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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2619

Sri Lanka & The SAARC Summit

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Sri Lanka has a singular window of opportunity in its campaign of national resistance against Tiger terrorism. That window is provided by the upcoming SAARC summit in April, which will be chaired by India.

SAARC summits have played their part as significant nodal points of the interrelationship between Colombo, Delhi, Chennai (then Madras) and Jaffna (as it were). Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi arranged for proximity talks between President Jayewardene and Velupillai Prabhakaran at the SAARC summit in Bangalore in November 1986. Prabhakaran was flown by helicopter to the venue, while India officials shuttled between the Sri Lankan side and the Tiger leader. Of course the entire exercise ended in failure.

What was significant was the behavior of India. As Prof Urmila Phadnis, the doyenne of Indian scholarship on Sri Lanka and Indo-Lankan relations pointed out, this was a sharp departure from previous policy which had recognised all the Tamil groups. For the first time, Delhi accorded primacy to Prabhakaran and the LTTE! What made it worse was that it took place mere months after the LTTE had massacred India’s most favoured Tamil group, the TELO, accusing it of being a stooge of India! This was followed in a little over half a year, by India’s intrusion into Sri Lankan airspace, to abort Operation Liberation. Rajiv Gandhi took those decisions due to pressure from Tamil Nadu, and paid with his life.

In the early 1990s Sri Lanka assumed the chairmanship of SAARC. India’s hostility to President Premadasa was as irrational as to exceed its animus towards Prabhakaran who had murdered Rajiv only the previous year. It attempted to sabotage it by staying away. However, the rest of South Asia solidarised with Sri Lanka and participated, thereby rebuffing regional hegemonism.

India’s Chairmanship

While India’s assumption of the SAARC chairmanship this April is by no means a positive factor for Sri Lanka given the increasing raucousness of Tamil Nadu, India is on the other hand, unlikely to risk provoking a Sri Lankan riposte against it in Delhi itself, on the occasion of the summit.

India takes over the leadership of the region at a time it is exceedingly well placed internationally and it may be conceded, historically. However, its international prestige and profile is not entirely symmetrical with the perceptions of it in the neighborhood. It is India’s interest not to permit her old regional profile to damage the new one it is striving to project; a new one in keeping with her global prestige.

India will not wish Sri Lanka to form a countervailing bloc with the region’s smaller nations, perhaps even spearheading a denunciation of Delhi’s duplicity and de-stabilization, hypocrisy and hegemonism.

Furthermore, India cannot take a hard line on terrorism, as she will at the SAARC summit, and simultaneously take steps helpful to Tiger terrorism – steps which prevent Sri Lanka from eradicating suicide bombing separatists.

India and the USA are asking (in the case of the former, pressurizing) Sri Lanka to do precisely what they criticize Pakistan of doing: going soft on terrorism; not cracking down on it militarily.

Sri Lanka is being criticized by India and sotto voce by the West, for doing precisely what they urge Pakistan to do: wage a sustained military campaign against terrorism on its soil.

To round off the ironies, India is being governed by domestic, i.e. regional compulsions in its policy towards Tamil terrorism, while rejecting the argument that Pakistan is just as or even more constrained or compelled by the socio-cultural and political realities of its own peripheral regions.

Sri Lanka’s Stance

Sri Lanka simply must use the SAARC summit to make its case against the LTTE which must include mention of its suicide bombing of two former SAARC chairpersons, Rajiv Gandhi and Ranasinghe Premadasa. The latter was SAARC chairman when he was assassinated.

President Rajapakse must raise the slogans of the indivisibility of the defence of democracy against terrorism and canvass a compact of collective security. Sri Lanka must seek a SAARC strategy and a practical programme for the suppression of separatism, terrorism, political assassination and suicide bombing.

We can do this adopting one of four stances: in alliance with all states, in alliance with Delhi, while remaining silent on India or while criticizing India. That choice is ours but is contingent on India’s conduct towards us in the run-up to the SAARC summit in April.

April is the Crucial Month

All this adds up to a priceless opportunity for Sri Lanka. We must make as much military headway on the ground as is possible, by the April summit.

At the least, the East must be won, and a democratic political process (which, given the conditions cannot but be an exercise in ‘low intensity democracy’) completed which installs Karuna in control of the province.

At best, it can include gains on the Northern front, but must avoid unimaginative operations, as well publicized and easily predictable as they are ill-designed and rehearsed for! Given the difficulty of fighting the Tigers on their monoethnic home turf (unlike in the East where we enjoy a safe – Sinhala – rear area), and given Karuna’s excellent record at Elephant Pass, it would be imprudent not to include him in the planning of operations outside the Eastern theatre, anticipating and war-gaming Prabhakaran’s moves, and even securing inputs in giving the extra training to our forces necessary for fighting on Prabhakaran’s Northern and eventually Kilinochchi-Mullaitivu battle grounds.

To capitalize on the opportunity presented by the constraints imposed on India’s behavior until the SAARC summit is done, Sri Lanka must fast track the acquisition, induction and deployment of the new equipment she has ordered or has earmarked for purchase. Certainly, defence expenditure is placing a heavy strain on the budget but it is better to suffer a one-time only surge in expenditure and get the job done, than to keep the problem dangling for another decade or more due to under-expenditure on military equipment.

The pressure on the economy can be relieved by obtaining cheap oil. There are three potential sources of cheap oil, all of which are accessible to Sri Lanka, given the centre-left, nationalist political complexion of the Rajapakse presidency: Russia, Iran and Venezuela. What it would take is a personal outreach by the President followed by a high level delegation led by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. (Military deals must also be striven for, which means that the Def Secy should be part of the delegation).

Sri Lanka has no choice but to invest in building up a first rate military in terms of manpower, training, fire-power, mobility and command-control-communication-computers (C4).We must swiftly build up our armed forces to a level that guarantees military preponderance over the LTTE, capable of deploying overwhelming force against it.

During this campaign and thereafter, Sri Lanka must maintain a military strong enough to inflict unacceptable levels of casualties in asymmetric conflict, upon anyone likely to engage in cross-border incursion. Only a credible deterrent capacity will allow us to preserve our sovereignty in an increasingly dangerous sub-regional context, given India’s permissive attitude to Tamil Nadu extremism which is the rear area of Eelam Tamil terrorism.

Our Chance

If Sri Lanka is to capitalize on the opportunity provided by the upcoming SAARC summit, it must also complete the search for a political solution to Tamil ethnic grievances. The de-merger of the North and East must be balanced off by enhanced devolution made possible by the redistribution of powers in the concurrent list. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has welcomed the ‘majority report’ of the Experts’ panel, pointing out that any misgivings could be addressed by placing more safeguards. That report, the UNP’s proposals to the APRC and the Tissa Vitharana proposals (barring the suggestion of the abolition of the presidential system and reversion to a purely parliamentary model, a step which would weaken the state), provide three strong planks for a reform platform.

President Rajapakse must not go to Delhi empty handed. When he addresses the SAARC summit he must not only have an irreversible, strategic military victory under his belt, he must also be able to credibly display to his fellow heads of state, enlightened new legislation implemented by Sri Lanka which can accommodate aggrieved Tamil and Muslim identity. If – but only if - he does so, he will be able to neutralize plots against Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, combat Tamil Nadu propaganda, project a favorable image before a hostile Indian media, isolate the Tigers and rally the support of the region, locking India – as SAARC chairman - into the regional consensus.

- Asian Tribune -

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