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DAWN - Features; 18 November, 2004

November 18, 2004

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Colombo's military commitment not in Delhi's interest

By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI: While India is ready to enter into a "defence cooperation agreement" with Sri Lanka, it is wary of being drawn into any military involvement in the island nation's two decades-old civil war that has seen violent strife between ethnic Tamils and the Sinhalese majority - leaving over 60,000 dead on both sides.

And that explains the delay in the signing of a formal defence agreement that was at the heart of Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's four-day visit to India last week.

According to Prof. S. D. Muni, South Asia expert at the Jawaharal Nehru University (JNU), the two-year peace talks between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are stalemated. For that reason, he said, Kumaratunga's government was keen to beef up military preparedness with Indian support.

"The Sri Lankan government does not want to initiate a conflict but would be interested in deterring the LTTE from starting one. And the Tigers look as if they are on the brink of launching another offensive," Muni told IPS.

Colombo held six rounds of talks with the Tigers between September 2002 and March 2003. But in last April, the rebels abruptly pulled out of negotiations demanding recognition, first, for the right to self-rule before proceeding any further.

Kumaratunga's India tour preceded a three-day visit to Sri Lanka by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen in a new bid to revive the peace talks that were supposed to follow a cease fire that Oslo successfully brokered in February 2002.

Petersen who was scheduled to hold discussions with both Kumaratunga and the reclusive LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in the rebel stronghold of Kilinochchi has already made it known he did not have high expectations over the outcome. The envoy said he merely wanted to ascertain whether the two sides "wished to move towards resuming negotiations."

Colombo, too, seems to be in an intractable position. According to former Indian army general A.S. Kalkat, the difficulty for Kumaratunga's government lay in the fact that the LTTE had become a 'de jure' power in the north and east of the island and was running every aspect of civil administration in the areas within its control.

A veteran of India's military intervention in the Jaffna peninsula to help implement the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord - which ambitiously provided for the disarming of the formidable LTTE - Kalkat said the new defence deal would essentially be a reiteration of the older one minus its military commitment.

Kalkat, who currently chairs the independent US-based International Council on Conflict Resolution, said despite the failure of the Indian army to disarm or even subdue the Tigers, India remained the only power capable of influencing the course of the current peace talks.

"The Norwegians mean well but their role is limited to that of honest broker and the LTTE is keenly aware that they do not have the power (unlike India) to underwrite any arrangement," Kalkat told IPS in an interview.

In 1987, the Tamil Tigers reluctantly accepted the peace accord under Indian pressure. Under the accord, a new north-eastern provincial council was formed and the Indian army was deployed as peace keepers in the north and east.

However, differences between India and LTTE soon surfaced and led to clashes between Tiger guerrillas and the Indian peace keeping force (IPKF). About 1,200 Indian soldiers were killed during this phase of the conflict.

India had to pull back its forces from Sri Lanka in 1989 following the election of Ranasinghe Premadasa, a strong critic of Indian mediation. Last June, an international initiative led by Japan to persuade the LTTE to come back to the negotiating table failed despite an aid package offer of 4.5 billion dollars.

Japan's special envoy, Yasushi Akashi, who called for tangible progress in the peace process before the money would be released, came back from visits to Colombo and Kilinochchi in early last November a frustrated man. He complained about the "visible lack of progress" and reaching an impasse in talks with both sides.

The Tigers' chief ideologue Anton Balasingham sniffed at the proposal saying that "a solution to the ethnic conflict cannot be pre-determined by the resolutions or declarations of donor conferences, but has to be negotiated by the parties in conflict without the constraints of external forces."

But there are strong hints in the country that a new Indo-Sri Lanka defence deal could be in the making. And this has already drawn protests from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which was backed by the LTTE in the April general elections held in Sri Lanka.

"Tamils feel that the proposed defence agreement between India and Sri Lanka would encourage Sinhala rulers to prepare for another war abandoning the current peace process," TNA member of parliament P. Sithamparanathan was quoted as saying in a statement.

She added that recent visits to the island by India's top military brass including Army Chief Gen. Nirmal Chander Vij have "caused apprehension among Tamils that preparations are underway for another war in the island."

But Kalkat pointed out that India would be ill-advised to be involved again, militarily, with Sri Lanka if only because it still had to consider the sentiments of 45 million ethnic Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu - separated from Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula by the narrow Palk Straits.

Apart from the 1,200 Indian lives lost in 1987, the IPKF was immensely unpopular not only in Tamil Nadu and the Jaffna peninsula but also among the Sinhalese majority who considered it a violation of their country's sovereignty.

The best option, now, under the present difficult circumstances is for Colombo to do its own dirty work although New Delhi can always be counted on to render good neighbourly help because of the shared belief that religion, ethnicity and language cannot be the basis for secession. In any case, Kalkat puts it succinctly: "There cannot be a military option to what is a political situation." -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.