For more reasons than one, the coming weeks remain crucial for President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
With a comfortable two thirds majority in Parliament and a separatist war over, his UPFA government has still been floundering. A number of issues have begun to erode public confidence even though they are not highlighted by an impotent opposition. The largest cabinet in post-independent Sri Lanka notwithstanding, absence of good governance in some key sectors have haunted the higher echelons of power. Concerned by these reasons, senior ministers believe Rajapaksa is veering towards a series of corrective measures.
On Friday, he chaired a meeting of constituent parties of the UPFA. Taking part among others were Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, Ministers Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharana, D.E.W. Gunasekera and Keheliya Rambukwella. A gamut of issues facing the government formed the subject of discussion. That included wages for employees in various sectors, student unrest in universities and the proposed legislation for private universities.
Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake was to explain the rationale behind the proposed legislation. Minister Weerawansa was to point out that the student unrest in the universities was a matter that had to be carefully approached. He said some of the Vice Chancellors were not tactful in dealing with students and were taking the same approach as a teacher would to school children. He said that during a UNP government which had five sixths majority in Parliament, then Education Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had withdrawn a white paper on education to establish private universities.
Champika Ranawaka also pointed out that the 1985 white paper also gave powers for the government to intervene. It became clear on Friday that the government would not go ahead with the proposed private universities legislation.
|TNA leader R. Sampanthan is being introduced by Radakrishan (Roy) Padayachie, South African Minister of Public Service and Administration to a Cabinet colleague.
There was a glow in Prime Minister, D.M. Jayaratne's face when President Rajapaksa denied media reports of his brother Chamal Rajapaksa, the current Speaker, being appointed as Prime Minister. He said he had not planned on such a move and opined that such reports were to discredit him and the government. However, he said there would be no denial issued to those who published the accounts. It would yet be clarified, he said.
Before Friday's meeting, officials of the Prime Minister's Secretariat were busy checking to ascertain the veracity of reports that he would soon cease to be Prime Minister. On learning that there had been media reports of a change in the post of Prime Minister, Rajapaksa said, he made inquiries. He said a cabinet minister was responsible for spreading the story. However, he did not name the minister.
If that is the focus domestically, issues over Sri Lanka which is drawing international attention once more, a 'curtain raiser' of sorts on the events to follow begins next week. That is when Rajapaksa holds talks with Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, who arrives in Colombo tomorrow on a four-day official visit. Though bilateral issues with New Delhi would form the primary subjects, the outcome and its implications would have a strong bearing. Among such issues are modalities for a political package to address Tamil grievances. Colombo and New Delhi have now begun to differ on this issue.
New Delhi wants the government to fulfil its assurance to enforce the "13th Amendment to the Constitution" and adopt measures "beyond" that. During recent preliminary discussions between Rajapaksa and India's High Commissioner, Ashok K. Kantha, both sides, according to highly-placed government sources, had strongly articulated their respective positions and argued their case vigorously. How that divergence would play out during the talks has become the cynosure of attention in Colombo's diplomatic community.
It seemed that External Affairs MinisterG.L. Peiris was oblivious to his Indian counterpart's visit to Colombo. He was on a tour of Senegal and Burkina Faso, as his own news release says, to "strengthen traditional and historic ties" with those countries. Originally he was to travel to South Africa to attend the centenary celebrations of the African National Congress. However, as exclusively revealed in the front page lead story in the Sunday Times last week, Sri Lanka boycotted the event. This was on the grounds that an invitation had also been extended to the London-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF).
The Sunday Times headline said "Govt. boycotts ANC centenary." No sooner copies of the issue hit the streets, a Sri Lankan dignitary had telephoned South Africa's Deputy External Affairs Minister Ibrahim Ibrahim in Pretoria to say that the country's High Commissioner in that country, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner Shehan Ratnavale would attend the centenary ceremonies. Earlier, High Commissioner Ratnavale had written to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) of South Africa expressing Sri Lanka's inability to accept the invitation in the light of a similar invitation being extended to the Global Tamil Forum. In other words, equal status was being given to the government of Sri Lanka and the GTF. This was on the instructions sent to him by the External Affairs Ministry in Colombo. Ibrahim Ibrahim, who visited Sri Lanka late last year, is also Chairman of the Executive Committee of the ruling African National Congress.
The hasty Sri Lanka response after exclusive revelations in the Sunday Times last week, no doubt, is a serious indictment on the conduct of the country's foreign relations. The need to ensure even a semblance of representation arose as a result. Otherwise, as said in the report, it was Dr. Peiris who was to have represented the country. In fact some 44 heads of state or government were among those who were to attend the event. That was why Pretoria had extended an invitation for a leading Sri Lanka government dignitary to take part.
As a result of Peiris' tour of Senegal and Burkino Faso, External Affairs Ministry sources said, inter-ministerial meetings for the Krishna visit were held in his absence. Not that the External Affairs Ministry matters since Sri Lanka's relations with India are essentially handled by the Presidential Secretariat.
The speculation over Chamal Rajapaksa becoming Prime Minister, according to a ministerial source, had stemmed from reported receptions planned for him in the south. This, however, was on the basis that Chamal Rajapaksa had wanted to step down as Speaker to become a Cabinet Minister. It was a well known secret at the time, that soon after the 2010 parliamentary elections and Chamal Rajapaksa was appointed Speaker he reluctantly accepted the job. He was Ports and Aviation Minister and wanted to remain in the cabinet. The President wanted a sure bet as the Speaker of the House, as Parliament is where impeachment motions against the president can begin.
There was speculation that President Rajapaksa would give one of the subjects under him, possibly Highways, to the Speaker. In such an event, there were reports that D.E.W. Gunasekera may succeed him as the Speaker. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was also considered but he was having none of it. A few other changes, the same source said, cannot be ruled out.
Since late last year, a string of events that led to public concern have begun to worry the UPFA leadership. It began with the fiasco over the distribution of vegetables from wholesale points to retail outlets in the country. The introduction of plastic crates, without full consultation with growers and distributors, led to Police accosting those who transported them without it. A sudden disruption of distribution led to the non-availability of vegetables, a move that brought an angry reaction from the public. President Rajapaksa was forced to intervene to resolve the matter. Even if the flow of vegetables continues smoothly now, the fact that an Internal Trade Ministry has not been able to do its job properly became very clear. Now a cartoon advertising campaign is being carried out to extol the virtues of packaging vegetables properly to prevent spoilage. It was successfully getting its message somewhat across, but perhaps, such a campaign before the protests would have had a more salutary effect.
|South African President Jacob Zuma speaks at the ANC centenary
Other areas of concern include the bungling over the release of results of the GCE (Advanced Level) examination. Though responsibility in this regard lay in the Department of Examinations, students have had to pay for a re-scrutiny. The results under a so called Z score system for the first time in Sri Lanka caused concern for some 300,000 students and their families. The Ministry of Education looked on helplessly as the fiasco developed. Changes in ministerial positions, senior ministers say, would take in to account performance by the ministers like in the case of Internal Trade and Education.
Another issue relates to Public Co-operation and Public Affairs Minister Mervyn Silva. Majority of members of the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha have sought his removal from the post of organizer for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on a string of allegations. They include allege corruption, abuse of his official position, alleged extortion and resort to violence. Not so long ago, some of his supporters were rounded up after it came to light that a gang led by a local politician was extorting money from vendors at the newly established Fish Market complex in Peliyagoda.
Teams of Police Special Task Force (STF) commandos were then posted to provide protection to the vendors. It has now come to light that another much stronger extortion group had been extorting millions of rupees from trading establishments under various pretexts.
One such pretext was seeking donations for the construction of places of worship. A leading export house has been a target and its refusal to pay large sums of ransom demands had led to an 'informal probe.' It has come to light that the extortion group had been in the habit of collecting Rs 5,000 each from most container owners who used roads in the Kelaniya area. Failure to pay, the gang had warned, would lead to serious harm to the businesses and may even cause physical harm. Fearing reprisals and knowing that the gang enjoyed political patronage, none of the businesses had dared to complain about the activities that have been going on. Estimates of monies collected, one source familiar with the 'probe' said, amounted to a phenomenal sum.
Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna's talks with Rajapaksa assume greater significance in the light of last month's release of the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and matters arising from it. In what was described as 'initial comments,' an Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said among other matters that it is "important to ensure that an independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights violations, as brought out by the LLRC, in a time-bound manner." He added "…..we have been assured by the government of Sri Lanka on several occasions in the past, of its commitment towards pursuit of a political process, through a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, leading to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and to go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation. We will remain engaged with them through this process and offer our support in the spirit of partnership….."
Whilst this would be one of the most important subjects to be discussed between Rajapaksa and Krishna, another new development has thrust this issue into much greater focus. It is the "on again" and "off again" dialogue between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Just two weeks ago, the government delegation leader and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva told the Sunday Times (January 1 2012) that during talks with the TNA, the government would discuss how to implement limited land powers vested in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. 'Not only land, but we will also discuss a number of other issues,' he said adding that such issues would also include police powers to provincial councils.
Things have changed again. The government has now taken up the position that there would be no talks with the TNA until it nominates members to the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Minister de Silva told sections of the Sinhala media that the government had taken up this latest position since the TNA was delaying participation in the PSC.
Rajapaksa told a meeting of leaders of constituent parties of the UPFA coalition this week that parties represented in Parliament should nominate persons for talks with the TNA when they resume. On the other hand, TNA contends that it would only name its representatives to the PSC when the talks with the government lead to the formulation of a mutually agreeable package. In the light of this, the government-TNA talks scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday are not expected to take place.
Reports from South Africa about utterances by TNA leaders during talks with members of the ruling African National Congress as well as members of the Global Tamil Forum have angered UPFA leaders. A cabinet minister who did not wish to be identified said, "they were as vociferous as the overseas LTTE lobby. What they said was no different." This is said to be a major contributory factor for the latest position taken up by the government. The sting lay in the TNA position. A TNA spokesperson said that they were "able and willing" to hold talks with the government. The remark was further bolstered by the Global Tamil Forum which said in a statement from South Africa that it too favoured the talks. This was obviously after the TNA-GTF discussions during the centenary celebrations of the African National Congress. Edited excerpts of the GTF statement:
"In the history of political societies, there are times, which come very rarely, when individuals, groups, organisations and peoples in general within it are required to shed their differences and connect one with another, united to repel the aggressive forces threatening their existence in order to promote the general good of society. The Tamil speaking peoples in Sri Lanka are passing through such times.. …….
"………We believe that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has not ended by ending the armed conflict. The Tamil speaking peoples are still subject to the same chauvinistic forces which have oppressed them since 1948.
"We note that the elected representatives of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka for the past one year, in dialogue to find a durable, and dignified political solution to the National Question. Such resolution must necessarily alter the governance structure of the country to recognise that the Tamil speaking peoples are entitled to the right to self-determination and granting to them irreversible autonomy in the areas of historic habitation. We for our part will support the full implementation of such an arrangement if agreed upon, and urge the international community to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to come up with such an acceptable political solution and ensure its genuine implementation."
When the government says there are no talks, the TNA strategy of saying it is both able and willing places the government in a tricky position. More so, since it had first agreed to talk and decided on the dates for it. Some in Colombo's diplomatic community opine that the government's strategy may be a bargaining stance. "Upon an appeal by Krishna to resume talks, they (the Government) could demonstrate that they were heeding India's call," said one source. On the other hand, the TNA has during its talks with representatives of the GTF in South Africa appeared to have agreed on a common position.
Yet, there are other hurdles to clear. The key issue would be matters related to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Months after being re-elected President for a second term, Rajapaksa visited India from June 8 to 11. A joint statement issued by Colombo and New Delhi after his talks with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh said, "The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, congratulated the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, on his recent electoral victories and conveyed that the recent elections, together with the cessation of hostilities in Sri Lanka in May 2009, provided a historic opportunity for the country's leaders to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation and to work towards genuine national reconciliation.
"The Prime Minister emphasised that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. The President of Sri Lanka reiterated his determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities that would act as a catalyst to create the necessary conditions in which all the people of Sri Lanka could lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity, consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights. Towards this end, the President expressed his resolve to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the Constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment. In this context, he shared his ideas on conducting a broader dialogue with all parties involved. The Prime Minister of India expressed India's constructive support for efforts that build peace and reconciliation among all communities in Sri Lanka.
A similar commitment was also made by External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris, during a visit to New Delhi in May last year. However, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, who has been contradicting himself over issues relating to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution said in his latest remarks that further amendments could be introduced with regard to land and police powers. He hinted in media interviews that such amendments would take away the current limited powers. Other than that, the government's latest position is that the talks with TNA would have to run parallel with the deliberations of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).
India's call for an "independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights as brought out by the LLRC" was endorsed by Britain and Canada this week. Alastair Burt, Minister with responsibility for Sri Lanka, commenting on the LLRC report told the House of Commons: "We continue to believe it is important that an independent, credible and thorough mechanism is put in place to investigate all allegations of grave abuses…" Here are excerpts:
The British Government welcomes the fact that the LLRC report has been published in full. We have read the report closely and have considered in particular its findings relating to: reconciliation and an enduring political solution in the North and East; accountability for alleged war crimes committed during the conflict; and on-going human rights issues in Sri Lanka……..
The British Government believes that the report contains many constructive recommendations for action on post-conflict reconciliation and a political settlement. Implementation of these recommendations, however, is the real test of Sri Lanka's progress.
We note the Commission's conclusion that the root cause of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka lies in the failure of successive governments to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil people and the recommendation that the Sri Lankan government should take the lead in delivering a devolution package. We urge the Sri Lankan government to implement quickly this recommendation and the LLRC's call for the Northern Province to be returned to civilian administration. We note the Sri Lankan government's recent assurance that it will ensure the withdrawal of security forces from all aspects of community life and restrict their role exclusively to security matters.
We agree with the recommendation that more action be taken to help internally displaced persons rebuild their lives. We also agree that the government should make available to relatives a list of all detainees in custody since the end of the conflict; publicly declare all detention sites; and allow family, judicial and International Committee of the Red Cross access. We support the call for anyone responsible for unlawful detentions to be prosecuted.
The British Government is, on the whole, disappointed by the report's findings and recommendations on accountability. Like many others, we feel that these leave many gaps and unanswered questions. We welcome the acknowledgement that "considerable civilian casualties" occurred during the final stages of the conflict and the recommendation that specific incidents require further investigation. But we note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN Panel of Experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered. We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN Special Rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses.
The British Government believes that the report's recommendations on on-going human rights issues in Sri Lanka are well founded. We hope they will be implemented vigorously. We welcome especially the focus on tackling attacks on media freedom and disappearances - including thousands of outstanding cases.
We encourage the Sri Lankan government to move quickly to implement the LLRC report's recommendations. Some recommendations could be completed in a matter of months. Others may take time to implement fully, but initial steps can be taken now. Ultimately, the success or failure of the LLRC will be judged on the Sri Lankan government's implementation of its recommendations.
On accountability, implementing the report's recommendations would represent a useful first step. But we continue to believe it is important that an independent, credible and thorough mechanism is put in place to investigate all allegations of grave abuses.
The British Government has consistently condemned terrorism in all its forms. The LTTE is a brutal and ruthless organisation which remains proscribed in the UK. Our long-term interest is in a stable, peaceful Sri Lanka, free from the scourge of terrorism, and as a fellow member of the Commonwealth, conforming to the standards and values which Commonwealth membership requires.
Sri Lanka's aim of achieving reconciliation amongst its people is one we value. It can be achieved through an honest acknowledgement of the past and processes, in which all parties take part, to ensure justice, reconciliation and political progress. We remain committed to helping Sri Lanka achieve lasting peace and reconciliation and will work with international partners to this end, including with the assistance of relevant international organisations."
Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper said this week that he had not changed his government's position that they would not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in 2013. His Foreign Minister, John Baird said in a statement:
"Canada notes the public release of the report of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Although we are still studying the report, the commission has addressed and provided recommendations in some areas of concern, including reconciliation, the rule of law and demilitarization.
"Canada strongly urges the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the commission's recommendations and develop an implementation road map with clear timelines while also addressing the issues the report did not cover. The report's recommendations-if implemented-can contribute to the process of political reconciliation that must now take place to address the root causes of deadly strife and division. However, to date, we have seen a lack of both accountability and meaningful attempts at reconciliation on the part of the Sri Lankan government. Decisive action is now required.
"Canada remains concerned that the report does not fully address the grave accusations of serious human rights violations that occurred toward the end of the conflict. Many of the allegations outlined by the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka have not been adequately addressed by this report. We continue to call for an independent investigation into the credible and serious allegations raised by the UN Secretary-General's Panel that international humanitarian law and human rights were violated by both sides in the conflict. The Government of Sri Lanka must demonstrate the principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
The 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is due to be held in Geneva from February 27 to March 23. Ahead of this, foreign governments are making their positions known over the LLRC report. The government has learnt of moves to raise issue over Sri Lanka at these sessions. It is still not clear whether the western nations would move a resolution or whether a non-western country would do so on their behalf. Even countries friendly to Sri Lanka are being mentioned.
In the meanwhile efforts are also continuing to persuade the government to agree to an "interactive dialogue" both on the report of the UN panel of experts who ruled that alleged war crimes have been committed and on the LLRC report. For such an exercise, the consent of the government of Sri Lanka would be required. External Affairs Minister Peiris is said to have received informal soundings over this matter. In response, he has raised the all-important question - if Sri Lanka does agree, would the matter end there with no cries for 'international probes.' With no preparations or a strategy for an eventuality by the Ministry of External Affairs, or for that matter the government of Sri Lanka, a whole nation waits in suspense.