Columns - Political Column

Crucial challenges for MR in victory month

  • Swaraj briefs Singh on visit; India's ruling party and main opposition take common stand on Lanka
  • Snap polls in some provinces to show the world that people are still with the Govt.
By Our Political Editor

Some of the bitter truths delivered to UPFA leaders by the visiting Indian parliamentary delegation just two weeks ago have now begun to unravel.

This was after the delegation head and India's opposition leader Sushma Swaraj met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on her return to New Delhi to brief him on the visit. Unbelievable but true. This was the most unusual meeting for Ms. Swaraj, who heads the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha. She was reporting to Premier Singh that her delegation's mission, to project India's latest foreign policy objectives towards Sri Lanka, had been accomplished. There was no discordant note and both were on the same page.

Otherwise, the ruling Congress government of Premier Singh and Ms. Swaraj's BJP have been locked in some of the bitterest political battles. The shaky UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government wanted to continue in power despite mounting allegations of corruption. Just this week, the BJP raised issue over a Swedish police official, Sten Lindstrom, admitting that he was the whistle-blower in one of India's controversial corruption scandals in 1980 -- the purchase of 419 artillery pieces by the Indian Army involving kickbacks of some US$ 1.3 billion.

Sittings of the Lok Sabha had to be suspended on Thursday. The deal pales into minuscular insignificance compared to a more recent scandal involving billions of Indian rupees over award of contracts for second generation mobile telephony or 2G spectrum. In this, the Union Telecom Minister, Aandimuthu Raja, a Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) lawmaker, was forced to resign. DMK leader, M. Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi, who was in remand custody, has won bail. Raja is still in remand custody. The cases against them are continuing.

That the ruling party and the main opposition can forget their acrimonious relationship when it comes to their nation's foreign policy is one thing. That was not the only message for Sri Lanka. More importantly, the strong signal is that the ruling party and a government-in-waiting are both unquestionably together on their policy towards Sri Lanka. That encompassed issues relating to recent developments arising from the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009.

In Colombo, the Ministry of Defence is making elaborate preparations to celebrate the third anniversary of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas on a grand scale. Next month is to be declared Ranaviru Maasaya or War Heroes Month. It will be launched with the pinning of War Heroes flag, now being designed, on President Mahinda Rajapaksa on April 30 signalling the dawn of the War Heroes Month. The annual victory day parade is to be held at the Galle Face Green on May 18. That will be a show of strength with the several units that won the war and their modern military hardware on display. The next day, a remembrance ceremony for the troops who sacrificed their lives will be held. The event is also being looked to by Colombo's diplomatic community since President Rajapaksa, in his address, is likely deal with the current issues faced by his government. This is particularly in the aftermath of the US-backed resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council last month.

The 12-member Indian parliamentary delegation, sans representatives of the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK), which boycotted the visit, had been adequately briefed on the background to the issues they raised whilst in Colombo.

Indian High Commissioner Ashok K. Kantha showing the photographs of the first family to Indian Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj when she met President Mahinda Rajapaksa at President’s House.

One of the most important messages, which discount a popular misconception, is India's support for the US-backed resolution. The delegation members have insisted during their interactions with UPFA leaders that it was "not Tamil Nadu centric." This included Swaraj's talks with President Rajapaksa. In other words, India did not back the resolution just because of pressure from political leaders in Tamil Nadu. Arch rivals Jayalalithaa Jeyaram and DMK leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi, both demanded that the central government support the US-backed resolution. They also threatened protests in the southern Indian state. Nevertheless, it was the position of the government of India and that of the main opposition that it arose from India's concerns and those of the international community over some important issues, Swaraj explained. Following her meeting with Premier Singh, details of what played out in Colombo have filtered down to various political parties in India and to Sri Lanka as well.

Besides Swaraj, other members of the delegation were M. Krishnaswamy (Indian National Congress - Lok Sabha), N. S. V. Chittan (Indian National Congress), Shri Manicka Tagore (Indian National Congress - Lok Sabha), Dr. E.M. Sudarasana Nachiappan (Indian National Congress - Rajya Sabha), J.D. Seelan (Indian National Congress - Rajya Sabha), T.K. Rangarajan (Communist Party of India - Moscow Wing - Rajya Sabha), Dr. Balbir Punj (Bharatiya Janatha Party - Rajya Sabha), Pralhad Venkatesh Joshi (Bharathiya Janatha Party - Lok Sabha), Shailendra Kumar (Samajawadi Party - Lok Sabha), Vishwa Mohan Kumar (Janata Dal - Lok Sabha) and Sidhant Mohapatra (Bharatiya Janata Dal - Lok Sabha).
"We stood by you. There is a feeling of India being let down badly. There is disappointment," Swaraj told a discussion with Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. As Leader of the House, de Silva has headed several rounds of talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Whilst these talks remain deadlocked, the TNA has refused to participate in a proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to formulate a political package to address Tamil grievances. She was alluding to India's support to the UPFA government's campaign to militarily defeat the Tiger guerrillas in May 2009. Such support came in many ways including the provision of intelligence information, satellite imagery and important radio intercepts between different guerrilla bases which then existed. The success of some of the maritime operations by the Navy was also attributed then to the support extended by India.

Swaraj noted that there were "underlying issues" which the government of Sri Lanka had committed "both to India and the international community." She said they remain to be implemented. She was referring pointedly to the enforcement of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and "going beyond it". To back her claim, she made reference to previous commitments by the UPFA government. They refer to four different official documents, which she made out, highlight Sri Lanka's commitment.

One was the Joint Statement issued by UN Secretary General and the government of Sri Lanka on May 23, 2009. This was after UNSG Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka. Among other matters, the joint statement noted, "President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka." A joint media statement on May 17, 2011, after the visit to New Delhi by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris noted that "a devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation." The other was a three-page resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on May 27, 2009 praising Sri Lanka for ending hostilities and urging "the international community to co-operate with the government of Sri Lanka…."

The 12 point resolution welcomed UNSG's visit and said "it endorses the joint communique issued at the conclusion of the visit…" It welcomed the "recent reassurance given by the President of Sri Lanka that he does not regard a military solution as a final solution, as well as his commitment to a political solution with the implementation of the thirteenth amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

A more recent one was the visit to Sri Lanka by Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna. After a breakfast meeting with President Rajapaksa, Krishna told a news conference in Colombo on January 17 that the President had assured him he would implement the "13th Amendment plus". The word plus is said to be a reference to a Senate or an upper house which the government proposed years earlier. On April 21, concluding her visit to Sri Lanka, Swaraj also told a news conference President Rajapaksa would enforce "provisions of the 13th Amendment and "go beyond it". However, there was no official comment from the government side to these remarks.

Krishna's remarks then were to draw some flak. Meeting national newspaper editors at "Temple Trees" on January 30, Rajapaksa declared that it was not up to him but the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee "to determine the solution best suited for Sri Lanka". He recalled that in the Mahinda Chinthana, his programme of work released during the 2005 presidential election campaign, he had "emphasised the need for a fresh initiative after a careful perusal of the proposals tabled so far". He added: "When I say proposals made so far, it includes the 13th Amendment plus as well."

Rajapaksa emphasised that only the proposed PSC was to be tasked to formulate proposals and asked how he could market "a solution to the masses if it is going to be rejected by a majority of Sri Lankans."
In the light of this stated official position early this year by none other than President Rajapaksa, the implementation of the 13th Amendment or other related issues is highly unlikely, not unless the PSC gets going and decides on the matter. Thus, it would remain a thorny issue not only between India and Sri Lanka but also with the west. This has not deterred India from making diplomatic initiatives to see that the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) becomes a reality. India is pressuring the Tamil National Alliance to renew the dialogue with the government and pave the way for it to take part in the PSC. In fact Swaraj had some strong words to deliver to the TNA leadership.

TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan responded by saying, "I cannot go empty handed." India's High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ashok Kantha had a breakfast meeting on Friday with Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem. The idea is to use Hakeem's good offices, since he enjoys cordial relations with TNA leaders, to ascertain whether they could be persuaded to resume talks with the government and sit in the proposed PSC. Hakeem said yesterday that he had already held 'exploratory' meetings with TNA parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran and another. He proposes to meet Sampanthan and Mavai Senathirajah in the coming week, when they return to Colombo from the north. Hakeem is also likely to talk to the main opposition United National Party (UNP) leadership. However, the UNP has taken up the position that it would serve in the PSC only if the TNA does so. Hakeem has an unenviable task. Since the TNA is insisting on the outlines of a package before it could serve in the PSC, it would fall on his shoulders to shuttle between government and TNA leaders to work out an acceptable formula. At one point during talks with Rajapaksa, Swaraj urged that his government resumes talks with the TNA. "I can't force them," said Rajapaksa. Replied Swaraj "But you can persuade them." Not to be outdone by that remark, Rajapaksa retorted "Not me. The person seated next to you can do it." There was a broad smile from High Commissioner Ashok Kantha, according to a Sri Lankan official present at the talks.

During a visit to Jaffna, Swaraj and members of her delegation met with civil society representatives for more than 90 minutes. This is where; she told Minister de Silva later in Colombo, that issues were raised about a need for the withdrawal of security forces "from community life and confine their role to security matters". She expressed the same sentiments to President Rajapaksa, who, government sources said yesterday, gave her a patient hearing. Rajapaksa made no commitment except to say he would look into the matter. She had noted that during their visit she saw a "strong presence of armed forces personnel in the north" and added this "affected day-to-day civilian lives."

This meeting had also lasted more than 90 minutes. However, senior military officials in the north, who spoke on grounds of anonymity since they are not authorised to talk to the media, said the "accusations were unfair" since some troops were only engaged in development work that would eventually benefit the people. Moreover, they said, their presence contributed to "normalcy". However, the Indian Opposition Leader had made reference to Minister de Silva's statement to Parliament when he tabled the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). De Silva said "Security forces will be deployed as appropriate in all parts of the island, including the Northern and Eastern Provinces. However, now that normalcy has been re-established, it will be the deliberate policy of the government to ensure the withdrawal of armed forces from all aspects of community life." He added that the police, well versed in the Tamil language, would be strengthened to deal with law and order situations. Yet, a political source in New Delhi said on the telephone that the Indian position was not to seek a "withdrawal" of troops deployed in the north or the east. "We only want them to withdraw from interfering in community life of the people. There is no issue with their remaining where they are," he said.

Swaraj was virtually elevated to a visiting minister or head of state status. India's High Commissioner Ashok Kantha not only took part in her itinerary, but more significantly she declared open some Indian aided projects. One is the US$ 800 million soft loan project for upgrading the southern and northern railway system. Another is a Rs 197 million project for the welfare of some 23,000 "war widows" in the East carried out by the India-based Self Employed Women's Association. Others include two Vocational Training Centres in Batticaloa built at a cost of Rs. 325 million. The plaques commemorating the events said they were declared open by "the leader of the Indian parliamentary delegation, Ms Sushma Swaraj." There was indeed a lesson in this for Sri Lanka where the country's heads of missions shy away whenever an opposition political leader visits their capital. Nor are the opposition and the government in accord over any foreign policy issue, if indeed such a cohesive foreign policy now exists. The most recent example - the goings on at the United Nations in Geneva - when a resolution on Sri Lanka came up and the way it was handled clearly illustrates this point. There was little or no direction from the Ministry of External Affairs.

Swaraj's delegation expressed satisfaction regarding the re-settlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). However, their position was at variance with the government which said 98 per cent have already been re-settled. They concurred with the UN view that over 80 per cent have been re-settled. Among the other issues that figured were issues related to information on missing persons, detainees, investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions. Swaraj's delegation also said that priority consideration should be given to the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.

As revealed exclusively in these columns last week, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris has formulated a draft Action Plan. It now awaits responses from the constituent parties of the UPFA to determine which of the LLRC recommendations should be incorporated. On April 18, Peiris handed over to leaders of constituent parties a document in Sinhala containing hand-picked LLRC recommendations on which he wants to reach consensus. President Rajapaksa wants to carry with him the UPFA partners in the formulation of the final Action Plan which Peiris hopes to share with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton next month.

It is now clear that only some of the recommendations of the LLRC will find a place in the Action Plan, which External Affairs Minister Peiris wants to keep a "top secret" for the moment. Whilst most constituent parties in the UPFA are ready with their own responses to the selected LLRC recommendations, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the Sunday Times learnt wants to go beyond when it formulates its own. The party wants the government to set up what it calls a Truth Commission to mete out "restorative justice". SLMC leader Hakeem declined to comment on the matter except to say it was up to his party's policy making body to take a decision. An SLMC source said the party wants the proposed body to be modelled on the lines of the one that existed in South Africa after apartheid was dismantled. Victims of human rights violations were able to give statements about their experiences, and the body took up some of the issues for public hearings. Those accused of causing violence and gross human rights abuses were also allowed to give evidence and thus seek immunity from both civil and criminal prosecution. "We want this as a follow up action to the LLRC findings. The body should comprise men of high integrity acceptable to all parties," the source said. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) has also taken up a similar position.

The future role of the UNP comes into public focus once again, this time after the decision of its leadership to tie up with the TNA and hold its May Day rally in Jaffna. UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe has asked party parliamentarians to at least bring a bus load of supporters from each electorate. He and senior leaders of the party left for Jaffna yesterday. Party organisers have been told they face disciplinary action if they do not attend. The measures come as the rival Sajith Premadasa faction holds their own event in Colombo. The latter is the commemoration of the death anniversary of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He was killed in an attack by a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber during the May Day procession in 1993. Unlike on previous occasions, organisers of the latter event this time are making strong efforts to assemble a larger crowd in Colombo. It was to prove they had a larger turnout than the joint UNP-TNA rally in Jaffna. At a news conference in Colombo this week, one of their key players, Karu Jayasuriya, former deputy leader, said most party supporters would not travel to the north. Hence, he said, they expected a larger crowd at their event.

A more significant event in Colombo this week, which included matters related to the US-backed resolution at the UNHRC in Geneva, was a top level conference chaired by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President's Special Envoy on Human Rights Issues. Taking part were officials of the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Economic Development and representatives from the Attorney General's Office. The task of the meeting was to identify recommendations and "voluntary pledges" made at the Human Rights Council so the government could formulate a National Report. This is for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Sri Lanka which comes up before the UNHRC on November 1. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council. It provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions it has taken to improve the human rights situations and to fulfil its human rights obligations.

The Sri Lanka government is expected to hand over its National Report to the UN Human Rights Council on or before July 23. This is to enable the Council to circulate it among member countries three months ahead of the document being debated. Such a debate will follow after the report is formally presented to the Council on November 1. It is due to be adopted on November 5. Once the draft of the National Report is finalised, the government will discuss its contents with civil society organisations in Sri Lanka before the final report is handed over to the UN. In the light of the UN resolution that was passed last month, the report is expected to come under close scrutiny. Hence, its adoption on November 5 would be the first test for Sri Lanka since last month's passage of the resolution.

It is in the backdrop of these developments that President Rajapaksa is now weighing the options of dissolving Provincial Councils and going for a snap poll. Some UPFA leaders feel there are several advantages in this move both externally and domestically. On the external front, a government victory would make clear that whatever pressures Sri Lanka may face, the people are still with the government. Domestically the reasons are many. Among the key factors are a disunited opposition which would find it difficult to get its act together due to continuing internal feuding, the opportunity for the UPFA to field a set of new young candidates and 'politically retire' those who have not shown sufficient promise.
Whilst celebrating the victory against Tiger guerrillas three years ago, President Rajapaksa, no doubt, would be conscious of the new challenges he would have to face. Invigorated with the outcome of his visit to South Korea, he returned to Colombo on Friday. How he tackles the tasks before him in the coming weeks will be crucial.

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