Options in Sri Lanka

Issue 13 - Apr 2008

T S Gopi Rethinaraj

Sri Lanka has been building parallel defence co-operation tracks with China and Pakistan, and the island has been brimming with Chinese and Pakistani intelligence operatives for a long time. India has gone out of way to help maintain Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity knowing well about these developments which can turn out to be a major security problem for the Indian Navy in future. India cannot allow this situation to persist while simultaneously putting pressure on the LTTE and providing military assistance to Sri Lanka. A credible case could be built that an independent Tamil Eelam will be—for ethnic-linguistic-religious reasons—friendlier towards India than the Sinhalese dispensation harbouring a deep contempt for India and its interests.

India’s current military assistance, understandably low-key for domestic reasons, comes at a time when some western countries have begun to take a more nuanced position toward the ethnic conflict in light of the gross human right violations committed by the Sri Lankan state against Tamils. Although LTTE is banned in many countries there is also simultaneous realisation that any political solution ignoring the militant outfit will not be viable in the long run.

Keeping in view these long-term interests, India should review its policy and exert pressure on Sri Lanka to seek a political solution for the ethnic conflict. Ironically, India’s own clout with the Sinhalese dispensation in Colombo will vapourise once the LTTE is defeated militarily. Why would the Sinhalese leadership care about India’s sensitivities after obtaining a favourable military solution?

Unless India is able to lock the Sri Lankan government in a broad bilateral security relationship, the Sinhalese will have no qualms allowing China or Pakistan to get foothold in a way detrimental to Indian interests. This is the real danger of India’s current detached policy, facilitating the military defeat of the LTTE. This view is of course not congruent with mainstream Indian thinking about the Sri Lankan ethnic issue.

But if India were to take a hard-nosed view of long-term interests, a subtle shift in its position against the LTTE will go a long way in safeguarding the country’s strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region besides securing the interests of ethnic Tamils in the island.

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