As the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) and Army (SLA) resumed operations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), President Mahinda Rajapakse is visiting India amid allegations that senior Indian officials are pro-Sri Lankan Government (SLG).
While the LTTE rebels were remembering the slain cadre as part of its “Maveeran Varam” or “Great Fighters’ Week” program, in a joint operation, the SLAF and SLA attacked a suspected base near Kilinochchi housing the LTTE’s dreaded suicide bombers called the “Black Tigers” and claimed several casualties. Naturally, the LTTE’s version is radically different saying that those killed were internally displaced women and children. As usual, both sides have blamed each other for the resumption of violence along their “border” but independent verification of either story remains elusive.
In a separate incident near Ampara, a band of Tigers ambushed a police patrol killing three members. While the Government claims that the ambush was in its area of control, the LTTE version is that the police band was “moving in with tanks and armoured personnel carriers” and towards the Tamils “forward defence line” and that the police had “breached the no-man’s zone.” The SLA says that “retaliatory attacls by the Security Forces” forced “the Tigers to withdraw to their earlier locations” and assume “heavy damage.”
Typically, fighting escalates during this time when the Tamils celebrate a week remembering their fallen fighters. While previous years saw light infantry skirmishes, this time there were heavy artillery, tanks, multi-barrel rockets, and heavy mortar. Additionally, there are reports that the SLA is blocking humanitarian convoys citing mortar and artillery fire. But the LTTE said that this was in violation of international community demands that relief convoy reach the Tamil areas. Interestingly, the LTTE is also accusing the SLG of not allowing independent Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), the same group it discredited earlier, personnel into the area.
Rajapakse’s visit to India is timed with escalating conflicts at home coinciding with the “Maveeran Varam” but conveniently time with the Asian Mayors Conference in which he is the Chief Guest. While he will use the proximity to leaders in New Delhi to press his plan calling for joint patrolling of respective navies across the Palk Straits and around the North Eastern part of the island, Rajapakse will also be confronted by the Government of India (GOI), which is under intense pressure from illogically powerful coalition partners from Dravidian Tamil parties of the Tamil Nadu, over civilian deaths. Last week the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi raised the pitch on death of innocent civilians followed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who reaffirmed his equal concern for these unnecessary deaths and promised to communicate this to the SLG. Hence, humanitarian relief and civilian deaths are expected to dominate conversation with Rajapakse. India might be sending 7,000 tons of essential food to Lanka's embattled North-East but issue is delivery and distribution mechanisms for this aid package. India must demand safe passage of the flotilla from both the SLG and the LTTE and escort the supplies with its Navy if necessary.
The interesting side note to this visit is that former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is also expected to be in New Delhi leading to speculation whether New Delhi is brokering a unity Government in SL.
Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, who was in Sri Lanka on a two-day visit for an understanding of the prevailing situation, visited Karunanidhi on Friday along with National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan to review the situation. While the Karunanidhi meeting details were not disclosed, Rajapakse himself outed discussions he had with Menon. In a self-serving disclosure, Rajapakse said that Menon had told him that “all this Tamil friends were dead” and those who remained “were the children and widows.” This ill-timed and unwise disclosure has given fodder to other Dravidian parties.
The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko accused Menon of improper dialogue with Rajapakse and Narayanan of an inherent bias. Menon and Narayanan have not responded to these allegations yet but it is strange that the two officials did not meet Vaiko and team when they met Karunanidhi in Chennai. While the SL Tamil issue does not have much bite anymore in Tamil Nadu, continued civilian deaths and insensitivity of New Delhi can easily morph opinion to an anti-Imperialism movement targeting New Delhi and Colombo . Most importantly, Vaiko is the man who can do it and especially if a decrypt Karunanidhi was to be incapacitated or die.
Therefore, putting coalition politics aside, it is imperative that senior Indian officials have a dialogue with power brokers of Tamil Nadu before they define the agenda for political gain.
Journal of Indo-Sri Lankan Relations