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As war nears end, India's power blunted in Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - After decades of strong-arming tiny neighbour Sri Lanka, India finds itself jostling for influence as the civil war nears an end, its power blunted by the island nation’s growing ties with Pakistan and China.

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard outside a bullet-riddled building that had once housed the Bank of Ceylon in the formerly Tamil Tiger rebel-controlled town of Mullaitvu in north-eastern Sri Lanka January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Bryson Hull

While domestic political sensitivities over the fate of Sri Lanka’s Tamils forced India to ease its leverage, rivals China and Pakistan stepped into the breach, offering Colombo military assistance in its war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

China has sold Jian-7 fighters, anti-aircraft guns and JY-11 3D air surveillance radars to the resurgent Sri Lankan army as it seeks to finish one of Asia’s longest-running wars by squeezing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam fighters in a shrinking patch of jungle in the north.

Pakistan also supplied the army small arms, multi-barrel rocket launchers and trained Sri Lankan air force in precision guided attacks against the rebels, strategic analysts said.

“There have been several shipments of weapons from Pakistan. What has made a real difference to the outcome of the war is the Sri Lankan air force which has been rigorously trained by Pakistan in precision-guided attacks.,” retired Indian army major general Ashok Mehta said.

India, by contrast, has limited its military assistance to the Sri Lankan army to “defensive weapons”.

India has been limited by its insistence on protection of Sri lanka’s Tamils, who are closely linked to 60 million Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, across a narrow strait from Sri Lanka.

“The shine has somewhat gone off from the leverage India has over Sri Lanka, partly because India has allowed it to happen,” said Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternative.

China’s and Pakistan’s help against Tamil Tiger rebels may have been crucial, a former Sri Lankan official said.

“If not for China and Pakistan, we would not have been able to finish off the insurgency,” K. Godage, a former deputy head of Sri Lanka’s foreign office, told Reuters.

India trained and armed Tamil Tiger rebels in the early 1980s and followed it up a disastrous 1987-1990 peacekeeping foray into Sri Lanka, which has cast a long shadow over the war and made Sri Lanka wary of its giant neighbour.

National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan asked Sri Lanka to stop seeking arms from China or Pakistan last year, saying India as the regional power would still meet its defence requirements.

Narayanan made an unscheduled visit to Colombo last year to ensure Sri Lanka did not become a cockpit of regional rivalry, as with Afghanistan where Islamabad fears the influence of India.

This week, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the two discussed safety measures for Tamils trapped in fighting between the army and Tamil Tigers separatists, and post-war reconstruction.

The visit was also to cool tensions with Tamil Nadu politicians in India’s ruling coalition who are sympathetic to the Tigers and demand India broker a ceasefire.


The strategic battle in Sri Lanka is seen as part of a wider power struggle in South Asia, involving not only India and Pakistan but also China, which seeks to gain influence in the important economic region.

China has made strides developing strategic assets, like the Gwadar port in Pakistan, the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and assets in Yangon, part of a strategy to protect shipping lanes.

Sri Lanka sits next to shipping lanes that feed 80 percent of China’s and 65 percent of India’s oil needs.

“There is a convergence of strategic interest in Sri Lanaka among regional powers,” said security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar.

But ignoring India may be hard for Sri Lanka. As the war appears to draws to a close, the focus is turning to the state of Sri Lanka’s $32 billion economy.

Sri Lanka is suffering from costly short-term foreign debt. The war is expected to cost nearly $2 billion this year.

Indian investments in Sri Lanka have grown. Bharti Airtel Ltd., India’s top mobile operator, launched operations in Sri Lanka with a $200 million investment this month. Sri Lanka is also dependent on India for much of its fuel.

“Strategic relationship is also governed by trade, and India has a lot of room to manoeuvre in Sri Lanka,” Saravanamuttu said.