September 26, 2001


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Musharraf's Pakistan
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Kashmir at breakfast,
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A scarred kingdom

G Parthasarathy

Light at the end of the tunnel

I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I do not know whether the tunnel is too long, or there is no light at the end of the tunnel. We still have to travel along the tunnel until we see the light, as we are committed to peace with dignity.'

These plaintive words of a Sri Lankan Tamil sum up the sentiments of his people. The Tamils have unfortunately been the victims of a bloody civil war in north-eastern Sri Lanka, between the LTTE led by the psychopathic Velupillai Prabhakaran on the one hand, and the armed forces of Sri Lanka on the other, for over two decades now.

When the charismatic Chandrika Kumaratunga became president of Sri Lanka in 1994, there were great hopes and expectations that she would bridge the ethnic divide in her war ravaged country. She is a leader whose liberal credentials and commitment to pluralistic, democratic and secular values have been unquestionable. Internal political squabbling in Sri Lanka has, however, unfortunately prevented any significant movement forward in addressing the ethnic issue realistically.

The last seven years have been tumultuous for Sri Lanka. Kumaratunga started her term with imaginative proposals for the devolution of powers to address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil minority in 1995. These proposals were spurned by the LTTE. But the international community and public opinion in both India and Sri Lanka showed sympathy and support for Kumaratunga. The LTTE faced increasing international isolation and the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka soon lost the international sympathy it enjoyed earlier.

Indian public opinion was outraged when the LTTE attempted to assassinate Kumaratunga during an election campaign. The incident brought back painful memories of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in the midst of an election campaign in India. Prabhakaran does have the dubious record of having killed not merely his adversaries, but scores of Tamil leaders ranging from the moderate TULF leader Amrithalingam on the one hand, to his own deputy and military commander Mahatyya, on the other.

The last few years have been difficult for Sri Lanka. While the Sri Lankan army regained control over the Jaffna peninsula by 1996, it has since faced a series of military reverses. The army had lost control over almost the entire Jaffna peninsula by last year. It has retained control only in Jaffna town, the strategically vital airbase in Pallaly and the naval base in Kankesanthurai. Three divisions of the Sri Lankan forces today face a logistical nightmare depending entirely on these two bases for their survival in the peninsula. The confidence and morale of the Sri Lankan armed forces seems to have been rudely shaken by last year's military debacle.

The LTTE now possesses artillery and substantial firepower that it can bring to bear on the Sri Lankan garrisons in the peninsula. While under normal circumstances the Sri Lankan armed forces should be able to hold firm, problems of morale and logistics can lead to unpredictable results. It would be disastrous to our security interests if the LTTE were to seize control, or dominate the Jaffna peninsula. Their gun culture, drug connections and links with criminal, secessionist and terrorist organizations and groups like the PWG in India will pose new and serious security threats if this were to happen.

The ethnic conflict has devastated Sri Lanka's economy. The attack on the Katunayake airport on July 24 caused extensive damage to both the air force and the Sri Lankan airlines. There has been a fall in tourism revenues. Foreign investors are chary of investing in Sri Lanka. The increasing expenditure on defence is naturally diverting funds away from further developing the country's social infrastructure. Adding to these factors in the growing climate of political uncertainty that has now engulfed the island. Kumaratunga's ruling coalition had a razor thin majority in parliament.

Recent political developments have compelled her to rely on the extremist JVP for support. Kumaratunga has paid a heavy political price for this temporary reprieve for her government. She has pledged that she will not bring any new proposals for the devolution of power unless a broad consensus is achieved through a wide ranging political dialogue. It is, however, clear that the agreement of the ruling People's Alliance with the JVP is a marriage of convenience that is unlikely to hold even for its present term of one year.

New Delhi has been keeping a close watch on developments in Sri Lanka. There is, however, a growing feeling in the island that because some constituents of the NDA have open sympathies for the LTTE, there is a disinclination on the part of India to be supportive of Sri Lanka's concerns. It did cause surprise and dismay when New Delhi neither condemned the attack of the LTTE on the Katunayake airport, nor did it express solidarity or offer assistance to the beleaguered Sri Lankan government after the attack.

There has also been serious disappointment in Sri Lanka at the role played by the Norwegian facilitator, Eric Solheim. There is a justifiable feeling in the island that distant European countries are hardly well placed to understand the complex problems of nation building in multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Asian countries. Even India's detractors across the ethnic divide now feel that New Delhi must play a more active role in promoting ethnic peace in Sri Lanka. New Delhi should now play a discreet and behind the scenes role in forging a political consensus in Sri Lanka between the major national parties like the SLFP and the UNP. India should urge them to formulate realistic proposals for the devolution of powers to the North-East of the country. Moderate Tamil groups like the TULF, the EPRLF and the EPDP need to be brought into this process.

New Delhi must reaffirm its support for the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka through concrete actions. The LTTE appears to be getting its weapons mainly from sources in Thailand and the Central Asian republics. New Delhi and Colombo should undertake a coordinated diplomatic effort to sensitize the international community about the LTTE's terrorist dimensions. While the United States has declared the LTTE a terrorist organisation, many European countries still seem to have illusions about its nature. There is also need for India to expand its aerial and naval surveillance and act decisively to interdict arms and logistical supplies to the LTTE. We should also devise effective means for active intelligence sharing with the Sri Lankan government.

Given Sri Lanka's interest in economic ties with India it was only natural that we sponsored its name for membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. Prime Minister Vajpayee took an active interest in concluding a Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka. We enjoy a large balance of trade surplus with Sri Lanka. Despite this, we have placed shortsighted quantitative restrictions and other non-tariff barriers on Sri Lankan exports like tea and rubber.

We claim to be a regional power in the Indian Ocean region on the one hand, but place unwarranted protectionist barriers on exports of our smaller neighbors, be it Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, on the other. We should realize that unless we are prepared to be farsighted, we would not succeed in any effort to build bridges of trade and economic cooperation in regional forums in our neighborhood like SAARC and BIMSTEC.

Like most of our neighbors, Sri Lanka can be our partner for peace, stability, progress and prosperity in South and South East Asia only if we show a measure of understanding of its concerns, and generosity and farsightedness in trade and economic relations. One hopes that our government and media will get out of their present unwarranted and counterproductive obsession and fixation with Musharraf's Pakistan and look more towards building bridges of understanding with our other neighbors. These are, after all, countries that are afflicted neither by the compulsive hostility, nor the paranoia of our Western neighbor towards us.

G Parthasarathy

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