Recalling India’s hidden hand in Sri Lanka war

Extract from my 2009 book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace


Every year on 27 November, Vellupillai Prabhakaran used to make what he called a Hero’s Day speech, often reassuring his supporters that the fight for Tamil Eelam was still on. Given the setbacks suffered by the LTTE in the first 10 months of 2008, Prabhakaran’s speech was awaited with much anticipation. 

Would he appeal to Indian leadership to rescue him? 

Or would he seek a ceasefire?

The speech was expected to reveal Prabhakaran’s mind.

But destiny had other plans for the beleagured leader.

Just when Prabhakaran needed the undivided attention of India, particularly the people of Tamil Nadu, terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba blasted their way into the headlines by attacking India’s financial capital Mumbai late on November 26, completely shutting Prabhakaran out of the Indian news media.

Holding the city to ransom for three days the terror story hogged headlines and only few of the Indian print media carried Prabhakaran’s speech on the sidelines, while the visual media totally ignored it.

This, at a time when Prabhakaran needed India and more particularly, Tamil Nadu to react to the LTTE’s plight. This was the time when he needed India’s total attention. This was the time he needed India’s support for his armed struggle. This was the time he needed India to lift the ban on the LTTE. 

Actually this was the central theme of his otherwise recycled, annual speech in November 2008.

In political terms it meant that whatever little glimmer of hope there was for an Indian intervention to stop the war on terror in Sri Lanka went up in smoke in the flames burning in Mumbai. His hopes were based on the fact that in the previous six months, there had been a resurgence of political support in Tamil Nadu for the LTTE.

Prabhakaran was once again hoping to manipulate Delhi through Chennai.

Prabhhkaran’s Hero’s Day speech in 2008—which turned out to be his last—outlined his political strategy: “Notwithstanding the dividing sea, Tamil Nadu, with its perfect understanding of our plight, has taken heart to rise on behalf of our people at this hour of need. This timely intervention has gratified the people of Tamil Eelam and our freedom movement and given us a sense of relief. I wish to express my love and gratitude at this juncture to the people and leaders of Tamil Nadu and the leaders of India for the voice of support and love they have extended. I would cordially request them to raise their voice firmly in favor of our struggle for a Tamil Eelam state, and to take appropriate and positive measures to remove the ban which remains an impediment to an amicable relationship between India and our movement.”

And yet, there not a word of regret or remorse in the speech for his own betrayal of India in the past when New Delhi had actively intervened in support of the Tamil cause but only got a bloody nose and unfair criticism from rest of the world. Despite the recent military reversals, Prabhkaran wanted India’s help on his own terms. He offered no apology for the role of LTTE in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India’s prime minister in 1991.

Instead he called India’s past actions as “injurious to the people of  Tamil Eelam, as well as to their struggle.” Contradicting himself in the latter part of his speech Prabhakaran said he had “great expectations that the Indian super power will take a positive stand on our national question.” Probably, he expected further political pressure from Tamil Nadu to influence India. He felt Tamil Nadu “has taken heart to rise on behalf of our people at this hour of need. This timely intervention has gratified the people of Tamil Eelam and our freedom movement and given us a sense of relief.”

Col Hariharan analysed the speech in its correct context and asked: “Does he (Prabhakaran) really believe in his call? Or a stray event like the celebration of his birthday by a group of lawyers in the Madras High Court has kindled his high expectations? Prabhakaran is too shrewd for that. All this hype built over Indian support is probably to boost up his constituency among expatriate Tamils and the LTTE cadres battling it out in Wanni under adverse conditions.”

“The Great Hero’s Day statement only shows that despite his strategic blunders Prabhakaran is yet to introspect and come to term with the dynamics of sub-continental reality. If he wants Indian support he has to change his script drastically. And it has to be on India’s terms, not his.”

As 2008 drew to a close, Prabhakaran would have looked back and wondered if his mistakes in alienating India would cost him dearly in the coming months. This was quite a change from a quarter century ago. Then the Tamils in Sri Lanka had looked at India as the savior and so did the LTTE.

Twenty-five years later, India sought to protect Tamil civilians caught in the conflict but New Delhi had clearly told the Sri Lankan government that it considered the LTTE a terrorist organization and therefore would not interfere in Colombo’s military campaign.

Prabhakaran’s ill-fated decision to order Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in the summer of 1991 was now coming back to haunt him.

In reality, the day a female suicide bomber detonated explosives strapped to her body and killed Rajiv Gandhi in a small Tamil Nadu town named Sriperumbadur, Prabhakaran blew up his chances of ever getting India on his side. To be fair to him though, New Delhi’s policies towards Sri Lanka and LTTE in particular, always oscillated widely between two extremes.

In 1983, after the tragic massacre of innocent Tamils in Colombo, India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had initiated a multipronged strategy to deal with the Sri Lankan issue. While she facilitated direct talks between moderate Tamil parties and President JR Jayewardene’s government, India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) began arming and training nascent Tamil insurgent groups, including the LTTE in an effort to bring these groups under India’s direct influence and use them as lever
against the Sri Lankan state.

In less than two years after Indira Gandhi’s initiative, her son Rajiv, who took over the mantle of Prime Ministership after his mother was assassinated on October 31, 1984 almost reversed the policy. In his eagerness to go down in history as a man who brought peace all round, Rajiv Gandhi initiated several accords in India and one with Sri Lanka.

He went against the LTTE, got closer to the Sri Lankan state and pushed for political settlement between the Tamil groups and the government. He even ordered the Indian Navy to assist the Sri Lankan navy in patrolling the Palk Strait and prevent Tamil militants groups from smuggling weapons into Sri Lanka and disallow the rebels to flee to Tamil Nadu.

Rajiv Gandhi’s policy however failed to yield the desired dividends. In the process, both the Sinhala-dominated J R Jayewardene government and the Tamil rebels blamed New Delhi for messing up the situation. After a failed round of talks in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu in 1985, Jayewardene resumed military operations against the rebels particularly the LTTE. The Army operations led to a humanitarian crisis in the Jaffna peninsula in 1987 forcing India to airdrop food packets much against the wishes of the Sri Lankan government.

JR Jayewardene chafed at India’s ‘military’ intervention but had little choice then to fall in line. India’s openly biased intervention in favor of the Tamils in Sri Lanka led to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. Under the accord, the Sri Lankan government agreed to make constitutional changes for devolving powers to the Tamil. In return, the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF), which had arrived on the island’s North with great fanfare was supposed to disarm the rebel groups.

But Prabhakaran who had reluctantly acquiesced to the terms of the Accord was not playing ball. Within months of the Accord, the LTTE and IPKF troops were confronting each other. Colombo watched with glee as the two former friends clashed and clashed violently. The IPKF suffered grievously in absence of any clear politicomilitary objective, lost over 1200 men and returned home bitter and humiliated.

The Indo-Sri Lanka relationship had reached its nadir in 1990.

The LTTE however continued to receive moral and material support in Tamil Nadu until May 21, 1991.

By killing Rajiv Gandhi that day, the outfit lost, in one stroke, its biggest strength: safe sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu. ‘Col’ Karuna, who was Prabhakaran’s trusted commander in the East in 1991, told me in 2009: “The decision to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi was known only to Prabhakaran and Pottu Amman (LTTE’s intelligence chief). None of us senior commanders or leaders was taken into confidence. In my view, killing Rajiv Gandhi was the biggest mistake Prabhakaran made in his life.”

The outrage over Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination forced India to ban the LTTE on May 14, 1992. The event also reversed India’s policy of covert support for Tamil militants. Instead of helping the Tamil groups in Sri Lanka, New Delhi ordered a total clampdown on organizations that supported the LTTE.

India in fact went one step forward. It helped Colombo launch a concerted campaign to ban the LTTE worldwide. New Delhi’s diplomatic collaboration with Colombo led to major powers like the US and European Union to proscribe the LTTE over the next 15 years. So between 1991 and 2004, India studiously kept a distance from the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka although New Delhi pursued a pro-active economic and trade relationship with Colombo. India’s decided to offer Sri Lanka favorable terms in trade giving New Delhi an increased foothold in Colombo.

Despite the new-found confidence between the two, Mahinda Rajapaksa was not going to be swayed by emotion or fear. As a pragmatist, he realized the importance of keeping New Delhi on his side but he, like many Sri Lankan politicians of his generation, was not about to forget the roughshod treatment meted out by New Delhi in the tumultuous 1980s.

The 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord was seen by many in Colombo as Sri Lanka’s ultimate humiliation by a big neighbor. That accord was virtually forced on the Sri Lankans. If the Tamils thought New Delhi had sold them out, the Sinhala right chafed at the some of the concession India extracted from Sri Lanka on security matters. Twenty years later, Colombo had not forgotten the terms imposed by India in the aftermath of the 1987 accord.

The then Indian High Commissioner to Colombo, JN Dixit indeed explicitly mentioned in his book  Assignment Colombo how New Delhi almost arm-twisted Sri Lanka into agreeing to Indian preconditions on security aspects. He wrote: “… I mentioned to the (Sri Lanka) President that while the Agreement and its Annexure would cover all aspects related to the ethnic problem, India’s concerns about India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations and India’s political and security concerns had not been taken care of. The
President was told that the Prime Minister of India also, would, like him (the President), be taking enormous risks in signing such an Agreement in terms of Indian public opinion and, therefore, there must be some formal understanding between Sri Lanka and India on India’s concerns which should be embodied in another Agreement or exchange of letters.

“When Jayewardene asked me to be specific about India’s concerns, I said that Sri Lanka should give assurances to India on the following points:
1. Reduction and phasing out of foreign military and intelligence personnel in Sri Lanka from the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa and so on.
2. Sri Lanka should tilizede its foreign and defence policies and reduce its involvement with USA, Pakistan, China, Israel and South Africa.
3. Sri Lanka should give some assurances to India that its seaports and airports would not be tilized by foreign powers which were antagonistic towards India or which affected India’s security interest negatively.
4. Sri Lanka should fulfil the assurances which it gave in 1985 that India would be given an opportunity to maintain the Trincomalee Oil Tank Farms and that Sri Lanka would prevent foreign broadcasting stations like the Voice of America from being utilized for military purposes by countries like the United States, West Germany, etc.

Jayewardene said that these were excessive demands being made at the last moment. He was, however, reminded politely that these concerns of India were specifically mentioned to him between April 29 and May 5, 1985 by Minister Chidambaram. I recalled that I had
repeated these concerns and requests to Jayewardene on June 9, 1985.  Minister of State Natwar Singh did the same on November 24, and again between December 17 and 19, 1986. I pointed out that India’s co-operation with Sri Lanka to solve the ethnic problem was predicated on Sri Lanka giving positive responses on these important concerns of India. The President consulted Minister Gamini Dissanayake and Finance Minister Romaie de Mel over the phone on these points raised by me. He then directed me to proceed immediately to the offices of the two Ministers to discuss details of how this particular issue should be dealt with.

“At the end of the meeting with these Ministers, it was agreed that the points raised could be covered by means of a letter which should be carefully drafted. I said I would get a Draft Letter covering these points prepared when I proceeded to Delhi for consultations on the proposed Agreement and bring it back for approval….”

Given such bitter and contentious past, Colombo was always wary of India and Rajapaksa were not about to depend solely on India in their quest to eliminate the LTTE.

By end of November 2008, the script was no longer in Prabhakaran’s hands.

It was being written by the Sri Lankan forces tacitly supported by India and openly assisted by China and Pakistan.

Since December 2005, when Rajapaksa made his first visit to New Delhi less than a month after he took over as President, India was aware of his intention to take the LTTE head on. Although in the initial days he was advised to seek a negotiated settlement with the Tigers, New Delhi saw merit in Rajapaksa’s argument that the LTTE was only biding its time to regroup and rearm itself and that war was inevitable sooner than later. And if the LTTE was preparing for a showdown, Rajapaksa did not want to be caught off guard either. His armed forces needed to be ready for any eventuality.

The President therefore sent his brothers Basil and Gotabaya to New Delhi with a shopping list for essential weapons and equipment that the Sri Lankan armed forces needed. The shopping list included air defence weapons, artillery guns, Nishant UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and laser designators for PGMs (precision-guided munitions).

Initially, New Delhi was non-committal.

Top officials involved in the talks on either side told me that in its typical bureaucratic style, New Delhi neither said yes nor said no to the visiting Sri Lankans. So the two brothers went back slightly disappointed but were still hopeful of getting Indian help.

Outwardly, India did adopt a hands off policy vis-à-vis the Sri Lanka conflict. But that was because of domestic political compulsions born out of the fact that the ruling United Progressive Allliance (UPA) government in New Delhi was dependent upon the DMK party from Tamil Nadu for its survival in the Parliament.

Aware of DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s soft corner for Prabhakaran, the UPA did not think it politically prudent to annoy the DMK patriarch by openly supporting the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE.

So, publicly India maintained that it would not give Sri Lanka any offensive weapons.

Yet, in early 2006 India quietly gifted five Mi-17 helicopters to the Sri Lankan Air Force. The only Indian condition was: these helicopters would fly under Sri Lankan Air Force colors. New Delhi clearly did not want to annoy UPA’s Tamil Nadu allies like the DMK unnecessarily.

The Mi-17s were in addition to a Sukanya Class offshore patrol vessel (OPV) gifted by the Indian Coast Guard to the Sri Lankan Navy in 2002.

Sri Lankan defence sources later told me that these helicopters played a major role in several daring missions launched by the Sri Lankan Air Force to rescue the Army’s Deep Penetration Units and the eight-man teams whenever they were surrounded by LTTE’s counter infiltration units or when injured soldiers had to be airlifted from deep inside LTTE held territory.

As a senior Sri Lankan Army officer confided in me: “Our soldiers operating behind enemy lines functioned with greater degree of confidence and efficiency in Eelam War IV since they knew these helicopters were always on hand to come to their rescue whenever necessary. This was surely one of the key factors in our Special Forces delivering spectacular results.”

But hampered by domestic compulsion, New Delhi could not go beyond such meagre and clandestine transfer of military hardware. And publicly all that India was willing to acknowledge was the supply of low-flying detection “Indra” radars to the Sri Lankan Air Force since this equipment was considered a defensive apparatus.

Colombo, on the other hand, was becoming increasingly restless since an all-out war with the LTTE looked inevitable. Domestic political pressure had also stalled the signing of a Defence Cooperation Agreement between India and Sri Lanka. Although both sides had publicly committed themselves to such an accord in 2004 itself, the DCA never materialized.

Insiders in Sri Lanka’s defence establishment reveal that India’s insistence on securing exclusive rights to the use of Palaly air base in the Jaffna peninsula was the most contentious point between the two delegations. Colombo saw this demand from India as downright insulting and symptomatic of India’s hegemonistic mindset. So the DCA never got off the ground. Ironically, three months after the Eelam War IV ended, India decided to fund the repair and restoration of the Palaly air base in north Sri Lanka.

The Rajapaksa regime was nothing if not shrewd. It knew the past history. It was aware of the dynamics that determined India’s domestic politics in the context of Tamil Nadu. It was also conscious of India’s anxiety in losing strategic space in Sri Lanka.

But above all, the Rajapaksa brothers were pragmatic enough to realize that Sri Lanka needed India’s support in the prosecution of the war against the LTTE, total support from China and Pakistan notwithstanding simply because India was Sri Lanka’s next door big neighbour. 

Colombo could ignore India but only upto a point.

So Mahinda Rajapaksa hit upon an idea of setting up an informal exchange mechanism between New Delhi and Colombo. The President nominated both his brothers Basil (an MP and Presidential Adviser) and Gotabaya, the Defence Secretary along with his own secretary, Lalith Weeratunga as members of an informal yet powerful delegation that would update the Indian government on the latest developments as frequently as possible.

India too reciprocated immediately.

India’s National Security Adviser MK Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh formed the Indian trio.

The two teams interacted frequently both on the phone and by visiting each other. The Sri Lankan trio in fact visited New Delhi at least five times between 2007 and 2009. The Indian delegation made three return visits in the same period.

Most of the interactions were low-profile and discreet except the Indian team’s June 2008 trip to Colombo which attracted huge attention mainly because of its timing. That time Sri Lanka’s military operation was pushing the LTTE out of its north western coastal areas in the Mannar district.

And two months later, Sri Lanka was supposed to host the 15th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

When Narayanan, Menon and Singh arrived in the Sri Lankan capital in a special Indian Air Force plane, almost unannounced, military analysts both in India and Sri Lanka were speculating a massive retaliatory strike by the LTTE.

Indian intelligence agencies apparently had credible information that such a counter attack could be aimed at the 15th SAARC summit that Colombo was hosting on August 2 and 3.

The India officials wanted to ensure foolproof security for the summit. New Delhi in fact persuaded the Sri Lankan’s to accept India’s help during the summit. After much persuasion and even a veiled threat that India may stay away from the summit if New Delhi’s suggestions on a security upgrade in Colombo was not met, Sri Lanka reluctantly allowed Indian Naval ships, anti-aircraft guns and helicopters to be deployed in and around Colombo for the duration of the meet.

I happened to be in Colombo as part of the media delegation that traveled with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. I had never seen such tight security in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan capital was indeed locked down in a tight security grid for the duration of the summit. The Indian Prime Minister and all top Indian officials were transported in Indian Air Force helicopters from the Bandarnaike International Airport to the heart of Colombo. All roads used by the VIPs were shut hours before they traveled on them. In fact, I remember friends in Colombo having left town to avoid being inconvenienced by the stifling security arrangements.

The SAARC summit did pass off peacefully although, as usual, its focus was hijacked by the hyped meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers. But security at the SAARC summit was not the only point of discussion that India was interested in. The top Indian officials, according to sources in Colombo, also wanted detailed briefing on the on-going operations in the North. This was readily done at the Ministry of Defence by both the Commander of the Army, General Fonseka and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Karannagoda.

The Indian delegation, I was told by an insider, once again raised the issue of increasing Chinese and Pakistani involvement in Sri Lanka’s military campaign but was quietly reminded that it was India’s refusal to supply lethal weapons that had compelled Colombo to look elsewhere, primarily to China.

But the most important political message was delivered by the Indian delegation to President Rajapaksa. He was told to try and conclude Eelam War IV before the summer of 2009 when India was expected to hold the general elections for Lower House of the Parliament.

The ruling Congress party obviously did not want the shadow of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict to fall on the politics of Tamil Nadu and needlessly complicate matters during the election campaign. President Rajapaksa did not commit himself on the deadline but promised to expedite the operations. The trio returned to New Delhi perhaps with a mixed feeling of achieved only part of its objective. 

Colombo may have been ambivalent about meeting Indian requests to end the operations before the general elections but the Sri Lankan leadership once again gratefully acknowledged the Indian Navy’s contribution in locating and destroying at least 10 ‘floating warehouses,’ owned by the LTTE.

These warehouses or ships of varying sizes were used by the LTTE to store arms, ammunition and even armoured personnel carriers. These ships, which had no names or identification numbers used to remain on high seas for months on end. They were brought near Sri Lankan shores whenever LTTE needed the arms. Smaller ships and crafts were used to transport these arms to the Sea Tiger bases on the East and the West Coast.

Indian and Sri Lankan Navy sources revealed that well-coordinated operations by the two navies between 2006 and 2009 actually broke the backbone of the Sea Tigers.

The Indian Navy, the Sri Lankans said, helped in various ways.

For instance, the Indian Navy’s Dorniers based at Ramnad in Tamil Nadu flew regular reconnaissance missions over the seas around Sri Lanka. These Dornier aircraft fitted with high-powered radars scoured the area for ships with suspicious movement and cargo.

Whenever such a ship was detected, the Indian Navy passed on the information to the
Sri Lankans. The real time intelligence helped Sri Lankan Navy to track and then destroy the LTTE arms consignments.

Once the rogue ships were located, Sri Lankan Navy’s OPVs would go after these floating warehouses and destroy them. The Sri Lankan Navy destroyed the first warehouse ship on 17 September 2006, about 120 nautical miles east of the Island. Three more such ships were sunk in early 2007.

Moreover, under an agreement between the two countries, the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard frequently sent out ships to patrol the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. The presence of warships and Indian Coast Guards Offshore Patrol Vessels acted as a firm deterrence against the Sea Tigers. Indian Naval ships traveling between the East and the West Coast and those going on overseas deployment were also told to look out for rogue vessels. Frequent exchange of information between the two navies resulted in a fine-tuned system that enabled quick remedial action.

Sri Lanka’s Navy Chief Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda praised the Indian Navy’s role. ‘’Co-operation with India has been extremely successful in countering the LTTE. Every year, the Indian Navy with the Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan Navy holds four bilateral discussions. We are conducting coordinated patrols with the Indian Navy as well,’’ he said in early 2008. “The Navy has destroyed almost all LTTE vessels that could have assisted the Tigers in attacking the armed forces,’’ he said. ‘’Within one year we have destroyed eight floating warehouses, which had carried more than 10,000 tons of war-like material including artillery, mortar, dismantled parts of three aircrafts, bullet proof vehicles, underwater delivery vehicles, scuba diving sets, and radar, among other things.”

In one instance, accurate intelligence enabled the Sri Lankan Navy to sail nearly 1,600 nautical miles southeast of the country, close to coasts of Australia and Indonesia, to destroy three ships on 10-11 September 2007 and a fourth ship, which had escaped the initial action, three weeks later on 7 October, Admiral Karrannnagoda said.

One of the LTTE weapons smuggling vessels was intercepted and destroyed by Naval Task units after a long hot pursuit in the high seas 1,700 km off Dondra Head, the southern extremity of Sri Lanka. At least 12 Tamil Tigers on board were killed in the attack. “We went near to Australian waters and whacked the last four vessels,” the Vice- Admiral Karannagoda told Jane’s Navy International in March 2009. “Yet we are not a big navy; we had to improvise and use innovation and ingenuity to get our job done. The SLN (Sri Lankan Navy) does not possess any frigate-sized ships, so we used offshore patrol vessels and old tankers, merchant vessels and fishing trawlers as support vessels.”

What he left unsaid, according to sources in both Indian and Sri Lankan navies, was India’s hidden hand in providing vital intelligence and operational support to identify and locate these ships. In March 2009, the Sri Lankan Naval chief deliberately avoided mentioning India’s crucial contribution since electioneering in Tamil Nadu was picking up speed and Eelam War IV was in its final stage that month.

Any public admission of India’s hand in destruction of LTTE assets would have created a furore in Tamil Nadu and futher strained the already delicate relationship between Sri Lanka and India.

But the fact remains that in late 2007 the Indian Navy’s Southern Command deployed three fast attack boats and a missile corvette that patrolled the Palk Strait, searched and caught hold of LTTE fugitives. The “sea denial” and “naval blockade” by the Indian Navy started after a daring attack by the Sea Tigers on the Delft Island near Jaffna.

Delft Island, the largest inhabited island of the Jaffna peninsula, is located almost equidistant from Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna. The Sri Lankan Navy used the island to monitor sea and air movements not only towards Jaffna but also between Mannar and Tamil Nadu coast. In May 2007, the Sea Tigers mounted a daring attack on the naval attachement posted at the Delft Island and after killing seven naval personnel took away two anti aircraft machine  Some reports said the Sea Tigers also took away functioning radar from the island. Jolted by this setback, the Sri Lankan Navy requested guns, two machine guns, one RPG launcher and eight rifles.

 The assistance was immediately given but both sides had decided to keep quiet about the details.

Despite such a close working relations between the two navies, India was not happy with Colombo’s increasing dalliance with China and Pakistan. New Delhi was acutely aware of the deep inroads made by Pakistan and China in India’s backyard.

A worried Narayanan had bluntly declared in May 2007: “It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and ought to refrain from going to Pakistan or China for weapons, as we are prepared to accommodate them within the framework of our foreign policy.” Which in effect meant India could only supply ‘defensive’ equipment to Colombo.

Narayanan’s statement in fact reflected the dilemma that New Delhi faced. The crisis was of course purely India’s own making.

Crippled by the iron grip wielded by the DMK and other smaller Tamil parties on the UPA coalition at the Centre, New Delhi could not even openly approve of Colombo’s determination to exterminate the LTTE.

Colombo understood India’s predicament but had no other option but to shop for weapons and ammunition from elsewhere once India refused to comply with its requests.

Army Commander Sarath Fonseka admitted as much in an interview to me: “It is only after India told us that it cannot supply offensive weapons that we looked at other options. We first tried western countries but their weapons are expensive. Also the Western countries cannot be depended upon to continue the supplies when it came to the crunch as it happened with us in the middle of the war when certain countries blocked supply of spare parts for our airplanes and helicopters. So we turned to China which offered us arms immediately and on favorable terms. They gave us five-year long credit line. We bought armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, basic infantry weapons and some ammunition from them. As for Pakistan, we only bought some emergency ammunition from them.”
Even Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a similar story to relate.

Little wonder then that Beijing and Islamabad took full advantage of India’s quandary.
By February 2007, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had concluded several defence purchase agreements with China.

One of the earliest agreements in Eelam War IV was a $37.6 million deal with China’s Poly Technologies in April 2006 to supply its defence forces with ammunition and ordnance for the army and navy.

Another company, China National Electronics Import Export Corp supplied a JY 11 3D radar for $5 million. According to the UK-based Jane’s Defence Weekly the Sri Lankan navy’s requirement, valued at $2.7 million, includes a range of ammunition including 100,000 14.5 mm cartridges, 2,000 RPG-7 rockets and 500 81 mm airburst mortar shells was met by the Chinese.

According to the authoritative Defence Weekly, other arms included 50 Type 82 14.5 mm twin-barrel naval guns, 200 Type 85 12.7 mm heavy machine guns, 200 Type 80 7.62 mm multipurpose machine guns, 1,000 Type 56-2 7.62 mm submachine guns and 1,000 Type 56, 7.62 mm submachine guns.

China was not alone in supplying arms to Sri Lanka.

A high-level defence delegation from Islamabad visited Sri Lanka in January 2008 to sell weapons to Colombo. Pakistan Ordnance Factories chief Lt Gen Syed Sabahat Hussein held detailed discussions with Sri Lanka’s security officials, including the Defence Secretary. The delegation included senior POF officials, Export Director Usman Ali Bhatti and General Manager Abbas Ali.

POF is Pakistan’s largest conventional arms and ordnance facility and its 14 factories and four subsidiaries produce several varieties of armaments for export. These include infantry weapons, tank and aircraft ammunition, anti-aircraft and artillery ammunition, rockets, aerial bombs, hand grenades and mortars.

Getting China’s and Pakistan’s backing was important for the Rajapaksa government but it also needed to get its own act together at home. So the government and especially Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa got down to the task of reorienting the Sri Lankan Air Force and the Sri Lankan Navy, always considered the weakest link in the previous military campaigns.

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