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Sri Lankan leaders head to India amid war

Both Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will be in India next week.

india Updated: Jan 26, 2007 08:36 IST

Sri Lankan leaders from the government and the opposition are heading to India at a time when there is intense frustration here and in other countries over the failure to bring peace to the island.

Both Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will be here next week for the celebrations, organised by the ruling Congress party, of the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha.

Another visitor will be Sri Lanka's new Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona.

Although much of their time will be spent hearing and talking about a man who was an apostle of non-violence, they are expected to discuss with officials here the relentless war raging in their own country.

With both Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at each other's throats, most Indian fingers are tightly crossed - mirroring the mood in several Western capitals.

Peace facilitator Norway has been more or less dumped by Sri Lanka, which seems intent on rolling back the Tamil Tigers from the eastern province and propping up the breakaway group led by Karuna, the former LTTE regional commander.

And with killings and counter-killing as well as abductions the order of the day, no one overseeing the barely alive peace process is sure where the cycle of violence is headed for.

The US, the 25-nation European Union, Japan and Norway seem convinced that there is little they can do when Colombo is determined to crush the LTTE militarily and the Tigers refuse to give up despite suffering major territorial losses.

If the visiting prime minister and opposition leader interact with the Indian government, New Delhi will reiterate that Sri Lanka needs to devolve autonomous powers to Tamil areas.

The one point New Delhi has been very vocal about is the need to avoid wanton civilian casualties when the military battles the Tigers. This is certain to be repeated.

Internationally, there is heat on Sri Lanka on the human rights front.

The European Union is expected to table a resolution at a rights meeting in Geneva in March condemning the government. Germany, which now heads the EU, has already suspended aid to Sri Lanka.

But Colombo does not seem unduly worried.

Having tasted morale-boosting military victories, it is in no mood to slow down. There are indications that members of the majority Sinhalese community may be settled in Trincomalee in the east coast to alter the demography of the region.

The calculation is that if a referendum is held to decide whether the northern and eastern provinces should remain one administrative unit, then almost all Muslims and Sinhalese and even sections of Tamils may vote against it.

But few believe that the LTTE can be subdued. Pushed to the wall, the Tigers may simply revert to guerrilla war, despite the great odds against them.

The dominant thinking in India is that it should not intervene in Sri Lanka. And despite differences between Colombo and New Delhi over the ethnic question, it is unlikely their strategic ties would be impaired seriously because of fears that others, particularly Pakistan, would exploit such a situation.

At the same time, no one here is for a military solution to the conflict and the feeling is that the Tamil community should get its political due.

And sections of the Indian establishment still have faith in President Mahinda Rajapakse and hope that he might, overcoming the political factors that threaten instability, one day come out with a widely accepted devolution package.

First Published: Jan 26, 2007 08:36 IST