Recent Developments in Sri Lanka: Implications for India
Research Officers, IPCS
Report of Roundtable Discussion held at the IPCS on 6 February 2009
Chair: Maj. Gen. Dipankar Banerjee, Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies
Speaker: Dr N Manoharan, Senior Fellow, Center for Land and Warfare Studies
The discussion was held in collaboration with the Berghoff Peace Foundation on the basis of an informal but structured discussion among a select group of leading military, intelligence, academic and diplomatic experts in India. The discussions were to enable the participants to debate and provide an assessment of current developments in Sri Lanka and to assess the options and challenges for India. The summary that follows reflects the views of the participants without attribution. These are separate views and therefore, do not provide a single or coherent analysis or a single plan of action.
In the last couple of years, the conflict in Sri Lanka has become even more complex. The predominant view in Sri Lanka is that the conflict is nearing its end with a military victory, as reflected in several government statements. Is the conflict coming to an end? Does a military victory signify resolution of the ethnic problem? What are the options before the international community? The objective of this round table discussion on Sri Lanka was to assess the current situation in the Island and discuss the policy options before the international community particularly India.
The military offensive ongoing in Sri Lanka as part of the government’s ‘War for Peace’ program and strategy to eliminate the LTTE has caused large scale civilian casualties, displacement of larger numbers and general human rights violations. The war has also led to a realignment of political forces around competing notions of ‘nationalism,’ ‘patriotism,’ ‘unity and territorial sovereignty’. As is common in such conflicts, truth has become the first casualty while the economy too is in shambles with acute shortage of all commodities heightened by the current global economic crisis.
Given the current military and political situation, what then are the possible outcomes of the war? The government plan is to first introduce an interim arrangement following the military victory based on the eastern model of 3 Ds – defeat, dismantle, and democracy. However, the Provincial Council elected in the East is weak with insufficient resources and violence continues to hamper substantial progress in the region.
The interim arrangement is expected to be replaced by a ‘final solution’ drawn from the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) report submitted in January 2008, which advised the President to implement the 13nth amendment to the Constitution outlining devolution to provinces based on the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987. The credibility of the report however is in doubt since some of the parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), United National Party (UNP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are not represented in the APRC, defeating the purpose of a consensual document. Moreover, any devolution based on the 13th amendment is not only ‘too little too late’ but also unsustainable in the long run. In addition, the report does not include any plan for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the many demobilized rebels that numbers roughly around 200,000 including surrendered Tigers.
A sustainable solution to the conflict should instead be based on a three-way formula. The first step would be to negotiate a ceasefire under which a genuine effort should be made to neutralize violence. The second step should be to introduce an interim arrangement as a prelude to a final solution where efforts should be made to undertake confidence-building measures between the two communities. A final solution should then be based on respecting the sentiments of minorities, based on consensus that has been missing in prior arrangements and on an asymmetrical devolution of power.
While the Sri Lankan Government is euphoric about its victory in what is known as the fourth Eelam war, there is little information on the remaining military capability of the LTTE as well as its cadre strength. Plus, with the Tamil diaspora still very active in supporting the Tamil cause and the existence of Prabhakaran, the conflict is unlikely to end.
Following their military advance, the Sri Lankan Government does not appear sincere about reaching a political solution. The war seems to be an end in itself and a way to postpone the issue of devolution. Implementing the Eastern model in the north may not work because of the different topographic conditions. While the government is open to talking with moderate non-LTTE Tamil groups, they lack the necessary support base to fill the gap created by the defeat of LTTE. It must be noted that while a political solution is possible without the LTTE, peace without them is not.
Future course of conflict
In order to end the ethnic conflict, it is important to address not just the violence perpetrated by the LTTE but also the culture of violence that has got embedded in the state structure. Democratization of Sri Lankan society on the basis of equality is important to end the conflict. Military defeat of the LTTE is likely to lead to power struggle within the LTTE thereby creating space for political activity. Much will depend upon the attitude of the government towards the minorities including the Tamils. Two possible scenarios seem possible at this stage: one, that the government declares military victory, is open for a political negotiation but finds no one to talk with. Second, that the government declares military victory followed by a ceasefire, enters into negotiations with a section of Tamils willing to talk, but eventually the talks lead to a deadlock on the issue of 13nth amendment resulting in the revival of conflict.
It must be kept in mind that the end of LTTE does not mean a victory of Sinhalese nationalism. The current military victory signifies the end of one phase of the conflict and the beginning of another. The conflict then is likely to continue although in a different form.
The international community needs to identify the key players in this war. The most significant donor in financial terms today in Sri Lanka is Iran. There are several countries supplying non-lethal weaponry to Sri Lanka including the US and India. Lethal weaponry are primarily supplied by Pakistan and China and bought commercially from around the world. The LTTE is supplied by its own arms network with financial help from the Tamil diaspora. Significantly Pakistan’s contribution to Sri Lankan government has tripled in past three years. The military assistance from Pakistan has been critical for the government. Apart from weapons, Pakistan is providing training support to the Army. For example, the Sri Lankan Air Force was trained in precision bombing by Pakistan.
Options and challenges for India
India continues to be an important factor in Sri Lanka owing to the shared cultural, linguistic and strategic interests of the two nations to the extent that no permanent solution can be achieved without taking India into consideration. Recent times have witnessed a significant shift in India’s stance, from that of a neutral bystander to an anti-LTTE stand, as reflected in the strong statement issued by the government stating that it has no sympathy for the LTTE. This is probably the strongest statement that the Indian government has ever made against the insurgent group. India acceptance of the APRC and its diluted recommendations is another sign of retreat. India’s increasing cooperation with Sri Lankan government in economic and non-lethal military matters has also raised several questions on Indian neutrality in minds of the Tamil population.
Would India take a more leading role in the peace process? Indian interests are best served in an united Sri Lanka under a federated structure, with adequate safeguards for the interests of all sections of the population. But it cannot put much faith on the current Sri Lankan government to bring this about. In political considerations the domestic Tamil sentiments in India restricts it from using force. The Sri Lankan government must be apprised of the fact that it cannot deal with the Tamil problem with total impunity. India has red lines and were those red lines to be crossed India will take some action. There are two such red lines. One is internal and the other external. Huge atrocities, genocides would unify Tamil Nadu against the centre, forcing the government in turn to intervene in Sri Lanka. This pressure is slowly mounting up, but it is not apparent that India is proactively trying to avoid that. Then there is India’s international red line, which would be impinged if Sri Lanka were to pose a threat to India’s geo-strategic interests. Thus sticks are out of question and carrots are preferable. Economics and soft power can play an important role and can be tied to devolution in some manner.
India would certainly like to help Sri Lanka increase its involvement in the SAARC and other regional processes like the BIMSTEC and through that develop greater cooperation with its neighbours and economic development for itself. It would like to see a more egalitarian Sri Lankan society and politics. It can also be a significant help on the economic front. For example, the FTA between India and Sri Lanka has been working very well for both countries and should be strengthened.