Secrets behind the secret Indian visit

  • Foreign Ministry bypassed as top Indian officials hold talks in Colombo with President and others
  • Concern over security situation and doubts as to who will come from India for SAARC summit

By a Special Correspondent

The reverberations from the visit to Sri Lanka by India’s three top most bureaucrats – National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh – continue in the echelons of power in Colombo.

This week, it took none other than President Mahinda Rajapaksa to repudiate ill-informed reports that India wanted the ongoing military offensive against Tiger guerrillas stopped. Some even speculated that India was doing so because troops were on the outskirts of Mullativu and were poised to seize control of Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s lair.

One official account, momentarily in the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) web site even spoke of the Indian Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, coming to Colombo. However, the well known fact is quite different. He did not come.

Vijay Singh M. K. Narayanan Shiv Shankar Menon

In the absence of photo opportunities, media statements or even “inspired leaks” in the state media, little wonder wild speculation was not only rife but also reached ridiculous heights. More details of what went on behind the scenes are now emerging. They not only take the mask off the secret mission and its purpose but also provide an insight into new developments.

It was Thursday (June 18) when India’s High Commissioner Alok Prasad informed the Presidential Secretariat that a high-level Indian delegation was arriving the next day and wanted to have consultations. Their priority was a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also sought a meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa MP and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. This trio had travelled to New Delhi last year for talks with the three top bureaucrats in India.

Mr. Prasad was keen to ensure the visit remained confidential with no publicity given to it. Thus, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts the country’s foreign relations, was completely unaware. It was told officially through a diplomatic note by the Indian High Commission only on Friday afternoon. By that time, the three-member delegation had already arrived in Sri Lanka in an Indian Air Force jet. That diplomatic note was a mere formality. The Ministry of Defence, using its own prerogative, had given the clearance earlier for the arrival of the special Indian Air Force flight. There was no question of the Foreign Ministry making a recommendation.

If that was bad enough, even Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, who had returned from New Delhi only days earlier, was bypassed both in the preparation as well as the meeting phase. Whilst in New Delhi, some media reports quoted Bogollagama as saying India should keep away from meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs. The Foreign Ministry later denied those reports though much to its chagrin some Indian officials privately insisted he said so. A witty official at the Ministry remarked that in keeping Mr Bogollagama out of the loop, the Indian team had in fact kept away from meddling in his (Minister’s) affairs.

Yet, Bogollagama had learnt from the grapevine about the impending arrival of the Indian team. On Thursday (June 19) he had raised the matter with President Rajapaksa. He received a terse answer. “Meywa api balagannang…..Oyagolla anith deval balaaganna…” (We will look after this. You all look after other things). Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona was not on hand either. He was in Ukraine on a tour arranged by Udayanga Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Russia. He was due only that weekend.

When the Indian delegation arrived in Colombo, there was no Foreign Ministry official, not even from their Protocol Division, to receive them. Mr. Bogollagama was otherwise busy. At the BMICH he was chairing a conference of some 200 State officials where arrangements for the forthcoming SAARC summit in Colombo were being discussed. The telephones of at least three Foreign Ministry officials taking part in the conference rang. One of them found it was the media asking him, somewhat jocularly, “why is this sudden Indian landing?”

Another foreign Ministry official who was talking to a caller (identity not known) was heard to remark, “What discussion on SAARC arrangements. The Indians will get things changed the way they want. So this meeting should have been held after they got back to New Delhi.” On the other hand, one of the important meetings related to the SAARC summit, the one by the Steering Committee could not be held that week as its Chairman, Foreign Secretary Kohona was touring Ukraine.

Here are some of the more significant matters discussed by the Indian delegation: POLITICAL PROPOSALS TO END THE ETHNIC CONFLICT: The Indian team expressed the view that the All Party Representative (APRC) Committee is moving far too slowly. They had referred to recent remarks made by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva that the APRC was a waste of time. Reference had also been made to Mr. Bogollagama’s remarks urging India not to delve in Sri Lankan affairs.

The visiting delegation had drawn reference to the statement issued by their Government soon after the interim report of the APRC was released in January, this year. India declared those proposals as a “welcome first step” and urged the Government to move ahead with forward thinking proposals. They also sought Government views on the much touted “southern consensus” amidst fears that priority may be shifting to “divisive politics.” Talks also revolved on the non implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Indian delegation had discreetly advised the Government to allow the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) into the APRC only after their weapons were decommissioned. ECONOMIC ISSUES: Matters arising out of Petroleum Resources Minister, A.H.M. Fowzie’s threat to take over all Lanka-India Oil Corporation (LIOC) fuel outlets were raised. The delegation wanted to make sure Indian companies were not made scapegoats in crisis involving energy or food matters. They feared this would force a different turn on bilateral relations. There had also been discreet exchange of views on the economic involvements coming from China, Iran and Malaysia.

DEFENCE PROCUREMENTS: The delegation had inquired about Sri Lanka’s continuing procurements from Pakistan and China. They also inquired whether such matters were also being pursued with Iran. Due to the sensitivities in India, the delegation had expressed the view that Sri Lanka should strengthen defence co-operation with India. This would have to include delivering on other fronts, both political and economic. The Sri Lanka side had asked India for some “defensive” equipment promised earlier
SECURITY SITUATION: The delegation ascertained whether the intensifying military campaign against Tiger guerrillas is resulting in retaliatory strikes and security lapses. They also inquired about the difficulties in making the rest of Sri Lanka (besides the troubled North) safe. They were to express serious concern over the flow of Sri Lankan refugees to India. Another aspect was the hardships caused to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka including those in the plantation sector due to stringent security operations throughout the country. They were suffering many hardships.

The delegation wanted to be briefed on the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. This was done at the Ministry of Defence by both the Commander of the Army, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. SAARC SUMMIT IN COLOMBO: The delegation noted that there have been either attacks or discovery of weapons, bombs or improvised explosive devices in every potential SAARC venue identified earlier like Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. After Colombo was identified as the venue, there have been explosions in and around the City. Though Mount Lavinia had been earmarked for the summit retreat for heads of state attending the SAARC, there had been attacks in that vicinity.

The team urged the Government to provide proper environment and security for the SAARC summit. They said this was essential since India is concerned of any possible lapses. This is not only for their delegation but also for others such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal. This was particularly out of concern that an Indian connection would certainly be concocted in the event any unfortunate incident were to occur.

The Indian delegation wanted the Government of Sri Lanka to be very mindful of New Delhi’s sensitivities. This is taking into consideration what has been going on in the past, particularly since January this year. If this situation continued, they had explained the difficulties they would encounter in getting the “highest level” Indian delegation to attend the SAARC summit. They want an improvement in the ground situation. Among the factors highlighted by them:

• The ongoing military campaign in the north and resultant threats elsewhere.
• The security situation in the south.
• The absence of a “southern consensus” through the APRC.
• Feared accusations against India over political and economic issues. References to statements by Ministers Rohita Bogollagama, Nimal Siripala de Silva and A.H.M. Fowzie and whether the trend would intensify.
• Unhealthy relations with the international Community over human rights and a growing list of other issues.

However, in some official quarters in Colombo questions are being asked whether the Indian Government wants to hold on to the SAARC chairmanship. It will pass on to Sri Lanka only after the summit in Colombo in late July.

Visits by foreign dignitaries to Sri Lanka have always been followed with photo opportunities and news releases extolling the actions of the Sri Lanka Government. However, it was different this time.

One high ranking official who did not wish to be identified said Sri Lanka was not comfortable with the sudden visit of the Indian team. He said the mood that would reflect “we told the fellows off” was absent. He said there have been questions that propped up at brainstorming sessions. “Do we do some temporary thing to over ride the gathering clouds until we hold SAARC – which we can use for our future promotional endeavours? – or, “do we figure out a way to constructively engage our big neighbour for the long haul?” He said the “storming” still continues. So does the uncertainty.

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