Region’s focus on Lanka and Lanka’s focus on region

The President exhorted his countrymen to 'think big' during his second term inauguration speech and immediately set the example by appointing arguably the world's most bloated Cabinet of Ministers this week. There are so many ministries now that the number of deputies is insufficient. 'All chiefs and no Injuns', appears to be the trend.

While the week-long festivities connected with the inauguration coinciding with the President's 65th birthday continue in full swing, a notable feature was the lack of congratulatory messages from world leaders. The Ministry of External Affairs, to which these messages are usually sent, was hard pressed to feed the media. Queen Elizabeth II seems to have obliged, though that too seemed to be somewhat dated because it referred to the President's re-election, which in fact was in January; but one can excuse Buckingham Palace for getting confused because one would normally expect someone elected to start his or her term immediately thereafter, not 11 months later. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and just a handful joined in the chorus, though many had sent him felicitation messages when he was re-elected.

Hot on the heels of all this came a major faux pas this week on the part of the External Affairs Minister who seemed to have earned the wrath of the Government of Nepal for shooting his mouth off about a possible mediatory role by Sri Lanka in the internal problems of the Himalayan kingdom turned republic. This is the second time that Sri Lanka has tried to wade in to solve the problems of other countries in the region, and come a cropper; the first being the President's whistle-stop visit to the Maldives where he urged the Government and the Opposition to stop bickering, alas, to no avail.

While the Nepali snub was hardly an auspicious 'second term' beginning for the Minister, the visits from high profile personalities from two other prominent SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) member-states to Colombo is of much significance insofar as regional affairs are concerned. This week, the President of Pakistan and the External Affairs Minister of India arrived in town on separate missions of their own.

These two countries approached Sri Lanka's internal insurgency of yesteryear in completely contrasting ways. While one went as far as instigating, and then fuelling the north and east separatist insurgency, giving succour to a terror organisation to wreak havoc on this country, then lobby the world capitals at a particular time in recent history to portray this country as a pariah state, the other went out of its way to provide all the wherewithal, military and otherwise, to defeat the scourge of terrorism that had enveloped this island-nation.

For that, Sri Lanka and all its people must be eternally grateful to Pakistan - a friend in need is a friend indeed -- and to each and every one of the visiting President Asif Ali Zardari's predecessors, from General Zia-ul-Haq, to Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif to General Pervez Musharraf, their Governments and their Security Forces who gave their fullest support unhesitatingly and unreservedly during trying times when the West and other traditional arms manufacturers opted not to take small orders from Sri Lanka wary of losing bigger orders from bigger nations in this part of the world.

Unless the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LRRC) now sitting goes into what went wrong during this period in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka's so-called 'ethnic war', its deliberations will be an exercise in futility. No doubt it is hampered and strait-jacketed by its mandate handed down by the Government that places a time bar for its scope to the year 2002 and onwards (in what clearly seems to be an attempt to say that all ills began with the UNP Government and the peace accord of that year), but the work of the Commission will remain half-baked and incomplete unless it can show that there are 'lessons to be learnt' from the direct and indirect meddling in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and the manner in which it was done.

Much water and blood have, however, flowed since those years, and while this nation cannot and must not forget the past, the way to go is to move on and look to the future. The victors and vanquished of World War II are today partners in progress, not bitter enemies, and so it must be with Sri Lanka and India. In the last stages of the 'war', the Indian Administration warded off domestic pressure in the midst of a General Election, permitting the Sri Lankan Security Forces to 'finish the job' -- eliminating terrorism in Sri Lanka. When the West applied pressure on the Sri Lankan Government trying to slap human rights violation charges, India stood firm and saw those moves scuttled especially at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

And so, there must be a new era. At the time of the controversial 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord which was forced down the throat of the Sri Lankan Government of the day, the then Indian Administration was overtly concerned about US influence over Sri Lanka. Just weeks ago, US President Barack Obama was in India and the Indian Administration laid out the red carpet for him in what was a state visit to promote mutually beneficial interests. With Sri Lanka now leaning even more heavily on China for its economic resurgence, India's concerns over Sri Lanka remain, though no longer is it the US factor, nor even the domestic compulsions of Tamil Nadu. The opening of Indian consulates in Hambantota and Jaffna, which no doubt, will be manned by intelligence (spy) agents ushers in a new dimension in Indo-Lanka relations.

There appears to be a 'go-slow' in the Joint Commission between the two countries, and why only the minutes of the last meeting had to be confirmed in this visit, and nothing else is a matter of worry. Economic agreements like the Free Trade Agreement, and CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) must be forged ensuring level playing fields. Many other issues are outstanding as well and the fact that they are put on the back-burner is a matter of explicit disquiet.
Meanwhile, it will be in India's own interest, if one were to offer some unsolicited advice, to ensure that SAARC is a viable entity with Sri Lanka firmly within its fold than have to look for friends beyond. India's bi-lateral relations with Pakistan have often been the stumbling block for a more dynamic and united SAARC expanding into a real force to be reckoned with, like the South East Asian grouping ASEAN and the European Union (EU).

But like in the past, Sri Lanka must refrain from meddling in the Indo-Pak dispute of half a century. Given its latest faux pas with the Nepalese, Sri Lanka ought to keep its fingers to itself, while encouraging an Indo-Pakistan dialogue that would lead to a more meaningful cohabitation in this part of the volatile world.

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