Why India embraces Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa in first postwar visit

Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa signed several deals with India during his visit this week, his first since quashing the Tamil Tiger rebels. He also faced protests from India’s sizable Tamil community over the wartime death of civilians.

Mustafa Quraishi/AP
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, Wednesday. Rajapaksa is in the country on a four day official visit.

India and Sri Lanka bolstered their friendship following a meeting between their leaders in New Delhi Wednesday, despite deep resentment among many Indians at the neighbor.

The state visit by President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka this week sparked protests from India’s Tamil community. Like Tamils around the world, they blame him for the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians during the last phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tigers, which ended last spring.

The United Nations estimates 7,000 Tamils were killed in the final stage of the fighting and hundreds of thousands were displaced by the military campaign in the former rebel strongholds in the island's north and east.

"Having massacred scores of Tamils, Rajapaksa had no moral right to enter India with his blood-stained hands," said Vaiko, a senior Tamil politician and staunch supporter of the rebel Tamil Tigers, according to wire reports.

India has a large Tamil population, with about 62 million Tamils in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

But there were little signs of tension between Rajapaksa and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday, as they met for the first time since Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tigers. The two nations signed a raft of deals, from the economic to diplomatic, including an agreement that India would open consulates in the Tamil city of Jaffna in the north of the island.

Their meeting, “provided a historic opportunity for the country’s leaders to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of reconciliation,” said a statement released after the meeting.

India’s interest in strengthening ties with the tiny island has much to do with its bigger neighbor, China. Sri Lanka’s geographical position in the Indian Ocean has made it a friend of China, which wants to secure naval bases in the area. China supported Sri Lanka in its final bloody phase of its war against the Tamil Tigers, and it has invested in road-building programs, power stations, and a new airport on the island.

It was reported that Singh had raised the issue of increased Tamil autonomy in Sri Lanka, which most observers believe is vital for lasting peace, and that he had been reassured by Rajapaksa’s commitment to resettle those northern Tamils displaced by fighting last year.

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