Visiting Colombo barely three years ago was a traumatic experience. With the country torn apart in a seemingly endless civil war, one could sense a nation on edge, even while disembarking at Colombo's International Airport. The airport itself then looked like an armed citadel.

The security screening across the country was suffocating. Colombo itself felt like a city under siege, with roadblocks virtually at every street corner and traffic light, monitored by armed police and army check posts.

Returning to Colombo last week, I was immensely relieved to see Sri Lanka's capital virtually devoid of irksome security presences, with thousands of Indian tourists being welcomed with a smile, from the moment of disembarkation.

Colombo's roads are full of Bajaj auto-rickshaws — easily the most popular mode of public transport. More interestingly, unlike in Indian cities, one finds large numbers of Tata Nano taxis in Colombo. The Nano and the auto-rickshaws are seen as symbols of innovative Indian transportation ingenuity.

A Pakistani friend who I met in Colombo, told me, after a ride in a Nano taxi that if Pakistan had free trade with India, the roads of Karachi and Lahore would be flooded with Indian buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws!

ANTI-US SENTIMENT

In the midst of this changed environment, one found that the LTTE had been replaced by America and its NATO allies as the greatest threat to national security and well-being. Slogans and billboards across Colombo proclaimed loudly that the West was out to undermine Sri Lanka's sovereignty and territorial integrity, seeking to ostracise and isolate Sri Lanka internationally.

The Americans are moving a resolution in the United Nations Council on Human Rights (UNCHR), suggesting intrusive measures to censure Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations in the last days of the ethnic conflict. Moreover, there is considerable bitterness over American moves to make imports of oil from Iran impossible, as Iran is the major supplier of oil for Sri Lanka's only oil refinery, which refines light Iranian crude.

A Sri Lankan friend ruefully noted that while India had the economic and diplomatic clout to resist such coercive sanctions, Sri Lanka was feeling its energy security and economic progress threatened.

After failing to get Sri Lanka censured in the UNCHR earlier last year, the Western countries, led by the US, which are opposed by China, Pakistan and South Africa, have now come up with this draft Resolution, seeking to get President Rajapakse to implement the provisions of the report of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The Sri Lankan Government has agreed to implement the November 2011 LLRC recommendations.

The Government claims that it has completed rehabilitation of 300,000 displaced Tamils and that sections of the economy like fishing and agriculture, which were closed during the ethnic conflict, have been revived, 1200 LTTE fighters granted amnesty and 1000 former LTTE child recruits rehabilitated.

The LLRC also concluded that the Sri Lanka military did not deliberately target civilians, adding that “the LTTE had no respect for human life”, evidently referring to the propensity of the LTTE to use innocent Tamil civilians as “human shields,” in conflict situations.

The Commission acknowledged that it had received reports alleging serious abuses by the Sri Lankan army like “disappearances” of Tamil civilians after arrest and detention. It felt that these allegations warranted further investigation and punishment of military officers found guilty.

While 5,556 military personnel were killed in the last phase of the conflict, 22,247 LTTE cadres lost their lives, of which 11,812 had been identified by name.

OPTIONS BEFORE INDIA

India welcomed the public release of the LLRC report, expressing the hope that Sri Lanka would act with vision on the devolution of power and genuine national reconciliation. India noted: “It is important to ensure that an independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights violations, as brought out by the LLRC, in a time bound manner”.

India would, however, be well advised to support nuanced measures that promote national reconciliation and guarantee that Sri Lanka fulfils its assurances to devolve power as envisaged in the 13th Amendment to its Constitution, enacted after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement.

India is playing a key role in the development and restoration of rail communication links between Colombo and the Tamil majority north of the Island. Indian assistance is also developing air and sea transportation links with the Northern Province.

The key to India's strategic influence in Sri Lanka lies in the development of Trincomalee Port, where it has inherited antiquated petroleum storage facilities in 1987. With Sri Lanka experiencing problems with its obsolete refining facilities,

India should consider majority equity participation by its public and private companies in the development of a major petroleum refining and storage facility in Trincomalee.

This would augment its existing indigenous facilities for exports of refined petroleum products across the Indian Ocean Rim. It would also enable the development of north-eastern Sri Lanka.

It would ensure that the Chinese involvement in Hambantota Port is matched by an Indian presence in the ethnically mixed eastern Province of Sri Lanka.

(This article was published on March 14, 2012)
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