Of arms and assistance

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

As India signals its readiness to provide as yet unspecified assistance to ease the situation in Jaffna, the diplomatic and military aspects of the crisis take on a new dimension.

WITH Jaffna coming under pressure from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts relating to the situation have intensified. In a significant change in the Indian government's stated position on the situation, Prime Minis ter Atal Behari Vajpayee said on May 20 that India was "ready" to take any step "if necessary". (In the second week of May, he had maintained that there would be no change in India's policy even if Jaffna fell. The situation, he had agreed, was grave but he made it clear that any Indian intervention would only be with the consent of all the parties concerned.)

Defence Minister George Fernandes, however, said there was "no question" of military intervention or supply of arms to the Sri Lanka Army. He said India was ready to provide humanitarian and other assistance, including help in the evacuation of troops an d stranded civilians, which may be "sought by all sides".

Sri Lanka hopes that the Indian concept of humanitarian aid would encompass the evacuation of Sri Lankan troops, if the need arose. Sri Lankan Deputy Foreign Minister Lakshman Kirialla said in Chennai during a visit on May 20 that Colombo and New Delhi h ad worked out the details of the assistance India would give to his country's troops.

Sri Lankan diplomatic sources, however, confirm that not even a single bullet has been received from India since the onslaught on Jaffna started. They say that Pakistan and China were among the first nations to step in. Israel has also been supplying arm s, according to highly placed sources, but reports about their quantity and level of sophistication are apparently exaggerated. For instance, reports about the deployment of eight Israeli Kfir fighter planes on the warfront are not true, according to the Sri Lankan sources. Until the third week of May, the jets had not arrived in Sri Lanka. The Israelis believe in a "cash and carry" policy, and Sri Lanka is facing a financial crunch. Sri Lankan officials say that humanitarian or military aid after the f all of Jaffna will be of no avail. If Jaffna falls, the backlash against India will be tremendous. Memories of Indian help to the separatists in the 1970s and the 1980s will be resurrected.

The Sri Lankan Joint Operations Chief, General Rohan De Silva Daluwatte, made a four-day trip to India during which he was in Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram. Neither Indian nor Sri Lankan officials were forthcoming about the real purpos e of his visit, coming as it did when the war was escalating. Senior Indian officials claimed that Daluwatte's visit was concerned only with spiritual matters; the General was in Bangalore to seek solace in the ashram of Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. (The Chi ef of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Y.R. Tipnis, had gone to Colombo on May 7 to learn first-hand the ground realities in that country.)

Other reports indicated that Daluwate's visit was connected with preparations being made by the Indian Navy for the possible large-scale evacuation of Sri Lankan troops and Tamil refugees from Jaffna and its surrounding areas. The Navy had reportedly mov ed eight battleships to Chennai and two to Visakhapatnam. Among the warships deployed near the island are Kashin class destroyers, landing ship tanks and mine-sweepers. The Navy's Tu-142M maritime reconnaissance aircraft were monitoring the island.

The Indian Air Force was also reportedly on stand-by alert in Thiruvananthapuram. The Navy and the Coast Guard appeared to have enforced an informal blockade in order to prevent an influx of refugees to Tamil Nadu (story on page 24) and to stop the trans fer of any smuggled arms to LTTE cadres.

Meanwhile, India extended its ban on the LTTE for two more years, while insisting that the ban would not impede its efforts to mediate between the Tigers and the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. (Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson M. Venkiah Naidu expl ained recently that governments in the past had negotiated with banned organisations.) However, India was yet to receive any formal request for diplomatic intervention from the Sri Lankan government. President Chandrika Kumaratunga maintained that she wo uld take a decision on India's offer of mediation only after receiving an official intimation about it from New Delhi. As things stood at the end of the third week of May, the only international peace effort was the Norwegian initiative. India, despite s ome initial scepticism, supports the quiet diplomacy mode of Norway and other European countries in South Asia, at least for the time being.

A delegation led by Erik Solheim, special adviser to the Norwegian government on Sri Lanka, arrived in New Delhi in the second week of May to hold consultations with the Indian government. Both sides agreed that there were no basic differences in approac h in their respective peace moves with regard to Sri Lanka. They also agreed that a meaningful peace would be one that respected the aspirations of the minority peoples within a united and sovereign Sri Lanka. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement that the two sides had agreed that the parties to the conflict should find a solution "in a manner by which all communities can realise their aspirations within the context of the unity, sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the co untry". Solheim reassured India that his country "recognises India's legitimate interests in Sri Lanka" and that no obstacles would be placed in the way of any Indian initiative. He said that his country's effort was a "low key" one, primarily aimed at s taying in touch with all the parties concerned.

Before coming to India, Solheim had briefed the U.S. administration about Norway's willingness to broker peace. The U.S., supportive of Norway's effort to facilitate negotiations between the warring parties, is keen that India participate in the initiati ve. (In fact, Norway's role in the Oslo peace accords relating to West Asia signed in September 1993, also had the blessings of the U.S.) The Clinton administration's trouble-shooter, Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, was planning to visit Colom bo after holding consultations with Indian officials. Solheim had met him during his visit to Washington. In recent months, the U.S. has expressed a desire to play a major role in the South Asian region. In this case, the U.S. State Department said that Washington would facilitate a mediation process "if we are asked". Informed sources in New Delhi said that Washington wanted a collective international effort to restore peace in the island. According to them, the U.S. wants India to take the initiative in this regard.

However, a piquant situation prevails in that the Norwegians are in the forefront of the diplomatic initiative while the Israelis are the conduit for arms supplies to Sri Lanka.

IN a major boost to Sri Lanka's diplomatic campaign against the LTTE, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recommending a ban on the LTTE by member-states. The European Union (E.U.) had earlier issued a strong statement calling upon both Colombo and the LTTE to cease hostilities and restart talks. The E.U. statement expressed deep concern over the increasing intensity of the conflict. It urged both the parties to "cooperate with the Norwegian Government in its endeavour to facilitate a negotiate d settlement".

Reports indicated that Sri Lanka was not too happy with India's reluctance to play a more active role. New Delhi had not acceded to Colombo's request for arms. India wanted an open appeal for help. Sri Lanka was reluctant to do so as India gave the impre ssion that it was caught in a dilemma on the issue of supplying arms and providing other tangible forms of support.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said that events may force India to play a key role in the conflict. He indicated that India "was gearing itself up for assuming a role". For a change, he praised Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's latest stand on the LTTE, describing it as "very significant and clear". On May 11, Karunanidhi had stated that his party would be happy if the LTTE achieved the goal of Tamil Eelam. In a clear flip-flop on May 15, he distanced himself from the LTTE, acc using the organisation of indulging in fratricide. "Our support to Tamil Eelam and the tears we shed for the Sri Lankan Tamils could not be construed as support to all the activities of the LTTE," he said in the State Assembly. He met Vajpayee on May 18 in New Delhi to discuss developments. A few days earlier he had said that he would not be unhappy if the war in Sri Lanka ended and a political solution was found.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that India's current stand is detrimental to "our national interests and allows our security to be jeopardised". He said that the U.S. was using countries such as Israel as a front to further its own agenda in the region. "It is high time the government of India reasserted its firm position on the Sri Lankan issue, steered clear of chauvinism and came to the help of the Sri Lankan government in finding a negotiate d and principled solution to the ethnic question."

Meanwhile, some of the countries in the region expressed concern over the developments in Sri Lanka. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that his country was against any outside intervention. China is of the view that Sri Lanka should handle the situation by itself.

Britain is in favour of United Nations intervention in Sri Lanka. It reportedly considered moving a resolution in the Security Council on this, citing the precarious humanitarian situation there. Russia and China were opposed to the move. Britain for the time being has been dissuaded from seeking U.N. intervention. Both New Delhi and Colombo are also opposed to U.N. intervention. New Delhi is of the opinion that such an intervention could set an unhealthy trend in the region.

The Pakistan government said that "the charters of the United Nations as well as of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) make it incumbent upon all members to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states. Inte rference in internal affairs is impermissible under international law."

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