF loan until Colombo meets the commitments on IDP resettlement it made in its July letter of intent to the Fund. In the letter, it
pledged to resettle 70 to 80 per cent of the IDPs by the year-end — a further shift in its deadline. Democratic players must employ further disbursements as leverage to relieve a deteriorating humanitarian situation.
More broadly, India should lean on Rajapaksa to restore democratic freedoms. The wartime
suppression of a free press and curtailment of fundamental rights continues in peacetime, undermining democratic freedoms and creating a fear psychosis. Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest and seizure of property. Individuals can
still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.
For national reconciliation and healing to begin, it is essential the government shed its war-gained powers. Unfortunately, Colombo still seeks to hold onto its special powers while suppressing the truth. Peace sought to be achieved through the brutal humiliation of an ethnic community has always proven elusive in world history. If Sri Lanka is to go from making war to making peace, the present opportunity has to be
seized before there is a recrudescence of violence. That can happen only if Colombo is diplomatically nudged by an India that works in tandem with other important players. With its leverage undermined, New Delhi no longer can operate on its own.
(c) Covert, 2009.