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Securing South Asia

'Today, when we speak of security of a State we no longer mean its physical security alone. When we speak of strategy we no longer mean defence strategy alone, says Lakshman Kadirgamar.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2003 01:51 IST

Today, when we speak of the security of a State we no longer mean its physical security alone. When we speak of strategy we no longer mean military or defence strategy alone.

The concepts of security and strategy have acquired a wider connotation. They involve all matters relating to the maintenance of stability and the enhancement of prosperity of a country and its region. The ongoing process of globalisation has inculcated an awareness of interdependence among countries, certainly in regional terms if not yet fully in global terms. Thus, political instability in a country threatens not only its own security but the security of its neighbours.

So with financial and economic instability; whereas bilateral or multilateral trading and fiscal arrangements, defence pacts and other forms of conventional military collaboration, would tend to promote national and regional security. Thus, when we address the subject of “securing South Asia” we must necessarily contemplate not the security of individual States in isolation but the security of South Asia as a whole.

In this context there are three elements of the “India factor” which vitally affect goverance in Sri Lanka. First, when our domestic political and military problems descend into crisis, we would be well advised, as indeed major world powers have advised us publicly on the record, that India being indisputably the pre-eminent regional power, with a special; responsibility for regional stability, to avail ourselves of that factor: namely, of India’s help in resolving any of our internal crises. The second element is the Tamil connection between ourselves and Indian Tamils, principally in Tamil Nadu State but also elsewhere in that country. The third element is what I may call the “backyard concept”, that is to say that Sri Lanka is India’s exposed southern flank.

The third element stems from our own geographical location vis-à-vis India. It thereby becomes a matter of vital concern for India as top who comes and goes, and what happens, in Sri Lanka. Given the unique character of the region which makes it an integer, in terms of security, India is likely to worry, and to worry legitimately, about any alien presence in Sri Lanka, worse still involvement, which precludes her. The point of interconnection is this: should, for instance, a Sri Lankan government of the day, facing an internal crisis concerning the Tamils there, be seen by India to engage the involvement, especially the military involvement, of any other regional member, far worse an outside power altogether, in its resolution, then it would be only fair to surmise that the Indian government of that day will be hard put, whatever moral underpinning is cited to the contrary, to keep its gaze firmly averted in an attitude of studied nonchalance.

I turn now to the specific situation of Sri Lanka in respect firstly of the ground realities and secondly evolving political developments. I will draw your attention to six points with regard to the military situation.

1) A ceasefire was signed in February 2002. There have been no open hostilities since that date but the LTTE has committed numerous violations both of the spirit and the letter of the ceasefire by continuing to smuggle in arms by sea (two arms ships were sunk but many have got through), committing extortion in the name of taxation, conscripting underage children (well documented by international agencies), assassinating political opponents, harassing Muslims in the East, considerably expanding the strength of its armed cadres, establishing a separate judicial system, banks, police stations, etc.

2) The LTTE has had for many years, and continues to expand, a so-called Navy which consists of a large number of small boats of various kinds driven by outboard motors.

3) The security of Trincomalee harbour, one of the best and deepest natural harbours, has been severely compromised. A large number of camps and other LTTE military installations have arisen around the southern rim of the harbour since the ceasefire. The strength of LTTE cadres in that area is estimated above two thousand. Mobile field artillery capable of reaching targets 17 kilometers away have been sighted in the area together with large quantities of 105 mm, 85 mm and 82 mm mortars and other types of weapons. The famous naval dockyard built by the British is within range of field artillery. Suicide boats hidden in the mangrove swamps of the inner rim of the harbour have been spotted. The harassment of Muslims who live on the rim of the harbour has increased in order to drive them away. The famous collection of oil tanks built by the British, which have now been leased to the Indian Oil Corporation(IOC), are situated on the rim of the harbour.

4) A fact finding mission from the US pacific Command in Hawai concluded last year that the presence of the LTTE camps and artillery on the rim of the harbour could lead to the Sri Lankan navy being levelled. They recommended that the southern rim should be cleared of LTTE positions as otherwise Trincomalee harbour would become indefensible.

5) In a debate in the Sri Lankan Parliament on 8th October the then Minister Defence (who was subsequently removed from office) stated that since the ceasefire the LTTE has “early doubled” its strength in the area and that the real threat to the harbour came from its artillery.

6) It will be noted that major international shipping lanes pass the east coast of Sri Lanka and are therefore rendered vulnerable if Tricomalee harbour should fall into the hands of the LTTE.

In assessing the threat to regional security and especially to the security of India, let alone Sri Lanka, posed by the threat to the Trincomalee harbour the following considerations need to be kept in mind:

a) The presence of a third so-called Navy in the region, however rudimentary it might be for the moment, poses a threat which cannot be discounted. A retired Indian Admiral speaking at a seminar in Volombo recently drew pointed attention to this naval threat.

b) Since India now has a legal stake in the oil tanks by virtue of their lease to the Indian Oil Corporation the security of the oil tanks becomes a matter of direct concern to India.

c) In the event of hostilities the China Bay Air Force on the rim of the Trincomalee harbour is likewise rendered vulnerable and so is the Palaly Air Force base in the northern province. The LTTE’s ambition to develop a rudimentary Air Force is well known and documented.

(The writer is the Sri Lankan’s advisor on foreign affairs. The text is excerpted from a speech he delivered at the HT Leadership Intitiative conference on Friday.)