Columns - Political Column

After the show, a showdown with India

  • Govt. allies and opposition leaders express concern over CEPA and New Delhi's political moves
  • UPFA partners divided over constitutional amendments; Opposition says not consulted
  • UNP turmoil continues while Ranil tries to woo back Sinhala Buddhist vote bank
By Our Political Editor

Behind the veneer of diplomatic niceties, Tuesday's official visit to India by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, will be tough and significant to both sides.

The tempo built up by an extravagant Indian International Film Academy awards (IIFA) in Colombo this week, no doubt lent an air of goodwill. Yet, it had little or no impact in India with most of the frontline film artistes keeping away from Colombo. Perhaps due to the unofficial nature of the event, even officials in the Indian High Commission in Colombo were conspicuous by their absence.

In contrast, some Indian media reportage built a different backdrop. The popular 24-hour NDTV channel, viewed in Sri Lanka through cable, repeatedly broadcast a programme titled "Blood on Water." It accused the Sri Lanka Navy of incursions into Indian waters to attack Indian fishermen. It claimed, though with little or no basis, that 300 Indian fishermen had been killed since the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas.

"Allowing Chennai Bureau of NDTV to produce such a documentary/feature report on Sri Lanka and airing it at a crucial time on the eve of a State visit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is surprising at best and smacks of an unfriendly attitude at worse," Sri Lanka's High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam said in a letter this week to NDTV. Rajapaksa still remained upbeat last Friday.

Chinese presence in Hambantota

"Those of you who are keen to explore, will find abundant opportunities for investment in Sri Lanka. The scope is immense: from infrastructure, to agri-business, to manufacturing and to a range of services," he told a joint session of the trade chambers of India and Sri Lanka. The event was held to co-incide with the IIFA awards. However, even the simplest trade or investment promotion issues with Sri Lanka's closest neighbour India remain inter-twined in a quagmire of political issues. Therefore, how Rajapaksa charts his course during talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be all the more important.

A few highlights of the Indian position in the impending talks are known. Though they may not reach finality, Indian and Sri Lankan leaders will talk on CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement). The Agreement, as the draft stands now, allows India access into some 80 sectors of the Sri Lankan economy. Rajapaksa is learnt to have told Cabinet colleagues there were no plans to seal the CEPA deal during his visit since much work has to be done.

Opposition to CEPA

Its mention last week drew angry responses from those within and outside the Government. NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa warned that signing CEPA in its present form would only lead to "Indianisation" of Sri Lanka. He said the present agreement had been formulated without a proper study of past Indo-Sri Lanka trade agreements or taking into consideration the needs of Sri Lanka. He said the NFF was strongly opposed to CEPA. "President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who successfully defeated the Tiger guerrillas, we are confident, will not fall for CEPA," he said.

Weerawansa's erstwhile colleague and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe was equally strong in his objections. "CEPA is an agreement that is going to be imposed on an economically weak country by an economically strong country. Economically, politically, culturally and militarily Sri Lanka is nowhere compared to India," he said.

Amerasinghe warned that CEPA could give the opportunity for India to restrict Sri Lanka's right to reach agreements with other countries besides New Delhi and said such a move would violate Sri Lanka's sovereignty.

Even the main opposition United National Party (UNP) was sceptical. Its leader said the current External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, was the co-author of this agreement and added the Opposition had not been informed of this Agreement by the Government. The UNP's international affairs spokesperson and Colombo District Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake said, "There seems to be a subtle form of pressure on the Government. We don't know what the actual position is. We want to know the real situation. We want the Government to clarify it and we would like to see the agreement before it is signed. Then we can decide to support or oppose it."

Sri Lankan officials say they are looking at a re-negotiated, balanced deal to be concluded at the end of the year. Another matter is India's request to open two more Deputy (Assistant) High Commission offices, one in Jaffna and another in Hambantota. A visa centre was opened in Jaffna last month by the High Commission to facilitate the process for Jaffna's citizens to apply for visas to India. For quite some time now, the Indians have been asking to open up a Consulate in Jaffna.

A consulate provides for consular work, usually in respect of citizens from that country, i.e, in this case, Indian citizens. In the absence of any significant number of Indian citizens working or living in Jaffna, Sri Lankan authorities for some time now have been delaying the granting of approval. Now, suddenly the Indians have upgraded their request to a full-fledged Assistant High Commission in Jaffna. Sri Lankan authorities are concerned about this request in the light that such a mission would inevitably have a RAW (India's external spy agency) officer posted there in the guise of being a counsellor of sorts. The fear in Colombo is that with the election of the Provincial Council for the Northern Province shortly, India might deal directly with this council rather than through Colombo. That is the danger in this whole exercise.The request for the opening up of an Assistant High Commission in Hambantota also raised eye-brows last week, but now it transpires that it is possible that it was Sri Lanka that has made this move.

Earlier it was felt that the Indians were concerned about increasing Chinese involvement in the development of the southern Sri Lankan district, especially the new harbour being built there. But if it is correct that it was Sri Lanka that has made the move it gives a further twist to the matter. Is Sri Lanka trying to play a tricky balancing act in big-power rivalry in its own backyard?

The Chinese embassy in Colombo diplomatically refused any comment on the matter this week. However, in the absence of any official word from either Sri Lanka or India, these issues will continue to cause a considerable amount of concern to those interested in Sri Lanka's neutrality. Diplomatic consultations between New Delhi and Colombo have also led to the finality on Indian assistance for ongoing projects in the once battle-ravaged areas of the North.

In this regard, a joint statement at the end of talks between President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is to contain Indian financial pledges for the reconstruction of railway lines, the repair of the Kankesanturai harbour and cement factory and the reconstruction of the Palaly airport. Once put in motion, the North is going to see a massive Indian presence, both in physical terms as well as financial.

The Indians clearly want to have a firm foot-hold in the North for whatever future purpose. In March, when the Sri Lankan Government opened a bridge in Mannar funded by the Japanese, there had been a message that the Indian envoy also be invited for the function. The Government did the next best thing; it invited all the SAARC envoys based in Colombo.

Rajapaksa's visit to India on Tuesday comes after two significant victories for him. First was the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May, last year. It is no secret that the Congress Government gave him considerable support in this regard. The second is his decisive victory at the January 26 presidential elections. Thus, according to the Indians, the onus of explaining to Indian leaders plans by his Government to address issues of Tamil grievances rests on Rajapaksa.

He is mindful of the responsibilities and has already set in motion the UPFA machinery in this regard. Unfortunately for Rajapaksa, at a time when he had wanted India's support to end the 'war against terrorism' he had to palaver the Indians with talk of devolution, and at one time went to the extent of saying he will give "13 plus", which meant that he will go even beyond the 13th Amendment in terms of devolution to the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa has already come under some fire for taking his constitutional reforms to show Manmohan Singh for his approval. While this might not strictly be the case, Rajapaksa clearly must not be seen as if he is having to get India's okay for his proposals. Many in Sri Lanka ask what justification India has to think that Sri Lanka's Tamils are its concern, and if that be the case, cannot the 140 million Pakistanis say that the Muslims of Sri Lanka are also their concern and tell the Sri Lankan Government what to do. Merely because the Tamil Nadu politicians are applying pressure on the coalition Government in New Delhi, or the Sri Lankan Tamil National Alliance (TNA) goes complaining to India, does not mean that India has any overreaching moral right over Sri Lanka's citizens.

Constitutional Amendments

One such move Rajapaksa had adopted is a string of proposed Constitutional amendments to show he is proceeding with what the Indians want of him. Last Tuesday, constituent parties of the UPFA heard Dr. G.L. Peiris, the author of the doomed 2000 draft Constitution, explain to them some of the proposed amendments. They include changes to existing provisions of the 17th Amendment.

He said that the Constitutional Council would be abolished. Instead, the President would consult both the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament before making appointments to the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Permanent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, the Finance Commission and the Delimitation Commission.

Earlier, Dr. Peiris said that it was planned to bring the Police Commission as a sub unit under the Public Service Commission (PSC). However, this drew differing views from Ministers Basil Rajapaksa and National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa. Rajapaksa pointed out that even in respect of transfers and promotions, the Police Commission had not served a proper purpose. Weerawansa said the Commission be allowed to remain sans present powers only to deal with public complaints. He said that the Inspector General of Police should also be a member of the Commission. He said that otherwise, most complaints regarding the Police Department would go to the Human Rights Commission.

With regard to the Elections Commission, President Rajapaksa noted that the Commissioner of Elections should head the body. He said otherwise conflicts could arise between the head of the Elections Commission and the Commissioner of Elections. At present, he said, there were no serious complaints about the working of the Department of Elections and hence the Commissioner should be empowered to be in charge of the Commission.

Socialist leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara struck a dissenting note when he said they had stood for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, He said now amendments were being proposed to delete provisions in the Constitution that would allow a sitting president to contest any number of times. He was also of the view that the Prime Minister should also be elected through a vote. A representative of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) raised objections. He said it was the view of his party that there should be a Presidency where anyone could contest any number of times.

Joining in to back Nanayakkara's views was LSSP leader Tissa Vitharana and Communist Party's D.E.W. Gunasekera. Vitharana said, "We should go back to the older Prime Ministerial system." Gunasekera said his party was also opposed to amendments to allow a President to contest more than twice. He said this appeared untenable when there have been pledges by them to abolish the executive presidency.

The remarks drew a sharp response from Basil Rajapaksa. "Those who wanted the Presidential system out did not speak a word of it during the elections campaigns. Why are they talking of it now," he asked. He said if they were to have made those remarks at that time, some of them would not have won. "Some of you would not have even got a seat on the National List," added President Rajapaksa. Of course later, he was to note that his remarks were in a lighter vein and not to take seriously.

Rajapaksa the President said that the people of Sri Lanka had given his Government a mandate for six years. When three years of this period was over, as it always happens, politicians will start worrying about who would be the next Presidential candidate. Such political speculation would be a distraction to development work. That was the reason why efforts were being made to ensure the number of times a President could contest the presidency was open-ended.

Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka of the Jathika Hela Urumaya said his party was also strongly opposed to the abolishing of the executive presidency. "We have to make sure there are some changes so that the system will be strong," he said.

Ranawaka said thereafter that the public should be educated on the importance of continuing with the presidency. Further discussion on the subject was put off until party leaders met again to discuss electoral reforms. A parting shot came from President Rajapaksa when the meeting neared its end. "Don't go and talk outside. What you have to say, say it in Parliament," he declared in what seemed a message to those who wanted a change in the executive presidency.

At their next meeting, party leaders of the UPFA are also expected to discuss in details the setting up of the proposed Senate or the second chamber. This is to be established through Constitutional amendments.

In another recent move, Hambantota District Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa was named to head the District Development Committee of the once war-ravaged Kilinochchi district. This is besides being named also as the head of the Hambantota District Development Committee.

Namal's first task after assuming the new office to handle development activity in Kilinochchi was to join a team of Government Parliamentarians and officials on an inspection tour of the area. Leading the team was Wimal Weerawansa, Minister of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities.

The broader development strategies of the North, under the Uthuru Wasanthaya (Northern Dawn) come within the purview of the Economic Development Minister, Basil Rajapaksa.

Whither UNP's reforms?

For the main Opposition United National Party (UNP), embroiled in a crisis of its own, chances of an early resolution appeared dim. Last Thursday, its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a meeting of newspaper Editors expressed concern that some of the national issues were not getting the focus of newspapers. The reason, according to him, was the greater attention paid by the media to the crisis within the UNP.

He pointed out that the Government did not have a national programme adding that some of the Ministers were disgruntled over the portfolios given to them and therefore were not carrying out their duties properly.
Wickremesinghe was also concerned that the Opposition was not being consulted and was not being kept informed about developments such as the proposed amendments on local government elections. "Amendments to the constitution are being discussed, but again the Opposition is not being consulted," he added.

The Opposition Leader said there was concern whether the country would benefit from IIFA as some of the hoteliers had been told to offer a range of concessions to the visitors. "The newspapers are having more news about the UNP, but not on the issues that concern the public," he pointed out, as if the media should not be concerned about the ineffectiveness of the Opposition in addition to the faults of the Government.

Wickremesinghe said that the party was going ahead with its reforms which would be ready by August. He said the party branch organizations too were being strengthened. "The UNP cannot win without having strong branch organsiations," Wickremesinghe said adding that during the next few days he would not be in the city due to IIFA which could cause traffic congestion and other inconvenience - as he needed an excuse to holiday.

Nestled in Kandy over the weekend he has probably taken note of the eroding Sinhala-Buddhist base of the UNP and made courtesy calls on the two Mahanayaka Theras of the Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters. That might seem a good start for him to reach out to the masses whose vote his party has lost over the years under his leadership.

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