Fear and disbelief

Print edition : December 05, 1998

Even as the Tamil parties look at the LTTE's reported links with disbelief, the government in Colombo fears that any form of recognition that Pretoria accords to the Tigers would mean a setback to its foreign policy.

THE Sri Lankan Government's concern over the South African connections of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) arises out of two factors. First, Colombo had in the past four years scored a significant foreign policy victory by convincing most governments of the world that the LTTE should not be allowed to operate from their soil. Secondly, India had banned the Tigers' activities on its territory, and several Western countries were veering round to Colombo's view that the Tigers are not freedom fighters in the mould of say, Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid fighters. In this backdrop, if South Africa were to accord some status, formal or informal, to the Tamil rebels, the foreign policy success of the Peoples' Alliance Government in Colombo would dissipate.

The collective attention of Sri Lanka, which has been caught up in the complex processes that are going on in the name of resolving the ethnic strife, is yet to get involved seriously in the South African safari. Political observers are of the opinion that the government's present initiative would help give some forward movement to its strategy to counter the LTTE internationally. But, if it pushes it too far and Pretoria acts against its wishes, Colombo would stand to lose. Moreover, it is the collective stand of the African National Congress (ANC), more than that of the Government in Pretoria, which would really matter.

Even the limited success made through the visit of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to South Africa is seen with scepticism. "This looks like a propaganda exercise," a senior political observer in Colombo said. "They obviously have not gained much." Recalling the experience of the 1980s with regard to India, some persons who were involved in the island-nation's foreign policy in the past said that denials by governments could not be taken seriously. "There was a time when India furiously denied the very existence of (LTTE) training camps there," they recalled.

More than on the foreign policy front, it is on the military and logistical front that the South African trail could pose problems in Colombo's ongoing military offensive against the Tigers. The security forces, which have suffered a number of setbacks in the course of Operation Jayasikuru, see a South African connection for the LTTE as a source for the Tigers to keep replenishing their armoury with the help of firms reportedly engaged in dealing in arms.

Sources in the Sri Lankan military prefer to remain tight-lipped about the reports. Also, much headway has not been made in inquiries into the reported "sightings of an aircraft with South African markings", a matter which caused a noisy debate in Colombo recently.

WHILE the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) has chosen to remain quiet on the Tigers' reported plans to move towards South Africa, the other Tamil political parties, which have a militant past, say that the reports, at best, should be viewed from the point of view of South Africa's interest. They say that the LTTE has always had "a good connection with the ANC" but that even with some form of support from the ANC it "cannot do much". Comparing the new development with developments in the early days of Sri Lankan Tamil militancy, they point out that the facilities the LTTE reportedly enjoy in South Africa can in no way be compared to the training camps provided by India. The sources argue that the South African Government is bound to take an official stand on the issue, which the Tigers will counter by shifting to "covert" operations.

In the absence of any "overt support" from Pretoria, the South African setting will "not be of much help" to LTTE, the sources say. "Unless there is some form of active help, like providing harbour facilities," the Tigers do not stand to gain much from South Africa, they say.

On the reported moves to shift the international headquarters of the LTTE to South Africa, Tamil political parties which have experience in carrying out overseas operations say that "South Africa will be no match to London". "If it is public relations, London is the best bet. If they are looking for something else, such as acquiring arms, then South Africa may be different from London," they say.

K. Premachandran of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) is rather cryptic on reports that the Tigers have training camps in South Africa: "They do not need training camps. They are in a position to train others." The Tigers' South Africa links, he says, were probably developed during the last few years. Although any such connections may be officially denied, they have "unofficial links and they operate through front organisations, which Sri Lanka cannot stop."

On the LTTE's reported activities in that country, he said, "I don't know how far it is true. The information from Colombo is mostly based on intelligence." The Tigers, he feels, may have established links with the South African community which is sympathetic; however, he does not see the possibility of a party-to-party relationship with the ANC. South Africa could at best be a "financial base" of sorts for the "various kinds" of international operations of the Tigers.

D. Sidharthan, leader of the People's Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), said: "There are more chances of the ANC supporting the Tigers. But the basic question one must ask is what South Africa's interests in this region are. I don't see any great interest for South Africa in this region. If it is moral support, yes, they may be giving it to the Tigers, but active participation, no."

Above all, there is a basic conflict of interests within South Africa. While the "ANC's permanent interest rests with the LTTE, the permanent interest of the South African Government rests with the Sri Lankan Government." How they resolve this conflict of interest is to be seen.

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