War, Peace & Relations Across Palk Straits

“This is a clear if we look at the long history of the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka. To convert the entire history of Tamil struggle into a simple equation of war against the LTTE might win some votes in Southern Sri Lanka, but it would not eliminate the Tamil political and militancy problems, though they may not continue in the same form or content as at present.”

(August 19, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Eelam War is entering the messy phase. During the last two weeks, in Mannar sector the security forces have progressed up to Mulankavil (southeast of Nachikuda on the Mannar coast) on A32 road to Pooneryn. They are leaning on lineTunukkai-Mallavi, West of Mankulam on A9 highway increasing the threat to Pooneryn and Kilinochchi defences of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This should put the LTTE in a dilemma as the security forces have two options to strike – along A32 to Pooneryn with holding operations along Tunukkai-Uyilankulam/ Mallavi, or progress in the other way round to threaten Kilinochchi. Both are viable as they have another task force guarding their eastern flank of 57 Division operating closer to A9.

On the Welioya sector, though 59 Division has managed to capture Andankulam base its progress into the Tiger heartland north and west of Mullaitivu could get sticky due to the terrain that eats up troops.

These operations have amply demonstrated how the security forces are overcoming their weaknesses on three difficult aspects – higher coordination of war involving multiple formations, effective use of commandos in tandem with conventional operations, and retaining military initiative at all times.

On the negative side, as the security forces progress further into the LTTE areas, the lines of communication become stretched, they would become vulnerable to determined LTTE interdiction or even blocks. Much would depend upon Prabhakaran's ability to motivate the cadres and the ability of the security forces not be destabilised by such operations. One can expect the security forces to have contingency plan for such a development.

Whether one believes in the huge number of casualties of the put out daily by the Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence or not, the writing on the wall would be clear to the insurgent group. Time is running out for it to hold on to its conventional capability. In war, time is the only resource available equally to both the victor and the vanquished. If at all the LTTE has to do anything to stem the tide of the security force eating into its vitals, it has to do it now. Overall, on both sectors the progress is going to be messy and slower, with the monsoon also making life more difficult for both the forces.

The non-military issue that could upset the security forces advance is the flow of refugees going out of control when they move in to the more inhabited areas closer to Kilinochchi, Mankulam and Pooneryn. The security forces had managed to avoid this so far in the Mannar sector by patiently investing or by passing small towns (as seen in Adampan operations). That might not be possible unless they streamline a policy on handling the large outflow of population expected to spill over on axes of advance when the operations are joined in. There will also be the huge burden of logistics to control and care for the civilians. These are the known fall outs of war that cannot be wished away. (That is what makes war a non-option.)

Relations across the Palk Strait

A few days back when India's National Security Advisor MK Narayanan told The Straits Times interviewer that the Sri Lankan government should get the Tamil population on their side to succeed there was a mild flutter in Colombo. In the midst of a winning war, brand marketed as the Liberation of the People, Narayanan's remark "The (Sri Lanka Army) has made a lot of progress in the last few weeks. But even if they win the battle I am not sure they will win the war. I think they haven't got the Tamil population on their side," probably grated the official stand of Colombo on the war.

He did not underestimate Colombo's reaction to his statement. "I know the Sri Lankan government will be unhappy (at this advice) but we are not interested in preaching to them and that is the best advice they could get. India can give this advice better than the Norwegians or any other country. These are people that we know, we understand. Do they want a situation like many countries have faced?" he added.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had his own view on the subject. Speaking to The Times, London three days later, he said peace in Sri Lanka would return only if Tamil rebels were destroyed completely. "You can't just push them into the jungles and wait. You have to search for them and completely eradicate them. Only then can peace come," he explained further.

The two statements indicate the differing perceptions of India and Sri Lanka on the war going on against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.

India had been consistent on three issues in its cyclical interest, involvement, and intervention in Sri Lanka Tamil issue. They are – no support to independent Tamil Eelam, support for Sri Lanka's sovereignty, and the devolution of powers to Sri Lanka Tamils as the key to solve the Tamil issue. MK Narayanan's statement basically conforms to this pattern, though with a little generosity his wording might be called plain speaking. Even the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh "stuck to the traditional Indian stand that Sri Lanka should work out a formula which allows for maximum devolution of power to the ethnic Tamils in the north of the island country," during his recent visit to Colombo to attend the SAARC s summit, as a news report from Colombo stated.

Most of the Sri Lanka watchers (including this author) would agree with the National Security Advisor's assessment of the Sri Lanka situation: "What the Sri Lankans are not factoring in is the great deal of sullenness in the Tamil man. There are accusations of profiling even in Colombo. Our argument is: unless you give Tamils a feeling they have the right to their own destiny in many matters you will not succeed. LTTE's capacity to carry out terrorist attacks is not diminished. What we are telling them is, get the Tamils on your side by greater devolution of power. For them to be part of Sri Lankan state, they need the huge Tamil minority on their side."

In essence, Narayanan's statement does not question the legitimacy of Sri Lanka's war against the LTTE, but the overall objective of the war. President Rajapaksa's government has repeatedly given an impression that once the LTTE is vanquished it would be all smooth sailing with the Tamil population automatically joining the democratic mainstream. The Sri Lanka Defence Secretary's statement quoted earlier reinforces this impression yet again. It appears to identify the LTTE as the problem, rather than as the manifestation of the problem. And that is the difference between the perceptions of India and Sri Lanka.

A second aspect is the popular aspiration for peace. Surveys indicate increasing public support for war in Sri Lanka. But this increased support has two elements: battles are being won, and people are nursing increased expectations of permanent peace at the end of the war. End objective of war makes a lot of difference to people's expectations. Peoples' expectations of permanent peace are unlikely to be met unless there is a matching process of devolution of powers to the Tamils. This simple truth appears to have been wished away in Sri Lanka at present. The holding of elections for the eastern provincial council offered a very good opportunity to the government to demonstrate its faith in devolving limited powers envisaged in the 13th amendment. Unfortunately, even that has not been done so far, and the process still remains a promise in print only.

Presence of a small number of highly motivated terrorists can cause havoc to the normal life of the people as amply demonstrated by the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) activists in India for sometime now. A small number of them managed to carry serial blasts in a number of cities across the country despite the police and security apparatus of over 12 states coming into play. This should hold an abject lesson for Sri Lanka. If the LTTE is routed and driven out of areas under its control (as total 'elimination' of any insurgent force might take years), a large segment of it will take to terrorist attacks across the country.

This is a clear if we look at the long history of the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka. To convert the entire history of Tamil struggle into a simple equation of war against the LTTE might win some votes in Southern Sri Lanka, but it would not eliminate the Tamil political and militancy problems, though they may not continue in the same form or content as at present.

Notwithstanding these differences in perceptions on the Tamil issue, India and Sri Lanka appear to have a clear understanding of the political compulsions behind their conduct. This has helped them to focus on the positives and not to overplay the differences. This is evident from Gotabaya Rajapaksa's comments given in another interview to an Indian news agency on Narayanan's statement.

Rather than criticising Narayanan, he lamented about Sri Lanka's limitations in convincing others about its intentions. "The only area where we have failed is to show our genuineness, to convince the outsiders, about our sincerity in resolving the problem. In action we have proved it. Unfortunately, we are not good at propaganda. If Tamils indeed are not with us, then it is our weakness." This statement appears to have chosen to ignore the whole point mad by MK Narayanan. It was much more than propaganda, it was about belief. The defence secretary's statement may be called over simplification of not only a complex issue.

The Sri Lanka government is fully aware that it needs Indian government's support even to complete its current military mission. India is extending vital support for the war effort by continuing with tough security measures in Tamil Nadu where a number of LTTE supply modules continue to be busted. This should indicate to Colombo that regardless of nuances of rhetoric, India's policy has been consistent. The defence secretary also acknowledged this with the words that Narayanan "only put in different words what our President has been saying, that we need to defeat terrorism but the (ethnic) problem needs to be resolved (politically)." The Defence Secretary took consolation in two positive aspects he saw in Narayanan's statement: he had said the military was winning, and he did not say that Sri Lank should talk to the LTTE.

This convergence and confusion in view points of India and Sri Lanka will continue till the President is dependent upon right wing Sinhala support. This section of Sinhala polity has survived by building up the so called "Dravidastan" bogey of Tamil Nadu together with the LTTE gobbling up parts of Sri Lanka. The thought of Dravidastan has been shunted to historical irrelevance in Tamil Nadu, which has become a vital development engine in the national mainstream. And the faster the President gets rid of this right wing dependency the better it would be for his government, the people of Sri Lanka, and for India-Sri Lanka relations.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)
- Sri Lanka Guardian