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Sri Lanka within Indo-Pak rivalry

(December 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) A Press Trust of India report on Monday said that the ruling Congress Party of India had assured Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi that the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee would soon visit Sri Lanka to discuss the ‘Tamil Issue.’ Karunanidhi has been pressurising the Central Government of India to intervene in the Sri Lankan problem and pressurise the Sri Lanka government to call off the military offensives in the Wanni jungles and instead find a political solution.

It is an open secret that Karunanidhi’s interests are those of the LTTE and not so much the interests of Tamil civilians. What Mukherjee — whose country was the first to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organisation — can do to persuade the Rajapakse government is to be seen.

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had been pressurising New Delhi to make this move much before the Mumbai bombings took place. The Mumbai attack that shook the Indian sub-continent upset Karunanidhi’s agenda but now as the dust settles over Mumbai, he is back at work.

Even if a visit by Mukherjee materialises, there will be nothing very much he can do about this 25-year-old conflict other than to issue statements/condemnations/recriminations against Sri Lanka and/or the LTTE while calling for a political solution. Nonetheless, it will be prudent for Sri Lanka not to antagonise the Indian ruling party now on tenterhooks with a general election impending in the first six months of the New Year and rising public anger against its impotence against terrorist attacks. Tamil Nadu support will be a crucial factor if the Congress Party is to form the next government which would inevitably have to be a political coalition.

While Sri Lanka looking back on history will see the grim irony of this attempted Indian intervention, it will be prudent not to antagonise the ruling Congress Party at this juncture. The Mumbai blasts took place at the iconic Gateway to India. It was no doubt a national embarrassment and tragedy. Before that there had been blasts at Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahamedabad, Lucknow, Hyderabad, and blasts on the Samhauta Express bound from Delhi to Lahore. And the government of Sonia Gandhi was in the dock with no answer to curb these terrorist attacks.

The knee-jerk reaction of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a politician not normally given to histrionics, was to point his finger at Pakistan — just one to two hours after the blasts — with no evidence of Pakistani involvement. Even last week Pakistan’s leaders were claiming that no concrete evidence of Pakistani involvement had been presented to them. India on the other hand insists sufficient evidence was given to Pakistan with the US too echoing similar sentiments.

The fact that ‘so called’ non state actors are operating from Pakistani soil has been claimed even by the United States. The tragedy is that the Pakistani government is as helpless in curbing terrorism within its borders as India does in curbing terrorism, foreign grown or home grown. Benazir Bhutto, prime minister twice and who was likely to be elected for the third time, was assassinated by Pakistani terrorists, and her husband Asif Zardari can do very little about it. India, America, Britain, European countries eager to do business with India are calling upon Pakistan to take action on those ‘non state actors,’ operating from Pakistani soil against India, a tough proposition when Pakistani leaders can’t protect themselves from their terrorists. It does appear that terrorists are posing a major challenge to all democratically elected governments in South Asia.

The 15th SAARC Summit held in Colombo presided over by our own President Mahinda Rajapakse produced a ringing declaration against terrorism in all its forms. The much hailed Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) envisage closer cooperation between the security forces of member countries to arrest and hand over those engaged in criminal and terrorist activities.

The treaty’s objective was to strengthen the two SAARC Conventions on Terrorism and Drug Trafficking signed much earlier. Could anyone tell us what happened to these much hailed pow wows on terrorism, particularly the last SAARC Summit which the Sri Lanka government spent billions of rupees including purchase of bullet proof cars for the visiting dignitaries?

Fortunately after a month of fiery Indo-Pak rhetoric less heat is now being generated. This is important for Sri Lanka which tends to get caught in the cross-fire of Indo-Pakistan politics. Before the Karunanidhi intervention India’s National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan strongly warned Sri Lanka against purchases of armaments from Pakistan and China. During the Indira Gandhi regime arms purchases from Pakistan were strongly objected to by India. This Indian stance comes in the wake of the vacillating position taken by India on supply of arms to Sri Lanka.

During the last Elephant Pass debacle when Pirapaharan was about to retake the Jaffna peninsula, India refused any form of military assistance save ‘humanitarian’ assistance while Pakistan flew out the required armaments including multi barrel rocket launchers that saved Sri Lanka being truncated in to two countries. The gratitude of this country for the immense contributions made by Pakistan to preserve its unity and integrity has not been sufficiently expressed.

President Mahinda Rajapakse’s new ventures with the Chinese such as on the construction of thermal power generating plants and particularly the Hambantota Harbour are not being favourably looked on by India and even the West. The Chinese built Hambantota harbour will be spitting distance from the main shipping trade route from West to east is not to the liking of New Delhi’s strategic thinkers. Nonetheless under the Ranil Wickremesinghe government the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm was given to the Indians which is also considered vital for the control of sea lanes from West to East.

As the two Asian giants expand their spheres of influence in the region many countries including Sri Lanka will be caught up in the conflicts of interest of the two powers. Little Lanka in these circumstances should heed the advice given to people of little consequence: Stand not too close to the rich man lest he grabs thee and not too far away lest he forgets thee.

Editorial, The Morning Leader, weekly news paper based in Colombo, Sri Lanka
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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