India to help remake northern Sri Lanka

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : As it steps up pressure on Sri Lanka to halt killings of civilians in its war zone, India is preparing a major reconstruction package for the island nation’s troubled north.

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After initially keeping mum even at the cost of alienating a traditionally friendly ethnic group, New Delhi has given up its policy of not speaking out publicly against Colombo by repeatedly calling for an end to Tamil civilian suffering that has caused global outrage.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has in recent days urged Sri Lanka to ensure that Tamil civilians trapped in the northern war zone were not targeted in the fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the military.

“Please make a distinction between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and Tamil civilians,” Mukherjee said Saturday, betraying a degree of impatience vis-�-vis Colombo. He was speaking at a meeting of thousands of Congress activists and leaders that included party president Sonia Gandhi.

Also, Mukherjee and other government and Congress leaders repeatedly describe the LTTE as terrorist to politically puncture street protests in Tamil Nadu in support of the group. The term also pleases Colombo.

At the same time, in the calculation that the LTTE will never be able to bounce back militarily to its original self, India is putting together a major package for Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority north in a bid to boost economic activity in a region that has seen virtually no development for decades.

To begin with, India proposes to clean up Kankesanthurai port in Jaffna peninsula. The rehabilitation of the Palali air base in Jaffna is to be speeded up. There will be much more, worth millions of rupees.

The Indian government began going public over Sri Lanka after realising that the military appeared to have crossed the red line vis-�-vis the civilian population in Mullaitivu district where large numbers of men, women and children are holed up in a small area still held by the LTTE.

Rights groups, diplomats and fleeing Tamils have alleged that scores of civilians have been killed and seriously wounded as troops pound suspected LTTE positions in Mullaitivu.

Even designated “safe zones” have not been spared, fuelling disgust. A hospital has also been hit. This has not gone down well in New Delhi, which is otherwise sympathetic to Colombo.

Privately too, India has conveyed in unmistakable terms that Sri Lanka’s priority must be to protect the Tamil civilians. In India’s view, while civilian casualties will take place in any war, it cannot be accepted beyond a point.

The civilian plight has generated so much heat that India thinks that even the promised devolution of power in Sri Lanka can fall in place later.

Other countries are also pressing India to act. Dutch Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller telephoned Mukherjee Saturday. Erik Solheim, Norway’s former Special Envoy to Sri Lanka, met Indian leaders two days earlier.

India, however, has refused to lend its voice to calls for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka despite pressing Colombo last month to declare a limited truce to help Tamil civilians to leave the LTTE area. India seems to believe Colombo’s version that the LTTE will simply regroup if a truce takes effect.