Indian Decade

India and Sri Lanka’s Civil War

Recent Features

Indian Decade

India and Sri Lanka’s Civil War

India’s relationship with Sri Lanka is complex. Nonetheless, New Delhi could have a role to play in uncovering a difficult past.

Last month the United Nations published a highly critical internal report in which it admitted it didn’t do enough to protect Tamil civilians in the final months of the Sri Lanka civil war. In late 2008, the UN had withdrawn staff from the northern part of the country in anticipation of the Sri Lanka government’s bloody military offensive against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as Tamil Tigers). Tamil civilians had pleaded with the UN to stay at the time, but the international organization said it was unable to ensure the safety of its staff members. Still, the new report raises real questions about the international community’s response during and after the conflict.

A UN report from last year, however, issued a damning indictment of the Sri Lankan government’s actions during the conflict, and called on Colombo to “issue a public acknowledgment of its role in and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war.” The UN believes that the final offensive alone may have resulted in more than 40,000 deaths. The senseless violence depicted in the UN report is also shown in the documentary, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,” which details the brutality of the war and suggests some Sri Lankan officials may have been complicit in war crimes.

The international community has strongly condemned the Sri Lankan government for its refusal to allow an international investigation into these alleged war crimes. Along with the criticism offered by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened to boycott next year’s Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka. There is also a campaign underway in the United Kingdom urging its Prime Minister, David Cameron, to follow Harper’s lead.

As Sri Lanka’s neighbor and the country with the greatest degree of influence on Colombo, India’s support for the Sri Lankan government is perhaps crucial in its ability to rebuke the international community on this issue.

The ethnic and historical links between Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils as well as New Delhi’s own regional influence in South Asia give India an enduring interest in its southern neighbor. An earlier attempt to broker peace between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers ended in disaster when Indian peacekeeping forces that were deployed to implement the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord ended up fighting the LTTE. This was followed by the LTTE’s assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, which prompted India to publicly distance itself from the neighboring civil war.

However, according to journalist Nitin Gokhale, author of Sri Lanka: from War to Peacein 2006 India began quietly extending military support to the Sri Lankan government, including the delivery of five Mi-17 helicopters. Gokhale reports that these helicopters played a crucial role in several of the Sri Lankan Air Force’s missions aimed at crushing LTTE resistance.

India’s Sri Lankan policy was undoubtedly driven by its need to retain leverage over Colombo in the face of growing Chinese influence. In recent years, Beijing has made a slew of investments in the island country such as building a port at Hambantota. China has also strongly backed Colombo’s call for non-interference in its internal affairs, and is widely believed to have been instrumental in helping to modernize Sri Lanka’s military force which finally allowed it to suppress the LTTE separatist movement.

The Indian government has also offered tactic approval of the government’s 2009 military offensive against the LTTE, despite occasionally calling on Colombo to respect “Tamil rights” and address the deteriorating humanitarian situation.

In this context, it is difficult to believe that India’s support for a U.S.-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March represents a fundamental change of policy.  The Congress-led government in India almost certainly supported the resolution in order to retain crucial coalition allies in Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, the Ministry of External Affairs was less than enthusiast in pressing the resolution’s cause in a statement: "While we subscribe to the broader message…any assistance from the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights or visits of UN Special Procedures should be in consultation with and with the concurrence of the Sri Lankan Government. A democratic country like Sri Lanka has to be provided time and space to achieve the objectives of reconciliation and peace." 

While it would be too much to ask for New Delhi to institute a panel assessing its own role in the Sri Lankan civil war, at the very least the international community should encourage India to call upon upon Sri Lanka to recognize the credibility of the 2011 UN report on accountability, and to support an international probe on alleged war crimes that may have occurred in the last few months of the civil war.

Pratyush is a journalist based in New Delhi, India.  His areas of interest include South Asia, the Middle East and China. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.