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Focus now on ‘political solution’

  • Top officials hold talks in India amidst speculation over President's term
By Our Political Editor

The first-high level contacts between Sri Lanka and its friendly neighbour India, since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), took place on Wednesday.

Three of the country's most powerful personalities -Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga - flew to New Delhi for this purpose. Their mission, first and foremost, was to thank the newly re-elected Congress Government in India for its full support in the fight to eradicate Tiger guerrilla terrorism in Sri Lanka. If India followed with a food drop by air in the Jaffna peninsula in 1987, shortly after troops had launched 'Operation Liberation' to wrest control of the peninsula from Tiger guerrillas, the administration in New Delhi extended qualified support this time. This was the second such mission by the trio since 2008.

There were some concerns in the dovecotes of power in New Delhi over why President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not come over, as publicly stated, to thank the Government of India. Instead, his first visit abroad since the victory was to Myanmar (Burma) reportedly to mark half a century of diplomatic relations with that country. However, the visit to Myanmar, a staunch ally of China, which is its largest weapons supplier and helps it when it came under critical international scrutiny, ruffled some feathers. But Foreign Ministry officials in Colombo say there were delays in arriving at suitable dates for such a visit though plans were made known by them. They say a response from New Delhi is still being awaited.

Naturally, the three-member Sri Lankan delegation to New Delhi had on its agenda some significant issues. Main among them was one to sensitise India on its oft repeated request, now that the war is over, for the Government to introduce political proposals to address Tamil grievances. Whilst many of the issues covered during the talks remain unpublicised, only some aspects have been commented upon publicly. That again is by the Indian side.

One that has remained untold relates to the political proposals, still at a conceptual stage and reflects the Sri Lanka Government's thinking on the matter. It was Basil Rajapaksa, the key player in Colombo-New Delhi relations under the Rajapaksa administration, who articulated the power sharing areas now being focused upon. Though a separate issue, it is of interest to note here that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has had little or no role to play in Indo-Lanka relations. It was only last week, Parliament was told Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, had spent more than Rs 10.5 million in public funds for 25 overseas trips, from January this year until last week. The purpose was said to be to advance foreign policy interests of Sri Lanka and invite foreign investment.

The relief aid brought by the vessel Captain Ali is to be distributed through the ICRC after Indian Minister A. Raja sent a memorandum to New Delhi

The three-member delegation's contacts were with Indian Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh.

Basil Rajapaksa told Indian leaders and officials that besides plans to enforce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Government was also looking at constitutional reforms. Among others, a Government source said, was a proposed move now under consideration to create an Upper House with possible veto powers of laws passed in the Lower House (Parliament). Such a body is to incorporate representatives from the country's nine provinces and create mechanisms for checks and balances in a bicameral legislature. The Government has in the past assured India that it would enforce this amendment as well as go beyond it.

Why the current thinking is still at a conceptual stage is because of many reasons. One is the impending completion of the report of the All-Party Representative Committee. The Government now wants to set up a Parliamentary Select Committee to evolve the final set of proposals, taking into consideration the recommendations of the APRC as well as from numerous other sources. The rationale behind appointing a Committee, according to Government thinking, is on the grounds that it would be fully representative than the APRC itself. For example, Jathika Hela Urumaya MPs who are not in the all-party entity will join in. It is argued that so will the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This is through the participation of their parliamentarian Sivanathan Kishore.

So far, Minister and APRC Chairman Tissa Vitharana says, the APRC has reached agreement on "various issues" and is drafting the final document. "This process is going on", he says. "Once we finalise that process, we will invite the parties that are at the moment not participating in the APRC, and party by party we will get their input - starting with the United National Party (UNP). This includes the TNA. Once we have all the inputs and finalise the document, we will be handing it over to the President. I cannot say how long the process will take as it involves many parties."

Vitharana hopes that the TNA will be able to rid itself of years of LTTE influence upon it, and adds that the UNP has told him that it will extend its support once the APRC final report is ready. He refers to a "lengthy process" where they will have to go through Parliament, and then, to the people at a referendum. He says that in the meantime, the 13th Amendment will have to be implemented "so that the Tamil people can feel they are part of the country's political process".

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has, however, made it crystal clear that it will have no truck with the 13th Amendment, and wants the government to abandon its plans to implement its provisions aimed at power-sharing with the provinces. The JVP's break-away Wimal Weerawansa and company which vehemently opposed the 13th Amendment when in the JVP, seem to have stuck to their guns, at least, on this issue.

The fact that the Government is thinking loud about constitutional amendments and to make provision for political proposals to address Tamil grievances has led to other speculation, both in diplomatic and political circles. When would such a move take effect? This has given rise to the likelihood of an early parliamentary general election. Government leaders believe a victory with a remarkable majority with more than two thirds in Parliament would pave the way for constitutional reforms.

Such a move comes amidst plans by an erstwhile ally, the JVP to launch a three-month long political campaign to abolish the executive Presidency. The JVP has already called for consensus among opposition parties for a common presidential candidate at an upcoming election.

It wants to seek a mandate for such a candidate, if elected, to abolish the executive presidency within one hundred days. Given the circumstances, the task of having such a candidate elected would be more than a formidable task. Since winning the war, the popularity rating of both President Rajapaksa and his Government remains at peak level; it is only the government that is afraid that it would wane.

Early this week, Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa declared, "He is today a very popular President and the people will definitely respond positively in his favour at an election to express their gratitude to a leader who saved his nation and his people from the clutches of cruel terrorism to make headway towards development."

This week, Yapa, as Enterprise Development Minister was in Bangkok. He exhorted that "Sri Lanka is like a virgin land for investors, and the time to invest is right now." He led an investment promotion mission. Of course, his comments over Rajapaksa's popularity came in response to the front page lead story in The Sunday Times last week.

The report said: "The government proposes to introduce constitutional amendments aimed at extending the term of office of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, without holding a presidential election, Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon told the Sunday Times yesterday.

"As a prelude to the introduction of constitutional changes, an islandwide campaign on gathering public support for the move had been initiated, the minister said. As a first step local government members including a section of opposition UNP members who met in Colombo on Friday, backed a resolution moved by Mr. Tennakoon who is the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government. Similar resolutions are to be moved at Provincial Council and Pradeshiya sabha level, before presenting the amendment to Parliament."

As is very clear, the report quoted a Government Minister who declared plans were afoot to introduce constitutional changes. However, for weeks before he told The Sunday Times about the proposed constitutional changes, Tennekoon received wide coverage, particularly in the vernacular media, on his campaign to extend the term of office of the Presidency through a referendum. However, The Sunday Times news report caused ripples in many quarters including Colombo's diplomatic community.
So much so, Yapa had to issue a statement on the same day The SundayTimes appeared. Some sections of the media even misconstrued this statement as a denial of the report. Yapa said that President Rajapaksa has no intention to be in power beyond the period mandated by the ballot. However, he acknowledged that there "was indeed a popular call by the people for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to continue for a further period uncontested."

Interestingly, Yapa's statement added the following; "Therefore, the President would decide on the matter of re-election at the appropriate time stipulated by the procedures enshrined in the Constitution".
This fuelled further speculation that what Minister Tennakoon told The Sunday Times had a ring of truth to the government moves he spoke about. The procedures enshrined in the Constitution that Yapa referred to include early election, it even includes provisions for a Referendum to extend the life of the President". So the Yapa statement while trying to clarify matters, only left the issue in further suspense.

Minister Tennakoon was one among those people who exhorted at various public rallies that President Rajapaksa's term should be extended through a referendum. However, President Rajapaksa was one of the staunchest opponents when one of his predecessors, the late J.R. Jayewardene, held a referendum in 1982 to cancel the 1983 parliamentary elections, and allow the 1977 parliament to continue until 1989.
Despite Yapa's assertions that President Rajapaksa will seek a fresh mandatte after his current term is over, one more ruling party politician voiced a different view. North Central Province Chief Minister Berty Premalal Dissanayake said that nobody will be able to change President Rakapaksa becoming the lifetime president in Sri Lanka.

He made the remarks addressing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Central Committee in Seruvila electorate on Sunday. "It is very clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the lifetime president of this country once we amend the constitution following a victory in the general elections," he said.

Yesterday, Minister Tennakoon once again re-iterated what he told the Sunday Times last week, this time with a stinging retort at his Cabinet colleague who was asked to contradict what he had told The SundayTimes.

However, unlike Minister Tennakoon and Chief Minister Dissanayake, several other Ministers and parliamentarians have opined that the President should go for both parliamentary and presidential polls early. This is in view of the immense popularity, they say, he and the Government enjoy after the military defeat of the LTTE. Added to that, they argue, is the disarray in the main opposition UNP where disgruntled elements haven't given up nibbling at the party leadership under the charge of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The three-member Sri Lanka delegation also re-assured India that Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps in the battle-torn Wanni would be settled in their homes within the time frame of 180 days.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was to dismiss wild speculation in sections of the Indian media that Sri Lanka had plans to set up a military base in the island of Kachchativu off the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, a bogey the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi had raised in the TN State assembly last week. Karunanidhi had relied on rumours which had reached such heights that he had in fact, written to Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh in New Delhi over the non existent issue.

A wag in the corridors of power in Colombo commented that while Sri Lanka had the right to establish any military base in any part of the country, it was a back-handed compliment from Karunanidhi that the country could pose a military threat to India.

On another matter, the pro-Tiger guerrilla lobby succeeded in persuading Indian authorities to raise with Sri Lanka the issue of the cargo vessel 'MV Captain Ali'. It held relief material collected by guerrilla supporters in Europe. The central point from which such collection was carried out was an address in Wembley, outer London area. It was from this same address that guerrilla propaganda , including video material, were distributed to the international media worldwide during the final stages of Eelam War IV.
Hours before Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna met with the Sri Lankan delegation, his Cabinet colleague, Communications Minister A. Raja, had submitted a memorandum demanding India's intervention to persuade Sri Lanka to allow unloading of a ship carrying relief material sent by the Tamil diaspora for the displaced in Sri Lanka. Raja is a Tamil Nadu parliamentarian from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) headed by Dr. Karunanidhi.

Raja said in the memorandum "I appeal to you on behalf of the Chief Minister and the people of Tamil Nadu to kindly intervene at this juncture and persuade the government of Sri Lanka to allow unloading of the relief material sent through the vessel 'MV Captain Ali.' The vessel was intercepted by the Sri Lanka Navy on June 4, some 160 nautical miles off the eastern shores. It carried 884 metric tons of cargo. The vessel 93 metres long and 14 metres wide had a 15 member Crew and is registered in Syria. It was escorted to Colombo and later asked to leave Sri Lankan waters. Since then, it had remained in the Chennai port.

The Government has agreed that the cargo in the vessel be released through the Indian Red Cross. The vessel has been told to unload all its cargo at the Chennai port. The Indian Red Cross is expected to transport it to Sri Lanka. The distribution of the stocks is likely to be handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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