India rumbles over Sri Lanka war, but to what end?

Indian political pressure on Sri Lanka to throttle back an offensive to wipe out the Tamil Tigers will do little to sway a Sri Lankan government increasingly confident it can end one of Asia's longest insurgencies.

Despite threats from Tamil politicians at home, India is loath to repeat its disastrous 1980s intervention in the war on its doorstep, leaving Sri Lanka free to wage a military campaign that has energised President Mahinda Rajapaksa's political base.

"The military is very unlikely to stop now, because this is the government's key political agenda item," said Maria Kuusisto, an analyst with Eurasia Group. "Now when they have gone this far, to backtrack would be a negative."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week expressed concern at the escalation in the conflict, which has raged on and off for 25 years, and called for a negotiated settlement.

Singh's comments, which echoed India's existing diplomatic stance, were described by analysts as pre-election manoeuvres by a government that must call a national poll by May 2009.

The UPA is under pressure from his allies in Tamil Nadu, where the mainly Tamil population accuses largely Sinhalese Sri Lanka of trying to wipe out the island's Tamils.

And despite his criticism, Singh also endorsed Sri Lanka's position that the country must not allow the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to split the Indian Ocean island nation in two, nor tolerate the actions of a group on US, EU and Indian terrorism lists.

"India loves to play all sides, and has always done that," said Reva Bhalla, an analyst with the US private intelligence firm Stratfor.

"They can cater to the Tamil politicians and benefit from the Tigers' military capability going down without taking too much political risk."

Underscoring India's dual-track approach to Sri Lanka, furious denials erupted from Colombo and New Delhi last month after two Indian radar technicians were injured in a Tiger assault on a Sri Lankan military base.

Rajapaksa later said the men were providing after-sales service to radars India's Bharat Electronics sold to the military. India has also helped Sri Lanka intercept Tiger boats, which it considers a threat to national security, analysts say.


Brewing diplomatic tension has been bubbling since the radar fiasco, with ethnic Tamil politicians increasingly echoing the Tigers' charge that the war is 'genocide'. The LTTE for years has funded politicians in Tamil Nadu.

The threat comes as Sri Lanka, which has vowed to crush the Tigers militarily this year, says its troops are 2 km from the rebel capital of Kilinochchi, a strategic and symbolic target.

On Wednesday, the complaints peaked when 39 legislators from Tamil Nadu state threatened to resign from Singh's ruling Congress party-led coalition if India did not stop the Sri Lankan advance within two weeks.

Stratfor's Bhalla, echoing a widely-held view, said there was no chance of direct intervention given the history India's humiliating 1987-1990 peacekeeping mission, in which it lost more than 1,200 soldiers and was accused of human rights violations.

Sri Lanka's intensified offensive over the last three months has produced the bloodiest fighting since the government officially annulled a 2002 ceasefire in January, and sent 230,000 people fleeing their homes in a growing humanitarian crisis.

"The last thing India would want is an influx of refugees to its territory," G Parthasarthy, a former Indian diplomat and expert in Indo-Sri Lanka relations said.

Thousands of refugees have poured across the narrow Palk Strait into Tamil Nadu repeatedly since the war started in 1983.

Singh last month refused to meet Rajapaksa at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which analysts say was a sign that he was unhappy with the progress of political negotiations on the Tamil issue.

Rajapaksa's government has promised that devolution for Tamil areas in the north and east of the island would go hand-in-hand with its push to win the war.

"A year ago the President had given repeated assurances that while the military component was going on, he would have a political package ready," Colombo-based analyst Iqbal Athas said. "The fact that process has not moved forward is why Singh didn't give him an appointment in New York."

It also prompted Rajapaksa to call a meeting of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), a panel designed to forge a political compromise, over the weekend and urge the Tigers to lay down their weapons and enter the democratic process, Athas said.

A senior Sri Lankan government official said Rajapaksa's offer was not too different from the solution Singh had demanded.

"The government agrees that the concerns of the minority must be addressed through a political process, which is already on train," the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the APRC.

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