Columns - Political Column

US builds closer, strategic ties with Tamil Nadu

  • External Affairs Ministry fails to see danger signals in Clinton's Chennai visit
  • US Congress resolutions after Channel 4 film add pressure on Govt. while embassy fails miserably
  • Govt. seeks crucial vote of confidence from North amid growing credibility crisis
By Our Political Editor

Events across both sides of the Palk Strait, the waters that divide Sri Lanka and India, were much in focus this week. Across the seas, the world's only super power fired a strong diplomatic salvo on Sri Lanka. That was through the visit of US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, to Chennai -- easily the first such official engagement from a highest ranking dignitary from Washington DC. The conduct of mature diplomacy, where there is little gung-ho or rhetoric on sensitive issues perhaps led sections of the government and their supporters to heave a sigh of relief that there was no fire and thunder. The message was neither loud nor clear to them.

It was reminiscent of how a Sri Lanka delegation headed by Attorney General Mohan Peiris secretly meeting with the UN Advisory Panel chaired by Indonesia's Marzuki Darusman probing alleged war crimes -- an event revealed exclusively by the Sunday Times on March 6. After the unpublicised meeting on February 22, initially covered up by UN spokespersons in New York, the talk did the rounds at the highest levels of the government that all "issues have been sorted out."

One delegation member was quoted telling a VVIP, "Sir, they gave us a very patient hearing. We have nothing to worry now." However, weeks later the report of the Panel was to send shockwaves through the government. The reverberations caused by these shocks continue. More shocks have come with the screening of the Channel 4 video prompting a serious question -- how effective is the conduct of Sri Lanka's diplomacy for which billions of dollars are being spent. Such conduct both in the United States and Britain is now with a parallel organisation - private public relations companies who do part or most of the work. Diverse and contradictory statements by various persons in the government have made foreign governments ponder which the official view is.

President Rajapaksa greets voters at the LG election campaign in Kilinochchi on Wednesday.

In northern Sri Lanka, where virtually all senior Cabinet Ministers had taken up residence for yesterday's local elections, President Mahinda Rajapaksa joined in. At a meeting in the town of Chavakachcheri, once a battle ground for fierce fighting between troops and Tiger guerrillas, he found actress-turned-UPFA-parliamentarian, Malini Fonseka on the stage.

He told an announcer to declare in Tamil that it was Malini who had co-starred alongside the late Shivaji Ganeshan, a popular South Indian film star, in the 1978 movie "Pilot Premnath." It did attract some women at the rally to pose for photographs with Malini Fonseka. However, whether yesterday's polls would attract enough voters to give the UPFA a victory commensurate with its unprecedented campaign remains a critical question.

Army harassing opposition candidates

Even UNP and opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who pleaded the government's case for time before the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and called for a united effort with them (Govt) to fight corruption, lambasted them. He accused the Army of being involved in the polls campaign in the north. In a statement issued on Thursday, he said, "Members of the Army are harassing the opposition party candidates and supporters. Yesterday, I had complaints that security forces personnel were removing posters of the opposition parties and pasting posters of the UPFA candidates. Never before has the Army been involved in political campaigns. None of the previous commanders allowed this. This is a dangerous trend. For the first time, elements of the security forces are involved in the election campaign."
He also referred to an incident where the severed head of a dog was stuck on a pole and placed outside the house of a candidate from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

"The vehicle of the Hindu God Vairavar is drawn by a dog and therefore it is most unlikely this despicable act would have been done by a Tamil. The finger points at an obvious different direction," he charged. The incident also triggered a humorous cartoon in a Tamil newspaper. It projected a large gathering of dogs amidst Palmyra trees where the speaker (a dog) declared, "Comrades, until local polls are over, I would ask you to remain in hiding."

Also reported to Police was an incident where a bowser load of excreta had been unloaded in the front yard of another candidate.

Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, was left yesterday for London to take part in the annual sessions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The Sri Lanka delegation is being led by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and includes Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Samarasinghe.

Sri Lankan issues figured in Clinton's talks in New Delhi between her and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but it was the visit to Chennai that had a bearing on Sri Lanka in all respects.

Clinton's visit to Chennai

According to the State Department website, a "senior official" told media during a briefing that Clinton's visit to the South Indian capital was two-fold. Firstly, he said, "Tamil Nadu has become a leader in the manufacturing area as well. So we have a lot of big American companies down there. Ford has a big plant near Chennai; John Deere has a new joint venture; Caterpillar has a big set-up down there as well. So American companies are very much part of that economic dynamism down there. We're really happy about that.

"The other piece of that are the skilled workers. You may all have heard in the sort of run-up to this visit, India has been a major beneficiary of the so-called H1B visas, which are skilled worker visas. Last year, India received 65 per cent of these visas worldwide, and a very large percentage of these visas were issued at our consulate in Chennai, again, I think in terms of some of the events that we're going to be doing there, she's (Clinton) going to be doing there……."

Secondly, he said, "The Secretary will be meeting with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, who is Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. …….She's a former film star…. She had her own TV channel called Jaya TV……. She is very popular and very well known in Tamil Nadu………..She is now one of four women Chief Ministers…..

And this year, for the first time, India, as you'll recall, was brought down to Tier 2 Watch List - reflecting a lot of the progress. And some of that progress was achieved here at Chennai, where they've set up anti-trafficking units at the state level, and again have taken quite a forward leadership role. …

"The other issue probably is going to be about Sri Lanka, to say the 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu are still very concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. There's 70,000 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka that are still in Tamil Nadu. The state and the central government are very happy to be supporting that. There's no pressure to leave or anything like that. I think some of them have started to slowly trickle back to Sri Lanka, now that the situation is slowly improving. One of the concerns here in Tamil Nadu is always about the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). As you recall, there were almost 300,000 IDPs at the very end of the war. Almost all of those have now been re-settled in the north. There's about 10,000 or so that still need to be re-settled, but generally I think the government's record on that has been good.

"Where we and the Indians are planning for progress is on this whole process of reconciliation, where -- which is -- includes a wide variety of different issues. They need to organise provincial council elections up in the north so that there will be, for the first time, an indigenous leadership in that area that was ruled by the LTTE for 30 years. They need to complete the resettlement process. They need to set up a process of providing for land dispute resolution, because, again, many have claims to various parts of those lands. They need to stop the activities of paramilitaries that continue to operate in that part of the country……."

Indian Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Fort St. George Complex in Chennai. AFP

More on the US focus on Chennai ahead of the Clinton visit came when Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary Central and South Asian Affairs at the State Department spoke with Aziz Haniffa of Indo-Asian News Service (IANS). Blake accompanied Clinton during her eleven day tour that covered a number of countries. Here are excerpts from the Q & A:

QUESTION: Ambassador, why is the Secretary visiting Chennai? And will the Sri Lanka issue come up during her visit in Chennai?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We wanted to have her visit another part of India just, again, to underline that it's very important for us and for our business people and for everyone else to understand that just as Washington is not the centre of the American universe, nor is Delhi, and that it's very important to go out to the states and see a lot of the important progress that is being made there.

We've never had a visit to the south and we thought that this would be a really terrific opportunity to go to Chennai. There's a new, dynamic Chief Minister, a woman Chief Minister, who has just been elected there, as you know. And we have a lot of American business down there and a lot of other kinds of engagement.

We thought this was a terrific opportunity. The Secretary is very much looking forward to going down to Chennai. Again, this will help to underline a lot of the people-to-people ties that we really have between our two countries.

QUESTION: Will the Sri Lanka issue come up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I'm sure it will come up. Obviously the 60 million people who live in Tamil Nadu have a lot of concerns about the situation inside Sri Lanka, so I'm sure this will be a topic of discussion when the Secretary sees the Chief Minister.

QUESTION: Ambassador, are the U.S. and India on the same page on Sri Lanka? You guys have not minced any words recently regarding Sri Lanka not investigating the alleged war crimes as laid down by the UN. And you have always told me that Sri Lanka and at least India and the U.S. have been on the same page in terms of repatriation of refugees and that you will have sort of, you work closely with the India in terms of Sri Lanka. Are you guys on the same page on this issue where you have minced no words?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We're very much on the same page. I think we both feel that more needs to be done to encourage reconciliation, and more needs to be done on things like devolution of power, the election of a new provincial council in the north, and some of these important accountability issues.

So yes, I think we are on the same page. We talk about these things frequently. And I don't see any significant daylight between the United States and India on this."

Thus, it is clear, that business and Tamil issues, the reasons for the Clinton visit to Chennai, both concern Sri Lanka. The increasing US investment in Tamil Nadu, where their industrial giants are pouring in millions of dollars, is a poor indictment on Sri Lanka. There have been reams of news releases, authored by a public relations firm hired by the government of Sri Lanka and issued by the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington, about US entrepreneurs visiting Colombo to invest millions of dollars. This is with the end of the separatist war.

That joke apart, some economic analysts in Colombo say, a much stronger US presence in southern India would economically counter balance the growing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, particularly in the north. To that extent, they say, both the US and India are getting closer economically with Washington having a strong footprint in India's southern backyard. Naturally, some of the issues Clinton discussed, like maritime security, protecting sea lanes and disaster management become strong corollaries in this environment. So, what ground Sri Lanka seem to be losing with the US seems to be Tamil Nadu's gain.

Clinton-Jayalalithaa dialogue

These events formed the backdrop in which the Clinton-Jayalalithaa dialogue took place. After a ten minutes session with officials, the two are learnt to have had a one-on-one discussion that lasted 45 minutes. The Director, Information and Public Relations in the Chief Minister's Secretariat released the text of a three-page joint statement.

Among other matters, it said: "During the discussion on the issues concerning Sri Lankan Tamils, the Hon'ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Selvi J. Jeyalalithaa stated that even though the war in Sri Lanka was over two years ago, the Sri Lankan Tamils in the Jaffna area are still in camps and unable to go back to the original places where they used to live. The US Secretary of State Ms. Hillary Rodham Clinton shared the concern of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and said that the US Government is looking at some innovative and creative ideas in breaking the impasse and enabling the Sri Lankan Tamils in camps to get back to their own homes. Whilst discussing the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, the Hon'ble Chief Minister explained that they have been provided with all the facilities that are available to the local citizens by the Government of Tamil Nadu………….

"The US delegation comprised Mr. Bob Blake, Assistant Secretary of State, Ms Melanne Verveer, Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues, Mr. Peter Burleigh, the US Ambassador to India, Mr. Andrew T. Simkin, US Consul General at Chennai and Ms Huma Abidin, Deputy Chief of Staff in the office of the Secretary of State, United States of America."

Weeks ahead of the Clinton visit, there was a policy change by the Rajapaksa administration. Earlier, his official spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, declared at a news conference that the Sri Lanka Government would not deal with Chief Minister Jeyalalithaa but only with the central government in New Delhi. The declaration came weeks after she had been elected Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and made some strong statements against Sri Lanka and President Rajapaksa.

In an about turn this week, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in India, Prasad Kariyasam met Jeyalalithaa with a letter from President Rajapaksa, just the day after Clinton had left Chennai. He was accompanied by Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, V. Krishnamurthi and Minister Counsellor Ameer Ajward. Rajapaksa had invited her to visit Sri Lanka. The government wanted the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister to visit particularly the north and see for herself the changes since the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas.

Kariyawasam was to explain the government's re-settlement programme and pointed out that only 10,000 remained to be settled. He said all communities in Sri Lanka were happy. Besides references to the UN Advisory Panel's report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, other topics covered were the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen operating in the Palk Strait and the on-going work of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Deputy High Commissioner Krishnamurthi appealed that no more resolutions on Sri Lanka be adopted at the TN State Assembly. There were, however, no references to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's claim over Kachchativu.

Jayalalithaa is learnt to have pointed out that the issues in Sri Lanka were the second main reason why she won the Tamil Nadu state elections convincingly. She had said that whatever steps she would take in regard to Sri Lanka would be in consultation with her people and the constituent partners of her government. This is because of the assurances she had given the people in Tamil Nadu during her polls campaign. Two of her aides were also involved in the talks. Jayalalithaa's stance is not surprising. The Channel 4 video titled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields is now being dubbed in Tamil. Once it is completed, it is to be screened on her channel, Jaya TV network. Such a move, no doubt, will whip up opinion among the Tamil Nadu public. Jaya TV is also accessible in Sri Lanka through some satellite operators.

Ban aid to Sri Lanka

Just last week, the Channel 4 video Sri Lanka's Killing Fields was screened at the US Congressional Auditorium in Washington DC. This week, just days after the Clinton visit to New Delhi and Chennai, the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the US capital adopted a resolution to ban aid to Sri Lanka. It was moved by Congressman Howard Berman, a key player in President Barrack Obama's Democratic Party. On Thursday, the Committee passed H.R (House Resolution) 2583, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. This legislation cuts spending, mandates reform, and enhances U.S. security. The final decision on the amended bill has to be approved by further negotiations between the Senate and the Congress and therefore is not final US legislation.

Here is the full text of Congressman Berman's amendment:

"Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2012
At the appropriate place in the bill, insert the following:
(1) IN GENERAL - Except as provided in paragraph (2), none of the funds made available to carry out this Act may be used to provide assistance to Sri Lanka unless a certification described in subsection (b) is in effect.

(2) EXCEPTION - The limitation on funds under paragraph (1) shall not apply with respect to democracy and governance assistance, humanitarian assistance, and assistance for demining activities.
(B) CERTIFICATION - A certification described in this subsection is a certification submitted by the Secretary of State to the appropriate congressional committee that contains a determination of the Secretary of State that the Government of Sri Lanka is making demonstrable progress in the following areas:

(1) Accountability for those involved in violations of human rights and war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka's civil war in May 2009, including by any remaining members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

(2) Reconciliation, including -
(A) the establishment of a mechanism to account for events that occurred at the end of the civil war;
(B) information from the government on what happened to those missing at the end of the civil war; and
(C) expeditious release of those remaining in detention.
(3) Withdrawal of emergency regulations
(4) An improved climate for freedom of the press throughout the country.
(5) (C ) WAIVER - The Secretary of State may waive the limitation on funds under subsection (a) on a case-by-case basis if the Secretary determines that it is in the national interest of the United States to do so."

Another resolution before the US Congress calls for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It is now being canvassed for by a Republican (Michael G. Grimm) and Democrat (Rush Holt). Titled "Stand up for Human Rights in Sri Lanka and Co-sponsor H. Res. (House Resolution) 177, a letter signed by the duo states:

"As supporters of human rights and a peaceful existence among the people of Sri Lanka, we have introduced H Res 177, expressing support for internal rebuilding, resettlement, and reconciliation, in order to ensure a lasting peace in this nation. It is estimated that between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed on both sides of the seven year war between the Tamil separatists (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2009. In addition, the shutting out of journalists and humanitarian groups during the conflict has made frank exposition of alleged war crimes extremely difficult.

"Although the Government of Sri Lanka has established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to analyse the breakdown of 2002 ceasefire, this commission has faced strong accusations from the international community of pro-government bias and the lack of a serious intent to investigate reports of human rights violations. As such, this resolution, H.Res 177, urges the establishment of an independent international investigatory authority for the purpose of ensuring accountability for both sides of the conflict and to allow for genuine reconciliation.

"An almost identical resolution has unanimously passed the Senate of this Congress, and we hope you will join us in expressing the House's support for this important cause……"

Litmus test for the UPFA

The outcome of yesterday's local polls, particularly in the north, would be a litmus test for the UPFA government. On that success lies its claims that the Tamil civilians in the north were with the government after the military defeat of the LTTE. A defeat in most councils would no doubt be a colossal embarrassment. Despite the high-powered campaign by more than 40 ministers, with President Rajapaksa joining in for the last three days, assessments by Police claim that TNA continues to hold the edge. However, UPFA says it is confident of turning the tide.

Events in the past weeks have brought home some serious deficiencies to the UPFA government. Whilst those who matter insist that there were zero casualties, at a recent seminar in Colombo, a senior military official placed the death toll during the final stage of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas at 1400. He was later forced to withdraw the statement and declare that it was his personal view. Another politician, who is now playing the role of a virtual government spokesperson, has said the death toll was 5,000.

Similarly, the government has also taken up contradictory positions time after time. A Sri Lanka government delegation met the UN Advisory Panel probing alleged war crimes secretly in New York. This gave the panel official legitimacy though the government has rejected its report. The Channel 4 video Sri Lanka's Killing Fields was first rejected as a fake. Then sections of the government conceded that a woman news anchor portrayed in the video was a guerrilla cadre. That seemed to admit a part was not fake. This week, the government extended an invitation to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jeyalalithaa Jeyaram

whom official spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said they would not deal with.
These stark bundles of contradictions have begun to erode the government's credibility. Hence, its first priority should be to arrest this trend and ensure it is credible in what it says. Knee-jerk reactions to what must be studied and measured must end.

That would naturally mean asking a few over-enthusiastic free-lance spokespersons to shut up. There is a strong need for those who are entrusted with the task to speak with one voice if Sri Lanka is to be heard by the international community with an element of credibility. That is where the biggest damage is being done now though UPFA leaders are oblivious to it. Their image as well as that of Sri Lanka continues to suffer.


From : Kira
South Indian state playing both sides like a soccer game.We all have to wait and see who the players and who getting played, by them

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