Situation Report

30th June 1996

Diplomatic hotline defeats LTTE

By Iqbal Athas

What has remained a top secret both in Sri Lanka and across the Palk Straits in India for the past four months, was an urgent telephone call President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga made to then Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narasimha Rao.

The brief conversation had its immediate sequel. As the two leaders replaced the receivers of their telephones, the defence establishment in New Delhi went into full gear. That was on the immediate orders of ex-Premier Rao.

The result: a series of co-ordinated measures by New Delhi and Colombo within a matter of hours. That put paid to efforts by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to acquire millions of rupees worth of sophisticated military hardware. This acquisition, if not thwarted, could easily have thrust the ongoing separatist war to a more disastrous phase.

Even if high-ranking sources in New Delhi were willing to cite this interaction to illustrate close co-operation between India and Sri Lanka, they were equally reluctant to go into specifics in view of the sensitive details involved and the far-reaching consequences an exposure may cause.

But ex-Premier Rao's response had clearly underscored the close liaison between Colombo and New Delhi when the former's security interests were under threat.

Despite the ill effects of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the consequent induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in north and east Sri Lanka for nearly two years, there was no shift in the Indian attitude towards the LTTE. India had readily responded to an appeal from Sri Lanka for assistance and co-operation against LTTE maneuvers.

If that close relationship between the Congress Government in New Delhi and the PA Government in Colombo was crucial factor and a tower of strength for the latter, which has embarked on an unprecedented crackdown on the LTTE, the outcome of the Indian general election last May caused tense moments. The Congress Party was out of power.

Government leaders in Colombo waited anxiously as the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) formed a Government but lost a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. In this backdrop the United Front Government of Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, with an alliance that encompassed not only the Congress Party but also Tamil Nadu's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

As it won a confidence vote and thus demonstrated signs of remaining in power for a considerable length of time, if not its full tenure, PA leaders felt the need to move in immediately.

Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar shot off a message to his Indian counterpart Shri Inder Kumar Gujral, of his desire to visit New Delhi as early as possible. The response was immediate. He was called upon to name the dates. Mr. Kadirgamar picked on June 20 and 21, the two immediate days available soon after he ended an official visit to Indonesia.

Colombo's urgent desire to re-establish links with the new UF Government in New Delhi appeared most crucial on the security front than in other spheres like trade, economic and allied areas. This is not to say that other matters were to be ignored. But more urgently, there was the need for a closer rapport with the new regime, one where assistance would be only a telephone call way, if the need arose.

More particularly so in view of the hectic efforts now underway to rehabilitate and re-construct the Jaffna peninsula. The security forces have begun to dominate almost the entirety of the peninsula.

The larger number of the LTTE are in the Wanni and the defence establishment in Colombo felt the need to maintain the pressure on the LTTE. That meant preventing the Tigers from obtaining supplies from outside sources and thwarting any attempts to re-establish links across the Palk Straits.

Barely 24 hours before Mr. Kadirgamar arrived in Delhi, Foreign Minister Gujral outlined the United Front Government's attitude towards Sri Lanka to a three-member media delegation of which I was one. The others were veteran journalist Manik de Silva, former Editor of the Ceylon Daily News (now consultant) and Sarath Cooray, Editor of the Dinamina. The trio were on a ten-day visit following an invitation from the Government of India.

Speaking from his oak-panelled office in the External Affairs Ministry, Shri Gujral said Mr. Kadirgamar's visit, the first by a Foreign Minister since the UF Government was formed, was a "double assurance" that "our relations are strengthened further."

He was quick to allay fears about the DMK. "I can assure that whether the DMK there (in Tamil Nadu) or as a partner in the United Front, our outlook is the same. We want to have friendly relations with the Government and the people of Sri Lanka." In expressing these sentiments, Mr. Gujral said "I am voicing the view of the DMK. We are not supporting any secessionist militancy of insurgency."

I asked Shri Gujral about the possibility of security co-operation between India and Sri Lanka. He said "I will discuss with my colleague when he comes. So far as I am aware, I don't think there is any existing security arrangements between us."

Shri Ariff Khan, official spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry intervened to say there is no existing security arrangements between India and Sri Lanka.

Back in Colombo this week, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said he had discussed a wide range of matters with Foreign Minister Gujral. "Naturally it centered on security matters too. All I can say is they were warm, cordial and fruitful," Mr. Kadirgamar told me.

Mr. Kadirgamar and his official entourage arrived in New Delhi in the early hours of June 20 (Thursday) amidst one of the tightest security precautions launched in the India capital. The route from the Indira Gandhi International Airport to the city centre were heavily guarded. An armed Policemen stood guard almost every 50 yards and crack Black Cats commandos were assigned to protect him. Security measures denied Mr. kadirgamar, the luxury of star class hotels in New Delhi. Instead he was treated to the luxury and comfort of Hyderabad House, a state guest house.

His talks with Foreign Minister Gujral and Prime Minister Gowda saw the renewal of assurances of continued Indian support and co-operation to Sri Lanka. Mr. Kadirgamar also took the opportunity to call on Sonia Gandhi, wife of the assassinated Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The two spent considerable time discussing the political situation both in India and in Sri Lanka informally.

The fact that the LTTE's influence had declined at the centre in New Delhi considerably was apparent during conversations I had with senior defence, external affairs and other officials. One of them cited the February telephone conversation between ex-Premier Rao and President Kumaratunga to illustrate how well the New Delhi-Colombo axis on countering the LTTE worked.

Professor S.D. Muni, head of the School of International Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, a well informed authority on Indo-Sri Lanka relations, said that the LTTE made several overtures at the highest levels of the Government in New Delhi to forestall the Sri Lanka Army from launching Operation Riviresa - the three-stage military offensive (with several phases) which led to the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula. But all its effforts failed, he said.

The view was supported by Air Commodore (retd.) Jasjit Singh, Director of the prestigious Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. "They have lost their clout here," he said. The one time Director of Operations of the Indian Air Force said, "There is no more support for the LTTE here."

If that was the case the centre, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the LTTE does not appear to have lost its foothold totally.

One senior Police official conceded that "limited" boat movements across the Palk Straits continued. "We have made several detections. Cases are registered against them," he said. However, the official who did not wish to identify himself for obvious reasons said that boat movements were not as "heavy" as they were during the time the LTTE had a free run in the Tamil Nadu coast.

"There may be a few boat movements. You can't stop that. But they (the LTTE) have no place in Tamil Nadu now," argues Cho Ramaswamy, Editor of the well known Tamil political magazine "Thuklak".

Mr. Ramaswamy, one of India's well known script writers, satirist and film producers, is a close associate of DMK leader and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Dr. Muthuvelu Karunanidhi. He is widely credited as the man who put together S. Moopanar, C. Chidambaram and South Indian film idol Rajnikant as front runners for the DMK during the elections in May, this year.

Both Moopanar and Chidambaram quit the Congress Party after the party reached an alliance with former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jeyalalitha Jeyaram. Today both are Cabinet Ministers in the United Front Government. Mr. Moopanar is the Minister for Industries whilst Mr. Chidambaram holds the finance portfolio.

Mr. Ramaswamy was categoric that the DMK no longer had any ties with the LTTE. "They have lost the sympathy of the people of Tamil Nadu after Rajiv (Gandhi) assassination," he said.

He asserted that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Dr. Karunanidhi had no contact whatsoever with the LTTE and was "extremely careful" not to get involved in Sri Lankan affairs. "Of course he is concerned about the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamils and has time and again expressed the view that innocent Tamils should not suffer," he pointed out.

According to Mr. Ramaswamy, Chief Minister Dr. Karunanidhi, avoided meeting representatives from Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka for the same reason. He had not wanted to convey a wrong message and wished to stay clear.

But it was only last month that Dr. Karunanidhi had a lengthy meeting with C. Chandrahasan, son of the late S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. He sought and obtained the meeting with the Chief Minister to present a memorandum. Mr. Chandrahasan who lives in Madras is head of a self-styled Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation.

The outcome of this meeting came last week. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister ordered the immediate restoration of quotas for educational courses earmarked for children of Sri Lankan refugees in the field of engineering, medicine, agriculture and in polytechnics. This facility had been withdrawn during the tenure of Mr. Karunanidhi's predecessor, then Chief Minister, Jeyalalitha Jeyaram.

The Chief Minister's meeting with Mr. Chandrahasan, understandably, is on the matter of refugee welfare.

Both in New Delhi and in Madras, many government leaders and officials have spoken out emphatically about the new DMK regime in Tamil Nadu, asserted that they (the DMK) had no contacts with the LTTE and pledged they would not get involved in Sri Lankan affairs.

But not the Chief Minister, Dr. Muthuvelu Karunanidhi himself except for some brief remarks. Many in Sri Lanka would undoubtedly wish to hear the assurances in his own words, unequivocally setting out his position.

After all Dr. Karunanidhi is no ordinary man. In the past years he has had the dubious distinction of being titled the Godfather of the LTTE. He has had a substantial share of credit in LTTE becoming one of the world's most powerful guerrilla organisations.

Even if LTTE activity will be overtly absent in Madras film actors have come forth to re-live them on the celluloid scene. The latest is a move by leading Tamil Nadu actor, Mohan Lal to play the role of LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in a film on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Sadhashiv Amarpurkar, a known villain in Indian films, is being slated to portray Sivarasan. Interestingly the man is said to have a close resemblance to Sivarasan or "One Eyed Jack".

The New Delhi based United Television may want to shoot some scenes in Sri Lanka. But that again depends on Government permission. But some researchers may still come to unearth details.

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