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LTTE, Sri Lanka and struggle for controlling Indian Ocean
February 4, 2009, 11:38 am
Filed under: India, Sri Lanka

LTTE, Sri Lanka and struggle for controlling Indian Ocean

By Farzana Shah
Finally LTTE got routed out when Sri Lankan army ran over its last bastion and main operation center, Mullaittivu bringing an end to their decade-long domination of the country’s North. The Sri Lankan army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said the 25-year-old bloody ethnic separatist war was 95 percent over. It is a big reason for Sri Lankans to be jubilant specially when they are about to celebrate their Independence Day on February 4th but on the other hand the restlessness of India over this new development can be well understood primarily due to her own internal equation of ethnic politics.
Under pressure from Tamil political parties the Indian government last week officially expressed concern over plight of Tamil population and operation against LTTE militants.
Political parties from Tamil Nadu have already started pressurizing Indian government to press Sri Lanka for halting operation against LTTE militants.On Saturday (January 31st) Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu under the banner of ¡Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement (STPM)¢ called for massive protest in the state on February 4th.
The STMP includes all pro-LTTE characters including P. Nedumaran, MDMK Chief Vaiko, PMK¢s founder-leader, Dr. S. Ramadoss, Pandian of the Communist Party f India , Thol Thirumavalavan of Viduthalai Chiruthai Kadchchi , D. Rajah of CPI, whereas BJP has also joined the protest.
To understand the concerns of India, struggle for control of Indian Ocean, presence of US and the new big game we need to recall the historical events intertwined with the strategic location of Sri Lanka. Background/ strategic importance of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has always been a strategic place as far as the subcontinent goes and the sub continent has both mythological as well as historical relations with the place which was very much part of the subcontinent. But in the history which we are living today it is strategic importance that matters and Sri Lanka is strategically poised since it is right in the middle of Indian ocean and the complete potential of maritime possibilities and probabilities have not yet been exploited by the world that is changing every second.
 Tamil/Sinahlese problem again is historical and India took the lead to exploit it for making sure that strategic gains were her but it did not happen the way India wanted it to happen and a hasty retreat had to be the option but India had created a monster in form of LTTE.
Strategic importance of Indian Ocean:
“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters,” said US Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan more than a century ago.
The Indian Ocean covering 2,850,000 sq miles is the third largest in the world with several important islands and about 47 countries around.It has Indian subcontinent in the North; Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia in the East; Antartica in the South; and East Africa in the West.
The Indian Ocean covering Red Sea moves towards Suez Canal, and oil-rich Gulf, the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Malacca, which is a major sea route between the West and the Far East. In the South of Indian Ocean we have Diego Garcia where US has naval and air base..
China has a base in the Coco Island which is near Myanmar and India is already there with its Navy covering about 1200 miles. We can also see Andaman Islands, Maldives, Madagascar and Gwadar in Pakistan and Kawar, the first naval base of India. It clearly shows the presence of world and some emerging powers in the Indian Ocean. Besides Indian Ocean is a critical waterway with heavy trafficking.
Indian Intervention and rise of LTTE
Besides strategically poised in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is ideally located to hit at Southern India. USA has air and naval bases in the Indian Ocean, India wanted to be present in Sri Lanka and with a considerable Tamil speaking population there in the island (which is also called as the emerald island) India took the first step but in retrospective it was a half measure. The aim was to stop USA having an influence in the Indian Ocean but the methodology and strategy used by India was wrong. In a nut shell it backed the wrong horse LTTE!
Many powers centuries back had tried to keep Indian Ocean under their tab. India right from the 1954 started showing interests in the Indian Ocean especially when the US started gaining firm strategic footing around Sri Lanka. India feared US control over Trincomalee which in other words was a sure uncontrollable damage to Indian interests in case US had control over airstrips and naval power. Besides worrying over US Diago Garcia base in Indian Ocean, India was also alarmed when US announced to move aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to Bay of Bengal in support for Pakistan during 71 war.
It was after that India started thinking on formation of terrorist organization LTTE. Formed in 1976 LTTE began its armed conflict with the Sri Lankan government in 1983 and relies on a guerrilla warfare strategy that includes the use of terrorist tactics. After the 1983 riots India started supporting the Tamil militants and in 1987 it had come up with another idea to have a role in Sri Lanka which could give India leverage for having strategic hold in the Indian Ocean.
India signed an accord with Sri Lanka in July 1987 for deploying Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). Though apparently the aim was to find a solution to the Tamil ethnic/separatist problem but it was clearly a strategic move by India.
Indian duplicity in dealing with the LTTE
Though after signing the accord India had sent its forces for peace keeping in Sri Lanka but unfortunately Indian soldiers end up sacrificing their lives for deceptive game of their government, not knowing that it was their own government that was sacrificing the innocent soldiers for political mileage. It was reported by media that even when Indian soldiers were fighting LTTE, India was facilitating LTTE terrorists. Tamil Nadu was facilitating LTTE cadres for reinforcement and regrouping.
In 1997 a report appearing in Indian Express said “Soldiers are the only innocents in politics. So it seems from the tale of a distraught father looking for his Army-officer son, evacuated with a head wound. The father walked into a hospital room only to be told by the nurse that, “These four injured are cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and your son is in the next room”.
This was in November 1987, the injured Army officer served in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and the mistaken hospital room was in Chennai, India! In the truest sense of non-alignment, the Government of India and its state government in Tamil Nadu were simultaneously treating the LTTE cadres injured by the IPKF; and the IPKF personnel injured by the LTTE.
Manvendra Singh wrote in the report “Even while Indian soldiers were dying in the jungles of north and eastern Sri Lanka, New Delhi was still engaging the LTTE in talks, and Chennai was allowing the militants to rest, recoup and refit in Tamil Nadu. And some intelligence agents were ambushed in the company of LTTE by the IPKF, unaware that New Delhi’s operatives were even there and, above all, moving with the militants. He further accused RAW of orchestrating ambushes against Sri Lankan Army which even the IPKF was unaware of.”
 Manvendra Sing claimed in his report.
“Similarly, the intelligence agencies even organised an ambush in Amparai by the Indian-raised Tamil National Army on a Sri Lankan Army brigade commander without the knowledge of the IPKF leadership. There is even the case of detailed maps made available to the intelligence agencies, but locked away in dusty cupboards, while the IPKF casualties mounted because of insufficient information.
While a senior intelligence official was arrested for passing information to a Western country, officials closely involved with the crisis declared unequivocally that each agency was pursuing its own agenda in Sri Lanka and each kept the government informed, but only from its parochial perspective”,
It was also reported that in clear disregard for sacrifices of Indian soldier during fighting with LTTE, Indian government was still engage in talks with LTTE. During the same period Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi held a meeting with a senior LTTE leader Kasi Anandan at his 10 Janpath residence.
Why India provides radars to Sri Lanka instead of weapons?
In the past whenever Sri Lanka asked India for sale of weapons to fight LTTE, India refused to sell necessary military hardware terming it offensive weapons. However India did provide radars and technical assistance to Sri Lanka.When two Indian radar operators were injured in air strikes by LTTE planes on Sri Lankan Air Force base in Vavuniya, Indians were boasting about their role in fight against LTTE however they never elaborated actual reasons for Indian assistance with regard to radars operation.
There are few reasons for Indian assistance:
1. Safeguarding airspace of Tamil Nadu against any air-strike by LTTE is of paramount importance because of India’s fast-breeder reactor complex at Kalpakam near Chennai, the Russian-aided Koodankulam nuclear power reactor complex in southern Tamil Nadu and India’s space establishments in Kerala.
2. To block sale of Chinese radars to Sri Lanka because in case of Indian refusal Sri Lanka will procure these from China and the later will provide technical assistance as well which India fears will expose her to direct Chinese monitoring specially of its South coast.
India caught between the devil and the sea
It is believed that South India plays a major part in economic boom of India besides role being played by hardliners from Tamil Nadu in the Indian political equation gives immense weight to South India. For the last many years no political party has been able to get a parliamentary majority to form the single party government; Congress as well as BJP had been in government in coalition with regional political parties from Tamil Nadu. Hence Tamil political parties are becoming like lifesaving drugs for these two major political parties. These regional Tamil politicians have been supporting LTTE and its agenda since long and had been pressurising successive Indian governments not to provide necessary weapons to Sri Lanka.
If India provides such weapons it fears to face widespread protests from Tamils in South and in that case the ruling party is going to lose support from Tamil political parties. Besides it would be difficult for Indian central government to keep a tab on Tamil separatism within India. The scariest scenario for India would be uncontrollable suicide bombing in case if LTTE turns its screws on India considering its Southern part as potential separate homeland for Tamil nation.
On one hand it is question of safeguarding Indian integration while on the other stopping other countries especially Pakistan and China from getting influence in Sri Lanka. If India sides with Sri Lanka against LTTE or if it doesn¢t in both the cases India seems to be landing in the troubled waters.
Pakistan¢s Role
The solid assurance by Pakistan about two months back pledging to send one shipload of the wherewithal every 10 days in coming months for bolster Sri Lankan efforts against LTTE prompted Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to publicly state that Kilinochchi, the headquarters of the LTTE, would be liberated by the end of December, 2008.
On January 19 in a meeting between Pakistani Defence Secretary Lt Gen (retired) Syed Athar Ali and his visiting Sri Lankan counterpart Gotabhaya Rajapakse in Rawalpindi, the two countries agreed to enhance cooperation in military training, exercises and intelligence sharing regarding terrorism. According to some unconfirmed reports pilots from Pakistan air force participated in air strikes against bases of Tamil Tigers in August 2008, besides Pakistan has been providing advance weapons to Sri Lanka for fighting LTTE at a time when India refused to help.
It is not the first time that Pakistan is helping Sri Lanka militarily to fight LTTE terrorists. Back in year 2000 when LTTE offensive code-named Operation Oyatha Alaikal (Operation Ceaseless Waves) overran Sri Lankan military positions in the north and captured the Elephant Pass Base and entered Jaffna; it was feared that LTTE would run down thousands of Sri Lankan troops stationed in Jaffna, Sri Lanka sought MBRLs from Pakistan. According to Jane’s Intelligence Digest, weapons and ammunition, including artillery shells and multi-barrel rocket launchers, were airlifted in an emergency operation from Karachi to Colombo in May.
In 2006 as well Sri Lanka sought multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) and other advanced weapons from Pakistan when Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Pakistan in March-April 2006 along with an 80-member delegation that included military officials. India was never happy with Sri Lanka over purchase of weapons from Pakistan.
New players: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia:
The vacuum created by absence of active Indian support to Sri Lanka against LTTE is being filled by new players including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia which again is a great cause of concern for India other than worrying about Pak-Sri Lanka military ties.
China has also been supplying necessary arms and weapons to Sri Lanka to fight the war against the Tamil Tigers. According to recent reports “Sri Lanka has signed a US $ 37.6 million deal with the Beijing-based Poly Technologies for a wide variety of arms, ammunition, mortars and bombs. Sri Lanka is also getting some Chinese Jian-7 fighters, JY 11-3D air surveillance radars, armoured personnel carriers, T-56 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and missiles.”
Besides China is also constructing a modern port at Hambantota in the south with an estimated cost of one billion US dollars which will be completed in 15 years. The port work on which was started in 2007 can be converted into a naval base in future..
Recently Iran has also agreed to provide assistance to Sri Lanka including training a team of Sri Lankan army and intelligence officers in Iran, besides providing low-interest loan to enable it to purchase defence-related equipment from China and Pakistan. Iran will also invest US $ 1.5 billion in energy-related projects in Sri Lanka. Similarly Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka recently have agreed to cooperate in areas of mutual interests in the field of oil supply, exploration and investments.
US interests:
Keeping in view long term strategic interests in the region US had already made its presence felt with constructing Air Force base on Diego Garcia, a coral atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a submarine base and a Navy harbor for propositioning equipment and supplies, in 21 fully-loaded ships at moorings, and in warehouses, for U.S. military operations in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Africa.
Diego Garcia is the permanent US outpost nearest the subcontinent as it lies approximately 2500 nautical miles from Islamabad. The base is approximately the same distance from Kashmir and 2200 nautical miles from New Delhi.The presence of American intelligence agencies in Sri Lanka since decades is to monitor US interests viz a viz developments taking place in the neighboring countries around India Ocean also is not a secret.
The central position of the island between the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz further gives reasons for US interests in Sri Lanka besides it eyes Trincomalee harbour. Since centuries Trincomalee harbour has been a central strategic point for many powers right from Portuguese, Dutch to Britishers. The harbour has played a significant role in WWII.
The presence of all these important countries gives Sri Lanka geo-political importance keeping in view the bigger game for power in the Indian Ocean.In this scheme of things India seems to be at the receiving end although the recent warming up of its relations with US might have decreased concerns about US influence in Sri Lanka which India always considered a threat to her in the past. But given the history of US relations with its allies especially Pakistan in the region, Americans are not considered reliable. Above all US doesn¢t tolerate potential regional powers that challenge or tend to challenge her hegemony in the future and undercut critical US strategic interests in Asia and India is no exception as well.
Farzana Shah is a Pakistani journalist based at Peshawar.

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