Thursday, April 23, 2009

Colombo Diary: Day 1

About three miles short of the tarmac on Bandranaike International Airport, the aircraft ploughed through a tiny air pocket, and I think almost everyone on board thought we were descending way too fast. The coconut palms that flank the descent tunnel were a blur. The Boeing bounced onto the ground, lifted a few feet and then began to roll. About 15 minutes earlier, I tried to look down upon the northern part of the island and thought – is Prabhakaran seriously still there?

While the aircraft taxied, I heard the roar of something that was obviously not an airliner. From the aerobridge, I saw two MiG-27s blast off, flame and all. Over to the right, I saw a courseline of black Army Huey choppers, glinting in some seriously marauding heat. As the sound of the two fighters dopplered away, I realized that the only thing I’ve read about Sri Lanka has been Anita Pratap’s book on the conflict. And despite the fact that the politics of Sri Lanka have been persistently central to the politics of the state that was my home for 18 years, I don’t have a nuanced view on the Sri Lankan civil war. Actually, let me correct that. I don’t have a view on the Sri Lankan civil war. I certainly don’t know enough about it, but in the next few days hopefully that will change.

Colombo is a startling appealing city. Seaside esplanade, gently gradiented roads, green as hell almost everywhere you look. We’re staying at a hotel called the Grand Orient in the high security zone, right next to the Colombo Port. The hotel is flanked by government offices on one side, a couple of services headquarters, the business district and a nice down-town with tall twin towers, and a big stretch of Galle Face beach (I initially thought it was "Golf Ace") on the other. Everything – and I do mean everything – is of course punctuated by lean troops with berets and black AKs.

First stop, the Foreign Ministry for a letter of recommendation, which I then ferried to the Department of Information some 10-km away to get the all-important foreign journalist press accreditation. It’s a musty little office where nobody does very much. In other words, it’s like the countless little-visited alcoves in South Block. There’s a woman teacher her son Tamil in one corner. A couple eating in another. There’s an absolute ton of bureaucracy everywhere you look, but everyone’s (at least so far) really nice about it. This is the system, they seem to be telling you. Might as well be cheerful about it, if there’s nothing else you can do. Nifty piece of luck was getting my press accreditation despite reaching a whole hour after the office was to shut. I’m told if you’re caught doing any “journalism” in Sri Lanka without the press-ID they issue, it’s a night in a slammer and then a one way flight back home, and in the bargain, you’re stripped of the possibility of ever setting foot on the country’s soil again without a Presidential pardon. Or something to that effect.

Provided an evening live chat to my station on the Prabhakaran endgame. They say he’s pinned down in a few square kilometers. In all land directions, Sri Lankan special forces advance slowly but confidently towards the spot he is understood to be holding out from. These include motorcycle-borne forces and infantrymen. The SL Navy has blockaded the sea route with fast attack craft and patrol vessels. UAVs buzz over the zone in shifts. Not for a minute is there no optronic payload gazing down at the fuzzy patch of jungle where the Tiger and his final few hold out.

Tomorrow, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and NSA MK Narayanan arrive. I’ve got a seriously early start. Will post again tomorrow.

5 comments :

Prasun K Sengupta said...

A couple of queries should get you going, including:
1) Is the Indian Navy coordinating its Heron-2 UAV surveillance flights with those of the SLAF's Searcher Mk2 UAVs?
2) Can the Indian Foreign Secretary and NSA throw some light on the extremely successful surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Navy's Eastern Naval Command in 1988 throughout northeastern Sri Lanka, which resulted in 26 LTTE boats being destroyed over a 14-day period? The operation was then executed under the leadership of the IN's VADM Premvir Dass. Will such surgical strikes be repeated by India this time at the request of Sri Lanka?
3) Is the SLAF still on track to induct the 10 MiG-29s?
4) How advanced are the plans by India to create a special economic zone in northeast Sri Lanka? What kind of timeframes is one talking about?
5) Will the Indian Navy be called upon to despetch its LST-Ls to act as temporary hospital ships as part of the massive unfolding humanitarian relief effort?
That's all for now.

ankur_narayan said...

Top stuff, Shiv. About time we got some serious foreign journalism on the groun there.

Looking forward to your posts!

Anonymous said...

This appears like a travelouge

Anonymous said...

Let us fully support Sri Lankans in their fight against terrorist Prabhakaran and his gang LTTE.

These people have suffered badly just like we have with respect to US sponsored terrorism (via Pakistan).

Let misguided ethnic loyalties not distract all right minded people from fighting terrorists and their sponsors.

जय हिंद & जय श्रीलंका.

the terminator said...

The on-going saga in the north of Sri Lanka shows what a stupid bunch of people we have in the Foreign Ministry as well as RAW.

Our policy makers have unwittingly played into the hands of the Sri Lankan government which has posed the China and Pakistan as the bogeymen, replacing India if the Indians interfered in their attempt to finish off the ethnic Tamil population in Jaffna.

India has in fact played a significant part in the Jaffna Tamil genocide.

If such a scenario had been presented to China, they would have grabbed the opportunity by helping the Jaffna Tamils covertly supplying them all military requirements. This would have prolonged the war and bogged down the Sri Lankan economy. Eventually the Chinese would have another lap dog like the Pakistanis.

If the Indians had been foresighted, the Jaffna Tamils would have become an asset against the Chinese and Pakistani encroachment in Sri Lanka.

Now that the genocide of the Jaffna Tamils is almost a fait accompli, what guarantees do the Indians have that the Chinese won't become the protector of the Sinhalese Sri Lankans in the future? What guarantee is there Sri Lanka won't become another Bangladesh in a proxy war waged by the Chinese? As it is the Chinese are already building a port in Sri Lanka which like the one in Gawdar, Pakistan would become a naval base in times of hostilities.

Flogging an almost dead horse, the LTTE for their hand in the death of Rajiv Ghandi has only alienated the Jaffna Tamils and Tamil Nadu.

The Indians could have played a more proactive role in the establishment of an autonomous enclave under Sri Lankan rule in Jaffna but as usual the Indians have been found wanting in diplomacy and political acumen.

In a future conflict the disgruntled Jaffna Tamils could be used as a fifth column by China or even Pakistan.

The poor and marginalized everywhere are exploited by the rich and powerful countries such as China.

The collosal mismanagement of the Jaffna Tamil issue by the Indian government especially the Foreign Ministry has added another pearl in the Strings of Pearl theory of the Chinese to stifle India's growth.

But then who cares, not the babus on either side of the political divide in India.

The guys laughing all the way to the banks would be the commies in India.