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Comments on Sri Lanka-India PMs’ Talks; By Col. R. Hariharan

C3S Paper No. 0178/2015


(This article is based on the notes used in a TV panel discussion on the talks between the visiting Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 15, 2015. It touches upon three issues that figured in their statements at a press meet on the same day.)

Question: It is rather strange that when Sri Lanka government has not reduced the military presence in the Northern Province as demanded by Tamils for a long time, Prime Minister Modi has spoken of expanding defence cooperation with Sri Lanka. He said India would expand cooperation with Sri Lanka in three areas: training of Sri Lanka armed forces, security of the maritime neighbourhood and in combating terrorism. The reference to ‘combating terrorism’ does not make sense because Sri Lanka has claimed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been wiped out.  What are your comments?

Answer: The two prime ministers have not touched upon the issue of reducing the army strength in Northern Province in their statements, probably because it was not discussed. In any case, this issue has been debated many times in this forum. So I don’t see the point in linking it up with defence cooperation between the two nations. I shall confine my comments to three aspects: extending our military training facilities to Sri Lanka, maritime security cooperation and combating terrorism.

Extending Our Military Training Facilities

Indian armed forces are the biggest in the region next only to China with extensive military training infrastructure and years of experience in training armed forces.  India had thrown open these training facilities for Sri Lanka’s use for nearly four decades. And Sri Lanka is not the only country to avail of our military training infrastructure facilities for their forces. Over 32 countries, particularly in our neighbourhood, and some African and Arab countries have been training in our facilities. So we have not made an exception in the case of Sri Lanka, though probably it had benefitted the most.

So Modi’s reference to further expanding existing levels of cooperation in this field between India and Sri Lanka has to be understood in this broader strategic context and not solely on the basis of Sri Lanka Tamil issue.

As the two countries are geographically too close to each other, it will be in their national interest to optimize their military capabilities to ensure their security is mutually reinforcing. Moreover, Sri Lanka is the vanguard of peninsular India’s defence because any threat to it will adversely affect India’s own national security.  Military training is perhaps the best method of achieving greater understanding, close coordination and cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries.

Maritime Security Cooperation

Sometime back, India entered into maritime security cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka and Maldives. Under the agreement, Indian Navy, the largest force of its kind in the Indian Ocean region(IOR), has been protecting their interests in their huge extended economic zones(EEZ) in Indian Ocean from external exploitation.  It is strategically important for all the three countries to sustain such cooperation to protect not only the natural resources undersea in the EEZ but also from external naval threat.

This becomes important as the Indian Ocean sea lanes are increasingly becoming strategic life line of global maritime trade and commerce and naval power assertion by its major users to protect their interests. India’s maritime trade is increasing in tandem with its expanding economic power and it has benefitted both Sri Lanka and Maldives. For Indian container based traffic Colombo is perhaps the most important port of call.

The strategic scene in Indian Ocean region is changing rapidly. Chinese naval presence is increasing in our vicinity in the Indian Ocean; it is helping Pakistan Navy to increase its naval capability. Indian Navy is also in an expansion spree. So the IOR is becoming the focus of maritime security concern not only to regional powers, but also to the US and its allies who are increasingly concerned at the PLA Navy’s increasing presence.

China has created port infrastructure in Colombo and Hambantota Sri Lanka in and in Gwadar in Pakistan. And Chinese warships have berthed in these ports causing uneasiness among India’s strategic planners. Sri Lanka and Maldives have also entered into strategic security cooperation agreements with China. So it makes sense for India to ensure existing maritime security arrangements with Sri Lanka and Maldives are further reinforced and strengthened. This would explain why we have been training the naval and coast guard forces of Sri Lanka and Maldives to improve their capacities and capabilities.

Cooperation in Combating Terrorism

It is true that the LTTE has been wiped out in Sri Lanka at the end of the Eelam War in May 2009. However, the Tamil Tigers overseas modules particularly in Europe, Canada and UK have continued to exist with a low public profile. Though they are lying low at an opportune moment the possibility of they becoming active to revive  separatist insurgency cannot be ruled out. A few LTTE modules have also been busted in Tamil Nadu from where they could have easily infiltrated Sri Lanka. These reports  have made Sri Lanka wary of the Tamil Tiger terrorism sprouting once again in Sri Lanka. India is also aware of the dangers of LTTE (where it is proscribed) terrorists staging a comeback. So the two countries (including Tamil Nadu) have been exchanging vital information on suspected Tamil insurgent group’s activities.

There is yet another angle to terrorist threat. In the recent past, there had been instances of Jihadi terrorists from Pakistan infiltrating into India using Colombo as a transit point. In these instances involvement of Pakistan ISI operating from the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo had come to India’s notice. There is also the lingering threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists making an entry into India using Sri Lanka as the take off point. Thus Sri Lanka’s cooperation has become essential for India to ensure such attempts are not made by.  So we have to under the Indian Prime Minister’s reference to cooperation in prevent Pakistan intelligence agencies and Jihadi terrorist elements using Sri Lanka to the detriment of our national security. Modi’s reference to combating terrorism has to be understood in this broader context rather than solely on the possible revival of LTTE.

(Col. R. Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990.

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