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'India does not want to drive Sri Lanka into the arms of China'

Last updated on: January 8, 2010 12:25 IST

'Fonseka becoming Lankan President will be disastrous for India'

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Razik Zarook, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's Counsel and a close confidante of the Sri Lankan leader, has warned that if former Army General Sarath Fonseka who successfully prosecuted the war against the LTTE and is now challenging Rajapakse for the presidency in the election to be held January 26, is elected, it would be disastrous not just for Sri Lanka, but the region as a whole, particularly India.

In an exclusive interview with rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa, Zarook, former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the erstwhile Yugoslavia and Hungary and the island nation's ex High Commissioner to Singapore, who was on a private visit to Washington, DC, also disclosed India's role in providing strategic intelligence to the Sri Lankan military that was invaluable to defeating the LTTE.

He said that while the Indian assistance was not overt like that provided to Sri Lanka by China and Pakistan, (owing to domestic compulsions, particularly since the elections were on at the time), New Delhi's move to arm Sri Lanka with patrolling vessels and conduct joint exercises with the Sri Lankan Navy in blockading LTTE vessels and intercepting arms supplies was an important turning point in the war.

Zarook also said while he had no access to intelligence information, the talk of the town a few months ago was how Indian intelligence had tipped off the Sri Lankan government about an impending military coup just at the time that Fonseka had taken on an opposing posture against Rajapakse for the latter's refusal to acquiesce to the then Army Commander's insistence for the creation of army cantonments in the so-called liberated areas and also for an increase of 100,000 to 150,000 of army personnel.

The President's Counsel, also spoke of how the US, after its initial stinging criticism of the Sri Lankan government on the treatment of the more than 300,000 internally displaced persons in the wake of the war, had now come around to appreciate the government's painstaking screening process and kept referring to Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robert Blake's 180 degree turn.

Click on NEXT to read the exclusive interview


Image: Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka reads an article in the opposition JVP (People's Liberation Front) party's newspaper. (Inset) Razik Zarook
Photographs: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters
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'India wouldn't like to have a general on its southern flank'

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Why do you believe the election of former Army General Sarath Fonseka -- clearly one of the protagonists behind the victory against the LTTE -- as President would be inimical not just to Sri Lanka but to the region as a whole, particularly to India?

As a matter of fact, I must say that it's always better to have a civilian than a general as a president of a country. Let us take the experience in South Asia. The trauma, which Pakistan has undergone, the trauma that Bangladesh underwent, and what is happening in Burma. I don't think it will do any good if we have an army general -- ex or otherwise --who has just come in after a war to head the country.

And, just look at the impression that India would have. India is very important for us geopolitically and today India stands as Sri Lanka's best friend. India is a vibrant democracy and while there have been regime changes, the transition has always been so smooth in keeping with that of a vibrant democracy.

India has a fiercely independent press, and I don't think India having once been surrounded with generals, having undergone the trauma of having generals as presidents around, would like to have a general on its southern flank. You don't know what he will do. So, therefore, it is not in the interests of India, nor in the interests of Indo-Sri Lanka relations to have a general as a president of Sri Lanka.

You have reiterated that Indo-Sri Lanka relations have never been better and that New Delhi's rapport with President Mahinda Rajapakse is excellent, more so after the demise of the LTTE and its leader (Velupillai) Prabhakaran. What makes you make such confident claims?

Firstly, I must say that traditionally the relationship between India and Sri Lanka have been good. But there are circumstances that drive relationships to an extremely close relationship and that can be an external factor.

Now, India is very concerned about its own problems. India is also a nuclear power, and it also has certain other nuclear powers around its border -- it has Pakistan on the north and it has China on the other side -- and besides the perennial problems with Pakistan, it has had problems with China, although the Sino-India relationship is very good now unlike it was in the sixties.

Image: A member of the United National Party holds up a poster of former Sri Lankan army commander General Sarath Fonseka during a party convention in Colombo
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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'India does not want to drive us into the arms of China'

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So, India's point of view will be having a southern flank with all its nuclear resources being shifted to the south, clear of Pakistan. On the other hand, we also have the southern flank here and with our close relationship with China, it would not be in the interests of India not to have very friendly relations with us.

Because if India shuns us and the more India keeps us away from having a very close friendship with it, then we will get even more closer to China and that's inevitable because we have to survive in the south itself. So, if that happens, that will not be in the interests of India.

So, this is why India has gotten even closer to us now and just to give you an example, on the last occasion, when the IMF had not given us a loan of $2.4 billion to get over our balance of payments problems, we would have had to go somewhere and the obvious choice -- in as much as the United States is dependent of China -- was China because they are the only people who have the resources to pay it. And, then, you can just imagine what happens in terms of China's influence on Sri Lanka. That is why India stepped in and said that if the IMF is not prepared to give that loan they will give us the loan of $2.4 billion that we needed.

So, India's close friendship with us is driven by a very strategic interest. And Sri Lanka would not do anything inimical to Indian interests; not for anything else, but purely because we have a total co-existential relationship. India, if it can help it, does not want to drive us into the arms of China and they would like to rather embrace us in its own bosom and that would be the logical thing to do and Sri Lanka is certainly aware of it and we would like to maintain that balance.

You spoke of the Sri Lankan government's intention to balance all of these friendly relationships, but how does it intend to do it considering the paranoia that is unavoidable on New Delhi's part, considering the considerable influence of China so much so that Sri Lanka was able to tell the United States and the West to take a hike because it was sure of China's support?

All of this revolves around a particular issue. India would have loved to get more involved in Sri Lanka positively -- helping us to fight terrorism. Now, remember, India suffered a lot in the sense, it lost its leader -- Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE. That is something, which India can never forgive nor forget.

But, at the same time, even though India did not get directly involved, our army was trained in India. But, India also has its own internal problems in Tamil Nadu -- there is a 60 million Tamil population in Tamil Nadu who are very concerned about their brethren in Sri Lanka. So, the central government of India has to maintain a scrupulous balance and there was a limit to which it could help.

Image: Indian Air Force personnel load relief assistance for Sri Lanka onto a transport aircraft at the airport in New Delhi
Photographs: Vijay Mathur/Reuters
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'India gave us a lot of covert strategic help'

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India gave us a lot of strategic help. It helped our navy a lot via intelligence and it also gave us off-shore patrolling vessels and also provided a blockade against LTTE vessels. But, the bulk of the logistical supplies cam from China and Pakistan and when we were running short of ammunition, Pakistan airlifted it. China gave us all the resources we needed without any hesitation.

But India was in no way able to help publicly because it had to appease the southern vote and mind you this was the time of elections in India. But, I must say, it's an open secret that India shared its intelligence with us and we had joint naval exercises and a blockade and there were many more things, which is not even within my knowledge.

So, by and large, with India playing that role of helping Sri Lanka behind the scenes, we understood its limited role and India knew it could only play this limited role, but it was an integral role, particularly the strategic intelligence it provided.

Why was India providing this strategic intelligence, which was probably as important in some ways as the overt assistance that China and Pakistan were providing?

India was determined that the LTTE terrorism had to be suppressed. From Sri Lanka, terrorism was being exported to India and India had regions, which had their own problems, where terrorism was flourishing and there was this pan-terrorism among these terrorist groups in South Asia and the India-Sri Lanka LTTE link, which India had to break before it spread across India's south and other areas.

They trained our army, gave us patrolling vessels and assisted us in a joint blockade against LTTE vessels, but when it came to mortars and shells and artillery and guns or planes, that was left for us to get from other sources. So, we went to China, we went to Pakistan, we went to Israel, to Ukraine, and we were prepared to get whatever we wanted from wherever we could.

And, India though expressing concern for public consumption, also recognised the fact that Sri Lanka had to have it, otherwise how could we fight an international terrorist movement, which was well funded, well-financed, and the logistics were so well organised. Can you imagine, we destroyed as part of the LTTE's arsenal, 10 floating warehouses, which helped in the turning point of the war?

So, India was realistic and Sri Lanka has taken cognizance of that fact and appreciates that Delhi, with all its problems and at a time of its own elections with the southern vote, recognised Sri Lanka's needs to have this close relationship with Pakistan and China. They completely understood it and even continued to provide us with all of the strategic intelligence we needed.


Image: A Sri Lankan soldier keeps watch during a patrol in the jungle in the Puthukkudiyirippu area
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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'Indian delegation visited IDP camps and showed the world the correct picture'

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But after the war ended and the LTTE was defeated and Prabhakaran eliminated, wasn't India -- along with the US and the European Union -- in the forefront of expressing deep concern over the hundreds of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced persons) who were languishing in camps, allegedly under atrocious conditions?

The best thing that happened was an Indian parliamentary delegation, consisting even of certain South Asian parliamentary members came to Sri Lanka and went to see these IDP camps. There were so much of rumours about them; all sorts of false stories were being spread. They came down, looked at them and found a totally different picture from what they had been hearing.

And, the South Indian parliamentarians went back and gave a correct picture of what was happening. I believe that changed the tide to a great extent. And, that not only changed the tide in India, but also motivated other countries -- European countries and even the United States.

Robert Blake (US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka) even started to make certain complimentary remarks, which is a 180-degree turn from what he was saying earlier.

They realised that there was genuinely an effort by the Sri Lankan government to alleviate the lot of these people and repatriate them to their homes. Look, just in three months, having sorted out problems, the number of IDPs has come down to 60,000 to 70,000 refugees from over 300,000. And, all of them have been given the freedom to move about, to get into buses, go wherever they want.

If they want to go and live with relatives, they can go and live with relatives. Initially, we have problems and of course, we had to screen them because there were a lot of LTTE active cadres, who could have resurrected the LTTE or started a breakaway movement and started some sort of an insurgency.

So, unless they were curtailed, unless they were identified, marked and rehabilitated, simply releasing them was a risk. And, the government was not going to compromise on this after a protracted war. And, above all, was it safe for us to send these IDPs back home when there were hundreds of thousands of mines, which surprised even the Indian parliamentary delegation.
These mines had broken all international laws because terrorists don't abide by any international laws on how to bury them, or have maps, so nothing was known in terms of where they were buried. And, the Indian government sent a large number of de-mining personnel and they found the enormity of the problem and they found the odds against which Sri Lanka was doing this. And, today, we have managed the IDP camps very, very well, and it's just a matter of time before even the others who remain are allowed to leave the camps.


Image: Ethnic Tamil civilians wait to go to a camp for internally displaced people after being checked by the military in Vishvamadu
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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India was ready to help crush a coup

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Coming back to Army General Sarath Fonseka, and the rumours swirling about him after he started to take on President Rajapakse, was there a concern by India of the possibility of a military coup, which Indian intelligence alerted the Sri Lankan government about?

That's a very sensitive question you are asking, so I must say that I have no access to information of that sort. But, I can tell you this. Generally, that was the impression and the talk of the town. It was reported in the press that there was a coup contemplated and that the Indian government was very concerned about it and the fact that New Delhi was prepared to help.

I don't know in which way, though they say that the southern army was alerted. Of course, General Fonseka denied all of this. I don't know the truth behind all it because India also denied it for strategic reasons. But, certainly, there was this fear of a coup.

There must have been something that prompted these fears, and the fact that Indian intelligence had worked with Sri Lankan intelligence during the war with the LTTE, there must have been some military intelligence that brought these concerns on. What was it?

All this started off because the tradition happens to be that the new Army Commander has to bring his regiment it. So, when you don't allow the new Army Commander to bring his regiment in to the headquarters, the first suspicions are created.

And, this was after the completion of the war when the new Army Commander was taking over from General Fonseka

Exactly. It was after the completion of the war. And, secondly, when you have your own favourites, whom you have promoted over and above so many senior generals, either the favourites can take over or the senior generals can take over. I mean they are also a frustrated lot that can happen.

And, the third factor is, when the army contemplates to have settlements -- army cantonments, not camps -- remember, and please draw a distinction between camps and cantonments, where army families in all these so-called liberated areas from Mannar, Killinochi, right down to Mullaitivu and right up to Nandikaral, you put Sinhala Army settlements, what will happen? You are creating another ethnic issue, which, I must say with all sincerity, President Rajapakse was not prepared to give in to.

So, these were some of the issues. This is also utterly racist and particularly at that time, the Army Commander (Fonseka) had made racist statements against minorities saying that they had no place. Sri Lanka is a country that belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists and not the minorities and that the minorities had to fall in line. So, under the circumstances, there were a lot of suspicions (of an impending military coup).


Image: Sri Lanka's then Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka takes part in a ceremony at the army head quarters in Colombo July 15, 2009
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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'What are we going to do with all of this equipment?'

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The cantonment proposition ostensibly was to displace the Tamil majority in those so-called liberated areas and change the demographics?

Absolutely. And, that was going to be a permanent solution, and there was also the other issue, where he (Fonseka) wanted to recruit another 100,000 to 150,000 army personnel, and there was absolutely no necessity for this when you have just finished a war.

And, here we don't know what to do with all of the excess equipment we are having. We have all these big planes, transport military aircraft, we have heavy artillery -- what are we going to do with all of this equipment? We are not people who wish to keep these arms with us and be an army state.

It costs us enormous amounts of money. We need resources for development that has got to take place now that the war has ended to help all of our people. 

When the President had two more years to go in his tenure, why call for an early election? Was there this apprehension that there would be a diminution of his political capital now that the war was over and the LTTE crushed and Prabhakaran eliminated? That these victories would soon be forgotten?

That was not the case at all but rather he wished instead of having a hung Parliament, it was better he seeks a fresh mandate. He thought, 'Well, I have finished the war and I have new economic projects to go ahead with for the development of the country, so I have to start afresh', and this is why he thought he would go for an election. And, let me tell you, there is international confidence in Sri Lanka now.

Look at the Sri Lanka share market. It is now one of the best share markets in the world and perhaps the best in South Asia and the growth is tremendous, confidence is tremendous. But it will take a little time for things to stabilize, and this is why, under these circumstances, he thought it's a good time to seek a fresh mandate.


Image: Sri Lankan army troops move past the portrait of President Mahinda Rajapakse and then Army Chief Sarath Fonseka during the National Victory Ceremony in Colombo June 3
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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'People who were lecturing us were bombing Afghanistan...'

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But what about the alleged human rights violations during and after the war, and reports of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed?

Human rights concerns are expressed in all instances of war. Concerns are expressed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Somalia, they are expressed in South America. So, therefore, there is no reason why there should not be concern if there are human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

After all, there are collateral damages. But, there are no wilful bombings. Sometimes, you cannot prevent these things that are inevitable, particularly when terrorists like the LTTE was doing was holding civilians hostage and using them as human shields. Don't forget the security forces rescued over 200,000 civilians even as they were carrying out the war against the terrorists.

But the people who were lecturing us were continuing to bomb in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and what about the thousands and thousands of civilians killed in Iraq in collateral damage.

And, before that, they did it in Somalia -- even milk powder factories were bombed on the basis that they were manufacturing arms. And, of course, up to now, there is not a single weapon of mass destruction found, much to the embarrassment of all these countries that declared war in Iraq. Be it as it may, there is now a realisation that there's more to it and that here's a country that has fought a terrorist movement and successfully fought it, and can probably give lessons on counter-insurgency to these major powers.

And, some of our own generals rather than being preoccupied in Sri Lankan politics could have done the lecture circuit in the US and other places and done very well for themselves. I think there is enough and more reason why the governments in the world -- whether it is in Europe or America -- should have a fresh look at Sri Lanka like what Robert Blake has now started to think. And, that would contribute to a greater understanding.

Unfortunately, we are about 20 hours away in way of flying time. Otherwise, there would have been greater understanding. So, I believe, communication alone sometimes can be here-say. So, the best thing is for them to go there in the fastest jets available. They are most welcome. Come to the ground and see what is happening in all these places in Sri Lanka. America has a great role to play. After all, America is our largest trading partner and one of our biggest buyers of our goods. And, so, we are very happy that the US is now turning around in terms of better understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka.

Image: Members of the armed forces stand guard near internally displaced people (IDPs) who are living at the Ananda Kumarswami camp at Manik Farm in northern Sri Lanka
Photographs: Stringer/Reuters
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