The scenario was all too reminiscent of the events between May to June 1987. Then the Army had launched "Operation Liberation" to regain total control of the Tiger guerrilla-dominated Jaffna peninsula.
The then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, telephoned the then Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene to warn of the consequences. The military offensive stopped. Indian ships came loaded with food on July 3, 1987 but were turned away. The next day came the infamous "parippu drop" where Indian Air Force aircraft threw food stocks from the sky over the peninsula. The events paved the way for the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987.
Twenty-one years later, similar scenes are being re-enacted. This time it comes as troops are battling at the doorstep of guerrilla strongholds. Of great significance is the fighting to regain control of Kilinochchi, until recently the centre of political power of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Seizing Kilinochchi would signal the beginning of the end for them. The fall of neighbouring Mullaitivu, the only remaining bastion, would thus be quicker. Of course, a time limit cannot be placed. Troops are fighting heavy battles despite stiff guerrilla resistance.
Last Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed "serious concern" over developments in Sri Lanka. He said the human rights of Tamils should be respected. Pointing out that there was no military solution to the ethnic conflict, Singh accused Sri Lanka of killing Indian fishermen. His reference was over last week's death of an Indian fisherman in the Palk Straits. India accused the Sri Lanka Navy. However, the Navy denied the charge prompting a behind-the-scenes diplomatic row. His remarks came hours after Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi "resigned" from the Rajya Sabha. She handed in her resignation to her father and not to the Speaker. Four more DMK Rajya Sabha members followed suit on Thursday night. Political parties in Tamil Nadu who met on Tuesday decided to resign their seats if the centre in New Delhi did not take action. On Friday, 15 DMK members of Lok Sabha including seven Cabinet Ministers also gave their letters of resignation to Karunanidhi. They have given the Congress Government a two-week ultimatum. If there is no action by the Government of India when it ends on October 29, Karunanidhi in turn would hand over the en-masse resignations to the Speakers of Rajya and Lok Sabhas.
These developments saw President Rajapaksa trying to reach Premier Singh on the telephone in New Delhi. However, he was not available. Rajapaksa also hurriedly summoned an All-Party Conference on October 8. He was quick to assure that "our brothers and sisters" in the north, or the Tamil community, would soon have the problems they face alleviated. This is with the defeat of terrorism perpetrated by the guerrillas.
Yet, unlike the J.R. Jayewardene administration in 1987, Rajapaksa's immediate response was a strong one. The main news bulletin of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation last Thursday reflected the mood. The full text of the report appeared in the SLBC website. This site, which boasts of over 1.4 million hits, had the following account in its own English:
"President Mahinda Rajapaksa has informed the Indian Government that Sri Lanka is not ready to stop Wanni operations or to implement a ceasefire as demanded by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and pro-LTTE politicians. The President underscores the Government has no intention to go to a ceasefire at a time where the LTTE leader has sent his suicide bombers to assassinate the leadership of the three forces including himself and the defence secretary. President Rajapaksa has made this statement in reply to the demand made by the chief minister of Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi to stop Wanni operations within two weeks and to implement a ceasefire.
"He has questioned Indian officials should the Sri Lankan Government stop the Wanni operation to help the suicide bombers of the LTTE who are in Colombo to achieve their tasks easily. Sri Lanka is a sovereign country. The government emphasises Wanni operations cannot be stopped by politicians of Tamil Nadu. Furthermore the LTTE has launched a conspiracy against Sri Lankan government and its forces. Therefore, the Government requests Indian officials to be mislead by the conspiracy. It further adds government has taken every possible measure to provide relief to displaced in Wanni."
This SLBC news bulletin was the talking point in Colombo's diplomatic community on Thursday. Some opined that President Rajapaksa had answered even issues raised by Premier Singh without making any pointed reference to him. Others said Karunanidhi's actions and remarks did not warrant a response by the Sri Lankan President. This is on the grounds that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's comments did not constitute the official response of the Government of India. Even if it did, in terms of protocol, yet others argued, it did not merit a Presidential reply.
Interesting enough, within hours of the news report being posted on the SLBC website, it had disappeared. Reports said it was pulled out on instructions from officials at the Presidential Secretariat. The timing seemed to suggest there was a thawing of the strong stance. In the dovecotes of power, there was re-thinking with the focus on a need to go soft and mend fences with India. With this in mind, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in India, Romesh Jayasinghe, was summoned to Colombo for consultations a few days ago.
Hurried preparations were made for Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa to travel to India for a meeting with National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan and other senior officials. A meeting with Prime Minister Singh had also been sought. He was to be accompanied by Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama and Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). But later the composition of the team changed and Basil Rajapaksa is likely to go with Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The idea was to politely explain the Government's position and assure New Delhi that the Government was making a clear distinction between the guerrillas and Tamil civilians.
However, the delegation has been delayed. New Delhi is not prepared to receive them immediately. They have said that an official team from Pakistan was now in India and hence senior officials, including Mr. Narayanan, were too busy. That delegation was due to leave for New Delhi yesterday. Government sources say they expect an Indian response anytime so they could fly out immediately. Amidst this, High Commissioner Jayasinghe was summoned to India's External Affairs Ministry by Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon on Friday to be told of India's "grave concern" over the "plight of Tamil civilians in the Wanni." In turn, in Colombo, India's High Commissioner Alok Prasad also called on Foreign Minister Bogollagama to express similar concerns.
If indeed a Pakistani delegation was in India, the fact that the Rajapaksa administration had much easier access to the political establishment and officialdom in New Delhi was well known. As one Foreign Ministry official declared "we had to board an aircraft and only tell them we are coming. They would be ready to receive us. But things appear to have changed."
The remarks underscored the growing strain in ties between Colombo and New Delhi. President Rajapaksa has publicly declared on many occasions that India had helped his administration in fighting Tiger guerrilla terror. It is no secret that assistance in the form of security related information has been readily forthcoming from New Delhi. In addition, Indian Air Force technicians had been assigned to conduct round-the-clock maintenance work on the 2-D radar gifted by the Government of India. Their presence became public after the LTTE attack on the Security Forces Headquarters in Vavuniya in August this year. Two of them were injured.
Even before Tamil Nadu politicians erupted in anger against Sri Lanka prompting Premier Singh to voice "serious concern" over developments in Sri Lanka, there has been displeasure in the highest echelons of power in India. It was mainly over the Government's reported inability to follow its dual track approach in keeping with repeated assurances given to India. One was the formulation of political proposals to end the ethnic conflict. The other was the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas. This displeasure was reflected when Premier Singh did not meet with President Rajapaksa when the two were in New York to take part in the United Nations General Assembly sessions.
Yet, the Government remained content. India's High Commissioner Alok Prasad, widely viewed in Government circles as one of Rajapaksa administration's staunchest backers, had been repeatedly re-assuring New Delhi's support. He was regarded particularly as a close ally of Basil Rajapaksa. However, things have not been smoother over some issues. According to a source at the Presidential Secretariat, during a meeting with Rajapaksa, Prasad had among other matters, requested his Government to distance itself from remarks made by Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. The Army Commander had told the National Post newspaper in Canada in an interview that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese. Rajapaksa was in no mood to rebuke his Army Commander who was delivering him victory after victory in the war against the guerrillas.
It is against this backdrop, National Security Advisor Narayanan summoned Sri Lanka's acting High Commissioner in New Delhi Palitha Ganegoda to his office. He was told that the Sri Lankan security forces needed to act with greater restraint and address the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians. An External Affairs Ministry statement after the event said, "the escalation of hostilities in the North and the resultant fall out was leading to a great deal of concern in India."
A Press Trust of India news report said the NSA's move came after Prime Minister Singh assured Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi that his Government would take all steps to stop the "genocide" of Tamils in Sri Lanka. PTI quoted a Tamil Nadu Government press release to say Karunanidhi had discussed the Sri Lankan issue during a telephone conversation with the Indian Premier.
On Tuesday, representatives of Tamil Nadu political parties led by the DMK, a constituent partner in the Congress Government, decided to resign their seats from Parliament within two weeks. This is if the central government did not take any action. Three political parties, however, did not take part in the conference.
Karunanidhi announced on Thursday that as a follow up to the resolutions adopted by the all-party meeting a big human chain will be organised in Chennai on October 21. He has called upon people from all districts to take part in this event. Reports from India said the film industry has also joined the campaign. They have decided to suspend film shooting for three days beginning October 17. Those in the film industry are also organising a rally in the south Indian coastal town of Rameshwaram today.
If as planned, MPs of Tamil Nadu resign from the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, the ruling Congress Government would be in greater turmoil. It may necessitate the conduct of parliamentary elections earlier than expected. In such an event, the Sri Lankan crisis will undoubtedly form an election issue where the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vying with each other to win votes with new promises over Sri Lanka. Such a move will not only be detrimental to the Rajapaksa administration but Sri Lanka as a whole.
The situation in Sri Lanka was the subject of a debate in Britain's House of Commons on Tuesday. Michael Foster, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for International Development said the situation in Sri Lanka was grave. As the intensity of the fighting had risen, he said, the space in which humanitarian agencies could operate had been constricted. Both the Government and the LTTE must ensure that humanitarian agencies may have full access to civilians in need of support and respect their neutrality, he said.
Foster said that in areas under LTTE control, there is no tolerance for dissent or freedom of expression. The LTTE needs to develop its role as a credible partner for peace. Similarly, he said, in the south, there have been restrictions on the freedom of expression, with journalists and newspaper distribution agents intimidated and sometimes killed. Three democratically elected MPs have been killed in the past few years, and many ordinary people have been reported as disappeared or have been simply killed, he added.
Even the European Union, Foster declared, "notes with concern the trend in attacks and threats on journalists, civil society organisations and lawyers. As far back as 2006, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was sufficiently concerned to call on the international community to monitor the unfolding human rights situation, suggesting that the events were not merely ceasefire violations, but grave breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law. That situation remains."
Joan Ryan (Enfield North) who successfully sought the debate declared: "That the press is not free in Sri Lanka is well known. Dissenting voices are frequently subject to harassment, physical attacks and even assassination.
I spoke with a number of aid agency representatives. I was shocked but not surprised by their reluctance to speak out publicly."
Andrew George (St. Ives): "I went to Sri Lanka in early April and was privileged to visit the north of the country. When the President came to this country in June, I had the opportunity to ask him about the role of the Sri Lankan and International NGOs and human rights monitors. His attitude worries me. He believes that the majority of Sri Lanka based NGOs are in fact fronts for the Tamil Tigers, and that the international NGOs and human rights monitors are involved in gun-running for them. If that is the attitude of the Sri Lanka Government, does the Minister agree that the international community needs to be a great deal more forthright to ensure proper monitoring of aid and humanitarian relief?"
Whilst the Rajapaksa administration is embarking on measures to quickly repair strains in the relations between Colombo and New Delhi, a section of his Government is proposing another session of the All-Party Conference. This time, it is to resolve that India should not interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. The promoters of this move say it would be a fitting response to the all-party meet where Karunanidhi and his colleagues adopted a resolution giving a two-week ultimatum to the central government. It ends on October 29. The future of the Congress Government now hinges on that. For a Government in Sri Lanka that had cherished Indian support, New Delhi's backing and blessings would no doubt be a sine qua non. However, the question is whether the Government could afford to pay a heavy price for it.
Yesterday, President Rajapaksa finally touched base with Prime Minister Singh. Rajapaksa asked Singh on the telephone to send his Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherkjee to Sri Lanka for discussions. According to the Presidential Secretariat, the discussions on the phone were "frank and cordial". Rajapaksa must not under-estimate the pressure Singh is under should the Karunanidhi block pull out of the coalition Government in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Secretariat has invited a whole host of retired Indian top-rungers to the launch of a new friendship society with 45 founder-members from the two countries. The group, which included former Indian President Abdul Kalam, former Indian Foreign Secretary K.P.S. Menon, etc., met yesterday at Temple Trees, as a People-to-People exercise. The media were kept out of the event, for what reason that was, no-one knows, but it would appear that the Government was now desperately trying to reach out to the Indian Intelligensia in a bid to smoothen relations between the two countries.