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How critical is Rajapaksa's India visit?

The Lankan president, who distrusts the West, is eager to get close to India to tackle LTTE, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 09, 2006 18:04 IST

The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the chief guest at the Convention of the All India Council of Mayors at Dehradun in the Uttaranchal State of North India on November 26.

Official sources here said that Rajapaksa had accepted the invitation to be the chief guest extended by the Chairperson of the New Delhi-based council, Manorama Dobriyal Sharma.

During his visit to India, the Sri Lankan President is expected to meet the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at New Delhi. But the meetings with the Indian leaders are yet to be confirmed.

Critical juncture

Rajapaksa's proposed visit to India and the plan to have talks with the Indian leaders assume significance in the context of the current situation in Sri Lanka, which is fast moving towards war.

Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE have been accusing each other of building up for a "massive" military offensive.

Artillery and mortar duels are taking places on a daily basis both in the Eastern districts of Batticaloa and Trincomalee, and the northern district of Jaffna in the Muhamalai sector.

The shelling of a refugee camp in Kathirveli in the East which claimed 50 lives and the firing on the Pooneryn jetty when the chief truce monitor Lars Solvberg was there, were some of the more serious incidents in the very recent past.

Aerial bombs had fallen close to a hospital in Kilinochchi, the LTTE's administrative HQ.

Earlier, the LTTE's Voice of Tigers radio station was bombed. The Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) has been carrying out bombing missions very frequently since July end.

The LTTE is still to retaliate in kind, though it had struck with telling effect in Habarana and Galle.

But political and military observers say that a striking response is very much on the cards, either in the form of a major military attack or in the form of a terrorist attack on the capital city of Colombo.

Colombo has been turned into a garrison town, with troops at key places round the clock. Checking has been stepped up considerably. New parking restrictions are in place to prevent car bombings.

Unresolved issues threaten to escalate

The issue of the re-opening of the A9 highway to Jaffna closed since August, is nowhere near being resolved.

The government has suggested an alternative land cum sea route, which the LTTE has rejected. The LTTE wants the road to be opened while the government says opening is too much of a security risk.

Meanwhile, food stocks are running out in Jaffna, home to 600,000 Tamils. India has had to announce a gift of 6,800 tonnes of rice, sugar and milk powder to partially alleviate the suffering for a month.

With food and other essentials not going to Jaffna as before (they have to be taken by sea through a circuitous route), trade in Jaffna has come to a virtual halt.

The ban on the taking of semi-war like materials like cement and steel has halted construction work. The virtual ban on fishing has crippled another key industry and a major employer.

De-merger issue widens ethnic gulf

Then there is the emotive issue of the de-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which were merged to form a single Tamil-speaking North-Eastern Province at the instance of India in 1987-88.

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court deeply hurt the Tamils by declaring the merger illegal. But the majority Sinhalas and a section of the Muslims were overjoyed.

The difference in perception threatens to widen the ethnic divide rather than narrow it.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister helped widen the divide on Monday by telling parliament that the issue of the merger or de-merger would have to be decided by the people in a referendum.

The Tamils have always felt that a referendum would result in a de-merger. This is why, a referendum has never been held, though there is a legal provision for it in the Act bringing about the merger.

Where India comes in

Faced with the grim prospect of a referendum and a de-merger taking place in the midst of great violence, the Tamils are looking up to India to help them out because the merger was brought about by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said in parliament that the Supreme Court had flouted an international treaty and violated the Vienna Convention by ignoring the India-Sri Lanka Accord.

The TNA asked India and the international community to step in and make the Sri Lankan government restore the status quo ante.

India's stand on the issue of de-merger has not been indicated yet.

But if Rajapaksa's meeting with Manmohan Singh does come through, Singh will raise this issue, among others.

Prabhakaran may set tone for 2007

Rajapaksa's visit to India will coincide with another important event - the annual Hero's Day oration of the LTTE Supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran on November 27.

His speech is eagerly awaited this time round because Sri Lankans all over the island will know from it if they are in for war or peace in 2007.

Rajapaksa, who distrusts the West, including the Norwegian peace brokers, is eager to get close to India to effectively counter the LTTE.

He will no doubt exchange perspectives on this issue in his talks with the Indian leaders.

First Published: Nov 09, 2006 18:04 IST