COLOMBO, Nov. 20 (Reuters) - India handed over aid for Sri Lanka’s war refugees on Thursday in what analysts say is the clearest sign yet New Delhi will not interfere with Colombo’s plan to end Asia’s oldest insurgency militarily.
India’s ambassador to Sri Lanka handed over at a ceremony more than 1,680 tonnes of relief items to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which will deliver it to an estimated 200,000 people displaced by the war in northern Sri Lanka.
It is a far cry from a 1987 airdrop of aid by the Indian air force which signalled the start of India’s 3-year direct intervention in a war that has always roiled politics there and kept Sri Lankan leaders mindful of their giant neighbour.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has made the most battlefield progress against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of any since the war began in 1983.
That has fuelled talk he will call an early election to capitalise on the military success to consolidate his power, especially with the economy under pressure from the cost of the war, expensive debt and declining prices for major exports.
Facing an election at home before May and pressure from Tamil political partners in his coalition over the war, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last month criticised the escalation of the war and urged a political solution to Tamil grievances.
That set off a flurry of shuttle diplomacy resulting in the aid shipment and a statement in which India agreed the LTTE — on U.S., Europe and Indian terrorism lists — must be dealt with militarily, and Sri Lanka promised to push political negotiations.
The aid shipment shows how India’s dual policy of wanting the Tigers destroyed as a military threat while ensuring innocent Tamils are treated fairly is still on track, said Reva Bhalla, an analyst with U.S. private intelligence firm Stratfor.
“They have been managing this rather adroitly by emphasising the fact they support a campaign against terrorism while focusing on the humanitarian nature of the conflict with public appeals to Colombo to avoid innocent civilian deaths,” she said.
And she said Singh’s Congress party can argue the terrorism case well at home because it is led by the wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, killed by a Tiger suicide bomber in 1991 after India’s peacekeeping intervention ended disastrously.
“India has backed the military campaign. That was implicit in their joint statement,” defence analyst Iqbal Athas said.
Although Tamil parties allied with Singh backed off a threat to resign from parliament, they have continued to speak out against the war and supported an LTTE offer of a ceasefire last week that Sri Lanka flatly refused as a ruse.
“They surely understand our commitment and concern about the Tamil people and know that the government is doing all it can to protect them by providing relief and regularly talking to the government of Sri Lanka,” Veerappa Moily, a senior Congress Party leader and adviser, said of Tamil political allies.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said on Wednesday that India had not given Sri Lanka a deadline to finish the war before May elections in India.
“The timeframe is in terms of what we are trying to do. Defeat of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation will create a better environment to restore normalcy and bring about far-reaching political development,” he said.
Bhalla said although the political process to address longstanding Tamil complaints of marginalisation by governments led by the Sinhalese ethnic majority has not really taken off, it should soon.
“Now that Colombo has the upper hand militarily, we can start taking the rhetoric of political integration much more seriously, and that fits nicely into India’s own campaign to push for Tamil rights and condemn the terrorists,” she said. (Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in New Delhi and Ranga Sirilal in Colombo; Editing by Jerry Norton)