With V.Prabhakaran dead and the LTTE decimated, Sri Lanka's hardline president, Mahinda Rajapakshe, may not feel compelled to give the devastated and displaced Tamil community a fair deal, which is equal citizenship rights and an autonomous Eelam state under the Sri Lankan constitution, although he makes all the right noises.

On one hand, the United States is pushing Sri Lanka to "turn the page on its past". In its most explicit statement to date, the US state department has put out that "A lasting peace in Sri Lanka depends on Sinhalese, Tamils and all other Sri Lankans working together to achieve new power sharing arrangements that safeguard and promote the rights of all Sri Lankans."

On the other hand, China, which has emerged a big player in the politics of the island-nation, has also appealed for "national reconciliation", but its emphasis is on something else, which cannot escape any acute observer. "As a friendly neighbour," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said, "China has kept a close eye on how the Sri Lankan situation developed." Note the words "friendly neighbour" and "close eye". A Xinhua feed that carried this story added that the Sri Lankan military operation had recaptured almost all of the fifteen-thousand square kilometres held by LTTE. It also mentioned China's $1 million humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka this month.

Although India's national security advisor, M.K.Narayanan, and the foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, are engaged, Sri Lanka does not regard India as a major player on the Tamils' future. Rajapakshe made a point of rejecting what he called "foreign" (read Indian) solutions to the ethnic crisis, insisting that "We must find a homespun solution to this conflict. That solution should be acceptable to all the communities." "Communities" here means the majority Sinhala community, and it will never accept a fair settlement for Tamils. Since Rajapakshe, himself, is a Sinhalese hardliner, not tolerant of political dissent, and has snuffed out opposing voices in the media, he may be calculated to stoke Sinhala chauvinism against the Tamils, and use that as an excuse to oppress the minority community.

In this, the Sri Lankan military will fully back him. Having defeated the LTTE, the military will not accept any compromise solution to the Tamil crisis, and this suits Rajapakshe. Where the president may have a problem is if the military on the basis of its new-won stature demands a greater say in political and national-security matters. While a military coup is not altogether and forever ruled out in Sri Lanka, the foundation of it will be laid if Rajapakshe or another president seeks to give a better deal to the Tamils. Indeed, Rajapakshe may employ the coup threat to hold off US pressure to make dramatic concessions to the Tamils.

China presents a double-edged threat in this regard. While for Rajapakshe and the Sri Lankan political leadership, it is a good hedge against India, China can also meddle in ways unwelcome to the current Sri Lankan president or his successor. For example, post the victory over the LTTE, the military will demand weapon systems' replenishments and seek an increase in size citing the threat of future Tamil terrorism, which remains distinctly possible. As now, almost the only country which will step in with military lethal aid, no questions asked, is China (Pakistan is fighting for its own survival to enter the calculation), and it will try to win the Sri Lankan military to its side, if the process is not already on. In the region, China has already played both the Maoist and non-Maoist side in Nepal and the Pakistan army blindly depends on the Chinese. In other words, China knows the game, and China appreciates the involved Indian Ocean stakes befriending the Sri Lankan military.

So what can India do in Sri Lanka? At this late stage, probably very little. But with Prabhakaran and the LTTE finished, its only hope is the Tamil diaspora, which is so angry and desperate that it has vowed creation of a deadlier monster than the LTTE, and this cannot and should not be taken as an empty threat. LTTE II will present new security nightmares for India. On the whole, therefore, it is best that India reopens negotiations with overseas Tamils and becomes their major backer in talks with the Sri Lankan government. That way, the potential for Tamil terrorism and violence is peacefully exhausted, and India is back in the reckoning in Sri Lanka.

If India does not move now (Rajapakshe is not key to Indian interests but the leaderless Tamils), Sri Lanka will lodge in China's orbit, and that has terrible geo-strategic implications for us. If China backs a military coup, it will get worse. It is a race against time, and frankly, India needs smarter interlocutors than M.K.Narayanan & Co.