Home India News Colombo somersault marks India’s Sri Lanka dilemma

Colombo somersault marks India’s Sri Lanka dilemma

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

New Delhi : Sri Lanka’s embarrassing denial of its own claim that it had formed a military panel with India comes at a time when the island nation is finding itself in knots as it grapples with the unending ethnic conflict.

In an admission of a diplomatic goof up, the presidential secretariat in Colombo said Sunday that it erroneously reported that an India-Sri Lanka defence committee was set up following high-level discussions in New Delhi earlier this month.

The secretariat made the original claim Sep 6 following talks a three-member delegation from Colombo had with officials in New Delhi, including National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, on the volatile situation in Sri Lanka.

Taking part in the meetings were Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse, who spearheads the war against the Tamil Tigers, as well as Basil

Rajapakse and Lalitha Weeratunga, both trusted aides of President Mahinda Rajapakse. The Rajapakses are brothers.

India maintained a silence on the Sep 3-4 meetings. But once Colombo unilaterally announced that a defence committee had been constituted, comprising the three men who visited India besides Narayanan and the Indian foreign and defence secretaries, New Delhi issued a hasty rebuttal.

By then Gothabaya and Basil Rajapakse had returned to Sri Lanka. Weeratunga had, however, stayed on in India meeting a wide variety of officials in the Indian government. He flew back to Colombo Sep 7 after a quick trip to the hill town of Mussoorie.

Sri Lanka’s eventual denial Sunday said its initial statement, which had been ironically credited to diplomatic sources, was based on “incorrect interpretation of the information” that flowed from the New Delhi dialogue.

Despite the denial, an informed source told IANS that the meetings were “extremely constructive” and that “there is reasonable convergence of views” between the two sides notwithstanding persisting different perceptions.

Narayanan’s meetings with the Rajapakse brothers and Weeratunga – who matter more than any minister in Sri Lanka — followed conflicting signals that have confused many in India on what really Colombo intends to do vis-à-vis the ethnic conflict that has left tens of thousands dead.

This month, President Rajapakse said in an interview distributed by IANS that he was opposed to Tamil demands for a federal government and to India’s advocacy of a merger of the north and east of Sri Lanka to form a single Tamil-majority province.

A top Indian official had told a delegation of MPs from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which supports the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), some months ago that New Delhi would do its best to ensure that the northeast remains united.

Rajapakse’s remarks came even as an all-party panel was preparing its final report on the powers that can be devolved to provinces in Sri Lanka. Rajapakse has earlier said that he was ready to accept whatever suggestions the committee came up with for power sharing.

There is also disquiet on the aggressive military approach to the conflict that often seemingly draws no dividing line between the LTTE and Tamil civilians causing massive civilian suffering. Many international actors share this assessment.

India has also been kept informed of the political situation in Sri Lanka by opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a frequent visitor to India who has now joined forces with former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, a foe turned friend.

The Rajapakse-Wickremesinghe war precludes any Sinhalese consensus so vital to politically deal with the increasingly complex Tamil problem. It also provides ground for serious political instability in Colombo.

Amid the mess, even moderate Tamils complain that New Delhi appears unable to prevail upon Sri Lankan leaders to act like national rather than Sinhalese politicians.

And a senior Indian official who visited Colombo recently has submitted a report to the government that it would be best for New Delhi not to get caught up in the ethnic conflict unless Sri Lankan leaders come up with a viable long-term political solution.