Columns - Political Column

Key issues for Govt., time running out

  • Security situation in north worsens as PSC faces boycott by UNP, JVP
  • Tough letter of demand from Jayalalithaa as battle over Channel 4 video intensifies
By Our Political Editor

Balachandran Sathkunanthan (30) set out from his house in the farming town of Avarankal in the Jaffna peninsula the previous Saturday evening for a leisurely ride on his motorcycle.

The next day (last) Sunday morning, his blood-drenched body was hanging from a goal post in a playground in Putur, just two kilometres from his home. It bore torture marks. The nails of fingers in both hands had been plucked out, Jaffna Judicial Medical Officer (JMO), Dr. S. Sivaruban, testified at the post-mortem inquiry. He said there were no suicide signs on the body that hung from a nylon cord. The inquest is still pending.

On the good side, it is now possible for citizens of Jaffna, to decide at the spur of the moment to move to any corner in the peninsula without fear. They are no longer under the watchful eyes of Tiger guerrilla cadres who would have punished them if there was no convincing reason for doing so. On the bad side is a disturbing reality. In the northern Jaffna peninsula where some 50,000 troops and policemen are deployed, recurring incidents are posing a serious question -- whether total normalcy is yet to return to the once-beleaguered peninsula with the defeat of the Tiger guerrillas more than two years ago.

During the past six months, the Sunday Times learnt, at least 30 killings have taken place. They include the death of four soldiers. That such incidents recur when the government says it wants to restore democracy in the north raises more questions for it than to others. Polls to local councils are due this month. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has declared that elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held "early next year." That violence is increasing in the peninsula could only drive more fear into the people and thus create instability is no secret. It also throws in bad light the on-going post war reconstruction efforts.

Worrying ground situation in Jaffna

For many reasons, it would be unwise to speculate on the causes for the death of Sathkunanathan. More so when Police in the peninsula have been directed not to speak to the media over the incident. However, the causes for the murder apart, the eerie message that mounting violence in the peninsula delivers appears lost in Colombo. Despite a heavy security presence and the absence of terrorist threats, unsavoury incidents do take place. They do not seem to be doing any good to the government. Worse enough, the authorities have found it difficult to curb the incidents.

It was only on June 17 some unidentified men broke into a meeting conducted by parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) -- the only Tamil party continuing a dialogue with the government to chalk out measures to address Tamil grievances. An MP complained to the Tellipalai Police that persons wearing uniforms similar to those of the Army broke into their premises in Alaveddy and assaulted, among others, members of the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) assigned for their personal protection.
According to the MP, one of those in the group had asked how such meetings could be held without permission. The incident caused uproar with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa accusing the TNA of running to the United States Embassy in Colombo first instead of the local Police. An official inquiry has now come out with its findings. They say the incident was the result of a scuffle between some Army personnel and those of the MSD. Thus, it is claimed that the attack had nothing to do with the TNA meeting.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa meets Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on June 15 in New Delhi. Pic courtesy Hindu

It is in this backdrop of a worrying ground situation in the Jaffna peninsula, once a stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and now a key area that awaits "the devolution of new power", the government is continuing with efforts to formulate a fresh political package. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who heads the Long Term Reconciliation Committee (LTRC) is busy finalising the terms of reference of a Parliamentary Select Committee to identify measures to address Tamil grievances.

Notwithstanding this, de Silva chaired a meeting with representatives of the TNA on Wednesday. It was led by TNA President Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. He said the alliance had asked the government for written proposals that would address Tamil issues. "We made the request in accordance with a promise given to us earlier. None was given to us at Wednesday's meeting. We have repeated our appeal and hope it would be given to us at the next meeting on Wednesday," he told the Sunday Times. He said the alliance had given the government an assurance that it would remain engaged with the government and not withdraw.

Parliamentary Select Committee

On the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee, Sampanthan said, "we have not been officially informed. When we receive an official request, we will decide." Those remarks indicated an element of uncertainty over whether the TNA should participate.

The question on whether the TNA would serve in the PSC assumed significance this week. That is after UPFA General Secretary and Minister Susil Premajayantha, told a news conference on Thursday that the government would not accept a single Tamil party as the "sole representatives of the Tamil people." Though it was represented in Parliament, provincial and local authorities, he said, the TNA cannot claim it is the only group representing the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka. Besides the two major political parties, the SLFP and the UNP, there were also the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), United Peoples Front (UPF) and the Democratic Front (DF) among others, Premajayantha said.

It raises the question of where the government-TNA talks would be headed if and when a PSC is constituted. This makes clear that the TNA would become the loser if it chooses not to take part in the PSC. With the government's now declared policy of the TNA not being the sole representative of the Tamil people, it would be at liberty to proceed with the PSC without the TNA. Yet, the government's declared objective of ensuring a broader consensus on a new political package to address Tamil grievances through Parliament hinges on a few important factors. Main among them is the question whether Sri Lanka's largest opposition, the United National Party (UNP), will serve in the PSC. Indications this week were that it will not. A news conference is likely on Wednesday where a formal announcement will be made.

There was a brief exchange on the subject two weeks ago when President Rajapaksa met UNP co-deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya at a religious ceremony. The occasion was the Higher Ordination Ceremony of the Ramanna Nikaya (Sect) held at the Walpola Wimalaratanarama Vihare in Kandana. He told Jayasuriya the UNP should join the PSC to work out a new political package. Jayasuriya told President Rajapaksa in return that "in our view the PSC would be superfluous." He said the Tissa Vitharana Committee had made a voluminous study of the subject. The government had two thirds majority in Parliament. Other PSCs had sat but there had been no results. Jayasuriya, now acting leader of the UNP, told the Sunday Times, "In response to a question from me, the President said he had consulted India. It was in favour of a PSC." UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, meanwhile is on a visit to the United States.

A ruse to blame opposition

Mangala Samaraweera, now chairman of the UNP Message Committee (and a former Minister in the Rajapaksa administration) told the Sunday Times, "My view is that we should not take part. We must let the government come out with its proposals. In the face of mounting international and local pressure, this is a ploy to sidestep the issue of a settlement. The government is a well-entrenched prisoner of chauvinistic forces. It never wanted to consult the opposition on the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which conferred overwhelming powers on the presidency. This is a ruse to blame the opposition if something goes wrong."

President Rajapaksa meets editors at Temple Trees on Tuesday

President Rajapaksa was to tell editors of national newspapers this week during his monthly breakfast meeting with them that he was being blamed this time for going and seeking the views of political parties represented in parliament, when he has previously been accused of not consulting Parliament. On the other hand, opposition members say the President chooses to consult Parliament only selectively, and when it suits him. Otherwise, Parliament is a mere rubber-stamp as far as he is concerned.

As explained earlier, a decision to sit in the PSC would mean the UNP is abandoning the continuation of its own earlier policy. Any new package the PSC would bring forth would not necessarily encompass provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution - one that was introduced by the UNP government of late J.R. Jayewardene with the full concurrence and support of the government of India. With the UNP not taking part, any formal accord, if it could be reached by the PSC, would be seen as one coming entirely if not largely from the government. Another key player in the opposition, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) declared this week iy would not take part in the PSC.

JVP spokesperson and now its frontline orator, Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times, "The DNA (Democratic National Alliance) has decided that it will not take part in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee on finding a political solution to the ethnic problem. The JVP also has taken the same stand as it would not be a fruitful exercise. We have several reasons for arriving at this decision. One of them is that the President during the past Presidential election promised to propose a political solution to the northern issue and we are yet to see these proposals.

"The President also asked for a mandate to change the constitution. He said that a devolution package already prepared by his ministers was ready. He needed only the mandate from the people. But again nothing has happened on this aspect. Another issue is that we have not heard what has happened to Prof Tissa Vitharana's report. Nothing useful has come out of those deliberations as well. It is clear that the President is delaying the process. He now says discussions are on with the Tamil parties including the TNA.

"The Select Committee too would be another delaying tactic. We do not want to be a part of a process which will not bring any results. It is not too difficult to identify the problems of the people in the north and bring about a solution. So far we have not been invited for the process and will not be taking part even if we are invited."

Let it go to PSC and come back

President Rajapaksa told national editors on Tuesday that whether it was the 13th Amendment to the Constitution or beyond that, let it go to the PSC and come back. "I will implement them," he declared. That came as the first official pronouncement from none other than President Rajapaksa that the fuller enforcement of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a move sought by India and agreed to by him, was no longer on offer. Rajapaksa and Indian leaders have repeatedly re-iterated that Sri Lanka would concede "13th Amendment plus." The word "plus" was said to refer to the creation of a Senate or a second Chamber. Such re-iteration is entrenched in official statements issued by both sides after periodic engagements. This, no doubt, is a turning point. Rajapaksa also insisted that his move to set up a PSC was not "delaying tactics."

The Sunday Times revealed in its political commentary exclusively on June 17 details of a dialogue a three-member Indian delegation held with President Rajapaksa. The trio comprised National Security Advisor (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar. The report was to cause unease and acute discomfort in some quarters. There were claims that no references were made to land or police powers for Provincial Councils and that everything was as 'hunky dory' as it could be during the dialogue. Of course, the mood was as friendly as it could be -- the result of suave, great finesse and diplomacy on the part of the Indian trio, not to be outdone by Rajapaksa's courtesy. That is not to say the core issues did not come up for discussion and the two sides were discussing only how best to get along in the future.

Though not mentioned in the commentary, team leader Menon did have a one-on-one with Rajapaksa, as confirmed to the Sunday Times by an Indian High Commission source this week. In addition, commenting on the meeting a South Asian diplomat told a western counterpart, "he (Rajapaksa) poured his heart out about the issues facing his government." One need hardly be a fly on the wall of 'Temple Trees' to say what followed after the talks, first between Menon-Rajapaksa and later with others joining in, ended. Rajapakasa has himself made it quite clear, first to UNP deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya and thereafter to the media heads of the country.

Simply put, no more provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would be on offer as a settlement to Tamil grievances. That would naturally bring the focus on what these provisions, at least the important ones, would be. They are none other than the conferring of land and police powers to the Provincial Councils in accordance with a constitutional amendment formulated in close consultation albeit with the insistence of India. This indeed is what Rajapaksa told India.

And this is why Menon declared to Indian-based media in Colombo during a briefing, "It was their amendment (the 13th Amendment) and not ours." He added, "We did the India-Sri Lanka Agreement which gave them an enabling environment within which to implement their own amendment. If they think they want to do better than the 13th Amendment, which many of them think they want to do better, that is for them. But they must all feel comfortable."

Quite understandably, there is little India could say officially except what a diplomatic source described as "we understood each other's position very well, loud and clear." In fact, the front-page exclusive lead story of the Sunday Times on May 15 declared that India wants police and land powers extended to Provincial Councils. That was the logical course for New Delhi to pursue since sections of the 13th Amendment were in force after being legislated for. Now that the UPFA government has declared there will be no more of the 13th Amendment, there is stoic silence. So much so, there was not even an official statement at the end of the talks. One would perhaps say quite understandably so.

Later this month, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement reaches 24 years, an year less than a quarter of a century. Returning to New Delhi after signing the Agreement on 29 July, 1987 then Indian Prime Minister late Rajiv Gandhi told the Lok Sabha on July 30, "The Agreement constitutes the Eastern and Northern Provinces of Sri Lanka into one administrative unit with an elected Provincial Council and a Chief Minister. Powers would be devolved to the Provincial Council within the framework of the proposals finalised between May to December 1986 to ensure a full measure of autonomy to the Provinces of Sri Lanka. The Emergency is to be lifted in the near future …….."

On Friday, the Indian High Commission's spokesperson Birendar Singh Yadav told the Sunday Times, "The Indian delegation which visited Sri Lanka recently are happy that the Sri Lankan government has started a dialogue with the TNA to find a solution. India is also is happy that they are also going to talk with all the parties"

On 21 May, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was victim to an LTTE bomb attack in Sriperimpudur in Tamil Nadu. On December 22, 2008, the Supreme Court in Sri Lanka ruled that the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as one unit was illegal. Now, 24 years after the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, the remaining components of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, President Rajapaksa has declared, were not automatically on offer as part of a solution to Tamil grievances, not unless they are approved by a PSC. And that PSC would be sans the country's at least two major opposition parties, the UNP and the JVP.

Britain's controversial video

With plans by the main opposition to object to the move coupled together with the boycott decision by the JVP, it may well fall on the UPFA government in the weeks or months to come, to declare its next move. That is in the backdrop of pressure building up on issues arising from the report of the UN Advisory Panel on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. One of the related issues is the controversy generated by the screening of Britain's Channel 4 video titled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields in Britain and other countries.

On Tuesday (July 5), both the Sri Lanka government and the Tamil Diaspora groups have arranged their own events in Britain over the controversial video. According to P.M. Amza, Sri Lanka's acting High Commissioner in Britain, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP and Advisor to the President on Reconciliation, will be in London to take part in a dialogue with Sri Lankan expatriates from all three communities, politicians, journalists, think tanks and civil society organizations at the High Commission in Hyde Park Gardens. The event will include a presentation by Prof. Wijesinha on the latest post-conflict developments in Sri Lanka. He will also respond to allegations levelled in the "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields" video.

An e-mail titled "RECONCILIATION, IN THE CONTEXT OF CHANNEL 4 ALLEGATIONS" circulated by Amza to Sri Lankans resident in Britain states: "Prof. Wijesinha is extensively knowledgeable in matters relating to the recently concluded conflict, including Sri Lankan Government's past attempts to make peace with the LTTE. He is conversant with the developments related to on-going talks for power devolution, in his capacity as a member of the Government delegation. He has earlier functioned in key positions such as the Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat and Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights. He was also a member of the team appointed by the present Government for peace talks with the LTTE."

On the same Tuesday, the Brtish-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) is hosting a Parliamentary Reception in conjunction with the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG-T) at the Attlee Suite of Portcullis House in Westminster. Confirmed speakers include Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Douglas Alexander MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Ed Davey MP, Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs.

The Sunday Times has learnt that the GTF brokered a deal between Channel 4 and a leading Indian television news channel to obtain broadcast rights for the latter to screen Sri Lanka's Killing Fields video. It is to be telecast from the New Delhi based station on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 10 pm, 11 pm and 10 pm respectively. Thereafter, plans are afoot to record an interview incorporating reactions from Tamil Nadu's new Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram.

Jayalalithaa’s 24-page memorandum

Jayalalithaa, who had a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, last month handed over to the latter a 24-page memorandum. It begins with references to Sri Lanka. She is seeking the return of Kachchativu, an island in the Palk Straits, the seas that divide India and Sri Lanka. Here are the relevant highlights:

Memorandum submitted by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Selvi J. Jayalalithaa to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

15 June 2011

(a) Action required against War Crimes in Sri Lanka
"During the closing days of military action of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces against the Tamils, there had been many reports of indiscriminate killings of innocent civilians and non-combatants and human rights violations.
"A large number of Sri Lankan Tamils were affected in this conflict. Despite an attempt to black out the coverage by independent media, enough information is available to show that the Sri Lankan Government was responsible for large scale atrocities. The Panel of Experts appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations Organisation found the following serious credible allegations against the Sri Lankan Government:
(i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling;
(ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects;
(iii) Denial of humanitarian assistance;
(iv) Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both IDPs and suspected LTTE cadre; and
(v) Human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government. Therefore, the Government of India should take up this matter with the United Nations Organisation to declare those found guilty of such war crimes as war criminals.
(b) Equal Rights for the Tamils in Sri Lanka

The genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils at the hands of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces has led to their large scale displacement from their homeland. A major part of the Sri Lankan Tamil community is still languishing in refugee camps with their rights to citizenship severely compromised. It is imperative to provide a pragmatic Political Package to the Sri Lankan Tamils and restore their equal rights of citizenship on par with the Sinhalese Community. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil speaking people have historically inhabited the North and East Provinces, while the Sinhalese have lived in other parts. The Government of India should impress upon the Sri Lankan Government the need to enable the Tamil people to participate fully in their own governance in the North and East. Political reforms should be urgently introduced with further possible delineation of powers to the Provinces by transferring some of the items from the Concurrent List to the Provincial List as per the aspirations of the people, especially the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

(c) Economic Sanctions against Sri Lanka till the Tamils in Camps are fully rehabilitated. Though Sri Lanka became independent, the Tamils living in that country were struggling for many years against the injustice of being treated as second class citizens. Instead of appreciating the justness of their demand and ensuring that Tamils in Sri Lanka lead a life of dignity, with equal rights and self-respect through necessary Constitutional Amendments, the Sri Lankan Government was taking all possible action to exterminate them.

There is overwhelming evidence of the large scale deaths of innocent Sri Lankan Tamil Civilians and other grave human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. There have been no tangible efforts to ensure proper rehabilitation of the large number of displaced Tamilians in the Northern & Eastern part of the country. The Government of India should initiate action by working with other Nations for the imposition of an economic embargo on the Government of Sri Lanka until the Tamils, who are now living in camps, are resettled in their own places and are allowed to live with dignity and with equal Constitutional rights on par with the Sinhalese.

(d) Reimbursement for Welfare Schemes extended to Sri Lankan Refugees

The Relief and Rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Refugees have been constantly engaging the attention of the Government of Tamil Nadu. The Government of India have been reimbursing the cost of housing, basic amenities, food and clothing along with establishment costs to the extent of 44.74 crores per annum. The State Government provides additional benefits like aid and apparatus for differently abled, supply of sports materials, marriage assistance etc. at a cost of 6.11 crores per annum for the refugees welfare. To enable them to live with dignity, the Government of Tamil Nadu has now taken a decision to extend the following special welfare schemes presently in operation for the people of Tamil Nadu to the Sri Lankan Refugees also.

1. Social Security schemes for the old and destitute.
2. Free Rice Scheme up to 20 kgs.
(Note: There is no 3 in the memo).
4. Supply of ration commodities at subsidized rates
5. Girl Child Protection scheme.
6. Fee concession for the first graduate student in professional colleges
7. Free supply of sewing machines.
Marriage assistance schemes at enhanced rate. Extension of these schemes would cost the State Government an additional sum of 14.10 crores per annum. The Government of India is requested to extend reimbursement of the cost incurred by the Government of Tamil Nadu for these additional Welfare Schemes also.

(e) Retrieval of Katchatheevu and Restoration of traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu Fishermen
Katchatheevu is a small island of an extent of approximately 285 acres in the Palk Strait off Rameswaram, part of Ramanthapuram District. It was originally under the ownership of the Raja of Ramanathapuram (Survey No.1250) as per the Ramanathapuram Gazetteer. A large number of evidences, including lease deeds, in the past prove that Katchatheevu was part of India geographically, culturally and historically. The Indian fishermen were enjoying fishing rights in and around the island of Katchatheevu prior to the execution of the 1974 Agreement. As per this Agreement, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka. Article 6 of the above Agreement states that "the vessels of India and Sri Lanka will enjoy in each other's waters such rights as they traditionally enjoyed therein."

The Government of Tamil Nadu has always maintained that such rights include the traditional fishing rights as well. A second Agreement was entered into with Sri Lanka in March 1976 for settling the boundaries between the two countries in the Gulf of Mannar. By these two agreements, the fishermen of Tamil Nadu have been deprived of their fishing rights around Katchatheevu.

In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed a resolution seeking the restoration of Katchatheevu Island and the sea adjacent to it to India. Further, a proposal was sent to the Government of India in 2003 to examine the feasibility of getting the Island of Katchatheevu and adjacent seas on a 'lease in perpetuity' solely for fishing and other activities associated with it while negotiations for the return of Katchatheevu are on. A Writ Petition (W.P. (Civil) No.561/2008) was also filed in this regard in the Supreme Court of India in 2008 and is pending. The Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed a resolution on 9.6.2011, stating that, as per the order of the Supreme Court of India (Berubari case of 1960), a part of territory owned by India can be ceded to another country only through a Constitutional Amendment passed with the approval of both Houses of the Parliament.

However, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka through the 1974 and 1976 Agreements without getting the approval of both Houses of the Parliament. This Government is of the strong view that the ceding of Katchatheevu without a Constitutional Amendment approved by both Houses of Parliament is contrary to law. The Government of India should, hence, take steps to retrieve Katchatheevu and restore the traditional fishing rights of the fishermen of Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu has a coastal length of 1,076 kms. There are 591 fishing villages across 13 coastal districts, with a total marine fishermen population estimated at 10 lakhs. At present, over 6200 mechanized fishing crafts and 54,000 traditional crafts are engaged in marine fishing. The last three decades have witnessed increasing tensions between India and Sri Lanka over fishing rights, especially in the Palk Bay area, due to the close proximity of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) to the seacoast. It is required to augment the infrastructural facilities in the fishing harbours across the coast of Tamil Nadu, especially in the Palk Bay area, and also to modernise the fishing technology to promote deep sea fishing with a view to ameliorating the fishermen's socio-economic status………."

Various developments in the recent weeks show that the government has been engaging in several fronts. External Affairs Minister. G.L. Peiris, was scheduled to leave for Pakistan today for meetings both with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. However, the visit was called off at the last minute since President Zardari is away from Pakistan. The visit is to be re-scheduled for later this month. Besides other matters, Sri Lanka is to seek Pakistan's continued support in the wake of issues confronting Sri Lanka.

Issues arising from the report of the UN Advisory panel of experts, the screening of Channel 4 video Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, a new political package to address Tamil grievances all raise a big question. The UN Human Rights Council taking up issues on Sri Lanka was postponed by all accounts for September. Time is running out before answers to all the issues are evolved. That, no doubt, is a big challenge, for the Rajapaksa administration.

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