Indo-Lanka ties near breaking point; Moves to repeal 13th Amendment
= China wants to know what TNA discussed with India; KP issue comes up again
= Govt. faces major test at UNHRC meeting, US also expresses fresh concern
A deal brokered by India for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to engage in a dual track dialogue with the government, revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times of October 7, has run into serious problems.
One such track was to be the resumption of the bilateral talks between the Government and the TNA. The other was TNA’s participation in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In a dramatic turn of events, the TNA will not make any statement declaring its willingness.
Nor will the government of India stand guarantor for what would have been the outcome of its own new attempt at rapprochement. Initiatives have broken down within weeks after they began.
This has spawned some unexpected realities. Main among them is a firm polarisation of views between the Indian and TNA leaders who visited New Delhi last week. This is on common issues related to Sri Lanka. More importantly, it has placed a greater strain on the already overstrained ties between Sri Lanka and India. Some diplomats, both Sri Lankan and Indian, fear the levels of strain are unprecedented and warn that coming events could further exacerbate the situation. They do not hide the fact that New Delhi is incensed over recent political developments in Sri Lanka.
No sooner had the TNA members returned to Colombo, they were invited by China’s Ambassador Wu Jianghao for a meeting. Even China, which is pumping in millions of dollars for development activity in Sri Lanka, remained aloof in the past. Now, it seems to have a keener and more overt interest in political developments in this country. A TNA delegation briefed the Chinese envoy on its visit to New Delhi, the on-going stalemate over the talks and even discussed Sri Lanka-China relations. According to one TNA delegation member, there were searching questions from the Chinese about their dialogue so far with the government.
The recent short-lived Indian initiative had its origin in a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi last month.
That visit itself was the subject of an involved diplomatic process. At first, Rajapaksa was invited to the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh by its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh. It was to lay the foundation stone for a University of Buddhist and Indic Studies in Sanchi. The central government in New Delhi had sought to only facilitate the visit and ensure the strictest security arrangements were in place. These security arrangements included almost door-to-door plainclothesmen and armed police and helicopter cover in the air.
A diplomatic question had arisen after Rajapaksa, through official channels, had expressed a wish to meet the newly elected Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, whom he regards as a personal friend. He had wanted to congratulate him on his election to the high office. Both Rajapaksa and Mukherjee have been talking on the telephone on occasions when there was a spike in tensions between the two countries. Mukherjee, then Finance Minister and one-time External Affairs Minister in the Congress-led government, had used his good offices to present the Rajapaksa administration’s point of view.
Does he go to New Delhi in his personal capacity with no official engagements or invitations from the centre? How would he be received in New Delhi with all courtesies without an official invitation? These were among many questions that confronted both Sri Lankan and Indian officials. The issue was overcome with the Indian government extending an invitation, declaring the visit official and laying out the red carpet.
That was how Indian Premier Singh held talks with Rajapaksa on September 20 and later hosted him to a lavish banquet. During those talks Premier Singh had touched on a number of issues. They included matters relating to the anti-Sri Lanka campaign in Tamil Nadu, the Colombo government’s travel advisory warning Sri Lankans against visiting the southern Indian state (since withdrawn), the need to resume talks to evolve an acceptable political package to address Tamil issues where they could live with “self-respect and dignity” and elections in the Northern Province. Singh is learnt to have said there was a perception that the Sri Lanka government was going back on assurances it had given New Delhi.
Rajapaksa was to strongly counter some of the issues raised by Singh. He said that elections to the Eastern Provincial Councils had already been held. He had announced that elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held before September next year. The Government was willing to resume talks with the TNA as soon as it expressed willing to serve in the proposed PSC. The only delay, he had pointed out, was on the part of the TNA. Thus emerged the broad parameters of an Indian initiative to persuade the TNA to resume both bilateral talks with the Government and at the same time serve in the PSC. India was to talk to TNA and try to persuade it to go to the negotiating table again.
“We were invited to India by their External Affairs Ministry. This was consequent to President Rajapaksa’s visit to India and talks with Premier Manmohan Singh,” TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times. He said the TNA delegation told the Indian Premier, “it is not our assessment that the Sri Lanka Government is genuinely committed to a reasonable settlement.” He said Premier Singh “seemed to appreciate our position”. Hence, Sampanthan added that no pressure was brought on his alliance. Sampanthan was to brief the Indian Prime Minister on a number of issues. He had complained that displaced people were now located in “half way homes”. He had alleged there was “military interference in civil administration” and there were problems related to the livelihood of those in the North. (See story for questions answered by Sampanthan.)
Even whilst the high profile visit to India by TNA continued, the government in New Delhi appears to have been concerned over political developments in Sri Lanka. There were several thorny issues that were hurting the bilateral relationship more than before. One of them was the controversial Divineguma Bill, which India believes, takes away subjects now under the Provincial Councils (PCs). These powers were vested with the PCs in terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment became part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution after India played a key facilitator role. It came in the years that followed the ethnic violence in July 1983.
The TNA delegation was engaged in talks with the Indian Premier for more than 45 minutes. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Ranjan Mathai and other officials were present at that meeting. Ahead of that meeting, the TNA delegation had a brief discussion with V. Narayanaswamy, Minister in the PM’s office. They also held a meeting with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna for 45 minutes and were hosted to lunch at the Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan by EAM Secretary Mathai. There was also a 90-minute meeting separately with Menon. They gave a briefing to Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj. The TNA delegation was invited to a Q&A session at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and met with heads of diplomatic missions who had no permanent representation in Colombo.
Another jolt for India came last week when, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa fired a salvo that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should be repealed. A fuller implementation of provisions of this Amendment and more concessions were key measures India proposed to address Tamil grievances. They formed the highlight of joint statements issued after the end of visits either to India or Sri Lanka by dignitaries of the two countries. The last was when External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris visited New Delhi. Rightly or wrongly, some officials in the Indian External Affairs Ministry believe that a repeal of the 13th Amendment is being sought ahead of the planned Northern Provincial Council elections before September next year. They claim that in such an event, there would be no provincial council in the North or a body which would be toothless. However, a ministerial source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said a repeal of the 13th Amendment would naturally abolish PCs countrywide and hence fears of its impact on one PC “are unfounded”.
Now, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has supported the Defence Secretary’s proposal. “There will be no issues in scrapping the 13th Amendment as it was proposed through the Indo-Lanka Agreement. We are all aware that this Agreement was forced on Sri Lanka and therefore withdrawing from it will not have any implications,” JHU Deputy Secretary Udaya Gammanpila told the Sunday Times. (Note: The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 signed by the late President J.R. Jayewardene and then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, does not make any reference to a 13th Amendment to the Constitution.) He said the JHU had planned a series of meetings countrywide to mobilise public support for the repeal of the 13th Amendment. The first such meeting will be at the Public Library in Colombo tomorrow, (Monday, October 22). (See box story on this page for Gammanpila’s remarks.)
There were more causes for Indian concerns this week. One, it later turned out was a blunder, which was rectified though the tensions generated by it remain. Lakshman Hulugalle, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), told a newly introduced weekly news briefing on Wednesday that Kumaran Pathmanathan better known as ‘KP’, a man who headed the procurement wing of the militarily defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been freed from ‘state protection’ and allowed to carry out NGO activities “freely from Kilinochchi.”
“He was under state protection and not under custody. He has now been allowed to move freely,” Hulugalle said. Pathmanathan, who helped the Tiger guerrillas obtain weapons and thus modernise the LTTE’s arsenal for every phase of the separatist war, was arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August 2009 in a dramatic operation and flown down to Colombo in a special SriLankan Airlines aircraft. He is the only surviving suspect in the assassination of Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. The news of ‘KP’ being free to move around was widely reported in the Indian media. However, barely hours after the news conference the Department of Information said ‘KP’ was still under “special protection” but “was permitted to engage in his NGO work…..….” On Friday, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, had to face more questions when he briefed the media on cabinet decisions. Yet, the rebuttals did not receive the same wide publicity which the original announcement did. Here are relevant excerpts:
Journalist: (Lakshman) Hulugalle said as far as the government is concerned KP had no allegations against him. After Prabhakaran’s death he was the leader of the LTTE.
Minister: I suppose, the fact that there were no allegations was a misinterpretation. So far as the government of Sri Lanka is concerned the armed conflict is over. We don’t want that again. But if we do not handle it properly then in 15-20 years’ time there will be another one. Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General) has asked us to speed up development programmes, embark on reconciliation and many other things. We need to give a hearing to those views. Treating that man (KP) bad and others differently is not the case. All this can be surpassed if we have lasting peace at the end of the day. That is the primary and foremost idea of government.
Interpol and others could “not arrest KP.” Our army and CID did it. It was a classic operation. Interpol failed to do that. The question is not about forgiving or forgetting what he did. If we have a law to work in a better picture then that is it.
Journalist: In 2007, the government said it will pay a reward of one million rupees to anyone who would provide information leading to the arrest of KP. Was that offer relaxed?
Minister: We have to look at this problem in a wider angle. The war is over. But the problems are still not. You should not break the law but bend the law. To solve this problem we have to do that. The war is over now and we have to solve this problem as human beings. There are people who killed people now in Parliament. Is it right to punish a person who picks pockets forever or engage in a humanitarian action and put them right.
Journalist: Can a person who is under arrest run an NGO? India is after this man and can Sri Lanka let him run a NGO for his sake?
Minister: This is not for his sake but for country’s sake. This aspect has not stopped with war.
Journalist: You said that our intelligence caught KP. Also while he was to be caught our Army and intelligence believed that he was a big leader in LTTE. Now you say that there are no allegations against him. Was that information by the Army wrong?
Minister: We released 30 people from jail. Courts did it. Intelligence caught them. Some are taken on a statement. If no proper witnesses are there, they are released. The law says anyone can be a government witness at anytime. After 30 years of war we have to face the Diaspora now. So we have to see how we can actually solve this case and do what we can.
Journalist: Were these meetings with the Diaspora successful?
Minister: Yes, through some of the statements made by KP, we have gained fair success up to now.
Journalist: Is he given a pardon for the sake of the government? To make him a government witness?
Minister: We haven’t pardoned him?
Journalist: Why is he then running an NGO?
Minister: Can’t a person arrested run an NGO?
Journalist: Can’t because he is in jail.
Minister: He is under house arrest. We gave permission. We have a Department to grant permission for NGOs. If we can solve problems of the Diaspora through those NGOs, why can’t we do that?
Minister Rambukwella also announced that reconciliation talks with the Tamil diaspora, through the good offices of ‘KP’ would begin soon. Though Rambukwella is the official spokesperson, his remarks are sometimes not taken seriously and dismissed by those at the highest levels of the government as mere rhetoric. However, he still speaks for the government and if he is right in this instance, a dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora to work out a political package to address Tamil grievances is being held using a man who is most wanted for the murder of late Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. One need hardly say if it would be viewed as a friendly gesture by the Indian government, though the Indian government is yet to react to these developments.
Developments with regard to Sri Lanka-India bilateral relations in the recent weeks make clear that ties are at an almost free-fall decline.
This is notwithstanding pronouncements to the contrary by both sides prompted by the norms of conducting diplomacy. Whilst the repercussions of such a situation could be damaging to Sri Lanka in many respects, the most immediate would be at next month’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council followed by its next sessions in March next year. On November 1 from 2.30 p.m. to 6 p.m. the council will scrutinise Sri Lanka’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Thereafter a report prepared by India (as chairman), with Spain and Benin as members, will be forwarded to members on November 5 when voting is due to take place. Already posted on the UNHRC website is the Sri Lanka government’s 26-page National Report as well as a report by other stakeholders including NGOs and other organisations. Whilst the government has articulated its own position, the stakeholders have contested it virtually clause by clause. Here are further highlights from the National Report:
“….Action was initiated to implement many LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations prior to a formalised plan of implementation being devised. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; removal of the military from assisting in civil administration in the North, making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive enumeration in the Northern Province.
“The Cabinet of Ministers in May 2012 decided that a Task Force headed by the Secretary to the President would monitor the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. In July, a matrix containing the National Plan of Action to implement LLRC recommendations was developed by the Task Force, presented to Cabinet and approved. The main focus areas for implementation are International Humanitarian Law Issues, Human Rights, Land Return and Resettlement, Restitution/Compensatory Relief and Reconciliation. The Task Force has identified a corresponding activity, an implementing agency, a key performance indicator and a time frame in respect of each recommendation.
“Special emphasis has been given to regulating the activities regarding the management of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Ministry of Land and Land Development has decided to resolve the land disputes in these areas by implementing a special programme of work. Specific Cabinet approval has been received for policy proposals relating to the matter. Directions have been given to temporarily suspend the distribution of land. Priority is to be given to those persons who have been displaced or fled from their natural locales or lost their land.
“An amendment to the Prescription Ordinance is being considered whereby displaced or disadvantaged owners of land will be exempted from the rules of prescription during a period of 30 years to enable them to defeat any adverse claims based on the running of time. With regard to matters of accountability, inter alia, the cases relating to 17 aid workers and the 5 students who met with their deaths in Trincomalee were referred to the Attorney-General to ascertain whether a prima facie case exists to launch prosecutions.
The Attorney-General has advised the Inspector-General of Police to conduct further investigations………
“With the termination of military operations and the gradual restoration of normality, the strength of the military in the North has been reduced considerably. The present strength in the Jaffna Peninsula is approximately 15,000. Further rationalisation of this presence would be considered in line with national security interests. It must be noted that the role of the military in the North today is confined solely to security related matters. The former High Security Zones (HSZs) have ceased to exist. The Palaly Cantonment is now the only area in which some security restrictions remain, but even within the Cantonment, civilians have unrestricted access to the airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour.
While it is true that there are still some civilian properties included in the Cantonment, it must be stressed that civilians have not occupied these properties for the last 20 to 25 years. The Government has taken measures to pay compensation to the owners of these properties and to provide alternate land to them. It should also be noted that lands that had been forcefully taken from the people and occupied by the LTTE for many years have also been released to their legal owners. The former HSZ in the Eastern Province located in the Sampur area from 2007 has been reduced in extent by 65% and declared a Development Zone under the Board of Investment.
“The IDPs from this area who are to be resettled will be granted alternative land or compensation. The military is no longer involved in civil administration in the North and East and the Police Department now continues its responsibility of maintaining law and order.
In this context, 11 new Police Stations have been established in the North since 2009. 1,216 Tamil officers have been recruited: 789 (2005 to 2011) and 427 (Jan 2012 to date). Tamil language training is also being provided to police personnel. This is in line with the GoSL’s overall policy of promoting trilingual competency among public officers. These measures are indicative of GoSL’s commitment to assuring the safety and wellbeing of people in the conflict-affected area……”
Forty six stakeholders including NGOs and similar organisations also made representations to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). These were summarised into a 15-page document which counters Sri Lanka’s national report. Here are further highlights:
“Amnesty International noted the establishment of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 to investigate events between the February 2002 ceasefire with the LTTE and the end of the conflict in May 2009, which was, in the view of AI, neither independent nor impartial in composition or performance. AI also noted that the UN SG’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, established in June 2010 reached similar conclusions, particularly in relation to the LLRC’s lack of witness protection. According to AI, the LLRC acknowledged that civilians, including those in hospitals, suffered directly as a result of LTTE and government shelling, but was unable to establish the facts about the conduct of the armed conflict. AI further alleged that the LLRC’s rejection of allegations that the Government had targeted civilians and deliberately downplayed the number of civilians caught up in the final phase of the conflict was not backed up by evidence. In addition, AI recommended that no amnesties be considered or granted to perpetrators of violations of human rights or humanitarian law identified by the LLRC investigations, regardless of their status or role in the Government.
“Centre for Canadian Tamils (CCT) also expressed concern that no initiative has been taken to implement the LLRC recommendations, including closing military camps close to residential areas and granting legal land ownership to those who had been resettled, by the Government. A similar concern was expressed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
“With respect to an accepted recommendation to introduce a Witness and Victim Protection Bill in Parliament and implement the legislation, including by establishing the necessary institutions in the previous UPR, AI noted that the bill was introduced but never voted with the result that there was no witness protection legislation in the country. According to AI, this has had a grave impact on accountability.
“AI recommended that effective witness protection be provided to all witnesses. JS14 (Joint Submission 14 is made up of representations by Action Contre la Faimfrom France and SPEAK Human Rights and Environmental Initiative of United States) also recommended that Sri Lanka review all procedures, legal regulations and national legislations to ensure that the rights of victims to timely, prompt and effective remedies are respected and strengthened. Sri Lanka Advocacy Network (SLA) also recommended launching immediately credible investigations into the disappearances reported to the LLRC, bringing those proven responsible to justice, and passing effective witness protection legislation to enable witnesses to give evidence fearlessly before such investigation mechanisms….”
Besides the UPR in Geneva in a week’s time, more significant would be the next sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in March next year. Then, the Council is expected to review the extent to which the US-sponsored resolution has been implemented by Sri Lanka. Weeks earlier, Robert Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, told a group of Sri Lankans that Washington was disappointed with Sri Lanka. External Affairs Minister Peiris had, during his visit to the US in May this year suggested a date (earlier than September 2013) for the conduct of Northern Provincial Council elections. This had not materialised. He had said that lack of progress at the UPR would definitely have an impact in March UNHRC sessions. He had also said that the US has taken note of issues related to the judiciary, the media as well as the “lack of progress” in government’s reconciliation efforts. Blake had said decisions on Sri Lanka would come soon after January, next year, when the next US president takes office following the November presidential elections in that country. He has added that the US would consult India. Therein lay the dilemma for Sri Lanka.
JHU outlines campaign against 13A
Udaya Gammanpila, Deputy Leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), spoke to the Sunday Times about his party’s plans to launch a campaign to revoke the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Here is what he said:
‘Our party has requested the government to abolish the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. We have done this because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has based all its arguments on devolution of powers as well as ideas of separatism based on the 13th Amendment.
“The TNA has resorted to action in the courts based on this 13th Amendment. The judiciary is helpless as this is now part of the Constitution. The existence of this Amendment is an obstacle to the development of the country. Whenever the country tries to move forward the issue of this amendment is brought forward stalling the progress. The 13th Amendment is harmful to the government and, therefore, it should be abolished. This will bring an end to a series of problems.
“There will be no issues in scrapping this Amendment as it was proposed through the Indo-Lanka Agreement. We are well aware that this agreement was forced on Sri Lanka and, therefore, withdrawing from this agreement will not have any implications. One of the main reason the country should abolish the 13th Amendment is because it is helping to propagate the idea of separatism.
“As the JHU we initially hope to have a series of meetings in the country to educate the party membership about the need to scrap the 13th Amendment. In Colombo we plan to have a separate series of meetings where we will be inviting organisations of the civil society on this issue. The first of these meetings will be held tomorrow at the public Library in Colombo. As we carry out our campaign, we expect that the government will act on our demand.”
Govt. not serious or sincere: Sampanthan
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan spoke to the Sunday Times about his party delegation’s recent visit to India and related issues. Here are edited excerpts:
INDIA VISIT AND TALKS WITH PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH: We were invited by the Ministry of External Affairs to visit India. It was on the cards for some time. However, the invitation came consequent to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to India and talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Our discussions with Premier Singh centred on issues affecting the Tamil community. He said he was committed to Sri Lanka’s unity and declared every Tamil should live with self-respect and dignity. India, he said, is fully committed to ensure justice and equality. India has been able to ensure the first but not the second.
We told the Indian Prime Minister it was not our assessment that the Sri Lanka government is committed to a reasonable settlement. Despite our best efforts, the Sri Lanka government is not making a positive contribution or abiding by its commitments. Bilateral talks have been going on for one year. Premier Singh raised with us the need to reactivate the political process.
The Sri Lanka government is looking to the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee as a way out. We explained our position with regard to this issue. We explained how we discussed matters with a government delegation during a bilateral dialogue.
It was to reach a consensus with the government and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which constitutes 95 per cent of the administration. We wanted to serve in the proposed PSC within the framework we would have agreed upon. President Rajapaksa gave this commitment. It has been recorded in the minutes of the bilateral talks and approved at a subsequent session. Several rounds of talks took place thereafter. Issues pertaining to devolution were discussed. It is the government that defaulted by keeping away when talks were to resume on January 17, 18 and 19.
There were two efforts to break the stalemate. In January 2012, when I met the government delegation, a formula was worked out and sent to President Rajapaksa for approval. Nothing happened. In May 2012, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe intervened after a request from President Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe made a statement in Parliament. The government was expected to reciprocate favourably but did not do so. This is why the stalemate continues.
We told Prime Minister Singh that the government and not we who were responsible. The Indian Prime Minister seemed to appreciate our position. He was quite clearly convinced we were genuine and not the party at default. We also noted that the Sri Lanka government has gone back on the commitments made to India.
THE DIVINEGUMA BILL: Our members opposed it in the Eastern Provincial Council. It takes away many powers given to the Provincial Councils, many which can be better exercised at the provincial level. The process of the Bill impacts adversely on the other Constitutional provisions. This issue is now before courts.
ON THE RESUMPTION OF DIALOGUE WITH THE GOVERNMENT: We are for the evolution of a political solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. We are seriously committed to achieve this objective. There must be an honest commitment to bring this about. The conduct of the government in the past one year and nine months does not convinced us that it has a serious commitment. We cannot cooperate with the government only to use the talks as a ploy to overcome certain difficulties it confronts and eventually end up not achieving the objective we have in mind.
ON MOVES TO REPEAL THE 13TH AMENDMENT TO THE CONSTITUTION: Inevitably such an exercise will have consequences.
MEETING WITH THE CHINESE AMBASSADOR: Together with Mavai Senathirajah, Suresh Premachandran, Selvan Adaikalanathan and M.A. Sumanthiran, I met the Chinese Ambassador Wu Jianghao. This meeting was at the express request of the ambassador. We covered a lot of ground including matters relating to our visit to India.
CLAIMS OF MILITARISATION: We are not demanding that all military camps in the North be closed. The war is over. There are no more weapons of the LTTE on the ground. Our people want to live as free people. We do not want “an excessive” military presence.
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