Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sri Lanka Presents India Five Challenges

This analysis on Indian Challenges vis a vis Sri Lanka appeared first on the ORF website.

While most people in India would not be unhappy to see the Tamil Tigers, and particularly their boss, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, get their comeuppance, the situation does present some complications. New Delhi’s boilerplate declarations about a ‘peaceful solution acceptable to all’ mask the serious challenges that India faces as Colombo prepares for the final push against the Tigers.

New Delhi faces five challenges. First, it is deeply concerned over the spill over effects of the ethnic conflict in terms of the refugee inflow into the Indian mainland and the political ramifications in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India. Escalation of the conflict has resulted in the exodus of more than 20,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into India in the last two years. But this has tapered off over the last few months. It appears for the time being that Tamil civilians who are caught in the conflict are staying put in Sri Lanka as they are in restricted camps set up by the Sri Lankan government. Increased vigil on the India-Sri Lanka coastlines is also dissuading some. However, this situation may change if Colombo does not come out with a political solution once the military operations are over.
The second serious challenge is LTTE operations in and around India. LTTE activities in the Palk Bay are one cause for concern for India as Indian fishermen are often caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan Navy and the Sea Tigers. Another issue is that of LTTE sleeper cells in Tamil Nadu and possibly elsewhere. Most importantly, if the LTTE is defeated in Sri Lanka’s North East, they might want to continue the fight from Tamil Nadu, where they have a support base. This could, without doubt, have spillover effects on nascent Tamil nationalist movements in Tamil Nadu.
Third, the impact on Tamil Nadu politics could be significant. LTTE sympathisers, especially those active in Tamil Nadu politics, have already exploited the situation. Fear of agitation by these groups has meant that the Indian government has so far sent only relief and medical supplies to Sri Lanka. Despite requests from the Sri Lankan government for defense items, India has not supplied anything, though the Indian position has been to quietly support the Rajapakse Government. While it may be too early to say what effect the anger and resentment in Tamil Nadu will have on New Delhi, it could affect the formation of the next coalition government in Delhi. The loser in such coalition-building exercise would have an interest in stoking tensions.
The fourth challenge is of other countries meddling in Sri Lanka. India’s refusal to supply defence items to Colombo has forced it to look to Pakistan and China. Increasing defence cooperation between these countries would have adverse security implications for India. Pakistan has emerged as a major supplier of defence items, including tanks and light weapons. Additionally, Pakistani pilots are thought to have flown some of the precision strikes against the LTTE leadership. Pakistan has also been seeking to exploit the presence of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka’s East, building mosques in the region and activating fundamentalist groups there.
The increasing Chinese links with Sri Lanka are also not in Indian security interests. China is engaged in a series of infrastructure and port development projects in Sri Lanka. Of most consequence is the development of the Hambantota port, where China could possibly set up listening-posts that could be activated in times of conflict in the future. The second aspect relates to China’s defence cooperation with Sri Lanka. The warehouse of the Chinese arms supplier, Norinco, in Galle is a case in point. Sri Lanka has a credit line and its forces are permitted to take items from the warehouse as and when they need it. Lastly, there is a trilateral partnership between Sri Lanka, Pakistan and China, which is detrimental to Indian interests. The commonality of defence equipment among them has increased defence interaction between them.
Because of the election season in India, it is unlikely that New Delhi will take major initiatives. Post-election coalition politics is also likely to affect Indian options. However things turn out in New Delhi, the next Indian administration will have some serious challenges to face in Sri Lanka.

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