Dangerous portents

Published : May 13, 2000 00:00 IST

India has only limited options in Sri Lanka, but it can work as an impartial mediator to bring about peace. Only that would serve India's interest best.


THE ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has reached a critical military stage. The ethnic divide is a political issue, but it has been converted into a largely military issue owing to the misguided emphasis placed on the means instead of the ends by the two sid es to the conflict.

The inability of the major political and religious elements in Sri Lanka to come to an agreement on the nature of the Sinhala state in constitutional terms is one part of the tragedy. The inability of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to accept anything less than a separate state for the Tamils is the other part. The two have led to an impasse, and both sides have sought a solution by resort to force of arms. The consequence can be seen in the military disaster that the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) is facing and the huge and tragic demands made by the LTTE upon the Tamils of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The military situation is grave for the Sri Lankan forces. At best they face the possibility of losing the land route to its forces in the Jaffna peninsula. The SLA is already cut off from the mainland route through Vavuniya and Paranthan and has lost th e Elephant Pass, a narrow causeway that links the peninsula with the mainland. The army's hold on the peninsula will therefore be tenuous and it will be in serious difficulty. Nearly 20,000 troops are hemmed in in the peninsula without reliable logistic support. To make matters worse, the navy does not control the seas around the peninsula. The air force lost control over the peninsular skies some time ago, and its aircraft have been regularly shot down. Even if the SLA can hold on to the Jaffna town an d some of the surrounding areas, it will amount to its being denied the use of nearly three army divisions for the fight against the LTTE.

The worst case scenario for Sri Lanka would be of losing the entire peninsula. The LTTE is more likely to go for the Palaly air base and the ports at Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro in the next phase of its offensive. If SLA loses these, it may well have to give up the fight in the peninsula. It is unlikely to be in a position to retake Jaffna or the rest of peninsula in the foreseeable future. Further, the capitulation of the 20,000 or more men and officers to the LTTE would have incalculable political consequences in the island nation.

The impact on India of the situation in which the LTTE has full control of the peninsula must not to be minimised. It would certainly lead to thousands - perhaps even to tens of thousands - of refugees arriving in Tamil Nadu. The LTTE would almost certai nly use the influx to get its apparatchiks into the State, as it did earlier. It was only with considerable effort over the years that they were cleared from the State. Wounded LTTE fighters would use Tamil Nadu for treatment and refit as was done in the 1980s. New supply and support bases would come up in the State as happened in the 1980s. This, combined with the hand of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that is already seen in Tamil Nadu, would be a recipe for a security scenario for which the St ate is not prepared. There is a possibility that the security scene in Tamil Nadu could be politicised, which would impact on the stability of the alliance government at the Centre.

The Centre's initiative to brief Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi about implications of the Sri Lankan situation is a good development. During the Indian involvement in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, this synergy was missing and that led to many problem s. Karunanidhi's response after his meeting with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and some Cabinet members is a reassuring sign of the mature Centre-State dynamic that operates at present. Karunanidhi has demonstrated a measure of statesmanship with his resp onse to the situation. There will no doubt be some people who will point to his attitude when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) returned from Sri Lanka in 1989-90. Certainly there will be many with the Sri Lanka experience in the Indian Army, who wou ld be pleasantly surprised by this development. They may well feel that power, with all its faults, also has the potential to educate on matters of national security!

WHAT are the possible outcomes in Sri Lanka in the weeks to come? The stakes are high for the Colombo government, and it may well be able to galvanise the demoralised SLA and get it to make a stand on Jaffna. It certainly has enough troops to do so. If t he SLA can make a stand and also go on a limited offensive to keep the LTTE unsettled, there is a possibility of this miracle taking place. An army that is facing humiliation can demonstrate a surprising resilience if it has the right leadership and the confidence that the nation is with it. The current indicators, however, do not point to such a development. If the LTTE denies the SLA access to its air base and squeeze its sea routes of supply, the situation can speedily worsen.

If the collapse of the SLA in Jaffna occurs, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakaran would have some valuable options. He has been at pains to explain abroad that his organisation is the aggrieved party and that it is being willing to negotiate with Colombo. H e would like to remove the terrorist label given to the LTTE by the U.S. administration. The LTTE can make an impact by allowing the beleaguered SLA to pull out from Jaffna under international supervision. He would certainly have the attention of the wor ld media if he were to do so, and his bargaining position in future negotiations would be better than ever. Above all, by insisting on international supervision of the SLA's withdrawal, he would succeed in keeping India out of the scene.

There is talk of the possibility of the LTTE supremo going in for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). He knows that he is not going to obtain recognition or acceptance for such a stand. However, by doing so he would create considerable confus ion among the Tamil people in India and abroad. Such a move would generate a volatile mixture of aspirations, fears, hopes and doubts on the future course of events. India would be most affected by such a development. The LTTE's ability to continue its c ampaign of violence in other parts of Sri Lanka remains, and its sources of funds are considerable. Its supply of arms will not be shut off in the shark-eat-shark environment of the international weapons market. While a UDI is an improbable outcome, it i s not entirely beyond the realm of possibility. India's political, diplomatic and humanitarian capabilities would be severely stretched by such a development.

India does not have many options in the rapidly unfolding scene. It can, however, play a vital part by facilitating a cease fire. Monitoring the ceasefire would present some difficulties but those can be overcome by bringing the LTTE and the Sri Lankan a uthorities together. During the ceasefire period, Colombo should be willing to pull out the bulk of the SLA and the LTTE should allow such a pullout. Second, there would have to be no need for any side to surrender or give up their weapons. This was the main obstacle when the IPKF reached Jaffna in the 1980s. It has also been the main hindrance to taking forward the Northern Ireland peace process. No major force likes to go through a surrender ceremony.

The essential condition for the ceasefire and negotiation process even to start would be for the principal two political groups in Sri Lanka - the United National Party and the People's Alliance - to come together on the devolution principle backed by a constitutional proviso. The semantic jugglery now being witnessed in Sri Lanka over symmetrical and asymmetrical devolution, and so on, would have to be effectively discarded. The LTTE for its part would be required to give up its demand for a separate s tate. These 'common sense solutions' are, however, not going to be easy for either side to grapple with, given their ancient animosities.

The possibility of other countries stepping into Sri Lanka is considered a threat to India's interests. The reality is otherwise. It is not easy for any country, however powerful, to position a sizable force on Sri Lankan soil for an indefinite period. P akistan will certainly not be in a position to do so. China will be unwilling to get involved militarily so far from home. The impact of a Chinese move would also send disturbing signals all over East Asia. Pakistan and some other countries have in any c ase been involved in advising the SLA in recent years. As for military hardware, for years India has had no objection to the SLA buying weapons from all over the world.

The bogey of foreign involvement in or penetration into Sri Lanka should therefore be seen in the right perspective.

India's national interests are best served by building peace in Sri Lanka. The IPKF experiment became fundamentally flawed when India resorted to a military solution to what was essentially a political problem. For India to become militarily involved a s econd time in the affairs of Sri Lanka, particularly given the divided polity of the island-nation, would be a strategic error of monumental proportions. What is needed is to establish communication lines with both parties to the conflict and work as an impartial mediator. Even more important is to ensure that the impact of the conflict does not affect the Indian polity.

Lt. Gen. V.R. Raghavan, a former Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) in the Indian Army, is Director of the Delhi Policy Group.

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