There have been protests in Tamil Nadu over the Tamil issue. While it threatens to affect foriegn policy between the two countries, the fact remains that Tamil Nadu is the biggest beneficiary of Indo-Sri-Lankan trade.
What are the effects of such protests and is there a solution in sight? Colonel Harihan in this interview with rediff.com explains the issue in detail. Colonel Hariharan, a former Military Intelligence officer and expert on Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh also served as the head of the Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990 for which he was awarded the Visish Sewa Medal.
Tamil Nadu’s Role
What are your thoughts on the resurfacing of the Tamil issue that have led to the call to boycott Sri Lanka?
The resurfacing of the Tamil issue in Tamil Nadu owes it to the Eelam War IV which eliminated the LTTE and its leader Prabhakaran. In Tamil Nadu, small pro-LTTE political groups that had thrived on the Tamil Eelam cause were outraged as India failed to intervene and bail out Prabhakaran as it did on two earlier occasions. They believe the DMK state government connived in this process with Centre on this. During the parliamentary poll of 2009, the AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa found this feeling of “betrayal” as a useful issue in her election campaign. In a volte face, she started supporting Tamil Eelam and called for Indian intervention. When war ended the plight of Tamils in war torn areas and alleged Sri Lanka atrocities against Tamils created a wave of sympathy in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa used this sympathy effectively in her campaigns for the assembly election. When the DMK was routed, she has been using the issue to needle DMK and the UPA coalition in New Delhi. She probably feels the call for ban on Sri Lanka trade can pressurise Rajapaksa government, while strengthening her visibility in national politics.
Will the Sri Lanka issue continue to be a political game changer for long in Tamil Nadu and how long do you think this issue will survive?
Sri Lanka issue is not a political game changer in Tamil Nadu. It was dormant after LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. It was resurrected in the circumstances I had explained earlier. It will persist in Tamil Nadu till it loses its relevance to Sri Lanka Tamils. Traumatised by war they are now struggling to get back to normal life and Sri Lanka government’s actions have not increased their confidence and trust in it. Though infrastructure is being restored fast, peoples’ livelihood and political reconciliation of Tamils remain major issues; both India and U.S.A have repeatedly drawn Colombo’s attention to this with little effect.
India-Sri Lanka Trade
What will India and Tamil Nadu in particular achieve if there is a ban on trade with Sri Lanka?
Demand for a ban on trade with Sri Lanka is part of Jayalalithaa’s political rhetoric. Even as we discuss the issue a 45-member trade delegation of Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry from Madurai is in Colombo looking for business opportunities. Tamil Nadu is the biggest beneficiary of Indo-Sri Lanka trade. This is the ground reality. International trade is a Central subject. As India has a Free Trade Agreement with Sri Lanka, it would not be easy to ban the trade. Its effect: Indian will lose about $4 billion in trading opportunities of which ten percent will be borne by Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan backlash would affect Indian entrepreneurs who had invested last year over $400 million in Sri Lanka. The Indian trading space will be occupied by China in due course and in the meanwhile Indian trade re-routed to Colombo through Singapore and Dubai with middlemen garnering profit.
If the Sri Lankans feel unsafe to trade with India, is there a chance of other countries stepping in taking advantage of the situation?
Tamil Nadu is not unsafe for Sri Lankan trade despite some incidents. If it worsens trade would not stop because India is more than Tamil Nadu. As safety of Sri Lankans is not an issue in other states, Sri Lankans will shift their business to Kerala, Karnataka, and probably Maharashtra. But Jayalalithaa is a shrewd lady; she will ensure protests do not go out of hand.
By driving out foot ball teams and pilgrims, do we stand to gain anything or are we creating one more enemy neighbour?
India does not consider any neighbour – not even Pakistan and China – as “enemy country”. So Sri Lanka, a friendly country with special relations with India, will not become “one more enemy” country. Jayalalithaa has clarified that sending back school football teams and pilgrims was a symbolic act to register her protest against Sri Lanka’s insensitive handling of Tamils. She has said Sri Lankan pilgrims and others can safely visit Tamil Nadu. This is state politics in action, just like our media its focus is on form than content!
Do you think there is a chance of the LTTE re-surfacing?
No; not in the near future. The environment in Sri Lanka and the region in 1983 that helped the growth of Tamil militancy do not exist anymore. Strong international protocols to prevent money laundering and trans-national spread of terrorism adopted after 9/11 Al Qaeda strikes in the U.S. are in force now. These make flow of international support to insurgencies very difficult and risky. And lastly, a leader with Prabhakaran’s charisma and goal orientation is not in the horizon. However, Sri Lanka Government’s indifference Tamil sensitivities provides enough opportunities for LTTE remnants abroad to use anti-Sri Lanka feeling among the Tamil Diaspora to revive separatism as the first step. And this is what is happening.
Tiger Prabhakaran is seen a hero or champion by many. What are your views on the same sir?
Answer to this question requires a thesis. Prabhakaran was a complex personality; ruthless, ambitious and autocratic, he was totally committed to achieving an independent Tamil Eelam by military means. He had no time for politicians and did not bother about the means to achieve his end. He would never allow contrarian views. These were his strengths and weak points. Thus he missed opportunities offered by the Peace Process 2002 to evolve a win-win result without bloodshed. Closeted from world, perhaps he did not know the security environment in India and the world have changed for the worse for LTTE to operate with impunity as before. He lost the war because he failed to notice the determination of Sri Lanka leadership to eliminate him and the LTTE using the new global environment.
Tamil Rehabilitation and Reconciliation
Do you think the Sri Lankan government is doing enough to rehabilitate the Tamils?
Sri Lanka government has done well to improve road infrastructure and is in the process of further improving public services. It has done a remarkable job in clearing nearly 300,000 mines. But having said this, there are major deficiencies in the way it does many of these things. The governors of Northern and Eastern provinces are retired military officers – naturally Sinhalas. The development plans are made centrally so there is lack of ownership among locals. Permanent army camps are being built for military families on priority basis while many habitations of the locals are delayed due to red tape. Though army has released over 10,000 ex-LTTE combatants after some rehabilitation training, many of them are yet to find jobs. Large scale presence of army in Northern Province acts as a visible reminder to the population on who calls the shots. Even social activities require informal clearance by the army authorities. Many properties occupied by military are yet to be returned to rightful owners as land documentation is in a mess. And though there is talk of provincial council elections in North, they are to take place only next year suggesting Colombo is not politically comfortable with a Tamil opposition in power in provincial council. Cumulatively these issues have created a general feeling of despair and belied expectation among the Tamil population.
Is there a solution in sight to the Tamil problem? What do you think both countries could do to solve this problem?
Of course, there is a solution if both Tamils and Sinhalas move from their rigid positions and work together to arrive at a solution. Sri Lanka has the same South Asian political tendency to use every trick to prolong issues for political advantage rather than resolving them. The political reconciliation process is going on like a tug of war. Committees galore have sat, discussed and debated without the government taking action to produce results. I expect it to drag on for some time – probably till the next elections. I hope they do it sooner.
When you say both countries, I presume you mean Sri Lanka and India. India should encourage Sri Lanka Tamil political parties to talk with the Sri Lankan counterparts to find a solution. And at the same time it should lean on Sri Lanka government to show some action. India’s credibility among Tamils and Sinhalas will go up if Tamil Nadu makes positive contribution to improve the living condition of the internally displaced people rather than raising the anti-Sri Lanka rhetoric. New Delhi should work with Ms Jayalalitha for this. For instance, Tamil Nadu can encourage investment in enterprises in Northern and Eastern provinces so that there are more job opportunities for youth. Thousands of seats in colleges in Tamil Nadu remain vacant; they can be allotted preferentially to Sri Lanka Tamils.
Of course, Sri Lanka government should show it is sincere in investigating war crimes, human rights violations and restore full freedom. Authoritarian politics of ruling coalition has affected its credibility and affected rule of law. If a more people-sensitive style is adopted the government will help improve its functioning.
Do you think New Delhi should take a stronger stance on the issue rather than let states hijack issues which form national policy?
How can a precarious coalition in New Delhi control ambitious regional satraps on whom it depends upon to stay in power? The answer lies in improving the confidence levels in Centre-State relations; this can come through only if national consensus on key issues is evolved with states participation (mere parliamentary vote is not enough). Unfortunately, there is little consensus within national parties themselves on such issues let alone with others. Unless a powerful leader emerges at the Centre, a period of political drift in national policy making appears inevitable.
Some think tanks have suggested the presence of groups such as the Lashkar-Tayiba in Sri Lanka? How serious is this sir?
Sri Lanka Muslims are Sufis who get along with all communities very well. Majority of them are Tamil speaking and have close connections with India. It would be incorrect to brand them as anti-Indian. Having said that, we have to recognise that Colombo had long been used by ISI for their intelligence operations and some of the Sri Lankan Muslims have been involved in them.
According to terrorism expert B Raman the ISI of Pakistan has created bases in Bangkok, Colombo and Kathmandu for covert action and intelligence collection. He says the Colombo base uses Muslims from Eastern province mainly for collecting sensitive information about nuclear and missile establishments in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Moreover, Colombo is also used as a convenient point for ISI to meet its Indian agents without arising any suspicion. PIA air links from Colombo to Pakistan enable agents’ to go to Pakistan without Indian authorities’ knowledge. The posting of former director of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau Col Bashir Walit (retd) as Pak High Commissioner in Colombo by Musharraf regime showed the importance Pakistan attaches to Colombo.
Saudi money had been flowing into Sri Lanka to propagate Wahabi fundamentalism and as a corollary we can expect more radicalisation of some of the Muslim population. Jihadi terror had followed such moves in other countries. I am sure Sri Lankan government, despite its friendly relations including military to military relations with Pakistan, is aware of the dangers of Sri Lanka becoming a hot bed of Jihadi terror or Pak intelligence intrigues. We need to be constantly vigilant on this count.