by Nirupama Subramanian
India played a key role in warding off international pressure on Sri Lanka to halt military operations and hold talks with the LTTE in the dramatic final days and weeks of the war in 2009, confidential U.S. Embassy cables accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks showed.
The cables reveal that while India conveyed its concern to Sri Lanka several times about the “perilous” situation that civilians caught in the fighting faced, it was not opposed to the anti-LTTE operation.
They also show that India worried about the Sri Lankan President's “post-conflict intentions,” though it believed that there was a better chance of persuading him to offer Sri Lankan Tamils an inclusive political settlement after the fighting ended.
After its efforts to halt the operation failed, the international community resigned itself to playing a post-conflict role by using its economic leverage, acknowledging that it had to rope in India for this.
In the closing stages of the war, New Delhi played all sides, always sharing the concern of the international community over the humanitarian situation and alleged civilian casualties in the Sri Lankan military campaign, but discouraging any move by the West to halt the operations.
In January 2009, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made a “short notice” visit to Sri Lanka. The Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, Vikram Misri, briefed the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission and other diplomats about the visit, in a cable dated January 29, 2009 ( 189383: confidential).
At a two-hour meeting at President Rajapaksa's residence, attended by the army chief, defence secretary and other top officials, Mr. Mukherjee stressed he was in Colombo with “no objective other than to ensure that human rights and safety of civilians were protected.”
Mr. Misri told the diplomats that while domestic political considerations were a factor in the Indian calculus, “New Delhi is deeply worried about the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni. He added that Indians throughout the country, not just in Tamil Nadu, are troubled by the high level of casualties sustained by Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire.”
From Mr. Mukherjee's statement at the end of his visit, it was clear that India did not oppose the operations. “I stressed that military victories offer a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka, after twenty three years of conflict. The President assured me that this was his intent.”
This was to remain the Indian theme, except for a brief period in April 2009, when New Delhi, under pressure in the context of elections in Tamil Nadu — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a partner in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was feeling the heat of the Sri Lankan operations — made an attempt to press for a pause in the operations, if not a cessation.
In a meeting with U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Peter Burleigh on April 15, 2009, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said the Sri Lankan government had made clear it “did not want a UN Envoy in resolving the conflict with the LTTE, nor was the GSL interested now in direct negotiations with the LTTE or in a cease-fire”, which is in a cable sent on April 15, 2009 ( 202476: confidential).
The Foreign Secretary told Mr. Burleigh that the Indian government had advised Sri Lanka against rejecting all such proposals out of hand and “offered a suggestion that the GSL consider offering an amnesty to all but the hard core of the LTTE.”
But he also pointed out there were questions about what constituted the LTTE's core and what modalities would be used to make such an offer.
The Foreign Secretary “acknowledged that the space for such discussions was small and flagged President Rajapaksa's electoral considerations as militating against anything that could be viewed as a concession to the LTTE. ‘Quiet diplomacy' outside of Sri Lanka faced serious challenges and the Sri Lankan government would have to ‘be dragged, kicking and screaming' to talks.”
Mr. Menon highlighted another problem: in “India's view, the group was sending conflicting signals and there was a real question as to who spoke for Prabhakaran”. He also questioned whether Prabhakaran understood the situation he faced.
Ruling out the possibility of Indian involvement in any such process between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, Mr. Menon told the U.S. official that the ongoing elections in India made such efforts “impossible.”
Still, he left Mr. Burleigh with the impression that India was not opposed to the idea of talks at that late stage.
“He asked whether the U.S. was interested in such talks and said India would think about participation, perhaps with other states under UN auspices, in an effort to obtain a peaceful conclusion to the conflict,” the charge wrote in the cable.
Three weeks later, U.K. Special Envoy for Sri Lanka Des Browne, visiting New Delhi on May 6-7, heard from Foreign Secretary Menon and National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan(cable 206806: confidential, May 13, 2009), that while there was “domestic political pressure” on India to do more on Sri Lanka due to the ongoing elections (the Tamil Nadu Assembly election was on May 13), “there was little anyone could do to alleviate the fighting as Sri Lanka government forces moved towards the end game of defeating the LTTE.”
A British High Commission contact briefing the U.S. Embassy political counselor on this meeting said the Indian officials were concerned about the humanitarian situation, but “were more upbeat on chances to persuade President Rajapaksa to offer Tamils a political solution once fighting had ended.
The two Indian officials were “slightly more optimistic of the chances to persuade President Rajapaksa to offer the Tamils a genuinely inclusive political settlement once fighting had ended. It was the Indians' impression that President Rajapaksa believed this was his moment in history, i.e., a chance to bring peace to the island for good, but that the Sri Lankan Army was an obstacle, having been emboldened by its victory over the LTTE.” They told Mr. Browne that if Sri Lanka did not implement the “13th Amendment Plus” devolution plan quickly, a new terrorist movement could quickly fill the vacuum left by the LTTE's defeat.
Their advice to the British special envoy: it was “useful to have Sri Lanka on the UNSC's agenda, and to issue periodic Presidential Statements, but it would be counterproductive for the UN to ‘gang up' on Colombo; providing Rajapaksa with a rationale for fighting off international pressure would only serve to bolster his domestic political standing.”
On May 15, the U.S. Charge met Mr. Menon again for “a discussion on the urgent humanitarian situation” in Sri Lanka, in a cable sent on May 15, 2009 ( 207268: confidential).
Acknowledging the “dire situation,” the Foreign Secretary said pressure needed to be put on the Sri Lankan government to avoid civilian causalities. But once again, “he cautioned that bilateral diplomacy would be more effective than highly public pressure in the UN Security Council or the Human Rights Council."
For a ‘pause'
By then, under pressure from UPA coalition partner and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, New Delhi had already tried to get the Sri Lankan government to go easy on the war-front.
On April 23, Mr. Burleigh wrote ( 203792: confidential) of his meeting that day with the Indian Foreign Secretary.
Mr. Menon told him that in a phone call to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later that day, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would propose that the U.S. and India coordinate an international effort to force the Sri Lankan government “to take appropriate political steps to bring stability to Sri Lanka and a return to normalcy in the Tamil regions.”
He told Mr. Burleigh that the Indian Cabinet had decided to make “a new appeal to pause military operations” and provide relief to civilians trapped in the war zone.
Mr. Menon and Mr. Narayanan then made a quick visit to Colombo on April 24. On their return, the NSA told Mr. Burleigh, in a cable sent on April 25 ( 204118: confidential), that the Sri Lankan President had “more or less” committed to “a cessation of hostilities”.
Mr. Rajapakse would make the announcement on April 27 after consulting his Cabinet. Mr. Narayanan asked the U.S. to “keep quiet” about it until it came.
The announcement did come, but not for a cessation of hostilities. Declaring that combat operations had ended, the Sri Lankan government announced heavy-calibre weapons would no longer be used. The Defence Ministry warned this was not a cessation of hostilities or ceasefire, and said the push into a 10-km swathe of land where the LTTE leader and the members of his inner circle were holed in would continue.
Briefing Delhi-based diplomats during his May 6-7 visit, Des Browne, the U.K. special envoy, said he believed Sri Lanka could be forced through monetary inducements to accept a post-conflict role for the international community, according to the cable sent on May 13, 2009 ( 206806: confidential).
“At the end of the day they'll want the money,” Mr. Burleigh quoted the U.K. special envoy as saying. Mr. Browne noted that the government had expended “vast resources” for the war, and emphasised India's “unique role” in the post-conflict scene.
But it appears that the U.S. was worried India might shy away from such a role, and Mr. Burliegh suggested in his cable that “the time is ripe to press India to work more concretely with us on Sri Lanka issues.”