Sri Lanka has emerged as the most militarised country in South Asia, according to a recent study conducted by Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai. For every thousand population, it has eight military personnel against 1.3 in India or four in Pakistan. In terms of military expenditure, Sri Lanka spends 4.1 per cent of its GDP against 2.5 per cent by India or 3.5 per cent by Pakistan. Its defence expenditure is expected to cross one billion dollars this year against eight million dollars of the LTTE. The only threat to its territorial integrity comes from the LTTE. Against the 8000-strong ragtag armed cadres of the LTTE, Sri Lanka has an Army of 150,000 well-equipped men and a Navy of 20,000 personnel.
Its Air Force uses Israeli Kfir supersonic fighter bombers, MIG-23 and helicopters, including MI-24s. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was voted President on a hardline manifesto in alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and Jathika Hela Urumaya, both Sinhala chauvinist parties, has been forced by his allies to renege on whatever concessions his predecessors had shown to the ethnic minority and settle the crisis by liquidating the LTTE. In the USA’s global war against terrorism, the LTTE, a liberation movement for the legitimate democratic rights of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, has fallen a victim.
Antipathy to Tamil
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is surrounded by a clutch of advisers who are incapable of understanding the Tamil ethos. Whether it is a coincidence or deliberate design, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Security Adviser, Minister of State for External Affairs dealing with Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary, High Commissioner in Colombo, chiefs of intelligence agencies, including RAW are Malayalees whose antipathy to Tamil, the only living language to be declared a classical language, is well-known.
Taking advantage of India’s hands-off policy, Sri Lanka has allowed Pakistan to fill the void. Basheer Wali, former director of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau and an ISI operative, who completed his term as his country’s High Commissioner in Colombo on 30 June but stayed on till an attempt was made on his life, was succeeded by Air Vice-Marshal Shehzad Aslam Chaudhri, who retired recently as the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations) of the Pakistan Air Force. An expert in air-mounted operations against insurgency, his posting coincides with clandestine co-operation between the armed forces of Pakistan and Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa became President.
During Chandrika Kumaratunge’s presidentship, Colombo used to keep New Delhi informed of its important military developments. Not any more. Sri Lankan Air Force sends its fighter aircraft to Pakistan for overhauling and maintenance.
The SLAF had now asked the PAF for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and bunker-buster bombs, to be obtained from the USA, for operation against Velupillai Pirapaharan, the LTTE supremo. His elimination will not solve the ethnic crisis Sri Lanka is facing.
The Army’s shopping list is valued at $20 million while the Air Force’s list is estimated to cost $38.1 million. Sri Lanka had also written to Pakistan to provide swift technical assistance for its T-55 Main Battle Tanks and C-130 transport aircraft.
The Army’s shopping list includes 10 Baktar Shikan anti-tank guided missile weapon systems, 300 warheads and two training simulators. The success of the recent air strikes by the SLAF against the LTTE and civilian targets in the Tamil areas is attributed to the training imparted by the PAF officers with experience of air-mounted operations against Baloch freedom fighters. Another sinister move of the Rajapaksa government is the attempt to raise a Muslim regiment in the eastern province to counter the LTTE. Muslims had been given a raw deal by the LTTE in the past. Taking advantage of the discontent of Muslims, who are also Tamils, Rajapaksa has been trying to widen the gulf between the two and use the Muslims as a bulwark against the LTTE. On 18 September, 10 Muslim youths were massacred in Pottuvil, Ampara district, allegedly by the elite counter insurgency Special Task Force troops, and the blame was put on the LTTE. The youths had gone to repair the anicut at Rattal Kulam in a predominantly Sinhala area. A training base of the STF is located near the massacre site. The media in Colombo has to accept the government version as there is no way of checking it independently.
In the first week of August, 17 AID workers in the northern town of Mutur were killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces and put the blame on the LTTE. All but one of the 17 were Tamils, working on tsunami relief for the French NGO, Action Contre La Faim. Fifteen of them were forced to kneel and then shot in the head. The other two were killed in a car as they tried to flee. All the 17 were wearing clothing that identified them as AID workers. The Swedish-led Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission squarely blamed the security forces for the killings.
On 16 August an orphanage in Mullaithivu in the Vanni area of the Northern province was bombed in which 61 innocent girls were killed. The Sri Lankan authorities, including the Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, P M Amza, tried to mislead the public by saying that the victims were child recruits of the LTTE. International observers, who had visited the orphange, refuted the Sri Lankan version. In his address to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana on 16 September, Rajapaksa described the LTTE as the most ruthless terrorist organisation and called upon NAM and the UN to “strongly renew the commitment to fight terrorism whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head.” Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Vickramanayaka, said: “More countries are coming forward to help us in getting rid of terrorism in Sri Lanka by pledging more weapons to seek them out from any jungle in the country.” Now it is quite evident that the Rajapaksa government is determined to settle the ethnic conflict by military conquest. The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement enabled the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, one of the long cherished demands of the Tamils. Rajapaksa is all set to undo it by the dubious method of a Supreme Court order using the JVP to move a petition to renege the merger.
Indira Gandhi knew well the mindset of the Sinhala politicians and appointed the late G Parthasarathy as Special Adviser on Sri Lankan affairs. She had a definite plan to solve the ethnic crisis. But before it could be implemented she was assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi continued his mother’s policy and brought about the merger of the two Tamil provinces though it took some arm-twisting of President J R Jayawardene by J N Dixit, then Indian High Commissioner in Colombo who was dubbed the “Viceroy of India” by the disgruntled Sinhala politicians. After Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, none of our Prime Ministers showed any understanding of the ethnic problem or desire to help Sri Lanka solve it. Simply repeating parrot-fashion that India believes in Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity will not solve the problem. A certain amount of arm-twisting of Rajapaksa to come out with a federal solution is called for to solve the endemic ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.
**The author, a veteran journalist who retired from The Statesman, is based in Chennai