Global Geopolitics Net
Monday, June 16, 2008

© Copyright 2008 Malladi Rama Rao. All rights reserved.

By M Rama Rao
Delhi based journalist

Every time I look at the map of Sri Lanka I wonder what has gone wrong with Sri Lankan diplomacy. They have a wonderful case to tell the world about the terrorism threat they have at their door step. But they have miserably failed to utilise the post-9/11 sentiment to their advantage.

In fact the map also makes me curse Indian obduracy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.

Over the past sixty-years, India has been experiencing insurgency in its Northeastern region. There are more than one insurgent group in each of the six-states that comprise northeast India and the people, at least by their physical features are more close to the south-east Asians. Yet, Delhi has allowed itself to look at Jaffna from Chennai prism. Allowed itself to be led by Karunanidhis, Vaikos, Subramanian Swamis, B Ramans and Hariharans. And thereby made a mess of its Sri Lanka policy.

Whatever be the prescriptions of egg-heads in Delhi, Colombo and Washington, - not necessarily in that order – one reality the world should come to grips as quickly as possible is the fact that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are a dangerous terrorist organisation and that there are more than one Mata Haris in the world determined to exploit the situation to their own geo-strategic and geo-political imperatives.

LTTE currently administers some of the land claimed for Tamil Eelam – the district of Kilinochchi, most of Mullaitivu district and parts of Vavuniya and Mannar districts. Its foot soldiers are armed to teeth. It has a naval wing. Air wing too. And a satellite TV channel to boot. This is a situation no sovereign government worth its salts can countenance at any time. Certainly not the United States. Undoubtedly India as well.

So much so, the Rajapakse government cannot be faulted for deploying army in the North of Sri Lanka with the objective of driving out the Tamil Tigers. Whether military operations could bring a solution to an essentially political issue is a good topic for discussion in an air conditioned seminar hall. Not in the world of realpolitik.


New Delhi cannot justifiably raise a finger at Colombo. Because it has deployed its security forces in Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland- all in its northeast corner. Indian Air Force planes strafed Aizawl town in the sixties when rebels reared their head in what was a district of Assam and declared independent Mizoram.

That rebellion was primarily due to the insensitivity of the establishment. Rice is the staple diet of local tribals. They lost their food crop. As famine stalked their tongue shaped district, Delhi despatched wheat, which they fed to pigs and took to guns. Army moved a Mountain Division to quell insurgency. Death danced in the streets of Aizawl for close to two decades thereafter. Now Mizoram is an oasis of peace in an otherwise turbulent neighbourhood. How it has come about is a lesson as much in statecraft as good governance.

Neighbouring Manipur is still on the boil. The provincial government is arming villagers. Weapons are for self-defence, officials argue but the move is a desperate attempt in restoring peace by an administration which remains clueless on what it should do to win the confidence of the people and at the same time uphold the rule of law. Both Nagaland and Assam have elected governments. But their writ doesn’t run beyond the towns. Bomb blasts, shoot outs and curfew are the staple news from these three states.


What I am trying to say? Well, my case is that India cannot expect a new yardstick when it comes to Sri Lanka’s north and northeast. India also must realise that there is no danger of igniting Tamil nationalism in Tamilnadu. Dravidian nationalism is a concept. At best an intellectual concept. As several experts have pointed out, India had displayed no interest in the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic question till early 1980s. It did not act as if it is the sole voice of Tamils in and outside India. This is clear from the attention Delhi had paid only towards the plantation labourers who went to Lanka from South India.

Agreed, every time there is trouble in Northern Sri Lanka, droves of Tamils make their way to Mandapam and Ramanathapuram. This has been the experience of Tamilnadu in the past two decades. It is normal for people in trouble spots to exit to the nearest safe haven. In the case of Sri Lankan Tamils, Southern Tamilnadu is the nearest shore. But that situation is not comparable to East Pakistan in 1971.

The nuanced statements from Chief Minister Karunanidhi clearly show that the DMK patriarch is aware of this truism of modern world. He and other Tamilnadu politicians also are aware of another truism even if they feel shy of openly admitting it – namely V Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo, considers himself the sole arbitrator of the destiny of Sri Lanka Tamilians; that he will not countenance opposition, much less a challenge to his authority.


As India’s experience shows, Prabhakaran is a slippery customer. He is on a single point agenda. Obviously, the IPKF mission gave him more confidence (over confidence…?) to pursue his goal dangling the gun all the way. This is one reason why the Norway brokered peace process had failed. That Colombo contributed no less to the peace failure and that Norway was not an honest broker is neither here nor there.

The point is it is difficult to talk to Prabhakaran. I don’t think Tamil Diaspora alone is responsible for his intransigency. They are no doubt his biggest asset for a variety of reasons. One reason, as a study by the Mackenzie Institute (Other People’s Wars: A review of Overseas Terrorism in Canada) points out, is the Tigers’ hold over a large section of Tamil immigrants. It has come through its ‘people smuggling activities, a key industry for LTTE’.

Terrorism and crime have a natural partnership in so far the LTTE is concerned and it’s a surprise that successive governments in Colombo have failed to expose this link. May be they were pre-occupied with pinpricks from Delhi and their own game of needling Delhi as perfected by Premadasas and Jaywardanes. If the policy makers in Colombo care to read Chapter Five of the Mackenzie Institute Review they will find more powerful ammunition to blast to smitten the LTTE myth than the bombs from Pak Ordinance Factories in their stores.

Also, I believe it is time Colombo stands up to the human rights bullies. It should tell the AIs, HRWs and US State Department that human rights cannot be the sole concern of state players in a war theatre. The Human Rights Reports are no more than glorified compilations of news paper reports. That the media in Sri Lanka (for that matter in India too) is highlighting human rights abuses shows that the government of the day is being made accountable unlike the non-state actors who are getting away without even a reprimand.

While on the issue of arms procurement, I don’t think New Delhi can be and should be hyper-sensitive. I also don’t believe that a case can be made against Colombo vis-à-vis Delhi. India is unwilling to give any weapons that it classifies as offensive. That limits scope to radars and the like.

As a sovereign nation, Sri Lanka has every right to buy arms from wherever it is possible. Should it be sensitive to the Indian concerns? Well, both countries are natural allies. They have so much in common that binds them with the past, present and the future. Yet, this is a question that cannot hope to get a categorical yes or no for a reply. All depends on the circumstances and on the situations as any student of modern diplomacy knows.

Nevertheless, Shuja Nawaz’s tome ‘Crossed Swords’ is a must read to understand that there are many grey areas in geo-political and geo-strategic situation. Presently based in the US (Alexandria, Virginia), Shuja is a Pakistan journalist, who worked with Pakistan Television, The New York Times, and the World Bank. Writing about the ISI’s Islamist bent (Page 467), he says, ISI had established contacts with Tamil extremists and set up a gun running operation and other fund raising activities in Bangkok..


In a manner of speaking, this is no new revelation. There have been reports in Indian and American media over the past two –three years that ISI was penetrating the Lankan Tamil groups and was searching for collaborative Islamists. It was a part of Operation Hurt India, according to Shuja Nawaz, whose work is considered as ‘definitive’, and ‘profound’ on the nature and role of Pakistan Army in the country’s polity as well as its turbulent relationship with the United States.

In the light of this book, my Asian Tribune report (March 31, 2008) that said Pakistan is the new Mata Hari in Sri Lanka makes eminent sense though at the time the despatch appeared it was laced with skepticism. Israelis too were friendly to Colombo and the Tigers. Mossad had trained both the Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE simultaneously in adjacent locations in the city of Haifa ‘without each other’s knowledge’ in the early nineties.

It is the turn of China to play Mata Hari in Sri Lanka, if one goes by the latest Jane’s Intelligence Review ( May 2008). Again, as I said in the case of Pakistan vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, this is not a new development.

Peter Leitner, President, Higgins Counter-terrorism Research Centre and Professor at the National Centre for Bio-defence at George Mason University, said as early as last year that LTTE is getting weapons from China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and some other sources. He said while most armaments are obtained by forged or adapted end-user certificates, the LTTE arms transport is ‘the largest quantity of armaments ever transported by a non-state armed group’.

Defencewire reported much earlier on October 26, 2007 that Chinese arms are in LTTE hands (

Featuring a photo of Tigers brandishing ‘nothing but Chinese weapons’, the Defencewire wrote: “Those weapons are all Chinese and seem to be directly imported from China through Burma or Chinese weapons bought and resold by the Burmese Junta. There is a high likelihood that NORICO- China North Industries Corporation, a state-run company, is selling the weapons and using the Burmese route to sell such weapons to the LTTE……. Unlike in the weapons manufactured in the West, many of these Chinese firearms don’t have serial numbers and are therefore very difficult to trace without any records available of their manufacture, purchase or eventual destination”.

This report should have forced a re-think on Colombo. It did not. The past six-seven months have seen China and Sri Lanka coming closer in fact. That is surprising because Jane’s writes: “Chinese –manufactured munitions have also played an important role in the conflict in Sri Lanka. Both of China’s leading state-owned arms corporations, NORINCO and Poly Technologies, have long been a major supplier to the Sri Lanka government. Recent Photographs of rebel troops available on pro-LTTE websites show a range of evidently new Chinese weaponry including the modern 5.56 mm QBZ-95 bullpup-design assault rifle, which cannot have been captured from government forces. However, far more important for the group has been the purchase of ammunition for heavier weapons such as mortars and artillery pieces”.


Frankly, China selling arms to insurgent groups is not new. China has been a big player in the field long before the Asian Arms Black Market emerged in Bangkok. India’a Naga and Mizo rebels sourced their weapons from China in the fifties and sixties. These days ULFA of Assam, NSCN-(I/M) of Nagaland and Burmese outfits are getting Chinese weapons either directly or through a third party on land and maritime routes. While the ULFA and Naga deals can at best be attributed to the lows in India-China relations, the question that arises is why this Mata Hari business with Sri Lanka, which has been courting China. Also for that matter with Burma. To paraphrase what Ross H. Munro, a China analyst with Centre for Security Studies, Washington, says, ‘China is having its cake and eating it too’.

It is tempting to look at the Chinese arms business through the prism of regional power play. Says Amit Kumar, an Associate Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation: “China is making a sagacious move in India’s backyard in order to enhance its influence in the Indian Ocean region”.

Writing in the South Asia Monitor (March 2008), Kumar argues, “After Gwadar and Sittwe, Beijing is seeking to further consolidate its presence in Indian Ocean through Hambantota (port in Sri Lanka). Chinese plans for Sri Lanka should thus be treated as part of its larger strategy of building a circle of road-and-port connections in India's neighbourhood, with an eye of strategic dominance over the Indian Ocean region. Some months back, Sri Lanka allocated an exploration block in the Mannar Basin to China for exploring oil resources. More than the oil business, the immediate fall out of this decision is the Chinese presence just a few miles away from India's southern tip, which is sufficient enough to cause discomfort ( to India)”

ISN Security Watch columnist Kirk M Shoemaker has his own spin (May 9, 2008). “Sri Lanka's weapons procurement via Chinese arms deals, although important, is only a segment of Chinese interaction in Sri Lanka. China is increasing the volume of its investments there, and in 2007 Chinese assistance grew five-fold to nearly US$1 billion, surpassing Japan, Sri Lanka's formerly largest economic supporter”.

He goes on to point out “The Chinese are in competition for Sri Lanka due to the island's strategic location near important shipping routes. China sees these sea lanes as vital because its energy supplies pass through the Indian Ocean region. Sri Lanka's proximity to the Indian mainland is also attractive. Chinese analysts appear to view India as a future competitor and advocate a comprehensive strategy focusing on containing Indian influence. Such a strategy will utilize economic tools such as aid, trade and infrastructural development as well as enhanced military cooperation with pro-China countries like Sri Lanka”.


Difficult to disagree with Kirk’s prognosis. Also difficult to find fault with the Chinese and their strategy. But another facet of Chinese arms diplomacy should force one wear a thinking cap. ‘Taleban is getting Chinese arms’, Paul Danahar of BBC reported on September 3, 2007. His despatch said, “Britain has privately complained to Beijing that Chinese-made weapons are being used by the Taleban to attack British troops in Afghanistan”. Afghan officials have also privately confirmed to the BBC that sophisticated Chinese weapons are now in the hands of the Taleban.

Now Jane’s provides corroborative in puts. “Since the revival of their campaign in 2003, Taliban forces in Afghanistan have also been gaining access to a significant flow of Chinese small-arms and ammunition across either Iranian or Pakistani territory …. Greater concern has been aroused by the appearance of Chinese HN-5 MAN-PADS, which were not known to be in the Taliban’s inventory prior to US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001”

Legitimate is to question Jane’s conclusion because China has its own Islmist jihadis – Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province bordering Pakistan and Central Asia. Probably, China would like to keep the Taliban in good humour as Pakistan has failed to check forays of militants into Xinjiang. Also attacks on Chinese working in Pakistan. This is a much complex issue and deserves a separate focus some other time. Suffice to say that the proxy enterprise of Chinese arms merchants in Talibanised Afghanistan has become a complication for Kabul and Washington alike.

One may ask if India could train LTTE and arm Sri Lanka, why not others do the same rope trick. I was clean bowled when a foreign journalist, who like me was covering the ‘ill-famous’ aid flotilla to Sri Lanka in 1987 (Rajiv Gandhi government had sent accompanied by a plane load of Indian and foreign journalists), asked me as our ship set sail towards Sri Lankan waters. I fumbled for words then. Now too, I have no answer. I am sure many Indian commentators will find it difficult to answer this barb. Let us face it. What India could do with LTTE years ago, others could do now, may be to its dismay, as state policy.

But the commentators will do to appreciate one basic difference, as I see it, between India and other regional players - big and small. India has no expansionist plan. Nor is it known to impose its writ. Sri Lanka knows this from the IPKF experience. Whether it is fumbling or bumbling, it is a democracy. Government has to face the accountability test every five years or more often.

Also the infamous exercise of arming/ training LTTE is old hat. In fact, that phase had lost relevance even as a discussion tool after the IPKF entered the scene. Any how Colombo was no innocent bystander. President Premadasa and LTTE closed ranks against the IPKF. The situation changed after 1991 when the LTTE became a proscribed outfit…. Well, this is not the case with either China or Pakistan. While China is looking for a long term foot-hold in the island, Pakistan is playing for short term stakes. Both are trying to, to use a hackneyed expression, fish in troubled Sri Lankan waters.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue is a political problem. Like India has realised in its quest for peace in its Northeast, political problems demand political solutions and these can come through dialogue. Not through bullets. Solutions can come to vexed political issues when those in authority are willing to meet the aspirations of the minority. And make it doubly sure that the majority will not trample on the ethnic minority rights.

President Rajapakse is on course with his devolution plans even though some may consider them as half-baked neither here nor there variety. He is offering no more than district development councils to the Tamils in a unitary set up, which they had rejected way back in 1985 at the Thimpu talks. In a sense, the Sinhala leadership has come full circle in its attitude towards the Tamils. Be as that it may, the plus point is President Rajapakse has been able to hold elections in the Tamil area and install a local self government.

Expectedly, the Tamil Tigers have not relented a wee bit. They have rejected the government moves and stepped up their fighting. LTTE political wing’s chief, B Nadesan, told (May 31) that the government plans contained "no basis for a settlement". And he stuck to his refrain on recognition of Tamil sovereignty and right to self-determination are key issues in creating a climate for a negotiated settlement.


President Rajapakse as a seasoned politician knows that politicians indulge in lot of rhetoric all the time. Even as they enter a negotiating room. That is their trait. It is in the interests of Colombo to enter into a dialogue with the stake holders. Directly without meddlesome middlemen. And without expecting over night results.

It should borrow a leaf or two from India’s experience in Mizoram to which I made a reference at the outset. I covered that phase from 1976 till the end of insurgency in 1987. The agreement was nothing but a miracle of democracy. I used to meet Laldenga, the rebel leader as he hip-hopped from his hideout on the India-Bangladesh border to Aizawl by helicopter and to Delhi by aircraft. The talks went on for four years and were held in Geneva, Bangkok and Delhi beyond the media glare. At least in public his refrain remained unaltered through out the negotiation which saw many lows. But when the Mizo accord was inked, Laldenga did not talk about sovereignty for Mizoram or Greater Mizoram (covering Mizo inhabited areas in neighbouring Indian states and Burma) but the urgency of providing healing touch to the war ravaged area.

A similar exercise is underway in Nagaland where the ‘movement for freedom’ is much older than Mizoram story. Muvaiah and other leaders of Naga rebel outfits are in talks with Delhi. These talks got underway when the BJP led government was in power. And are continuing even after the Congress led government came to office. Like in the case of Mizoram issue, the Naga dialogue is also taking place in and outside India. That is because Delhi is not standing on any prestige. Instead it is willing to move half the distance if there is any inclination to realise that in a dynamic social environment powered by the Internet, people’s aspirations no longer remain in the old straight jacket.


I cannot dare recommend these Indian examples to Sri Lanka. Because Prabhakaran appears cut in a different mould. Muvaiah and before him Laldenga were no less unpredictable and ruthless in their demeanour, though. Admittedly no two situations that too in two different countries can be the same. Nevertheless, the one thing that prompts me to recommend the talks route is the fact that Colombo and LTTE had met in the past and had held talks. They had mediators then. Why not direct contacts now. At least why not give a try. Without pre-conditions from either side.

Time and timing is of essence in politics. President Rajapksa is now in a position to take the initiative. Set the ball rolling. Let the war and the talks go on simultaneously. At least in the initial run. To avoid hiccups. Because creating new Varadaraja Permuals is no solution. Because the crux of the issue is that Tamils and Sinhalese have to live together honourably with their heads held high under the Sri Lanka sun.

The Sinhala leadership will do well to remember that just as they cannot change the ethnic composition of the country, they cannot change their neighbours.

About the Author

Malladi Rama Rao is an analyst and writer on the Indian political scene and geo-political and security issues of South Asia. He directs a Weekly Feature Service in English, Syndicate Features, in colloboration with his wife
Vaniram. He is also the India Editor of Asian Tribune.

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