Menon calls for elections to the Northern PC

Indo-Lanka ties under heavy strain; National Security Advisor holds crucial talks with Rajapaksa trio
UNP also calls for early polls to NPC; Sampanthan challenges Govt.'s reasons for delay
Lanka prepares report for November UNHRC review, Govt.'s action will shape India's stance

It was past midnight signalling the dawn of Friday when the voice on the radio crackled. “Good morning Colombo Airways. This is Bravo Juliet 135,” said the Indian Air Force pilot from the cockpit of a Brazilian-built Embraer 135 jet. The radio contact with the incoming aircraft from New Delhi was handed over to Colombo Radar and thereafter to Air Traffic Controllers at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Later, ground controllers took over to park the jet on the apron. Some distance away a fleet of vehicles including armed escorts were on standby for a quick drive to Colombo.

Alighting from the aircraft was Shiv Shankar Menon, India’s National Security Advisor, an official who holds cabinet rank and plays a strategic role in day-to-day affairs of the Congress-led government in New Delhi. Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha and officials of the protocol division of the Ministry of External Affairs shook hands with the visitor. Immediately thereafter, he was whisked away to the Taj Samudra Hotel overlooking the Galle Face Green. Hours later, as the Sun’s rays enveloped Colombo, Menon, a former envoy to Sri Lanka and one time Foreign Secretary, embarked on a chapter that is easily one of the most critical phases in Indo-Sri Lanka relations.

As exclusively revealed in The Sunday Times last week, Menon’s mission was to convey to the government in “the strongest terms” New Delhi’s concerns over a string of important issues. His meetings in Colombo originally listed for one-on-one dialogues with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa were to later extend to at least two others — talks with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and a briefing to Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Front (TNA).

External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris was also present when Menon and President Rajapaksa met at a breakfast session.
There was tight secrecy over the number of important issues Menon discussed with President Rajapaksa. There was no news conference nor local media were invited. Even the Colombo-based Indian media corps, who are usually privileged to have a private briefing, had to be content with a carefully crafted media statement from the Indian High Commission. It was circulated to them.  Menon spoke only a few words to them other than engage in light hearted banter. The local media were advised through SMS by the High Commission’s spokesperson to refer to their website for the same news statement. This is what it said:

Remarks by National Security Adviser Mr. Shivshankar Menon at aMedia Interaction in Colombo
(29 June 2012)”My visit to Sri Lanka today has been in the context of regular consultations and exchange of views between the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka.

“I called on H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa this morning. Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris was also present at the meeting. Thereafter, I met Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development and Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary. I also met the TNA leader Mr. Sampanthan.

“I discussed recent developments, bilateral relations and areas of common concern. I was also briefed about steps being taken by the Government of Sri Lanka on political reconciliation and settlement. While this is a Sri Lankan issue and something that Sri Lanka has to do, we will continue to remain engaged with all concerned and offer any support required in this regard.
“India has always stood for a united Sri Lanka within which all citizens can live in equality, justice, dignity and self-respect. We have worked closely with the Government of Sri Lanka on relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs. India’s assistance was appreciated by the Sri Lankan leadership in all my meetings. We remain committed to continue our cooperation.
“We also discussed the fishermen’s issue.

It was noted that the practical arrangements of October 2008 should be adhered to until an alternative mechanism was agreed upon. We agreed that fishermen’s associations on both sides, which had met in the past and reached some understandings, needed to meet again to work on developing this further. This could then serve as the basis for finding a solution to this humanitarian issue.

“On the bilateral front, we noted that most of the Indian-assisted projects were proceeding well and several projects, particularly those relating to the development of railway infrastructure in the Northern and Southern Provinces, were being implemented well ahead of schedule. In the past two years, India has committed US$ 750 million under lines of credit and another US$ 350 million under grants-in-aid. There are a number of other new projects under consideration.

“We also discussed maritime cooperation and other security related issues. It was agreed that we could take this further.
“Sri Lanka is our close neighbour, with whom we enjoy a multifaceted and dynamic relationship. We look forward to strengthening and further developing this engagement.”

At least two key factors were the cause for Menon’s visit to Colombo. One arose from the report Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, handed over to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This was after her return to India following a week-long trip leading an all-party parliamentary delegation. Among the key points she raised with UPFA leaders during the visit was the implementation of the LLRC recommendations “with regard to information on missing persons and detainees, investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions, promotion of a trilingual policy, reduction of high security zones, return of private lands by the military and demilitarization, including phasing out of the involvement of military activities and restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province.”

Ms. Swaraj noted the assurance given by the Government of Sri Lanka in Parliament that it would ensure the withdrawal of security forces from community life and confine their role to security matters.

The second factor is the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka’s human rights record is expected to come up for review in early November. The UPR involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. It is a significant innovation of the Human Rights Council which is based on equal treatment for all countries.

It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. The UPR also includes a sharing of best human rights practices around the globe. A team headed by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President’s special envoy on human rights issues, is now preparing Sri Lanka’s report for the UPR.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa in conversation with India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon

As the head of a three-nation team, it would be India’s responsibility to review Sri Lanka’s report together with UNHRC members Benin and Spain. Thereafter, it would go before the Council. This report will hold the key to determine whether or not the human rights issues raised by India and the international community have been accepted and implemented by Sri Lanka.

Thus, the Sri Lanka report is of particular significance in the light of the March 2013 sessions of the Human Rights Council. Matters relating to the implementation of the US-backed resolution, which received Indian backing, have raised questions on the posture to be taken by India. During her visit to Sri Lanka, Ms. Swaraj spelt out New Delhi’s stance that India voted for the UN resolution because the Indian government was disappointed Colombo had not fulfilled the assurances given to it.

Menon covered most of these issues during talks with Rajapaksa. The Indian special envoy noted that the subject of reconciliation was entirely a matter for the government of Sri Lanka and New Delhi respected that position. India also appreciated moves by the government to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to formulate a political package to address Tamil grievances. However, in the light of the current imbroglio, the result of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) refusing to participate until bilateral talks with the government are resumed alongside; Menon made what the Indian government believes is a way out to demonstrate that the Sri Lanka government was addressing reconciliation issues.

He proposed to Rajapaksa that elections be held to the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). He asked Rajapaksa to make a firm commitment through an official announcement. The Indian thinking is that if elections are held to the NPC, it will be a first step in an incremental process for Tamil political parties, which have demonstrated their ability to win the majority of votes in the north, to play a role in administering their areas. This is until such time the proposed PSC is set up to further examine other issues. This step, Menon explained, could give a signal to the international community that measures towards reconciliation had already begun.

A government source said Rajapaksa made clear he was willing to move forward. The source said he explained that he agreed “in principle” that elections should be held to the NPC but it would have to be after demining in all areas was completed and “other necessary conditions” were created. However, the source said the government was “seriously considering” holding NPC elections before the end of 2012.

Yet, the question remains whether a formal announcement would be made in the coming weeks. This is particularly in the light of elections being held to the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces. Nominations have been called from July 12 to 19 and speculation is rife that polls will be held on September 8.

Menon made clear to Rajapaksa that India’s stance on upcoming international events related to Sri Lanka would hinge on the action taken by the Colombo government. In this regard, he also apprised the President of the compulsions the government in New Delhi was facing from political parties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Already, Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi is giving leadership to a Tamil Eelam Supporters Conference (TESO) to be held at Vallipuram in Tamil Nadu on August 5. Karunanidhi, the chairman of the conference, has tasked his son Stalin, DMK Treasurer, to head a reception committee to make arrangements. Five secretaries.– K. Ponmudi (a former State Minister), Dravidar Kazhagam General Secretary Kali Poonguntran, General Secretary, Viduthalai Siruthikal Katchi, General Secretary Ravikumar and DMK functionaries K.S. Radhakrishnan and advocate H.M. Jinnah. South Indian media reports quoted one of them as saying, “We want to hold the conference on the lines of the one held in Madurai in 1986. Besides inviting national leaders, we are planning to bring human rights activists from across the world and international leaders who are supporting the Tamil Eelam cause.”

It is unlikely the centre in New Delhi would grant visas to any foreign participants since India has said it has strong stakes in the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The question yet remains whether the Indian government would take any other steps to prevent the conference from taking place. This is on the basis that Indian soil should not be allowed to be used to campaign for separation in a friendly country.

After the meeting with President Rajapaksa, Menon drove to the Presidential Secretariat for talks with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The subject of discussion centred mostly on development activities in the north and east. India has committed more than US dollars 1.1 billion on lines of credit and aid grants for development in the war-ravaged areas. Thereafter, Menon drove to the Ministry of Defence for one-on-one talks with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Sunday Times learns that one of the key subjects of discussion was “demilitarisation” in the north.

Whilst Menon emphasised the need for less involvement of security forces in the life of the community, Rajapaksa was to explain the government’s position that it was not so. He detailed out the military “de-escalation” in the north and how troops were assisting in development activity.

There was a free and frank exchange of views on the subject, said a government source familiar with the talks. The Defence Secretary entertained Menon to lunch at his Ministry where some senior officials from both sides joined in.

Later, Menon met TNA leader Sampanthan to tell him that the Indian government had requested President Rajapaksa to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council. He told him that a formal government announcement on the subject could be expected soon. Sampanthan in turn was to tell Menon about what he alleged were “appropriation” of private land by the military. He said this was going on apace.

Sampanthan told the Sunday Times, “We talked with each other about matters of concern. On the question of elections to the NPC, the government has given a number of reasons. It says land mines will have to be removed; the displaced have to be resettled and administrative issues overcome. How did they hold Presidential and Parliamentary elections?” Sampanthan said that since the Provincial Councils were established, there have been no elections to the Northern Province alone. In 1988 elections were held for the North-East Provincial Council. However, the Supreme Court ruled thereafter that the NEPC was not constitutional.

Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa in conversation with India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon

After a brief conversation with Colombo-based Indian journalists, Menon flew by helicopter to BIA in Katunayake for his return flight to New Delhi on Friday evening. A diplomatic source who summed up the visit said, “He (Menon) has placed India’s cards on the table. How India is going to play the game in the upcoming weeks at international events linked to Sri Lanka will now depend on how much Colombo is able to heed Indian wishes including past assurances given to it. If there is some action, one can see a moderate stance as against inaction leading to a tougher Indian position. That is the essence of the visit.”

Other than that, there were also newer realities that have emerged as a result of the visit. One is the minimal or no role by the External Affairs Ministry other than Minister Peiris being present at the meeting with the President. Other than that, India has addressed serious issues of concern to it with only the trio, the three brothers who matter most in Sri Lanka – President Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It has been agreed that there would be visits by ministers to India and vice versa in the coming months. Menon also agreed to convey to his Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a request by President Rajapaksa to send the Kapilavastu relics to Sri Lanka. This is during the ongoing Sambuddhatva Jayanthi celebrations.

Hours before Menon arrived, Opposition United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told a news conference that President Rajapaksa had not held the NPC elections though he had given several assurances. Here are excerpts from what he said:
“In 2008, when the elections to the Eastern Province were held, President Rajapaksa said he would go on to win the war and then hold provincial elections in the north as well. Elections have been held in all other provinces, but not in the north. Instead of holding elections for the north, they are going for the sixth round of elections. What we say is that elections should be held to the north first. Give the right for the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to vote and elect persons whom they want. It is the people in the north who have failed to get benefits of the Provincial councils. They were set up on the request of the people of the north. Since the 1988 elections, no provincial elections have been held there.

“No democracy has been given to the people in the north. The people have not been given the right to elect members to the council. What is the difference between the Tiger guerrillas and the government? Prabhakaran too was against elections. That is the reason I lost in 2005. The LTTE wanted to rule the north for 10 years. So is it that the LTTE policies are today being implemented through Kumaran Pathmanathan? If this election is held and whoever wins a major international issue will be resolved. When the next session is held in Geneva the government can say that all provincial council elections have been held.
“Our party is ready to contest elections in the north.

If we win we take over power, if we lose we will remain in the opposition. Others are ready for this. I am not sure of the UPFA. Why isn’t this right given to the Tamils. Today there is a select committee proposed to discuss the LLRC report. Several present here and myself have been trying to get the TNA to take part in the proceedings. We have said elections in the north should be held. Even regarding the statement made by me in Parliament, there were only explanations made by the government, but nothing has been rejected. The failure to hold elections in the north prevents the process going through. I am not sure whether this is an attempt to prevent the LLRC report being discussed.

“If the elections are held and the committee begins sittings we could easily face the situation in Geneva. Even we want to face the international challenges. That is the reason we say that the northern elections should be held first. Our campaign on this will continue. Our campaign is that the people should be given relief, corruption should be ended, law and order should be restored. Educational activities should continue. Thereafter the PC elections can be held. In fact what the government is doing is distracting attention, preventing the people demanding for salary increases. If the government holds the PC elections in the north under the 13th Amendment, it would also be a response to the claims made by Tamil extremist groups. Instead of that the government is telling the people to tighten their belts and creating chaos in the country.”

Whilst Wickremesinghe called for the conduct of elections to the NPC, his erstwhile deputy, Karu Jayasuriya said in a statement yesterday that the Presidential system should be abolished. “Too much power concentration in one person can only hinder and not advance democracy in a country. This is the reality we are all living today, whether politician, journalist or citizen,” he said.
Though some aspects of the implementation of recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) are now under government’s consideration, there have still been no official responses to requests made by the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay.

One of her requests in May this year was to send a delegation of special procedure mandate holders to Sri Lanka in keeping with the US-backed resolution approved by the Council in March this year. The third element in the resolution is for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the government of Sri Lanka, to offer advice and technical assistance on implementing provisions in the resolution.

High Commissioner Pillay is also required to present a report to the Council on the matter at its 22nd sessions in March next year. She has also accepted a government invitation to visit Sri Lanka. EAM sources said yesterday that no official response has been sent so far to Pillay. The government was earlier averse to accepting special mandate holders to visit Sri Lanka. This is on the grounds that it would constitute “interference in the internal affairs of the country”. However, the government is not averse to Pillay’s visit though it is of the view that matters related to the US-backed resolution would not be discussed. However, the government has come under pressure from several international quarters to agree to a visit by special mandate holders and thus avoid adverse repercussions.

Though not directly related, the first test of strength in the international arena will come when Sri Lanka hosts the 58th sessions of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Colombo from September 7 to 15. The theme of the event is “ensuring a relevant commonwealth for the future.” Among the subjects slated for discussion:

  • Empowering Future Generations through Access to Health and Education and Vocational Training. (Host Branch topic)
  • Should the Commonwealth Establish a Commissioner for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights?
  • The Politics of Constitution-Making, the Role of Parliaments in Relation to the People
  • Ensuring Adequate Parliamentary Scrutiny of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. (Small Branches Topic)
  • The Role of Parliamentarians in Conflict Resolution and Peace-Building.
  • Engaging Political Parties to Improve Gender-responsive Governance. (Gender-Related Topic)
  • Terrorism – The Threat to Democracy, Peace and Security.
  • Tackling Youth Unemployment.

Some of the western countries in the Commonwealth, like for instance Canada and Britain, will view progress on matters relating to the UNHRC resolution. If in their view, the measures called for have not been paid heed to, there is the likelihood of their raising issue or scaling down their respective delegations. That no doubt would be a test to determine how the measures adopted by the government have played out so far.

Yet, the Indian equation and the present heavy strain on relations between Colombo and New Delhi cannot be ignored. Menon has made what appears to be a last try before India decides on the direction it would take. The government cannot afford to ignore any more the Indian concerns or the leverage New Delhi has with the international community. With the conduct of foreign policy in the doldrums, an External Affairs Ministry in a state of limbo, it is imperative the government acts fast.

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