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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > Indo-Lanka Defence Cooperation Agreement: A matter of routine

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

 

Indo-Lanka Defence Cooperation Agreement: A matter of routine

13 January 2004


The proposed India-Sri Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement is being considered with some concern by the Tamil press and politicians. The Tigers remain silent. Instead, we heard their advisor Balasingham urging the Indian government to take on a 'more positive role' in the process to realise Tamil rights. His appeal appeared in other versions in some petitions sent by civil society groups in the north to the Indian PM.

But on Sunday a mysterious group calling itself the Tamil National Vigilance Organisation issued a leaflet warning of war if the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) was going to ignore the LTTE's ISGA proposal. Interestingly, the leaflet, among other things, slams President Chandrika that she had waited until Indian officials spoke about the ISGA to give her opinion on the LTTE's proposal. In short, the leaflet, which gave the publisher's address as Tamil Eelam, was accusing the President of being a pawn in the hands of the Indians.

On the other hand, one can safely venture to say that in many political and opinion making circles of the south the India-Sri Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement (DCA) is considered with a measure of satisfaction as another instrument in Colombo's diplomatic arsenal to check the military ambitions of the Liberation Tigers effectively.

The leaders of the UNP and the SLFP are keen to make political capital by taking credit for the DCA. But this is possible only in as much as it is presented to the Sinhala public as a means of containing the LTTE's military power.

A Sunday paper reported that Defence Secretary Cyril Herath and Army Commander, Lt. Gen Lionel Balagalle accompanied by Nigel Hatch, an attorney at law, would be leaving Colombo for New Delhi today to begin negotiations on the ISL-DCA.

The very sharp contrast in Sinhala and Tamil reactions to the proposed ISL-DCA (the former is somewhat muted while the latter is an alarmist) is yet another instance of the deep chasm that divides the people of this island.

Two fundamental questions appear to be overlooked by either side in their respective responses to the ISL-DCA. Firstly, it should be pointed out, lest it be forgotten, that the Indo-Lanka Agreement of 1987 consists of clauses regarding defence co-operation between the two countries.

Para 3.1 and Para 4 of the annexure to the ‘87 agreement specifically state that India will "provide training facilities and military supplies for Sri Lankan security forces" and that both countries would set up "a joint consultative mechanism to continuously review matters of common concern in the light of objectives stated in Para 1".

Suffice it to say that the annexure to the agreement legally curtailed Sri Lanka's sovereignty in defence matters. The mechanism mentioned in the Indo-Lanka Agreement was never set up properly although in the years that followed the signing, a significant portion of foreign training for the Sri Lankan armed forces' officer corps was in India.

Indian strategic policy makers designed the basic format of the DCA as rudimentary platform for gaining greater influence in the military affairs of many nations round the globe - preparatory for the superpower status Delhi foresees for itself in the not so distant decades of this century. But the immediate goal of the DCA is to broad base the Indian defence industry and to make it economically competitive in the world's arms markets.

Delhi's priority today is to progressively reduce its armed forces' heavy dependence on Russia and some former Soviet republics for military hardware and spares. The US War College Journal 'Parameters' estimates that 74 percent of the Indian army's hardware and spares are of Soviet origin. India has been facing a massive crunch in military spares, especially for its fleet of MiG fighter jets since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

New defence protocols on cooperation that Russia signed with India in February 2002 contain provisions for joint ventures in the defence sector, indigenisation of Russian military products as well as joint production and transfer of advanced defence technology to India.

The DCA that India signed with the Czech Republic, Brazil, Singapore, Vietnam etc., in recent years explore the possibility of joint production of military hardware and sales with mutual training programs and joint exercises to improve relations between the Indian army and the militaries of the countries that signed the agreement with Delhi.

In Sri Lanka the standard, innocuous feature of the DCA format regarding joint exercises and mutual training programs might take on an added significance in the light of two matters.

The joint consultative mechanism for defence and intelligence matters which the GOSL and the GOI are still legally bound to set up under the terms of the ‘87 Indo-Lanka Agreement (ILA) remains unimplemented. One finds that many 'informed' politicians and opinion makers in the south do not consider the exchange of letters between President J. R Jayawardena and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that constitute the annexure to the ILA valid any longer. "That was long ago", one of them said, quite confident in his geopolitical naiveté.

Senior officials in Delhi, however, continue to insist that the ILA is valid and legally binding for all time. The second issue is that the GOSL, quietly but consistently, drifted out of the parameters set in the ILA for training its armed forces and for procuring its military supplies. (Delhi ignores the argument that Colombo had to seek other sources because India did not help Sri Lanka in times of need during the war)

The process of GOSL's disengagement from the binding defence related clauses of the ILA started in 1993 with a seemingly innocent medievac training project by the US army to train Sri Lanka army soldiers in modern methods of casualty evacuation. By 1997 this had quietly developed into a multifaceted defence co-operation program between the Sri Lankan armed forces and US Special Forces.

As in the Philippines and many Central Asian states, the US military had a ready-made basis for cementing a close relationship with the core of the Sri Lankan military. In 1997 the US declared the LTTE a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO)

In Philippines, the strategic gateway between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, it did not take long for the US to declare the Abu Saiyaff Muslim militant outfit as a foreign terrorist organisation, enhance its Special Forces training presence there and to persuade that country to sign the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Treaty (ACSA) in 1999 - in that order.

The sequence was not lost on Delhi's strategists particularly because of a development in neighbouring Nepal in the same year that set off alarm bells in India's defence circles. India signed a treaty with Nepal in 1950 accompanied by an exchange of letters stipulating that the latter should decide on its external defence related matters in consultation with Delhi.

The attempt by the king of Nepal to extricate his country from the legal bind of this treaty in 1989 was thwarted by developments that followed India's punitive closure of the common border that year. A joint communiqué by the Prime Minister's of India and Nepal in June 1990 reaffirmed the basis of the 1950 treaty and exchange of letters.

Yet, nine years later, the king of Nepal and a communist party led coalition government that was in power at the time signed the ACSA with the US in defiance of the Indo-Nepal Treaty and the joint communiqué of ‘90. (Incidentally one must mention that the Nepali royal family was subsequently wiped out in a bloody palace shoot out)

Hence Delhi became mindful of the sequence of events in Sri Lanka whereby the US was becoming a central player in Sri Lanka's military affairs. Matters came to a head when India got wind of 'alleged' moves in Colombo to sign the ACSA with US in 2002. It did not take long for Delhi to nip the matter in the bud on the basis of the legal obligations which the Indo-Lanka Agreement impose on Sri Lanka's external defence and strategic affairs.

Things have come full circle today. GOSL appears to have realised, at least for the time being, its limitations within the ILA. The Indo-Lanka Defence Co-operation Agreement is unique only in as much as it reaffirms and supplements defence related provisions of the letters of exchange of the 1987 agreement. It would be naïve on the part of anyone to believe that the DCA is an instrument for containing or, for that matter, crushing the LTTE.

When the comforting mists of such beliefs dissipate the Sri Lankan armed forces might have no one but themselves to face the Tigers.
 

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