IT was no secret that New Delhi was initially against the Sri Lankan governments decision to go all out for a military solution to the long-running civil war. The Indian government, like the rest of the international community, had consistently called for a political solution. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee told Parliament in October 2008 that there was no military solution to the ethnic conflict and urged the Sri Lankan government to find a peacefully negotiated political settlement. The considered opinion in the Indian political and military establishment was that in any case, the Sri Lankan government would not be able to achieve a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
But in the past one year, the situation has dramatically changed on the ground. As Sri Lanka celebrated its 61st independence day on February 4, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the Sri Lanka Army would achieve a total victory over the LTTE within a matter of days. However, reports of mounting civilian casualties have caused widespread international concern, especially in India, over the military offensive.
Pranab Mukherjee travelled to Colombo in the last week of January to convey the Indian governments concern about the humanitarian situation in the north of the island. More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes.
Also in the last week of January, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said a major humanitarian crisis was unfolding. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was deeply concerned about the safety of civilians caught in the intensified fighting. He urged the LTTE to allow civilians in the conflict zone to move to more secure areas and called on the government to ensure that civilians arriving from conflict areas were treated in accordance with international standards.
The Tamil parties represented in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi had started to get restive. There was even talk of some Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Ministers at the Centre resigning in protest. The assurances given by the Sri Lankan President to Pranab Mukherjee in Colombo seems to have satisfied the major parties in Tamil Nadu. Mahinda Rajapaksa promised that the Sri Lanka Army would respect the safe zones and minimise the effect of the conflict on Tamil civilians. After the Indian Ministers visit, the Sri Lankan government also announced a 48-hour truce to allow civilians to leave the war zone. Colombo made it clear that it was not a ceasefire but an ultimatum to the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the war zone.
Rajapaksa also told Mukherjee that his government remained committed to the implementation of the 13th amendment to the countrys Constitution, which was part of the India-Lanka Accord of 1987. If implemented, it will result in considerable devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority north. The 13th amendment had also envisaged the creation of a merged province in the northeast. Mukherjee said at the end of his visit that the President had promised to explore the possibility of going further and improving upon the devolution proposals.
Before embarking on his trip to Colombo, Mukherjee told the media that he had no sympathy for any terrorist activity indulged in by any organisation, particularly the LTTE, a banned organisation in India. The Sri Lankan government has been insisting that the ongoing war is one of democracy versus terrorism. Mukherjee expressed Indias readiness to participate in the reconstruction of northern Sri Lanka. A statement issued by Mahinda Rajalaksas secretariat also said that both countries would work together on a reconstruction plan for these areas. Rajapaksa also said in an independence-day address to the nation that Tamils would be given equality and all rights once the LTTE was eliminated.
But the targeting of civilians areas, including the lone functioning hospital in LTTE-held territory, has continued unabated. In one such attack in the first week of February, cluster bombs were used, which resulted in the death of more than 50 civilians. An ICRC statement said that the bombs had been dropped on the hospital. The safe zones established for civilians fleeing the fighting have been bombed indiscriminately, according to the ICRC. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE continue to trade charges, each side blaming the other for the rising civilian casualties.
There have been big demonstrations in London, Paris and Toronto, which have large Sri Lankan Tamil populations, against the Sri Lankan governments military tactics. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store condemned the war and said it had caused unacceptable suffering to civilians. He said that both the government and the LTTE had a responsibility to protect the civilian populace and prevent more civilian deaths.
The European Union (E.U.) has urged Colombo to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses and guarantee press freedom. The E.U. also expressed the hope that the government will now give priority to outlining and implementing an ambitious and sustainable political solution which can put Sri Lanka on the path towards peace and reconciliation between communities. Both Norway and the E.U. were significant players in the Sri Lanka peace process, which broke down last year.
The Sri Lankan government has not taken kindly to any criticism of its military onslaught. The Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who also happens to be the Presidents brother, has used strong words against foreign journalists and diplomats based in Colombo for their views on the civil war. He accused them of sensationalising the hardships of civilians in the embattled north and even threatened the Swiss and German ambassadors with expulsion. The government has not allowed the media to enter the war zone for first-hand reports.
That the Congress, which leads the UPA government, has no sympathy for the LTTE is well known. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE was declared a terrorist organisation in India. Most governments in the world have followed suit. The going for the LTTE has become even more difficult after the events of September 11, 2001. The United States was quick to put the Tigers on the terror list. Canada, the United Kingdom and France, which have sizable Sri Lankan Tamil populations, have also proscribed the LTTE.
Many observers of the Sri Lankan scene believe that the dramatic military successes of the last two months would not have been possible without the tacit support of its immediate neighbour. According to reports in the media, Indias National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan told the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary that Lt. Gen. Fonseka was the worlds greatest army commander. The remark came after Fonseka uprooted the LTTE from its strongholds. The Sri Lankan government had projected Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menons visit in early January as a mark of approval of its military action.
India had supplied sophisticated radar systems and other unspecified military equipment to Sri Lanka. In late 2008, Mukherjee told Parliament that Sri Lankas security was intertwined with that of India. In our anxiety, we should not forget the strategic importance of that island, and it is not only their security, it is closely connected with our security, he said. He went on to add that India would be willing to meet Sri Lankas security requirements provided the country does not look around for weaponry from other countries.
Because of the initial Indian reluctance to supply lethal weapons, Sri Lanka had gone in for big defence purchases from China, Pakistan and Israel. India was particularly unhappy with Pakistan and China entering into what it considers its own sphere of influence. What type of security arrangements should be made, what type of assistance they [Sri Lanka] will require and what is their security requirement there should be some common assessment because they are so close to us. Surely, we would not like to have international players in our backyard, Mukherjee had told Parliament.