Had enough? Tigers turn on Pakistan By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - A new target - Pakistan - seems to be on the radar of the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Initial investigations into the
powerful explosion that occurred in Colombo on Monday indicate that the
Pakistani high commissioner in Colombo was the target.
The explosion took place near the official residence of Sri Lankan President
Mahinda Rajapakse as a convoy accompanying a Pakistani High Commission vehicle
drove past. The high commissioner, Bashir Wali Mohamed, traveling in the
convoy, escaped unhurt, but soldiers accompanying him were less lucky. Four
were among those killed in the blast.
No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion, but
suspicion points in the direction of the LTTE.
The explosion in the Sri Lankan capital comes amid a sharp surge in fighting
between the LTTE and government forces in the island's north and east. It came
on a day when the Sri Lankan air force bombed an orphanage in the
Tamil-dominated, LTTE-controlled district of Mullaitivu in Northern Province,
killing 43 children and injuring about 60 others.
The attack in Colombo was apparently not unexpected. Over the past week, police
captured at least two large consignments of weapons and explosives near Colombo
pointing to imminent attacks in the capital.
A Tamil source with access to the LTTE told Asia Times Online that while the
attack was carried out by the Tigers, it was not aimed at the Pakistani high
commissioner. "The target of the explosion was the army convoy," he said.
But the general perception among Sri Lankan and even Indian circles is that the
target of the attack was indeed the high commissioner. The Sri Lankan
government has issued a statement to that effect.
Pakistan is one of the main suppliers of military equipment to the Sri Lankan
government. Defense cooperation between Sri Lanka and Pakistan has been growing
rapidly in recent years. The attack is a signal of Tiger displeasure with the
close relationship between the governments of Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Defense cooperation between the two governments is said to have expanded
considerably, especially since early this year. According to a report in Jane's
Defense Weekly, Sri Lanka asked Pakistan to facilitate the purchase of military
equipment worth about US$60 million. While the army's shopping list is said to
cost about $20 million, the requirements of the air force have been pegged at
Sri Lanka has apparently requested that its shopping list be given "utmost
priority" given the deteriorating security situation. "The army's extensive
wish list includes 10 Baktar Shikan anti-tank guided-missile weapon systems,
300 standard/tandem warheads and two training simulators," according to the
In a letter to Bashir Wali, the Sri Lankan chief of the defense staff, D W K
Sandagiri, had apparently requested that Pakistan send a technical team to
Colombo to survey T-55 tanks and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, as the
country was in an urgent need of spare parts for its tanks and aircraft.
Unlike India, which is in favor of a negotiated settlement that ensures the
territorial integrity of Sri Lanka while meeting the aspirations and securing
the rights of its Tamil minority, Pakistan is not particularly opposed to a
military solution, nor is it concerned about securing the rights of minorities
in the island.
India opposes Sri Lanka's aerial bombing of Tamil civilians, and is annoyed
with the government's irresolute pursuit of a political settlement. It is
therefore reluctant, unlike Pakistan, to provide the government lethal weapons.
Pakistan-Sri Lanka military cooperation is not new. But with India reluctant to
sign a Defense Cooperation Agreement with Sri Lanka and unwilling to supply it
with the kind of weapons it is looking for, Colombo has turned increasingly to
Pakistan. There are segments of opinion in Sri Lanka that are in fact in favor
of the government finalizing a defense cooperation agreement with Islamabad.
A former Sri Lankan diplomat K Godage called on the government last year to
"sign a defense-cooperation agreement with them [Pakistan], for they are
prepared to formalize the current defense arrangements we have with that
country". He also suggested "signing a similar agreement with China, merely to
formalize the defense procurement arrangements, we have with that country".
Sri Lanka and Pakistan have enjoyed cordial relations. Certain segments of
society in Sri Lanka, especially among the Sinhalese majority, view Pakistan
(and China) as more reliable than "big brother India". A former diplomat told
Asia Times Online last year that, unlike India, which during the 1980s was
arming and training the Tamil militants, China and Pakistan never backed the
militants at any time since the start of the insurgency.
Others in Colombo also recall that Islamabad and China have always come to Sri
Lanka's rescue in times of serious crisis - when India was seen to have
dithered. In 2000, when Jaffna was on the verge of falling to the LTTE, China
was "among the first to respond to the Sri Lankan government's appeal for
emergency military supplies".
The Hindustan Times' Colombo correspondent, P K Balachandran, writes that "it
was with the help of the multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) supplied by
Pakistan that the Sri Lankan army was able to drive the LTTE out of Jaffna" in
2000. And the MBRLs are now back to haunt the Tigers. "In the ongoing war,"
writes Balachandran, the MBRLs supplied by Pakistan are tormenting the LTTE in
both the northern and eastern fronts."
Another possible reason for the Tigers targeting the Pakistani high
commissioner is his reported "support, moral or otherwise" to Muslims in the
island's explosive Eastern Province. Bashir Wali is a former director of the
Intelligence Bureau. He is said to have made statements extending support to
the Muslims in Eastern Province, which has rattled and angered the LTTE.
Eastern Province - once predominantly Tamil - is today a volatile mix of
Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations. Some of the worst inter-ethnic
massacres and fighting in Sri Lanka's two-decade-long civil war has taken place
in the east, and it is here that the 2002 ceasefire - which exists only on
paper today - has been the most tenuous.
Relations between the LTTE and the Muslims have been troubled. Tamils,
especially the Tigers, have always been suspicious of the loyalties of the
Muslim community. In 1980, the Muslims were provided with arms by the Sri
Lankan Special Task Force, ostensibly to protect them against the LTTE. It only
served to deepen the Tamil-Muslim divide. In recent years, reports have
surfaced from time to time of armed militias like the Osama Group and the
Muttur Jetty Group having emerged in the east. These outfits, consisting of a
dozen or so members, are said to be anti-LTTE.
Given the LTTE's already fragile hold over the population in the east - with
the exit of its eastern commander "Colonel" Karuna this control has weakened
even more - it is not surprising that the LTTE is wary of anyone seen to be
meddling in Eastern Province. Bashir Wali's alleged support to Muslims in the
east would no doubt have raised the hackles of the Tigers.
Bashir Wali's tenure in Colombo is said to be ending. Informed sources in
Colombo told Asia Times Online that Muslims in the eastern town of Muttur, near
Trincomalee, were thinking of petitioning the Pakistani government to extend
Bashir Wali's tenure as high commissioner in Colombo.
The LTTE attack on the Pakistani envoy in Colombo on Monday was a signal to
Islamabad that it doesn't approve of Pakistan providing weaponry to the Lankan
government and that it would not it tolerate Pakistan messing around in what it
considers as its turf.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in