Sri Lanka conflict beckons India to help

Both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government are making overtures to their large neighbor to mediate.

As Sri Lanka slides back into its long ethnic conflict, and with a Norwegian-brokered peace process stuck in neutral, both the Tamil Tiger separatists and the Sri Lankan government are making overtures to regional power India to get involved – and preferably on their side.

Extending an olive branch on an Indian news channel, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse invited the Tamil Tigers Tuesday for talks to "discuss what they want." He was willing to give the rebels an "outline" for peace, he said.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have been trying to mend fences with Delhi. In late June, a top negotiator for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said that the Tigers "regretted" the 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The LTTE has always denied involvement in the killing of Mr. Gandhi, who was instrumental in sending Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987. That expedition proved bloody: More than 5,000 Tamils were killed and India lost 1,200 of its soldiers.

Having burned its fingers badly, India has steered clear of the conflict ever since, even remaining outside the peace process begun in 2002. But as that effort sputters, and India's diplomatic credibility has risen following its efforts in Nepal, many regional observers argue it is time for India to bury its version of "Vietnam Syndrome" and take a more active role in preserving regional peace and stability in South Asia.

"Given India's dominance in the region, India's intervention could make a world of difference," says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

A successful intervention would not necessarily mean using the military, he says. Rather, India could use its prominent stature in South Asia, he says, to put diplomatic pressure to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

Sri Lanka asking for help

Such an effort is made easier by the Sri Lankan government's apparent eagerness for help. On visits to Delhi by President Rajapakse late last year and the Sri Lankan foreign minister in early May, both men aimed to persuade their "closest neighbor" to get involved in the peace process. Their overtures, however, received a tepid response from Indian officials.

"India should ensure equal rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, as they still do not have access to justice and equality. The Sri Lankan government has successfully swept the rights of the Tamils under the carpet of LTTE brutality," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi. "Also, India should [use its clout in the region to] advocate strict enforcement of the cease-fire agreements."

India's deft diplomatic efforts in Nepal could serve as a model. The leader of Nepal's Maoist rebels, Prachanda, recently applauded India's role in encouraging his armed group to engage in peace talks with that country's political parties. The resulting deal allowed the two groups to join forces during street protests in April. India then interceded directly with King Gyanendra to relinquish power to end the standoff, ushering in a return to democracy in Nepal.

Sri Lanka is no Nepal

However, some analysts caution that India's Nepal success story could be hard to replicate in Sri Lanka. Delhi's official stance has been to support a negotiated political settlement based on devolution of power, acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society, in an undivided Sri Lanka. But India may find it difficult to achieve the necessary impartiality as a primary mediator.

"First, the proscription of the LTTE in India after its involvement in a suicide assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi makes it legally impossible for India to participate in the peace talks," says Shylashri Shankar, a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"Second, even if this legal aspect is ironed out, sections within the Indian policy establishment are opposed to any negotiations with the LTTE on the ground that it is the root cause of strife, and cannot be part of any solution. They feel that India will burn itself again."

Some 3,500 refugees enter India

But other analysts say South Asian security challenges demand India's intervention – not just because its stature has grown on the world stage, but also because it has immediate repercussions on India's soil as well.

Recent violence in the island nation has claimed up to 700 lives and more than 60,000 people have been killed since the Tigers began their fight for an independent state in the 1970s.

As the crisis in Sri Lanka deepens, more than 3,500 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka are streaming into the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and the numbers are rising. Tamil Nadu is home to more than 60 million ethnic Tamils as well as political factions that express solidarity with Tamils in Sri Lanka. Several pro-LTTE demonstrations have already taken place in Tamil Nadu, demanding urgent Indian intervention.

"India can no longer afford to have a hands-off policy regarding its neighborhood," says C. Raja Mohan, the strategic affairs editor of The Indian Express, a national daily.

Other regional hot spots

Nepal and Sri Lanka aren't the only countries in the region demanding India's attention, Mr. Mohan says. Political violence is on the rise in Bangladesh, a nation that India helped to create through a military intervention in 1971. India will also have to weigh in carefully on the incipient debate surrounding a possible restoration of democracy next year in archrival Pakistan.

"In the past, India has tended to vacillate between unilateral intervention and a do-nothing policy," he says. "In the future, it must make its regional interventions smarter and more multilateral."

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