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Behind The Sri Lankan Bloodbath

Colombo's victory over the Tamils shows India's power on the wane

by Brahma Chellaney, Forbes, October 9, 2009

Having been outmaneuvered by China's success in extending strategic reach to Sri Lanka in recent years, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo, lest it lose further ground in Sri Lanka.

Thousands of noncombatants, according to the United Nations, were killed in the final phase of the Sri Lankan war this year as government forces overran the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Nearly five months after Colombo's stunning military triumph, the peace dividend remains elusive, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa setting out--in the name of "eternal vigilance"--to expand by 50% an already-large military. Little effort has been made to reach out to the Tamil minority and begin a process of national reconciliation.

China, clearly, was the decisive factor in ending the war through its generous supply of offensive weapons and its munificent aid. It even got its ally Pakistan to actively assist Rajapaksa in his war strategy. Today, China is the key factor in providing Colombo the diplomatic cover against the institution of a U.N. investigation into possible war crimes, or the appointment of a U.N. special envoy on Sri Lanka. In return for such support, Beijing has been able to make strategic inroads into a critically located country in India's backyard.

Unlike China's assistance, India's role has received little international attention. But India, too, contributed to the Sri Lankan bloodbath through its military aid, except that it has ended up, strangely, with its leverage undermined.

For years, India had pursued a hands-off approach toward Sri Lanka in response to two developments--a disastrous 1987-1990 peacekeeping operation there; and the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a member of the Tamil Tigers. But having been outmaneuvered by China's success in extending strategic reach to Sri Lanka in recent years, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo, lest it lose further ground in Sri Lanka.

From opening an unlimited line of military credit for Sri Lanka to extending critical naval and intelligence assistance, India provided sustained war support despite a deteriorating humanitarian situation there. A "major turning point" in the war, as Sri Lankan navy chief Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda acknowledged, came when the rebels' supply ships were eliminated, one by one, with input from Indian naval intelligence, cutting off all supplies to the rebel-held areas. That in turn allowed the Sri Lankan ground forces to make rapid advances and unravel the de facto state the Tigers had established in the island nation's north and east.

Sri Lanka, for its part, practiced adroit but duplicitous diplomacy: It assured India it would approach other arms suppliers only if New Delhi couldn't provide a particular weapon system it needed. Yet it quietly began buying arms from China and Pakistan without even letting India know. In doing so, Colombo mocked Indian appeals that it rely for its legitimate defense needs on India, the main regional power. It was only by turning to India's adversaries for weapons, training and other aid that Colombo pulled off a startling military triumph. In any event, Colombo was emboldened by the fact that the more it chipped away at India's traditional role, the more New Delhi seemed willing to pander to its needs.