The outcome of this one will be worth watching. Will Pakistan come to the Sri Lankan government´s aid where India hesitates to tread? That might well happen given that recently, there has been a flurry of visits by senior military officials and diplomats from Colombo to New Delhi and Colombo to Islamabad and vice versa.
There are now strong indications that Sri Lanka is turning to Pakistan for military help against the LTTE after getting a less-than-enthusiastic response from India. The Lahore-based Friday Times says in a special report filed by its correspondent who was in Colombo late August, that he has been told by unidentified senior officials of the Sri Lankan Army that it were actually Pakistan Air Force pilots who helped the Sri Lankans neutralise a recent major Tiger offensive that had threatened to undo gains made by the military. Significantly, no official denial has been forthcoming from the Pakistani authorities on this report, thereby giving credence to the fact that the Pakistani army is indeed assisting the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in actual field operations, (which involve potential bodily risks to Pakistani military personnel), and not only in an advisory capacity. There have also been reports that Pakistan has been a regular supplier of small arms and ammunitions to Colombo for several years.
New Delhi, of course, will hardly be pleased that Colombo is looking towards Islamabad for help. When Sri Lankan army chief, Lt Gen Sirilal Weerasooriya, visited Islamabad in July, it was perhaps the strongest confirmation that Pakistan was indeed supplying military suport to the strife-torn country.
The army chief was accompanied by Lakshman Jayakody, special envoy of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and P. Balapatabendi, principal secretary to Kumaratunga. The trio held detailed talks with Pakistan´s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Weerasooriya has since retired, but significantly he has been made Colombo´s new high commissioner to Islamabad.
Some analysts are of the opinion that Sri Lanka is playing on India´s fears, and using the Pakistan bait to lure India into a more supportive role. “My hunch is that the moment Delhi suspects Islamabad is practically getting into the Sri Lanka crisis, it will react by offering to help out Colombo,” says a defence analyst in Islamabad.
Yet, a glance at the Indo-Lanka contacts over the last few months shows that India will find it very difficult to get involved, apart from proffering “humanitarian” assistance in the form of food and medicines, which it has been doing in any case. Besides political considerations (any move against the Tigers may not be acceptable to Tamils in India), New Delhi will be hard pressed to spare soldiers. “The Indian Army is spread out thin fighting insurgencies in Kashmir and the Northeast and guarding the borders post-Kargil. It is in no position to spare any soldiers for Sri Lanka,” says a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad.
Analysts interpret the recent dash of Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Colombo, as a step to preempt Sri Lanka from seeking Pakistan´s help in its war against the Tigers. During the visit, Singh announced a USD 100 million credit line to Colombo to purchase food and medicines from India. Sources go so far as to claim that even the recent visit of the US Under Secretary of State, Thomas Pickering to New Delhi, Islamabad and Colombo, was in the context of sending a message to Islamabad that it should stay out of Lanka.
India now finds itself in a Catch-22 situation: if it gets involved, it will mean more pressure on its army, whereas if it declines to help the Lankan government, Colombo will actively seek Islamabad´s intervention. General Musharraf was actually reported as “assuring” that Pakistan would “continue to help Sri Lanka in combating terrorism and in finding a lasting solution” to the conflict. “We will continue to support Sri Lanka,” he told the Colombo-based Daily News newspaper in an interview last month.
The general, however, ruled out any similarity between the Kashmir conflict and the one in Sri Lanka. “You cannot equalise the struggle in Kashmir with that of the LTTE. There is no similarity at all,” he said. “In Kashmir you find a clear dispute within the region, whereas the situation in Sri Lanka is quite different, which is purely an internal conflict: The Kashmir issue is before international fora such as the United Nations and also it has been identified by the international community, but the LTTE has no such international recognition. Even India supported the Sri Lankan military by sending troops where hundreds of Indian soldiers lost their lives on Lankan soil. We did not go to that extent, but why cannot we support Sri Lanka, another brother nation.”
Pakistan´s Information and Media Development Minister and Adviser on National Affairs, Javed Jabbar, told the Daily News that Islamabad was willing to extend any support to Sri Lanka if asked. “It is purely an internal conflict. But it becomes a regional issue when it affects a member country of our region. We are closely watching the situation and ready to extend any support that Sri Lanka needs,” said Minister Jabbar.
While it is somewhat clear that Pakistan wants to help out Sri Lanka, what is not clear is whether it has thought things out and kept the Indian experience in view. When New Delhi sent out its forces—Rajiv Gandhi´s ill-fated Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to help the Lankans—it proved to be a disaster. The IPKF failed to quell the Tigers, and the island´s Sinhalese majority grew to hate the foreign army trampling around on their soil. The Indians eventually had to withdraw in disgrace.
It took nearly a decade of quiet diplomacy to repair the damage that misadventure did to Indo-Lankan relations. And Gandhi paid the ultimate price: he was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber. Delhi obviously doesn´t want a repeat of the IPKF debacle. Pakistan may be all too keen to try and succeed where India didn´t. But beware.