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May 13, 2000
Damned if we do, damned if we don't
I have recently studied all the materials I could find regarding Sri Lanka's problem with the Tamils and I have come to the conclusion that India has a difficult problem because of three reasons: a. The general policy of not supporting armed separatists. b. The emotional links Tamil Indians have with Tamil Sri Lankans, and c. The deep-water port at Trincomalee that can dominate Indian Ocean sea-lanes.
The first two are the focus of the debate in India about how we should respond to the LTTE's (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) advance towards Jaffna. The third is often ignored, but in view of India's recent moves towards projecting its blue-water naval capabilities (see my column, At long last, containing China"), the strategic port of Trinco is important to India.
I can concur with the consensus in India that "once-bitten, twice shy" is the right response. Mediation and humanitarian assistance, maybe, but nothing more. The Lankan problem has become as intractable as the Balkan problem -- note how even the Americans got a bloody nose in Bosnia/Kosovo and retreated making noises like it was a great victory, without fooling anyone.
The 1987 IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) debacle (over a thousand killed and a hasty retreat) can be blamed on two things -- one, that the Indian army was handicapped by its orders to not inflict casualties on Lankans. Two, it was, to its great surprise, demonized as an occupation force by both the Premadasa government in Sri Lanka (which invited it in the first place) and by the LTTE (which it may have helped early on).
It was a bad idea to go in -- this much is clear in hindsight. However, I can understand India's then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's imperative -- as India is the predominant power in the region, she cannot let some third party enter the fray militarily in Sri Lanka. This would make India appear weak in her own backyard -- a major no-no.
I wonder though: Are the current reverses suffered by the Sri Lankan army in Jaffna quite so alarming? After all, in the ebb and flow of the brutal 20-year-old civil war, Jaffna has changed hands more than once. Why should this be the endgame?
The Tigers may find it as difficult to hold onto territory as the Sri Lankan army did -- remember that five years ago the army ejected the Tigers from their supposed stronghold of Jaffna. I think the long-suffering civilian population is not keen on either the Tigers or the army, so both parties may find it equally difficult to hold the place.
The demoralized Lankan troops (35,000 in Jaffna) cannot match the 5,000 doctrinaire guerillas of the LTTE in motivation or in jungle warfare, but they should be able to hold on in set-piece battles, if they manage to keep control of Palaly air base and the port of Kankesanturai. I am hard pressed to believe that Sri Lanka is about to be de facto divided.
The Tigers have done one thing though -- they have demolished the old colonial myth of the 'martial races'. The British thought only the Sikhs and the Rajputs, the Pathans and the Marathas were fighting men. Others, especially Bengalis and Tamils, were seen as weak-willed and cowardly. The Tamil Tigers, however, are the most dangerous guerilla group in the world today, disciplined, ready to kill and to die for the cause.
India has a general problem as she is fighting her own battles with insurgents in the northeast and north-west. It is rumored that the LTTE, for pure profit, is willing to help any armed group. Thus, Pakistan's ISI and its terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the Mizo/Naga and other tribal separatists in the northeast are all supposedly dealing with the LTTE. The LTTE has a small fleet, and they are possibly also active in piracy in Indian Ocean/Bay of Bengal waters. They are likely middlemen in the narcotics traffic to the West from Afghanistan/Pakistan and from the Golden Triangle of Burma/Thailand/China.
All in all, one would imagine that the Indian government, especially given the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi allegedly by the LTTE, would find it preferable to support the Sri Lankan government. Of course, there is the other side of the picture -- there will be heavy refugee flows into India from Jaffna (and surely there will be disguised Tigers among them too).
Given the sensitivity of this issue to its Tamil allies who are part of the ruling coalition, the Indian government is understandably unwilling to fight the LTTE. This is probably a wise thing anyway -- they are fearsome. So the Indians are left with a major dilemma: Damned if we do, damned if we don't.
This is especially true because of Trincomalee. Long famous as one of the world's best deep-water natural harbours, Trinco has been coveted by various powers. The Americans were once quite keen on gaining facilities there and a while ago, the Chinese supported a Maoist rebellion in Sri Lanka -- it was put down forcefully -- with an eye to getting their hands on Trinco. As a bonus, it would have been part of their 'encircle-and-contain-India' campaign.
India quite simply cannot let this harbour fall into the hands of a power that is inimical to her own interests. As I have suggested before, the Indian Ocean shipping lanes are a crucial choke-point in the flow of oil from West Asia to Japan and eventually to China. A fleet based in Trincomalee can thus wage economic war on East Asia.
Trincomalee is in Sri Lanka's eastern province where the Tigers have a strong presence, but they have never been dominant there. Nevertheless, an army collapse in Jaffna in the north will free up the Tiger forces to drive their dream of a breakaway Eelam consisting of the north and east of Sri Lanka. Tigers controlling Trinco is perhaps not in India's best interests.
Given all the above, India's only option is to provide humanitarian assistance, perhaps provide some weapons and ammunition but no troops. India must make it clear to the Lankans that India will not tolerate the presence of troops from any other nation. And that rights to Trincomalee are not to be negotiated away for any reason.
To all who ask me about Varsha Bhosle, a. yes, I am her friend, the 'Raj' she refers to now and then. b. She is travelling with her mother organising a number of concerts in the US and Europe. c. You can write to her directly at email@example.com. I won't forward your mails to her.
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