A strong signal

THE LATEST VISIT by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to New Delhi has brought forth a perceptible change in India's approach to the peace process in that country. Instead of a plain repetition of its commitment to a negotiated settlement to the Sri Lankan conflict and to Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity, India has for the first time in more than a decade discarded its hands-off policy to set out what it wants from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the joint statement issued by the two Governments, India has said it "expects" the LTTE's response to Sri Lanka's proposals for an interim administration in the North-East to be "reasonable and comprehensive". Significantly, India wants the current impasse in the peace process to be ended quickly and has laid down that the interim arrangement "should be an integral part of the final settlement and should be in the framework of the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka." It is the strongest message of support yet from India to the Sri Lankan Government in its endeavour to find peace without dividing the country.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has doubtless returned to Colombo feeling stronger than when he landed in New Delhi. The LTTE recently announced that it would present its own proposals for an interim administration in the North-East by October 31. There are widespread apprehensions that it might make impossible demands on the Sri Lankan Government. What will India do in the event of the LTTE choosing to ignore the message that has gone out from New Delhi? The Sri Lankan Government has been at pains to explain to its people that if the current peace process breaks down, it can rely on an "international safety net" to take care of any contingencies. Does such a safety net exist in reality? It is not clear how far India and the rest of the world will go to assist Colombo if the Tigers end the ceasefire and return to war. India and Sri Lanka already cooperate in defence matters. Sri Lankan military personnel are trained in India and the two sides exchange information that has proved useful to Colombo several times in intercepting LTTE arms shipments. The two countries have now decided to conclude a defence cooperation agreement "at the earliest" to systematise and enhance this cooperation. What is clear is that this is not going to be a bilateral defence treaty through which Sri Lanka can seek direct military assistance from its big neighbour. Nevertheless, the Indian stand articulated in the joint statement has injected a new confidence in Sri Lanka's attitude towards the LTTE, evident in the remarks of the Foreign Minister, Tyronne Fernando, to this newspaper.

Adding to this confidence is the state of India-Sri Lanka relations. They have never been in better shape. Politically and economically, the two countries are getting very close with regular high-level visits and interactions. India has become one of the biggest investors in the island. Despite apprehensions, the Free Trade Agreement has helped to increase volumes of trade, not just from India to Sri Lanka but also the other way round. Going well beyond the FTA, the two countries are now preparing to conclude a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement by March 2004. The first step in this is the decision to expand civil aviation links between the two countries as part of a new limited open skies approach. Fortunately, India enjoys excellent relations with both Mr. Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who has warmly welcomed the joint statement. Any irretrievable breakdown of relations between Prime Minister and President might offer the LTTE an excuse to abandon the road to a negotiated settlement. India must do its best to see this does not happen by exerting all the influence at its disposal to help the two leaders forge a far-sighted bipartisan consensus on a final political settlement of Sri Lanka's principal national question — the Tamil question.

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