War Refugees a Concern as Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa Visits India

India is likely to push Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to quickly resettle ethnic Tamils still living in camps more than a year after the end of a near three-decade civil war during talks in the capital today.

Rajapaksa, 64, arrived in New Delhi yesterday for a four-day trip, his first to Sri Lanka’s northern neighbor since winning re-election in January. Meeting representatives of the Tamil National Alliance on June 7, he restated his vow to permanently heal the island nation’s ethnic divisions. Indian leaders will be keen to keep him to his word, analysts said.

“Except for rhetoric, Rajapaksa has not moved toward reconciliation and nothing has happened on the ground to give confidence to Tamils that they can live in peace in Sri Lanka,” said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, based in a suburb of New Delhi. India may push the president to ensure Tamils “feel they have a role to play in the administration.”

Before sweeping to the biggest election win in 16 years, boosted by his May 2009 victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who had been fighting for a homeland in the country’s north and east, Rajapaksa said he would submit proposals for a political solution after talking to all parties. He pledged to spend $1 billion annually on ports, roads and power plants to reintegrate war-hit areas.

Protests against the president’s visit erupted yesterday in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which shares close cultural and religious links with Sri Lankan Tamils. The ruling party in the state is a key member of the Congress party-led federal coalition government.

‘Trust Me’

About 76,000 Tamils forced from their homes during the conflict are still living in government run camps, Rajapaksa told the Indian government in March. Up to 300,000 people may need rehabilitation in the north of the country.

“Trust me and together we can find a solution to the problems faced by all our people,” a statement by Sri Lanka’s presidential secretariat quoted Rajapaksa as telling the Tamil National Alliance, which backed the main challenger in January’s poll. “I want a permanent solution. But I will not bow down to terrorism, and what the terrorists wanted I will never give,” the statement said.

Rajapaksa will hold meetings with Indian President Pratibha Patil, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 77, and senior ministers for talks on trade and economic cooperation, the Sri Lankan government said in a statement.

Gandhi Assassination

India avoided direct involvement in Sri Lanka’s war with the Tamil Tigers after a peacekeeping force it sent to the island in 1987 withdrew in March 1990 following clashes with Tamil rebel forces.

It blamed the Tigers for the May 1991 assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the husband of current Congress president Sonia Gandhi, in Tamil Nadu.

Sinhalese, who are mostly Buddhist, account for 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. Tamils make up almost 12 percent and live mainly in the north and the east.

India is assisting Sri Lanka in building houses and hospitals, constructing rail lines and supplying buses for reconstruction and rehabilitation. It has offered $425 million in credit for railway projects in the north. The two nations have had a free trade agreement since March 2000.

The end of Sri Lanka’s war has spurred investment in agriculture and tourism, helping lift expansion in the $41 billion economy. Inflation is half the average rate of the five years through 2009 as agricultural supplies from former Tamil rebel-controlled areas increase.