Dark clouds over Sr Lanka's final push By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - There is mounting concern in Sri Lanka that the army's advance into
Kilinochchi town, which has already been slowed down by heavy rains and fierce
resistance from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), will come up
against another brake - India.
Kilinochchi town is the administrative capital of the LTTE. Since early this
month, the Sri Lankan government has been saying that it is on the brink of
capturing this town. Its troops are reported to have breached the town’s major
But the capture of Kilinochchi is taking the army longer than expected. LTTE
cadres are said to be putting up a strong fight against advancing troops. Even
the army has admitted it has
suffered serious losses over the past few weeks. And troops are said to be
bogged down by heavy rains.
The capture of Kilinochchi will be a major symbolic and strategic victory for
the government. The LTTE has suffered a series of reverses in recent years.
Last year, it lost control of Eastern province. The fall of Kilinochchi to the
government would leave the LTTE confined to the last of its strongholds -
The mood in Colombo is gung-ho. For the first time in many years, the army
scents victory and analysts are even talking jubilantly of post-LTTE scenarios.
But things just might not go according to Colombo's grand plans. There are
worrying signs that Delhi might attempt to stay Colombo's hand as it makes its
final advance to Kilinochchi town.
Over the past week, the Indian government has repeatedly expressed "deep
concern" over the "deteriorating humanitarian situation" in the north of the
island, especially the "plight of the civilians" caught in the fighting between
the armed forces and the LTTE. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on
Colombo to pursue a negotiated political settlement, observing that a "military
victory" (which Sri Lanka is pursuing) would not resolve the conflict.
Whether this flurry of statements expressing "concern" for civilians and
support for a political solution will escalate into pressure on the Sri Lankan
government to slow down the military offensive or even call it off has become
an issue. This could mean that in the process of helping Tamil civilians, India
could end up giving the LTTE a fresh lease of life.
The spate of statements from Delhi on the Sri Lankan situation came in response
to a resolution passed by an all-party meeting in Tamil Nadu state on October
14, which warned that all 39 members of parliament (MPs) from the state would
resign en masse if the Indian government failed to halt the war in Sri Lanka
within two weeks. Tamil-dominated Tamil Nadu lies in the southeast of India,
across the Palk Strait from Sri Lanka.
Tamil parties such as the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Pattali Makkal
Katchi are important constituents of India's ruling Congress-led United
Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, and should these parties pull out their
MPs as threatened, the UPA government would be reduced to a minority.
It is this vulnerability of the UPA government to pressure from its Tamil
allies that has sections in Colombo worried, as if fears the UPA government
could pressure Colombo to halt military operations against the LTTE to ensure
its own political survival. In the guise of responding to the humanitarian
crisis on the island, Delhi might even intervene, as it did in May and June of
1987, to push Colombo to the negotiating table.
To many in Sri Lanka, the current upsurge of pro-Sri Lankan Tamil sentiment in
Tamil Nadu and the unfolding political drama in the state is reminiscent of
events in 1987.
In May 1987, the Sri Lankan armed forces, after making major gains in the
Vadamarachchi region of the Jaffna Peninsula, were preparing to capture Jaffna
town, the LTTE's bastion, when India intervened to pressure Colombo to halt
military operations and pursue a political settlement. That resulted in the
India-Sri Lanka agreement of July 1987, which, however, failed to bring peace
to the island.
Now the Sri Lankan armed forces have the Tigers confined to the Mullaitivu
district and parts of Kilinochchi. The LTTE has never been in a weaker
situation. But amid growing clamor from parties across the political spectrum
in Tamil Nadu for a more active role by New Delhi, the danger is that Delhi
force Colombo to go easy on military operations, thus coming to the rescue of
the LTTE once again.
To some in Sri Lanka, the fact that the UPA government began issuing stern
statements to Colombo soon after its Tamil allies issued an ultimatum is
ominous as it indicates that it might buckle to its allies' demands. It has
brought back memories of developments in the 1980s, when exigencies of
electoral politics were in part responsible for Delhi taking a more sympathetic
stand towards the Tamil militants.
Indeed, the current upsurge of emotions and the political rhetoric emanating
from Tamil Nadu is reminiscent of the 1980s. And the UPA government is
vulnerable to pressure from its Tamil allies.
All the same, it is highly unlikely Delhi will intervene as it did in 1987 to
halt the military offensive at this critical juncture.
India is in favor of a political solution, but it is also reluctant to ask
Colombo to call off troops. "India can make suggestions, but it will not
intervene in any real way as that could be construed as violating the
sovereignty of Sri Lanka," a senior Congress leader from Tamil Nadu told Asia
More importantly, much has changed in India's relationship with Sri Lanka and
its perception of the LTTE since the 1980s. Memories of the Indian
Peace-Keeping Force's unhappy experience in Sri Lanka remain vivid in India.
There is little stomach for a robust intervention on the island again.
Besides, since 1992 the LTTE has been a banned organization in India. Its
leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is wanted for the assassination of former Indian
premier Rajiv Gandhi. The LTTE is seen as an organization that threatens
India's security. While there is a perception among Indian officials that the
military decimation of the LTTE would encourage a jubilant Colombo to crush the
Tamil minority and to abandon the quest for a political solution, there is
little support in India, outside of Tamil Nadu, for any move that could shore
up the LTTE.
And India's relations with Colombo have grown significantly in recent years. It
has huge economic stakes in Sri Lanka; Delhi would not want to jeopardize this
relationship by backing the LTTE, even indirectly.
Besides, for all its dramatic rhetoric and dire warnings over the past week,
there is a perception that the DMK will not carry out its threat and withdraw
support from the UPA. "The DMK, after, all is dependent on the Congress party's
support to remain in power in Tamil Nadu. If its MPs resign, threatening the
survival of the UPA, the Congress would retaliate in Tamil Nadu by pulling out
its support to the government there," the Congress leader said. "The DMK is
unlikely to risk a mid-term election to the Tamil Nadu Assembly at this
Since the early 1990s, the importance of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict in
elections in Tamil Nadu has declined. In fact, in the 2006 election to the
Tamil Nadu Assembly, Sri Lanka barely figured in the election manifestos or
campaigns of the main parties. The pro-LTTE parties did badly. In the
circumstances, it is unlikely that the DMK will jeopardize its government on
the issue of the Sri Lankan conflict.
That the DMK will not carry out its threat is evident from the fact that its
leaders are already praising the UPA government for its "stern statements".
In the coming week, the UPA government is likely to make the right noises with
regard to its Tamil allies. Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee
can be expected to issue a tough statement in parliament. Several high-level
consultations between India and Sri Lanka are scheduled to take place this
week, in which India will press Colombo to go slow on the military offensive
and announce concrete steps with regard to a political package.
The Sri Lankan government is unlikely to call off the military offensive, or
even slow it down voluntarily, pressure from India notwithstanding. The war
against the LTTE is at a critical point and to back off under Indian pressure
would cost the government heavily among its Sinhalese hardline supporters.
Indian analysts point out that if the LTTE is able to hold out for a few more
weeks, the tide could turn in its favor. The monsoons would ground the Sri
Lankan troops in the north, slowing their advance further.
It does seem that the rain gods could achieve what India want Sri Lanka to do -
slow its military offensive.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in