Columns - Political Column

Indian heavyweights here for what?

  • Sudden visit by top officials sparks speculation
  • Focus on SAARC security but various other issues also taken up
  • Govt. under intense pressure but divided opposition leaves people without options
By Our Political Editor

A high-powered three-member delegation from India arrived in Colombo on Friday in a special Air Force flight. It comprised National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh.

If the visit was largely secretive, so were the wide ranging issues they discussed with both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defence Secretary, Lt. Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. No doubt, the immediate focus was on the upcoming South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit in Colombo at the end of July. This event, if successfully concluded, would confer the SAARC chair on Sri Lanka. In effect the mantle of reigning leader would then fall on President Rajapaksa.

M.K. Narayanan

It is no secret that for leaders participating in the SAARC summit, security concerns have been an issue of utmost importance. This is particularly in the wake of a string of bomb explosions by Tiger guerrillas in the City of Colombo and suburbs. That it came in the backdrop of an escalating separatist war is well-known. Added to that are reports of discoveries in different parts of the country of bombs and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) before they were exploded. The fact that the guerrillas had a wider capability to trigger incidents in areas outside the theatres of conflict became a cause for serious security concern.

Most of these aspects were discussed with their local counterparts when a high-powered security team from New Delhi visited Colombo late last month. Earlier, the Government planned to have the SAARC summit in Kandy but later shifted the venue to Colombo. Among other matters, this was due to logistic problems that entailed heavy expenditure. In the light of this, the earlier Indian delegation also focused attention on the security environment for SAARC leaders when they adjourn to a retreat near Colombo after formal talks at the summit. The Indian team, according to Police sources, made a thorough study of areas where their Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, would travel and the venue of events where he would take part. For this purpose, they took part in conferences held at Police Headquarters besides visiting some of the areas.

The high-powered three-member Indian team during their near 36-hour visit, The Sunday Times learned, not only discussed the upcoming SAARC summit but also a variety of other issues which have become subjects of serious concern for New Delhi. That the Congress-led Government had tasked three of its highest-ranking officials - two of them dealing with defence/security related issues and the other, on matters of foreign policy -- to fly to Colombo to convey New Delhi's concerns assumes greater significance.

According to highly-placed sources, both in New Delhi and in Colombo, on the economic front, the Indian Government had been concerned about the ongoing tussle between the Government and the Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC). A ding-dong battle that has been going on behind-the-scenes between the two sides became public on June 19. This was after Petroleum Resources Minister A.H.M. Fowzie threatened in Parliament to acquire all LIOC fuel stations.

This was because there was a heavy draw on stocks of diesel at state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) outlets. The CPC is selling a litre of diesel at Rs 120. However, LIOC fuel outlets are selling it at Rs 130 a litre. As a result, Fowzie declared, the CPC was suffering a loss of Rs 30 for every litre of diesel sold. He disclosed that he had informed the Indian company that the Government would take over their fuel stations "to cushion the impact" of losses incurred by the CPC. According to Fowzie, from January to May, this year, the CPC had incurred a loss of Rs 14 billion due to global rise in crude oil prices.

Shiv Shankar Menon

Coupled together with his communication to LIOC bosses, Fowzie's ultimatum in Parliament to take over their fuel outlets, there is no gainsaying, is the official stance of the Government of Sri Lanka. The Minister responsible for Petroleum Resources had articulated that, firstly in private to the LIOC and thereafter publicly in Parliament. In New Delhi, where the news of the warning to LIOC was received, there was a different view. Officials explained that LIOC was one of those who had invested millions of US dollars to provide encouragement to Sri Lanka Government's policy of promoting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) governed the LIOC role in Sri Lanka and allowed the Indian company to function as a commercial entity empowered to make price revisions. Hence, it was argued that directing unilateral threats to take over ran counter to encouraging the FDI policy and would act as a deterrent even for others who had made a direct investment. Moreover, it was claimed that it contravened provisions of the MoU.

Another area of concern, according to sources in New Delhi, is the ongoing separatist war and its fallout in many areas. One of them has been the influx of refugees into the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This and a number of other related matters have been the focal point of attention as the Security Forces intensified their military campaign against the guerrillas. It is India's official position that there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict. It has repeatedly held the view that a political settlement is the answer. In this regard officials in New Delhi have been drawing attention to the All Party Representative Representative Committee (APRC), tasked to formulate a political solution. They note that despite assurances by Sri Lankan leaders who visited New Delhi setting out deadlnes to formulate political proposals, the process has not moved forward.

It is in this backdrop that the Indian trio - Narayanan, Menon and Singh - met Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, for an hour-long meeting on Friday. Also associated with the latter at the Ministry of Defence were Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President and Basil Rajapaksa, MP who is also Senior Advisor to the President. At the end of talks, the two sides adjourned to the MoD conference room. There, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka gave them a presentation -- detailing out the ongoing military offensives that began with the troop re-capture of Mawil Aru anicut in the Trincomalee district. After he withdrew, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda gave a briefing on the Navy's role in the ongoing military campaign.

Yesterday, the Indian delegation had a meeting with President Rajapaksa. Earlier, they also met leaders of Tamil political parties to obtain their views on the current situation and explain the position of the Government of India. They also visited Kotte to see a memorial being completed just outside the precincts of the Kotte-Sri Jayawardenapura parliamentary complex in memory of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) troops who died in Sri Lanka. The IPKF troops arrived in Sri Lanka in 1987 to oversee the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord under which the then Government and Tiger guerrillas agreed to a truce brokered by New Delhi.

The visit of the high-profile Indian delegation, at least officially, caught even the main opposition United National Party (UNP) by surprise. Its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was formally informed of their presence by Indian High Commission officials only after the team's arrival in Colombo on Friday. That was ahead of Wickremesinghe chairing a meeting of the party's Political Affairs Committee at his office at Cambridge Terrace in Colombo.

Vijay Singh

However, barely two weeks ago, when Wickremesinghe was in New Delhi, he had meetings with both Narayanan and Menon. In addition he also met with the leader of the main opposition in India, Bharatiya Janatha Party leader, L.K. Advani.

The UNP Committee ratified a decision to name a one time Army Chief of Staff, Major General (retd.) Janaka Perera and Upul Sannasgala, an educationist, as Chief Ministerial candidates for the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councils respectively. Maj. Gen. (retd.) Perera, who has a wide following in the Army, gave a briefing to the Committee on the ongoing military campaign. The retired Army officer is also to be named as the UNP's defence spokesman.

As reported in these columns last week, there was a stormy session of the UNP Working Committee last Monday. Several seniors including Johnston Fernando, Lakshman Seneviratne and Jayalath Jayawardena, were among those who wanted immediate party reforms. The party named two different committees. One was to immediately address all grievances of party members. It comprised Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, John Ameratunga, Amara Piyaseeli Ratnayake, and Allick Aluvihare.

The second committee was tasked to carry out an immediate review of UNP organisers countrywide. It is headed by UNP Chairman Rukman Senanayake and comprises Tissa Attanayake, S.B. Dissanayake, Ravindra Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake, Renuka Herath and Johnston Fernando. With the UNP set to effect new reforms, the first test of strength for an "invigorated" opposition party would be the upcoming provincial council elections.

However, in the meantime, Wickremesinghe is headed for an European tour beginning today. He will first visit Britain where he is scheduled to meet the Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch Brown on June 27. Lord Brown is also expected to visit Sri Lanka later next month on a familiarisation tour. Thereafter, Wickremesinghe will fly to Paris for a meeting of the International Democratic Union (IDU). A meeting with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, is also on the cards. Ravi Karunanayake MP who is overlooking matters relating to foreign affairs for the UNP accompanies Wickremesinghe.

Thus, the week's events show that for both the Government and the main opposition UNP, the pressures are numerous.

The threat issued to LIOC for the takeover of its string of fuel stations if they do not lower diesel prices has, no doubt, added one more straw to the fledgling Indo-Lanka ties. The peace proposals New Delhi is awaiting has not yet arrived and the APRC process appears to have gone into limbo. Refugees are flooding the shores of Tamil Nadu adding political pressure to the Central Government. Complaints from some leaders of Tamil political parties, both to the Indian High Commission in Colombo and to New Delhi have been increasing. This is besides other issues like the mounting cost of living and fears of impending fuel prices increases when substantial amounts of money are being diverted to the war effort. All this and other concerns are worrying to the Government.

However, for the government, the biggest consolation lay in the fact that the Opposition is embroiled in its own crisis. The worse proportion it has reached was reflected at the UNP Working Committee last Monday and at its Political Affairs Committee on Friday. They would have to put their house in order early, at least before the upcoming provincial council elections. Therefore, it is the people who are caught between the Government and the Opposition. The vast majority have shown how they have to react - by remaining silent. It is they who are caught, as the saying goes, between the devil and the deep sea.

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