Enter the DRAGON
India's domestic compulsions barred it from being seen as an active ally of the Rajapaksa government. So India watched with great unease as China expanded influence in its own backyard
BRAJESH KUMAR DELHI
AS THE SRI Lankan television beamed pictures of a dead Prabhakaran with a bullet in his head, the first reaction world over was that of disbelief. Soon, with the news sinking in, disbelief gave way to ecstasy, relief and euphoria.
However, as the world felt relieved at the demise of the world's most ruthless terrorist, the Tamil Diaspora and LTTE sympathisers are still to come to terms with his loss, refusing to believe that such a colossal figure could actually die such an ignoble death. Some still believe that the redoubtable leader of the terrorist organisation is alive and kicking and plotting his comeback. This emphatic
inability to accept Prabhakaran's death stems from his uncanny ability of making a phoenix-like comeback.
So, what brought the downfall of the once 'invincible force' that could have divided the island nation and an ignominious death of a larger-than-life leader? Lt. General (retd) AS Kalkat, who headed the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that bloodied its nose in Sri Lanka fighting the LTTE, told Hardnews that the Sri Lankan government, in the last few years, had adopted a two-pronged strategy - political and military - to take on the LTTE. It first took care to isolate the terrorist outfit politically and then used its newly-acquired military might to corner and crush it, he said.
Earlier, the LTTE invariably got international mediators to intervene and force a ceasefire. It then used this period to regroup. The Sri Lankan government ultimately saw through the LTTE's game plan and refused to yield to international pressure despite worldwide outcry over the humanitarian crisis in the wake of civil war. Add to this, the tactical blunder committed by the LTTE. "Extremely self-confident of its might, it acquired all the trappings of a State setting up its headquarters at Killinochi. It lost the plot when it decided to fight the Sri Lankan military in a conventional war, forgetting that its strength lay in guerrilla warfare," he said. One of the reasons for its survival over 25 years has been its ability to hit and run.
Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta, an old Sri Lanka hand attributed LTTE's downfall to its umpteen miscalculations. "It fought the Sri Lankan military mistaking it as a force of the 1990s and 2000s, which it was not," he told Hardnews. The Sri Lankan military has come of age and is a new fighting machine refurbished with high-tech arms and equipment. Also, with the Rajapaksa government at the helm, the country is strong politically, he said. The government under the strong and determined leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa severely impaired LTTE's ability to regroup and rebuild itself by blocking off all supply routes, he added.
One of the most important factors both Kalkat and Mehta pointed out is the diplomatic and military aid provided by China.
Armed with Chinese military equipment, the Sri Lankan army rolled on, trampling under its marauding steps the growing crescendo of international criticism for the resultant bloodbath. Having cornered the terrorist organisation in a small patch of land in the north-eastern part of the country, the military went for Prabhakaran and shot him dead. His top aides including his son Charles Anthony were also killed.
Various human rights groups ranging from Human Rights Watch to Red Cross to Amnesty International as also many western nations condemned the unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the island nation. But, all this fell on the deaf ears of the Sri Lankan government.
CHINA'S UNSTINTED SUPPORT to Sri Lanka was seen by the world as part of its geo-strategic move to get access to the India Ocean. So blatant was China's move that the Indian government reacted angrily terming it as China's attempt to fish in troubled waters. "That is a lone, discordant voice in the global community," P Chidambaram had said while speaking to the media on April 24.
While China's courtship of Sri Lanka began in the 1990s when it replaced India and the western nations as main supplier of weapons to Colombo which were used in the civil war. China secured its place in the Indian Ocean in March 2007 when it inked the $ 1 billion Hanbatota port deal. The port, built by Chinese engineers at a frenetic pace on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, was used to service hundreds of ships that traverse the sea-lanes of commerce off Sri Lanka. "Their primary aim is to secure their sea lanes of communication in the north Indian Ocean through which Chinese trade and energy supplies flow. To do this, they built strategic and defence ties with Colombo," Sujit Dutta, head of the East Asia programme of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, had once remarked.
Returning the favour, China took upon itself to arm Sri Lankan army to the teeth in its war against the LTTE. It agreed to provide Colombo with state-of-the-art weapons, and most importantly, diplomatic support. According to B Raman of the Centre for China Studies, Chennai, the Chinese arms sale have helped Colombo turn the table on LTTE which until recently ran its parallel government from the northern town of Jaffna. China increased its aid from a few million dollars to almost $ 1 billion dollar last year thus replacing Japan as the biggest foreign donor. As against China, the aid provided by some other countries (US: $ 7.4 million, UK: GBP 1.25 million) has been insignificant, which explains Sri Lanka's disregard for international criticism.
China has, however, downplayed the Hanbatota deal terming it as a purely commercial venture. "China's investment in commercial activity and any distortion of the facts would be invalid," Ma Zhaoxu, China's foreign ministry spokesperson told China Daily on May 12. "It's an aid project meant to improve Sri Lanka's shipping and transportation," said Fu Xiaoqiang, a senior researcher on South Asian studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations to the paper. "It's just normal business activity, like China's projects in Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Myanmar," Fu said.
Despite China's protestations and denial, Indian and western security experts see it as China's long-term strategic objective to gain access to the Indian Ocean region. As part of this 'string of pearl' strategy, China has been actively courting other South Asian countries like Bangladesh, Maldives, Burma and Pakistan.
In pursuance of its strategic goals, China, without any compunction, has blissfully allied with repressive regimes. Armed with veto power in the United Nation's Security Council, China has signed billions of dollars worth of energy and arms contracts with such pariah states as Sudan, Burma, Venezuela.
India, with its own domestic compulsions that has barred it from being seen as an active ally of the Rajapaksa government, has been watching with great unease China's growing influence in its own backyard. Chidambaram's warning against China exploiting the situation is testimony to India's growing concern.
"Well, what has gone to China was first offered to India," said Lt General Mehta referring to the licence to build the port at Hanbatota. "We miscalculated and allowed it go to China," he said. "It was the Damocles' sword of Tamil politics over the Indian government that allowed China to move in," said General Kalkat. However, according to Kalkat, after the death of Prabhakaran, India has the chance of regaining lost ground. "We can help Sri Lanka through humanitarian aid and also we can support it in its endeavour to bring peace in Sri Lanka by rightful devolution of power to the Tamils of the country," he concluded.