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Cablegate: Sri Lankan President Visits Important South Indian Hindu

VZCZCXRO9619
RR RUEHAST RUEHBI RUEHCI RUEHLH RUEHPW
DE RUEHCG #0240/01 1991025
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 171025Z JUL 08
FM AMCONSUL CHENNAI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1750
INFO RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 3189
RUCNCLS/ALL SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 CHENNAI 000240

SENSITIVE

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER IN CE
SUBJECT: SRI LANKAN PRESIDENT VISITS IMPORTANT SOUTH INDIAN HINDU
TEMPLE

1. (SBU) Summary: On July 11 - 12, Sri Lankan President Mahinda
Rajapaksa visited one of South India's most important Hindu temples.
Sri Lankan officials said the visit was "personal," except for a
hastily thrown together press conference. Embassy contacts said
that although President Rajapaksa did not visit New Delhi, several
high-level Indian officials did travel to the temple town to meet
with him to discuss security arrangements for Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh's upcoming trip to Sri Lanka. The Buddhist
Rajapaksa's visit to the Hindu temple was a reprise of his 2005
visit to an important shrine in Kerala. Some believe the Sri Lankan
President wants to quell the lurking public perception in South
India -- especially amongst some Tamil Hindus -- that his
administration's militaristic approach to the Liberation Tigers of
Tamil Eelam is at least partially motivated by Sinhalese Buddhist
majority's antipathy to the country's Hindu Tamil minority. End
summary.

A special devotee from across the Palk Strait
--------------------------

2. (U) On July 11, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa,
accompanied by 10 Sri Lankan officials, took a special Indian Air
Force flight from Bangalore to the airport closest to Tirupati, the
town in southern Andhra Pradesh which is home to one of India's most
important Hindu shrines. Tirupati's temple to Lord Venkateswara is
one of the world's most visited and wealthiest places of worship.
Often compared to the Vatican, the temple receives more than 50,000
daily visitors, with the number reaching 200,000 on important
holidays.

3. (SBU) Local government officials greeted President Rajapaksa and
his party on their arrival at the airport on the evening of July 11.
Under a heavy police presence, President Rajapaksa and his party
traveled by road to Tirupati. Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner
P.M. Amza told post that President Rajapaksa was permitted a
"special darshan" (viewing of the temple's deity) at 3:00 a.m. on
July 12. (Note: Due to the high volume of visitors at the temple,
"special darshans" by VIP visitors like President Rajapaksa are
routinely given in the middle of the night to avoid disrupting the
normal flow of pilgrims. End note.) Amza emphasized that the
President's visit was purely "personal."

Rajapaksa: "India-Sri Lanka relations at their best"
----------------

4. (SBU) Deputy High Commissioner Amza told post that President
Rajapaksa asked at the last minute to call a press conference.
According to Indian newspapers, Rajapaksa said "relations between
the two countries (India and Sri Lanka), I can say, are at their
best." Rajapaksa reportedly said he had great admiration for former
Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and considered him to be a great
politician. Rajakapsa also told the media that the Government of
Sri Lanka was prepared to resume talks with the Tamil Tigers so long
as the rebels would lay down their arms and denied that the Sri
Lanka Navy was harassing Indian fisherman.

5. (SBU) Embassy New Delhi contacts confirmed that President
Rajapaksa confined his visit to South India and did not travel to
New Delhi. They added that several Indian officials did come from
New Delhi to meet with him in Tirupati. One contact guessed that
Rajapaksa's meetings with Indian officials centered on security
arrangements for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's upcoming
visit to Sri Lanka for the summit of the South Asian Association for
Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in late July.

Some Indians view Sri Lanka as oppressing Hindus
--------------

6. (SBU) At a recent seminar on Sri Lanka hosted by a think tank
associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), L. Ganesan,
President of the Tamil Nadu BJP, commented that the conflict on the
island was one between "Buddhist chauvinists" and "Hindu Tamils."
Ganesan made his provocative comments with the full knowledge that
the Political Counselor from the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission
was present at the seminar.

Comment: charm offensive to soften Rajapaksa's militant image?
-------------------

7. (SBU) Notwithstanding comments like Ganesan's, South Indians
generally, and Indian Tamils in particular, view the Sri Lankan
situation as an internal civil war, without reference to religion.
But this was President Rajapaksa's second high-profile visit to a
Hindu temple in South India. In 2005, shortly after taking over as
President, he prayed at the famous Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayoor,
Kerala. By going to Tirupati, one of Hinduism's most sacred
shrines, Rajapaksa has upped the spiritual ante. Although we have
no reason to doubt the genuineness of his religious sentiment, there
is no doubt that scenes of President Rajapaksa expressing his

CHENNAI 00000240 002 OF 002


devotion to Tirupati's Lord Venkateswara can only help send the
message that he is not a Buddhist chauvinist trying to wipe out Sri
Lanka's largely Hindu Tamil minority. End comment.

8. (U) This message was coordinated with Embassies New Delhi and
Colombo.

HOPPER

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