India Intelligence Report

   Lanka Teeters on the Brink of Civil War


Sri Lanka appeared slowly drifting towards civil war even as last ditch attempts by Norway to negotiate a seaplane transport arrangement for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) negotiators to go to Geneva for the peace talks.

The Norwegian brokered ceasefire in 2002 held till recently when a spate of attacks by the LTTE threatened to kill it permanently. The LTTE says that the Lankan Army is financing and instigating local militia against it and also assisting the breakaway “Karuna” faction to attack its cadre. Both parties deny each other’s charge although the Lankan Government tacitly accepted its role with arming, training, and funding militia in the 1st round of resuscitated talks a couple of months ago.

However, intense international efforts have resumed again trying to stave off a civil war that will wreck havoc on Lanka and all of South Asia. It is not clear how much success this is going to be since there has been exchange of small arms fire between LTTE and Lankan Army position; sniper attacks, and reported extra judicial killings by the Army. Due to the nature of ground situation, none of these allegations can be verified nor can blame be attributed to either party.

Already, shiploads of refugees have begun streaming to Tamil Nadu (TN) which shares an ethnical heritage with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. While the coast guard has intensified patrolling, there is a reported increase in smuggling of essential supplies from Vedaranyam, an ancient town in TN just 25 kilometers from Sri Lanka. LTTE ‘Sea Tigers’ have been actively blowing up Lankan Navy attack boats with great success aiming to neutralize naval presence from Sri Lanka. 

Diplomatically, LTTE is becoming increasingly isolated. India, the US, and Canada with large ethnic Tamil presence have already banned any association with the group. While there will be some ‘hawala’ style funding that may continue below the radar, there will definitely be increased pressure on the group to garner finance for its continued fight.

Just how far India will go involving itself in the conflict is yet unclear. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) experience is still very fresh in people’s minds and there is very little public support in India for military involvement against the LTTE or even support for the LTTE. Barring a few fringe extremist organizations in Tamil Nadu who continue to support the LTTE, there is no popular emotional sentiment that favors the LTTE. The LTTE is seen as a terrorist group that killed an Indian Prime Minister, 5000 Indian troops, brought instability and terrorism to TN, and wrecked havoc on TN’s economy. The LTTE is a banned terrorist outfit in India and its leader a wanted man for the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

However, not doing anything is also not an option for India. Diplomatically, it has asked Lanka to derive a consensus among its political parties on how to handle the crisis [Insert India Wants “Southern Consensus” in Lanka]. Militarily, it cannot stand back as Lanka has already derived promises of help from Pakistan and China. Financially, it cannot stand and watch Lanka decimate itself as an unstable southern neighbor will make the neighborhood even more unstable and unviable. 

Just as it did in Nepal (albeit belatedly), India has to show leadership in guiding Sri Lanka out of the crisis. 

  • First, it needs to counsel Lanka to stop its call for sanctions on the LTTE. The EU is the only entity in the world that has any leverage on LTTE and sacrificing that leverage is not foolish. Besides, the LTTE has again demonstrated that it has the capability to strike at will at the most prized objects in the Lankan heartland

  •  Second, it needs to counsel Lanka to be flexible on its stance to grant “safe passage” for LTTE cadre to Geneva. After all, no group would like to go for talks when angry crowds can easily lynch them in a humiliating manner. 

  •  Third, it needs to extend line of credit facility to Lanka for procurement of military hardware. If India stands back militarily, the space will be absorbed and filled by China in a short time. 

  • Fourth, it needs to set up an intelligence co-ordination council to exchange intelligence data and movements of LTTE cadre with a view to avoid terrorism incidents.

  • Fifth, it needs to convince the political parties of TN to issue calls to the LTTE to negotiate in good faith and explore larger autonomy within the Lankan Constitution. This one act will send a clear message to the LTTE that it cannot take support from TN politicians for granted. For this to happen Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to have mature conversations with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, her ally Vaiko, DMK leader and Singh’s ally Karunanidhi to convince them that this is the right way forward.

  • Sixth, with the TN politicians behind it, India needs to publicly restate that it does not want a divided Lanka. 

  • Seventh, even though India does not recognize LTTE as a legal partner to the conflict in Lanka, it cannot also wish it away. Perhaps, India should request an observer status in future talks.

By taking a balance approach, India can gently guide both parties along the right course. Just like Nepal, India cannot afford to let the terms be dictated by countries far from the neighborhood that may not understand underlying cultural and ethnic issues.

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