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Musings on the Menon visit

It was being trumpeted that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukergee would visit essentially to appease the politicians of Tamil Nadu, who had put the Congress government under pressure to intervene to save the LTTE. Perhaps knowing that the Minister would have had to return empty handed and the Indian government would have lost face in Tamil Nadu they are now sending their amiable and affable Foreign Secretary who once served here with distinction to bring a message to our government. What could this message be?

The joint communiqué issued by Sri Lanka and India during Presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi was significant as it did not make any reference to any ‘bail out’ package for the LTTE. The External Affairs Minister also stated that they would not be a party to any ceasefire which they could not monitor. This was followed up by the statement of the Spokesman of the Congress party to those who were referring to sovereignty that India’s sovereignty ended at her borders. On top of all this Sri Lanka agreed to two matters that were important concessions namely agreeing to receive food for the IDPs at a time when we were sending lorry loads of food to those people, in a sense we admitted to the world that we needed help to feed the displaced or that we were incapable of looking after our own citizens. The second concession to India was even more important; we agreed to permit fishermen of Tamil Nadu to fish in our waters. This concession ironically put the Sri Lanka Navy at risk as the LTTE is known to attack our Navy by mingling with fishermen. There was also another important fact. Hundreds of our Tamil citizens in the Northern Province depend on fishing for their livelihood. Whilst we have restricted them from fishing in our waters we have permitted Tamil Nadu fishermen to ensure, as they once claimed, that our fish will not die of old age. We have indeed made huge concessions to appease the Indian government and their friends in Tamil Nadu.

We certainly cannot stop the war before we finish off the LTTE. Too many have sacrificed their lives in this operation. Dealing with Tiger terrorism on the one hand and taking care of the political aspirations as well as the humanitarian needs of the civilians caught up in the conflict on the other, have always been a common dilemma for both countries, but common solutions were hard to come by given the interplay of often countervailing political interests manifest on both sides of the Palk Straits. India has nevertheless conceded that we have an absolute right to take all legitimate self defence measures to protect the country’s integrity and to protect our citizens from acts of terrorism.

India is today committed to fight terrorism in all its forms. India would certainly not want the LTTE to become a role model for terrorist groups in India. India will not forgive the LTTE for having assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. They are also aware that the LTTE has been in contact with the terrorist groups in India and various terrorist groups in West Asia and that it runs an international arms smuggling and procurement network with the help of the Tamil Diaspora and also that it continues to use Indian territory in Tamil Nadu for the procurement of material for its improvised explosive devices. India has helped Sri Lanka with valuable Intelligence to enable us to sink LTTE arms shipments. Its Coast guard has also acted against LTTE arms shipments. Though it has not given this country offensive weapons they have provided us with training and ‘defensive equipment’ such as Radar systems.

This brings us to the reason for the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary and to the question of how our relationship with India should be structured at the present time. Let us recall how Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government managed Sri Lanka’s relations with India. We need to take account of the fact that 60 million Tamils live in Tamil Nadu—as that perceptive analyst Ambassador Dayan Jayathileka once said "Tamil Nadu will not go away"—and this quite naturally creates an abiding interest in Tamil Nadu in the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Further we need to take account of the pressure the Center comes under from Tamil Nadu and also the fact that whatever party forms a government at the center it invariably depends on TN for political survival which gives the latter much leverage. Therefore when it comes to its own political survival and the interest of Sri Lanka, it is natural for Indian politicians to look after their own interests. It is therefore in our interest to take serious note of the Tamil Nadu factor in the management of our relations with India though we cannot give in to all their demands.

It is also important for us to realise that the US and India have today a strategic partnership and that India is today an emerging military and economic Super Power. Sri Lanka for its part is of no strategic significance to any other country than India. We have no strategic resources either and size-wise our country is smaller than all but six of her 28 States.

India’s oft stated ‘mantra’ with regard to Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem has been as follows:

"India supports the process of seeking a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lanka society within the framework of a united Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism, and respect for individual rights… India maintains an abiding interest in the security of Sri Lanka and remains committed to its unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."

India seeks to ensure that the political instability in Sri Lanka does not affect India’s domestic politics and threaten its own security in any manner. India seeks to expand her own influence over Sri Lanka’s domestic politics, especially over the ethnic issue to appease the Tamils in Tamil Nadu. She also seeks to become a significant partner in our economic development. We in Sri Lanka need, whilst dealing with the LTTE, to be mindful of the political aspirations of the Tamil people of our land and in the immediate present to be mindful of the humanitarian needs of the people caught up in the conflict. Whilst looking after our national interest we need, at this particular point of time, to be also mindful of the impact of the forthcoming elections in India on India’s policy towards this small neighbour. We should also manage our relationships with Pakistan and more particularly with China with utmost care and circumspection without giving India any reason to be concerned.

We should therefore make use of the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shanker Menon to our country to propose to him that the Indian government concludes a Treaty of Peace Friendship and Cooperation with Sri Lanka and also revive the Defence Cooperation Agreement, which was almost finalized in 2003. I believe it was an initiative of Minister Milinda Moragoda, when he was a member of the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration to further cement Indo-Lanka relations.

For our part we need to assure the Indians that the political track will keep pace with the military track and that we would address the grievances of the minorities and empower them politically. In this regard it needs to be admitted that the government has lost a measure of credibility because the APC process has gone on for much too long. This may perhaps have been a deliberate tactic but there is no question at all that we would need to ensure that the minorities do not continue to feel alienated. We must bring them in as stake-holders in the governance not only for its own sake but also because that would be the only way to create the path to achieve prosperity for all our people and pull the rug from under the feet of opportunist Tamil Nadu politicians.

As for the Common Economic Partnership Agreement or the CEPA, it could wait awhile until the fear psychosis that attends that agreement at present evaporates. The government should have more consultations with our business community which fears that there would be a repeat of what happened to them after 1977, when we opened our economy and countries indulged in dumping and many of our industries were compelled to close down. The CEPA may be theoretically good but in practice the business community fears that it would spell disaster for the local industries. The government should also reach out to some of the xenophobic elements in its coalition, which appear to be obsessed when it comes to a fear of India, and ensure that they do not indulge in India bashing and spoil the all important relationship the government is seeking to build with India. India for her part has also much more to do to help this country not only in our efforts to rid ourselves of this terrorist menace but also to ensure that our people have no cause to be concerned about India’s intentions towards this country.

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