Srilanka, United States of America

Tamils Fought to Protect American Interests in Sri Lanka

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, November 1997 (ID. 1997-11-03)
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LTTE - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

USA - United States of America

Roll back the time clock by a little over a decade. Dateline July 29, 1987.

The Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, forces the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan Tamils to accept the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. The option given to the Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene was: "accept the accord or expect your country to be broken up into Sinhala Sri-Lanka and Tamil Eelam". President J.R. Jayawardene signs on the dotted line. (Jayawardene himself would tell a few years later in an interview that he accepted the accord only because his country would be split into two countries otherwise.) The Tamil guerrilla groups, with the exception of the dominant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also agree to the accord. Velupillai Prabhakaran, commander of LTTE, flown voluntarily to the Indian capital of New Delhi as a guest of the Indian government, refuses to accept the accord because he and his advisors find the accord flawed and detrimental to the Tamils. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi puts them under house arrest in New Delhi and sends tens of thousands of Indian troops backed by tanks and heavy artillery into Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. Indian Navy's war ships also sail to the Tamil coasts. Indian Air Force warplanes are either in Jaffna or in South Indian bases just minutes from the theater of war if there were to be a war between Indian troops and the LTTE.

The Eelam Tamils protest demanding the immediate release of Prabakaran and his advisors. Rajiv Gandhi succumbs and flies them back to Jaffna. After consulting with his commanders, Prabakaran reluctantly and tentatively agrees to the accord. The LTTE did not want to fight the Indian army with its vast superiority in manpower and firepower. But things deteriorate. Sri Lankan violations of certain terms of the accord within days of signing the accord; India turning a blind eye to these violations though they were brought to its attention; death of LTTE leader Thileepan on a fast to death in a peaceful, Gandhian protest against these violations; Sri Lankan military arresting some LTTE commanders and cadres; India's willingness to send them to Colombo for questioning against the advice of its own military commanders; suicidal death of these LTTE commanders and cadres to protect themselves from revealing LTTE military secrets to Sri Lanka under torture; these all lead to war between the Indian army and the LTTE. (We do not wish to elaborate on all the events that lead to the fighting or to assign blame to one side or the other here. They will be discussed in my book on Tamil Eelam).

Now, coming to the title of this article, when did the Eelam Tamils fight to protect American interests in Sri Lanka? The war that broke out between the Indian military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1987 and continued for over two years is the one that protected American interests in Sri Lanka. But for this war and the Tamil's refusal to accept the accord, America would have lost Sri Lanka to India forever! Let me explain.

The world saw only parts of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord that the Indian and Sri Lankan governments released to the press. Hidden from the world (including the Eelam Tamils) was a secret exchange of letters between the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President Jayawardene dated July 29, 1987. Rajiv Gandhi extracted a heavy price from Sri Lanka for putting down the Tamil rebellion against Sinhala domination and discrimination. Here is the relevant extract from the secret exchange of letters (from Rajiv Gandhi to Jayawardene):

"You had, during the course of our discussion, agreed to meet some of India's concerns as follows:

1) Your Excellency and myself will reach an early understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

2) Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests.

3) The work of restoring and operating the Tricomalee oil tank will be undertaken as a joint venture between India and Sri Lanka.

4) Sri Lanka's agreement with foreign broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes."

These conditions are, of course, bitter pills for Sri Lanka to swallow. They infringed on the very sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Its sovereign right to use its ports in any way it saw fit and its right to allow foreign broadcasting stations on its soil are taken away. President Jayawardene meekly agreed to the Indian conditions.

Sri Lanka, of course, need not have to agree to the accord. President Jayawardene had another option. He could grant the Tamils sufficient autonomy within a truly federal system of government and thus end Tamil's armed resistance to Sinhala hegemony. Then there would be no need for Indian military assistance and the high price India demanded and obtained. But President Jayawardene would rather surrender some of Sri Lanka's sovereign rights to India in order to keep the Sinhala hegemony over minority Tamils.

Who would have been the winners and losers if everyone including the LTTE accepted the accord? Unquestionably, India would have been the winner, and a feather in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's cap. He would have Finlandized Sri Lanka (that is, Sri Lanka would tow India's line in military and foreign policy matters); a feat neither India's first Prime Minister, his paternal grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru nor his predecessor and mother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could do.

Sri Lanka would have been a winner and a loser. On the plus side, the armed resistance of the Tamils against Sinhala colonization, domination and discrimination would end. They could now continue to settle Sinhalese in the fertile regions of Tamil areas and also continue discriminate against the Tamils in employment and development projects. On the negative side, Sri Lanka will have to accept Indian dictates in foreign policy matters.

Eelam Tamils would be the primary losers under the accord because it did not meet even the minimum demands of the Tamils.

America was not mentioned in either the accord or the exchange of letters between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Jayawardene. But look at Rajiv Gandhi's letter to Jayawardene (see the excerpt earlier in the article). There are passages like: "understanding about the relevance and employment of foreign military and intelligence personnel with a view to ensuring that such presence will not prejudice Indo-Sri Lanka relations", "Trincomalee or any other ports in Sri Lanka will not be made available for military use by any country in a manner prejudicial to India's interests", and "Sri Lanka's agreement with foreign broadcasting organizations will be reviewed to ensure that any facilities set up by them in Sri Lanka are used solely as public broadcasting facilities and not for any military or intelligence purposes". Which "foreign military and intelligence personnel", "foreign military use of its ports" and "foreign broadcasting organizations" is Rajiv Gandhi referring to?

The cold war between the United States of American (USA) and the Soviet Union was still hot in 1987. Though India identified itself as nonaligned, it always leaned towards the Soviet Union throughout the cold war years. Viewing the letter in that context, it is very clear that Rajiv Gandhi was telling Sri Lanka not to allow American military and intelligence personnel into the country or American naval vessels into its ports. The specific reference to the Tricomalee harbor is revealing. It is one of the largest natural ports in the world; ideal for docking large American Navy's naval vessels. India did not want America to have access to this large natural harbor. Also, the reference to "foreign broadcasting organizations" is revealing. Voice of America is the only foreign broadcasting station in Sri Lanka and America had plans to expand it. Under the accord, India can, and will, veto such an expansion. Had the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord been accepted by Tamils (particularly the LTTE), America would not be able to have any military or intelligence presence in the strategic Sri Lankan island. Its war ships would be denied access to Sri Lankan harbors. Voice of America station in Sri Lanka (the only one in South Asia) could not be expanded.

Only the Eelam Tamils fought against the accord. Though the Tamil population and the LTTE fighters paid a heavy price in loss of life, injuries and loss of property, India was unable to defeat the LTTE. The new Indian Prime Minister V. P. Singh withdrew the Indian troops in 1990.

As soon as the Indian troops left the island, Sri Lanka considered the accord and the terms of the letters exchanged between its President and the Indian Prime Minister null and void (although it did not state so openly). Permission was granted to expand the Voice of America station. Now there are rumors of America establishing a naval base at Tricomalee harbor. But for the Tamil opposition to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord and their armed resistance to the Indian military that came to enforce the accord, there would be no expansion of Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and there would be no possibility of America having access to Sri Lankan harbors including the Trincomalee harbour. This was how Tamils protected American interests in Sri Lanka.

(NOTE: The name Prabhakaran is sometimes spelled as Pirabhakaran.)

RELATED ARTICLES (added in May 2001)

India is not an Acceptable Mediator for the Sri Lankan Conflict (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, June 2000 (9 KB)

Did India Help Sri Lankan Tamils until 1987? (by Yashoda Reddy, Siva Reddy and Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, May 2001.

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