Menon’s tough line puts ties with India at low ebb; Government has no clear-cut strategy TNA insists it won’t take part in the PSC, Sampanthan pushes for Justice Vigneswaran as CM candidate If free and fair poll is not held to the NPC, New Delhi may downgrade delegation to CHOGM President Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged in [...]


Foreign policy a gamble: Lanka’s future like a horse race


  • Menon’s tough line puts ties with India at low ebb; Government has no clear-cut strategy
  • TNA insists it won’t take part in the PSC, Sampanthan pushes for Justice Vigneswaran as CM candidate
  • If free and fair poll is not held to the NPC, New Delhi may downgrade delegation to CHOGM

President Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged in some light-hearted banter at Thursday’s weekly meeting of Cabinet ministers.
He told them he had heard that Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had told India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon during talks in Colombo this week that the United National Party (UNP) would do everything within its means to prevent any changes to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. From the account he had heard, he said, Menon had replied that “you are doing what we should do.” Rajapaksa said laughingly that if people got to know what Wickremesinghe had said, it would be counterproductive to both him and his party.

That no doubt was a cynical remark. Yet, Wickremesinghe has not made any formal public comment on moves to change the 13th Amendment. Not since the Government made moves to amend some of its provisions. The furthest he has gone is to sign a public petition outside the Fort Railway Station on July 3 urging the Government not to change the amendment. That was organised by the Vipakshayey Virodaya or Opposition’s Protest, a grouping which comprises the UNP and less influential political parties. Other than that, Wickremesinghe told party trade union activists on Wednesday that “the Government must act to solve the people’s problems. Even though the Government has set up a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to discuss the 13th Amendment, it is not prepared to talk to the people about an internal issue of this country. Instead it is sending Minister Basil Rajapaska to New Delhi to discuss with the Government there. We have nothing to talk with a Government that forgets the people of this country. After the Government has discussed the amendment with India via Basil Rajapaksa, why is it inviting us to hold discussions?”

After a lengthy discussion, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and visiting Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon had still more to say to each other as they came out of a chamber at President's House. Picture courtesy Lankadeepa

This development came in a week where diplomatic battle lines between Sri Lanka and India became more apparent and even defined. It was the result of a two-day visit to Colombo by Menon. A former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Menon holds cabinet rank in the Indian Government. Though his visit was expressly for the periodic tripartite discussions New Delhi, Colombo and Male conduct over maritime security, the focus was more on his talks with UPFA leaders. That related to moves by the Government to change the 13th Amendment. As exclusively revealed in these columns in the past weeks, such changes will not come this year, and definitely not before the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections.

Though not much publicised, Menon’s engagements brought to the fore some significant nuances. It made clear that India wanted to deal directly with the key UPFA stakeholders responsible for the country’s governance — President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There were no bi-lateral meetings scheduled with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. In other words, the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) that conducts the country’s foreign relations had no role and was not the centre of any influence or power. Nor did New Delhi recognise it that way. India had previously dealt with a troika — Basil Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunga leaving Peiris and the EAM out of the equation.

Most significant among the meetings was the one on Tuesday at Janadipathi Mandiraya (President’s House) with President Rajapaksa. Taking part in the meeting were Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, Minister and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda, External Affairs Minister Peiris, EAM monitoring MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, and Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka High Commissioner in New Delhi. Menon was accompanied by Indian Prime Minister’s Office Director Manu Mahavar, High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha and Deputy High Commissioner P. Kumaran.

Menon, according to diplomatic sources in Colombo, clearly but politely spelt out India’s ‘serious concerns’ and sounded a ‘strong note of caution’ that Sri Lanka would have to be responsible for what follows when changes are made to the 13th Amendment. That was the essence of his message and amounted to a demarche. The seasoned diplomat, these sources said, explained it was India’s position that the 13th Amendment was the result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, one between two sovereign governments. The Indian Government has declared that one could not change it ‘unilaterally’ without consulting the other. He was to convey Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s concerns over the issue and hand over to Rajapaksa a message from him. An Indian High Commission statement at the end of Menon’s visit, among other matters, noted that he “conveyed to the Sri Lankan leadership the Government of India’s views on the recent political developments and called for an early political settlement and national reconciliation through the meaningful devolution of power so (sic) to ensure that all citizens of Sri Lanka, including the Tamil community, would lead a life marked by equality, justice, dignity and self-respect.”

The punch point was a reference in the statement that “Menon emphasised the need for adhering to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the International Community on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment.” The statement added that “elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held in a free, fair and credible manner.” Reminding Sri Lanka of the “commitments made” underscores New Delhi’s insistence that it would disapprove of any changes to the 13th Amendment. This is even after a PSC makes recommendations. India would also view such ‘unilateral action’ as contrary to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Needless to say, the issue can become the major irritant that could provoke a head-on diplomatic confrontation between Colombo and New Delhi. The consequences of such a situation could be serious in many respects.

For the Government side, there was a marked change of mood. If on previous occasions during talks with visiting Indian dignitaries President Rajapaksa was not outspoken, this time he was. He explained to the visiting Indian envoy the “difficulties” in retaining police and land powers with Provincial Councils. A source at the talks said he referred to the recent terrorist attack at Buddha Gaya in India. He pointed out that the centre had devolved police power to the states in India. However, despite advance intelligence warnings from the centre, the state police was unable to take action to prevent one of Buddhism’s holiest places from being bombed. A story posted on Government’s official website ( said, “The President agreed with Menon that the participation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the PSC is important. It is a top priority of the Government to reach a consensus on the 13th Amendment, President Rajapaksa said. The President also urged India to encourage the TNA to participate in the PSC and stated that the Government is committed to taking the process forward despite any obstacles.”

The need to have the TNA take part in the PSC assumed even greater significance after the Menon visit. Even as Menon was talking to Rajapaksa, the 18 Ministers and a Deputy who form the PSC met in a Committee Room in Parliament that Tuesday morning to discuss how they will set about with their business. Chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva announced that the Committee should strive to complete its tasks within six months and forward its recommendations. This will mean no constitutional changes will take place till early next year. The PSC has invited representations from persons, organisations and political parties before August 9. The PSC’s task, officially defined, is to make “recommendations for appropriate political and constitutional measures” to “(a) ensure that all the people will preserve and promote their respective identities and live with dignity and security as one region (b) enhance the unity of the people of Sri Lanka, and (c) empower the people and the country to promote social, economic, political and cultural development.”
What will evolve as a result of these broader terms of reference will no doubt replace provisions that now exist in the 13th Amendment.

Proceedings of the PSC, according to parliamentary rules, cannot be reported by the media. Minister Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), told a meeting of his party supporters that he had urged the PSC to complete its task within the specified timeframe and resist moves to drag proceedings beyond the six-month limit. The deadline would be counted from the day the Committee holds public sittings.

There were occasions in the past weeks when the UPFA leadership was gung-ho on rushing through an ‘Urgent Bill’ in Parliament to amend the Constitution. However, on Friday morning, President Rajapaksa made another last minute bid, after the Menon visit, to persuade the TNA to take part in the PSC. He had a meeting at the Janadipathi Mandiraya with TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. “We met at the President’s request and discussed a range of issues including the present political situation, the national question, issues relating to the 13th Amendment and the conduct of a ‘free and fair’ NPC poll,” Sampanthan told the Sunday Times. Present at the discussion were External Affairs Minister Peiris and Presidential Secretary Weeratunga. Government sources said Rajapaksa told Sampanthan that instead of making representations to India, the TNA should have done so to him. He said he had mentioned this to Menon too. “I will do what is best for the country. Please tell the people the truth. You must come to the PSC. I want to find a solution to the national question through the PSC. Don’t tell me thereafter that you all were not consulted,” Rajapaksa added. The same sources confirmed that the release of those in custody in the north, reduction of the Army’s presence there, a demand made by the TNA, and land acquisition issues were also discussed.

A statement issued by the TNA said, “The Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Mr. R Sampanthan met with His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa this (Friday) morning at the President’s invitation. Minister for External Affairs, Prof. G L Peiris and the Secretary to the President Mr. Lalith Weeratunga were also present. The President expressed his desire to solve all outstanding issues relating to the National Question. Mr. Sampanthan reiterated the TNA’s commitment to the evolution of an acceptable, workable and durable political solution within the framework of a united undivided country. Amongst other matters discussed were issues pertaining to land, the need for people to resettle on all land earlier occupied by them, the need to minimise the military presence and confine the armed forces to the barracks, release of political prisoners and the conduct of a free and fair polls for the Northern Provincial Council. The discussions were cordial.”

Despite the meeting with Rajapaksa, TNA sources said yesterday the alliance would not take part in the PSC. They insist that their talks should first be with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the majority partner in the UPFA. Once a blueprint evolves from these talks, it should be used as the basis for discussion at a Parliamentary Select Committee. A lengthy TNA statement on its non- participation also said, “…. The TNA resisted pressure to join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to bring about constitutional reforms until a clear agenda for the Committee was set. The agenda of the Government is now clear to us. It moves to incrementally water down the already-limited provisions of the 13th Amendment: first, by rendering the PC List superfluous; second, by restricting the freedom of peoples to determine administrative boundaries through Parliament; and finally, by removing all constitutional provisions on the devolution of land and police powers. There is no doubt that the proposed PSC will be the vehicle to achieve the above objectives.
“We also note that Professor Tissa Vitharana, who headed the APRC and who kept inviting us to the PSC from 2011, has been left out of the PSC. Minister Rauff Hakeem, who told the Indian Parliamentary delegation last year that he will act as a bridge between the Government and the TNA at the PSC deliberations has been left out; and Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who invited the TNA to confidently come into the PSC on the basis that he would support us, has been left out of the PSC. Finally we wish to state that in the absence of any Opposition Member of Parliament, this PSC will be nothing but a sub-committee of the Government Parliamentary Group and not a Parliamentary Select Committee and will have no credibility whatsoever.”

The absence of any opposition representation in the PSC, particularly those from the TNA, has set a poser for the UPFA leadership. In reality, it is a Government Parliamentary Select Committee (GPSC) that is examining alternatives to provisions in the 13th Amendment. If the TNA did agree to take part, the UNP would have followed suit. However, its absence has raised issues over how credible the GPSC recommendations would be. It could be argued that they are unilateral and were entirely the views of the Government side. Close advisors of President Rajapaksa examined the prospects of a national referendum to seek public endorsement. Though it was pointed out that a majority vote in support of the proposed constitutional changes could be obtained from the South, it would be different in the North and East. The majority in these two provinces, for whom the constitutional changes are meant, would reject it. Hence the idea of a referendum that would create the impression that the majority was imposing its will on the minorities was dropped, at least for the time being.

Menon had separate meetings with Basil and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Within hours of his arrival, he met members of the TNA at the Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo for a lengthy discussion. Leader Sampanthan told the Sunday Times, “He (Menon) told us that the Indian Government disapproved of any move to tamper with the 13th Amendment. He said Sri Lanka should honour its commitments to both India and the International Community.” Sampanthan said Menon wanted a second meeting with the TNA if the need arose after his dialogue with President Rajapaksa. However, there was no such requirement, he added.

Menon’s meeting with a Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) delegation led by Minister Hakeem also centred largely on proposed changes to the 13th Amendment. “It is unfortunate that the changes are being looked at from an ethnic perspective,” remarked Menon. Hakeem was to tell him that it had come amidst moves to hold NPC polls and did not augur well. He has said instead of decentralisation the Government was now embarking on centralising all aspects of governance. Here again, Menon was to make clear that “India was firmly opposed” to any “changes to the 13th Amendment that is carried out unilaterally.” He had said “it is not in the best interests of Sri Lanka.”

Menon, for the second time renewed India’s invitation for a delegation from the SLMC to visit New Delhi and meet Indian leaders. The first was extended by India’s former High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Ashok Kantha during the events that followed External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s telephone call to his counterpart G.L. Peiris. It was to urge that no changes be made to the 13th Amendment. The second was made by Menon. “We have no plans for an SLMC delegation to travel to India now. We did receive both invitations but have made our position clear during talks in Colombo. There is no need to go now,” Hakeem told the Sunday Times.
The SLMC delegation complained to Menon that in the Ampara District where the Congress had considerable Muslim support, a Cabinet minister has vetoed Indian housing projects there. India has offered to construct 3,000 houses for internally displaced persons in this district. They claimed that the preclusion had been made without prior consultation with the SLMC.

It has been a standard procedure for visiting Indian dignitaries to brief Colombo based Indian media representatives on what transpired during their visit. Alas, from the Sri Lankan side, there is no such briefing to articulate the role played by the President or other Government representatives. Thus the message of both the President and his Government seldom reaches out to the public in any forceful way. Only sketchy news releases posted on Government websites tell their story. Even the few news releases are circulated selectively leaving out some local and foreign correspondents. In this backdrop, the official position was only spelt out by Minister Keheliya Rambukwella at Thursday’s news briefing, usually meant to announce Cabinet decisions. It is no secret that the Minister’s assertions, sometimes contradictory, raise more questions than answers. They pose questions of credibility too. Here are excerpts of a

Q and A on Thursday:

Journalist: India is expecting a solution beyond the 13th Amendment. What is the position of the Government?
Keheliya: We have appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee. They have to hear representations and make recommendations.
J: President Rajapaksa has told Shivshankar Menon that police and land powers cannot be given in a small country like Sri Lanka. What is the Indian reaction to this?
K: They have not expressed their views on that. Their expectation is to go beyond the 13th Amendment. India is asking even the TNA to come to the PSC.
J: But, the Opposition is not taking part in it.
K: We cannot bring them by force. This is one tool in the democratic process. If they do not come, they are not interested in it.
J: There are issues about the composition of the PSC. The SLMC has not been included. The former APRC Chairman Tissa Vitharana has not been included. He has been involved in the process of reconciliation for a long period. The TNA says how they can have trust in the PSC.
K: Because you raised it, I will mention something. There is no rule that we should bring someone who has been in the process for long period, but failed to bring a solution to the issues.
J: The Leader of the Opposition has said that the 13th Amendment is an internal question which has been discussed with another country.
K: It is the opposition which runs to Geneva even if their members develop a common cold. When Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Balapitiya, there was problem. He said that if an inquiry was not held, he would take up that issue in Geneva. For us, this is a question which is closely connected with India. There is no doubt about that. It is good to take the stand that we should have an internal solution. But the situation should be conducive to that. If we try to find an internal solution, the Opposition then raises the matter with the International Community and even with the NGOs. They have the opportunity to come to the PSC. It seems they have no interest in coming there.
J: Why does not the Government go for a referendum?
K: The first things are for the parties to take part in the PSC. Thereafter, they should decide whether a referendum is required.
J: This is a one sided PSC.
K: What can we do about that, if the opposition opposes it?
J: But, wouldn’t a referendum have been better?
K: A proposal to that effect should come from the PSC. We cannot go beyond the PSC.

For both the TNA and the SLMC, there have been other preoccupations too this week. The Alliance wrote to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya requesting him to ensure there were both local and international monitors from the date when nominations conclude until polls are over. TNA leader Sampanthan said that in addition to writing, a verbal appeal has also been made to the Commissioner of Elections by TNA members. “We made clear we want to see a free and fair poll,” he said. Another issue for the TNA was a decision on a Chief Ministerial candidate. Sampanthan is strongly backing C.V. Vigneswaran, a retired Supreme Court Judge. At a hotly debated TNA meeting on Thursday evening, Sampanthan pleaded for a man of higher stature like Vigenswaran to be named to ensure greater acceptability both locally and abroad. In marked contrast, some members are urging the appointment of parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah. The meeting was resumed again on Friday evening but no decision has yet been made.
For the SLMC, there were issues in the Eastern Provincial Council. Its members together with some from the UPFA were seeking the removal of the Governor, retired Vice Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema. Ruling party members of the Council were summoned for a meeting with President Rajapaksa. It was held at the President’s House in Kandy last night.

The outcome of the Rajapaksa-Menon talks, contrary to earlier belief, does cast some doubt on the smooth conduct of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November. The foremost question would be whether India’s delegation would be at the highest level with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh taking part or downgraded to one headed by a minister. “A lot will depend on the outcome of the NPC polls,” says a diplomatic source who spoke on grounds of anonymity. If the elections turn out to be ‘credible, free and fair,’ there is every chance of a high level delegation. This is based on the widely accepted perception that the TNA would be the winner in such a situation. However, developments in the coming months could shape what will follow, the source said.

The more developments there are on matters related to changes on the 13th Amendment, the more it is becoming clearer that the UPFA leaders have embarked on a task without a clear-cut strategy. This has forced them to blow hot and cold during different times. In the process, relations with India have hit the lowest ebb. The External Affairs Ministry has driven itself, or been driven by the Executive Presidency to the graveyard of the silenced. It has proved that there is little or no role by it on matters that concern the country’s foreign relations. Seasoned local diplomats say the Ministry is now only a playground for postings and transfers from a head of mission to the lowest officer where a politician is calling the shots. With ad hoc measures becoming the key tool of foreign policy, the measures adopted are prompted more by impulsive gambles than a studied approach. Hence forecasting what is ahead is like betting on a horse race. One may win or lose. That speaks for the country too.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.