The message was delivered last Tuesday, the very first day he was in office as the fifteenth Prime Minister of India. Premier Narendra Modi asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the “early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.” He said the Government “should expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that [...]


Govt. wrong-footed at Modi meeting


The message was delivered last Tuesday, the very first day he was in office as the fifteenth Prime Minister of India. Premier Narendra Modi asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the “early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.” He said the Government “should expedite the process of national reconciliation in a manner that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka.” One would have expected the new Premier to settle down in office, address domestic issues and then turn to bilateral concerns with India’s neighbours. If that were to take months, Modi had ended it in just twenty minutes with Sri Lanka.

That appears to have put paid to the hype and hyperbole among the UPFA leadership. The cause celebres was Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) clinching an amazingly overwhelming victory at the month long parliamentary polls. Many a UPFA leader lost no time in forecasting the dawn of a new era. An absolute majority for the BJP, they believed would make the new government different from the outgoing Congress-led regime. They were delighted that the BJP did not require the support of Jeyaram Jeyalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIDMK) in a coalition. Yet, her party had swept the polls in Tamil Nadu winning 37 seats and ceding only two to her rivals. She boycotted the swearing in on the grounds that Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been invited. However, Modi’s assertions on Tuesday on Sri Lanka issues seem to have made a change. She will call on the Indian Premier in New Delhi on Tuesday (June 3). Indian media reports speculated that she may even offer support to his Government and be given portfolios.. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s office said she would present a memorandum to Modi that would include “some critical issues relating to Tamil Nadu pending with the Government of India.”

At last Thursday’s weekly ministerial meeting, Rajapaksa confirmed that Premier Modi had raised with him issues relating to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, Police and land powers and the issue of fishermen. He made clear that the Indian Prime Minister had stated his new Government’s position. In responding to them, he said, he had also stated the Sri Lanka Government’s position. He said there were wrong reports in some quarters and added no one could accuse him of agreeing to anything or rejecting anything.

Rajapaksa then dropped a bombshell. He said he witnessed the new Indian cabinet ministers taking oaths. The second part of their oath was about ensuring secrecy. He said at next week’s ministerial meeting, he would present a memorandum that ministers in Sri Lanka too swear such secrecy on matters relating to the Government. The relevant text (Form of Oath of Secrecy for a Minister of the Union), in terms of the Indian Constitution, says:-

President Rajapaksa greeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi when he came for a 20-minute meeting, during which the new Indian Premier called on the President to fully implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it.

“I, (the name is mentioned), do swear in the name of God/solemnly affirm that I will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal to any person or persons any matter which shall be brought under my consideration or shall become known to me as a Minister for the Union except as may be required for the due discharge of my duties as such Minister.” Rajapaksa wants his ministers to take a vow on the same lines after his memorandum is approved. Even without that new addition, ministers are required to maintain official secrecy.

As is the case now, most judgements on the conduct of foreign policy by UPFA leaders were clothed in emotion, euphoria and expectations based only on hope. The realities were seldom factored in. The latest round of talks in India underscores this clearly. Some exhorted that President Rajapaksa and Premier Modi were cast in the same mould and suggested that things could therefore change. Others said woes between New Delhi and Colombo would be a thing of the past. The irrepressible official Spokesperson and Media Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, who is known to add weird humour to any serious Government business, declared at a news conference, “We are at ease” and added “now Mr. Modi can take independent and strong decisions on any issue.”

Those are bad enough. There was something worse. Neither the virtually defunct Ministry of External Affairs nor those at the Presidential Secretariat more reputed for their ‘buying sprees,’ had formulated a position paper on the ground realities that portended after Modi’s historic ascent to power. At least the Sunday Times editorial last week warned, quoting an Indian political analyst, there would be “no substantial change” in the Modi Government’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka, but probably a “greater assertiveness and result orientation”.

If the Sri Lankan foreign policy pundits did not know enough to put down on paper, they could have done so verbally, to project the reality — that the BJP Government was no different to that of the Congress Party when it came to the conduct of India’s foreign policy. That message came loud and clear in New Delhi disproving the mind-set of some UPFA leaders.

If Premier Modi did articulate it during talks with Rajapaksa, the same views were expressed by his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, when she visited Sri Lanka as Leader of the Opposition. She headed a parliamentary delegation. She told a packed news conference on April 21, 2012 at the Hotel Taj Samudra that President Rajapaksa had given an assurance he would implement the 13th Amendment and “go beyond.” The Sunday Times account on her news conference on April 22, 2012, among other matters reported “…When a journalist pointed out that government ministers had denied reported assurances given by the President to Indian External Affairs Minister (S.M.) Krishna in January, the Indian Opposition Leader replied, there is no question of ministers saying and denying anything. The President himself said he would concede both the 13th Amendment and the plus.”

This week, External Affairs Minister Peiris praised Swaraj as a “source of strength that can add renewed vigour and better understanding to further strengthen traditionally robust friendship” between the two countries. It was Peiris who had confirmed that Rajapaksa had promised “13 plus” to Krishna, and it was only then that Krishna had announced President Rajapaksa’s pledge to have 13 plus. Had Peiris asked Krishna not to announce it, the Indians would not have done so. Now, the UPFA is saddled with this promise to India.

Rajapaksa’s visit no doubt was salutary. He was one of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) leaders who were invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. The world watched live on television as President Pranab Mukherjee swore in Premier Modi on Monday evening. The event was a lesson not only on how the world’s largest functioning democracy worked but also how arch-rivals at the polls campaign who traded acrimonious accusations respected hallowed traditions. The vanquished former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul were among those present and mingled with the BJP victors. The next morning, Premier Modi even called on his predecessor at his private residence with a bouquet of flowers. Other than those ceremonies, the Rajapaksa visit also laid bare some embarrassing, serious deficiencies on the foreign policy front and raised fears of re-igniting the cold war between Colombo and New Delhi earlier than feared.

After the swearing-in ceremonies, it was nightfall. Rajapaksa and his entourage returned to the Taj Palace Hotel along Sardar Patel Road on Monday night. Bedtime was not early for Premier Modi. Officials in New Delhi say he kept up till midnight at Hyderabad House, the state guest house where he then stayed, to be briefed by External Affairs Ministry Secretary Sujatha Singh and others. Besides Pakistan, issues involving Sri Lanka drew his attention in large measure. He had raised incisive questions and briefed himself. Hence, when Rajapaksa and an entourage of seven met Modi and his officials, the Indian Premier was ready. When he called for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and “go beyond,” Rajapaksa is learnt to have explained that such things could not be done overnight. Modi was to reply that it was now over five years since the separatist war ended. At one point, the Indian Prime Minister had turned to External Affairs Ministry Secretary Sujatha Singh and queried what assurances were given by Rajapaksa to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh. She had replied that it was to fully implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. Further confirmation that Premier Modi had been fully briefed for the 20-minute encounter with Rajapaksa came when he called for the “early launch of the 500 MW Sampur coal fired power project.”

Eight different agreements for the establishment of this power project were signed on October 7 last year in the presence of President Rajapaksa. The signatories were External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and then visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Ministers Basil Rajapaksa, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Pavithra Wnniarachchi were also present. The project was to be run by Trincomalee Power Company Limited (TPCL) and the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), with both holding equal shares. Among the agreements were a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), a Land Lease Agreement (LLA), a Coal Supply Agreement (CSA), an Implementation Agreement (IA), Agreement with Sri Lanka Board of Investment (BOI), Deed of Adherence, Extension Joint Venture Agreement (JVA), and Extension Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). Construction work on the US$ 512 million project was to begin within a year.
Upon his return from New Delhi, Rajapaksa tweeted that he had directed the work on the project be expedited. Needless to say that the directive is by itself an acknowledgement that despite the agreements, for whatever reason, the project has not been proceeded with for one whole year. The tweet was also a message to New Delhi it would now be hurried through since Premier Modi had raised issue.

At the conclusion of the Rajapaksa-Modi talks in New Delhi, officials in India’s Ministry of External Affairs were incensed by the media statement put out by the Sri Lankan side. They opined it did not correctly reflect the discourse. The standard practice in such situations is for both sides to obtain each other’s concurrence over such statements or issue one jointly. In this instance, its importance was greater because Sri Lanka was beginning a fresh dialogue with a new Indian administration. However, the Sri Lanka’s official statement said “President Rajapaksa described the initiatives Sri Lanka has taken with regard to rehabilitation, resettlement, reconstruction and the ongoing reconciliation process in the country.” Besides that, it added, “President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi also discussed the issue of fishermen of both countries and measures that can be taken to find a permanent solution through a process in which the views of the fishermen from both countries can be taken into consideration. Both agreed that talks between the fishermen and the meeting of the joint committee of officials must continue.” It is clear the statement kept Sri Lankans in the dark about the issue of the 13th Amendment raised by Premier Modi and his request that the Government implements it.

The Indian anger was exactly over this. This led to Indian External Affairs Ministry Secretary Singh joining the media briefing by the Indian Government’s official spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin. The new Indian Government wanted both Indians and Sri Lankans to know the full story. The exercise of briefing the media would otherwise have only fallen on the shoulders of the Additional Secretary (External Publicity). That was how EAM secretary Singh strongly articulated Premier Modi’s assertions on the need for the Colombo Government to fulfil the assurances given to India. Needless to say it was embarrassment to the Sri Lanka delegation which did not want to reveal any references to the 13th Amendment. If the latest news release diplomacy showed what is being disseminated without professional expertise was to the country’s detriment, there was another highly damaging faux pas. Jaffna’s Mayor Yogeswary Patgunarajah, a member of the Rajapaksa entourage, was to tell New Delhi Television (NDTV) that the President had, during talks, agreed to grant police and land powers to Provincial Councils — a remark in staggered English that caused acute embarrassment again to the Sri Lankan side. Patgunarajah represents Minister Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP).

Since no such assurances had been given, who allowed Patgunarajah to play spokesperson for Rajapaksa’s delegation? If no one did, it clearly shows that those taking part in such missions are not properly briefed. They are let loose — like loose cannon, as was the case in Geneva when all types of green were are permitted to speak on Sri Lanka. The Jaffna Mayor was taken to show that the Sri Lankan Tamils supported the Rajapaksa Government, but when she goes on Indian television she must know what she is saying.

Adding to this litany of events was another. An official news release from the President’s Media Unit spoke of President Rajapaksa and his entourage conducting “bilateral talks” with the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Any student of foreign affairs albeit general knowledge knows all too well that the Indian President does not have executive powers and is only a titular head. Hence no visiting Head of State or Government holds bilateral talks with him. The correct parlance was that President Rajapaksa and members of his delegation paid a courtesy call on the Indian President.

Just a day after his return to Colombo, President Rajapaksa responded to Premier Modi’s call for the fuller implementation of the 13th Amendment and go beyond. He asked Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to summon a news conference and declare the UPFA Government’s stand. Minister de Silva said, “The 13th Amendment was forced down on us. We have managed to continue with it. Now there is discussion about its implementation. Earlier, it was about setting up of a Northern Provincial Council. Some said we would not hold elections in the North. Now the NPC is a reality. Now some are calling for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. There are practical problems in implementing some of the provisions.”

Minister de Silva, who is Leader of the House, added, “India is the closest neighbour. But no one can dictate terms to us. We are ready to listen to them. Since President Rajapaksa took over, there have been several discussions and visits. The dialogue continues. What we say is that the people of Sri Lanka and Parliament should decide on the solution and an outsider does not have the right to dictate the solution….”

Minister de Silva’s remarks raise an all important question. On the one hand, he notes that no outsider has the right to dictate a solution to Sri Lanka on matters relating to reconciliation. On the other, the Government of Sri Lanka, the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma told his Parliament last year, had requested assistance from him in the country’s peace and reconciliation process. He said he had therefore appointed Cyril Ramaphosa as the Special Envoy for this purpose.
More importantly, Minister de Silva is the Chairman of a 19-member Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) “to recommend and report on Political and Constitutional measures to empower the people of Sri Lanka to live as one nation.” Opposition parties including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have so far refused to serve in this PSC. This Committee has met ten times since being named by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa on June 21 last year. The PSC called for representations from the public and organisations. It received nearly 12 different proposals and met with groups. The last PSC meeting was in March this year. As is clear, the PSC has been tasked to come up with a complete set of new proposals that may or may not encompass all provisions in the 13th Amendment. In fact, addressing the Victory Day rally in Matara, President Rajapaksa declared, “We have established a Parliamentary Select Committee for a dialogue and that is the best forum for discussions on a national issue. It is the duty off all political parties to join this Committee and discuss this.”

In the light of recent developments, a number of questions confront the Government. Minister de Silva’s articulation of the Government’s position that any reconciliation effort would be through the PSC virtually sets aside Premier Modi’s call for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. Thus, it is a clear rejection of his request and places Colombo and New Delhi on a collision course again. Added to that is the South African initiative which is clearly the formulation of new set of measures. In that process, there is also the question whether South Africa will take on board the 13th Amendment and related issues. That would literally mean an “India plus” element being included.

President Zuma’s special envoy Cyril Ramaphosa is due in Colombo later this month to continue the process. Ramaphosa received a further boost to his profile after Zuma confirmed him this week as Deputy President of South Africa. He has until then remained Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC). Not re-appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of International Relations is Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim who had played a behind-the-scene role in Sri Lanka’s peace initiatives over the years. President Zuma has now appointed him as the Parliamentary Counsellor to the President in the National Assembly. In the new cabinet named this week by Zuma, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was re-appointed as Minister of International Relations and Co-operation. She is on record saying that the South African initiative in Sri Lanka was essentially an African National Congress (ANC) initiative.

Thus, on the reconciliation front, there are three different choices on the table for the UPFA Government. One is the solution which the PSC, made up of only UPFA MPs, will formulate. This is notwithstanding accusations that it would amount to a Government package. Yet, the Government has declared its intention to go only by this. The other is India’s demand that assurances given earlier to New Delhi on the fuller implementation of the 13 Amendment and proceed beyond. The third is the South African initiative which will have its own brand name. So far, South Africa has spoken to a UPFA delegation led by External Affairs Minister Peiris.
Thereafter, a TNA delegation headed by its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan travelled to South Africa for extensive talks. Immediately thereafter, both South Africa’s dodgy envoy to Sri Lanka Jeff Doidge and the TNA leaders briefed the Colombo-based diplomatic community. This is despite claims by Doidge that no such event took place fuelling suspicions amongst some UPFA partners. There was cautious optimism in the TNA. Sampanthan said yesterday that the “South African initiative should not become a tool in the hands of the Sri Lanka Government over issues it faces from the (UN) Human Rights Council on alleged war crimes.”

Both the National Freedom Front of Minister Wimal Weerawansa and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) are strongly opposed to the South African initiative. One of the 12 point proposals of the NFF is that “no negotiations officially or unofficially should be held with any state or non-state party based on amendments to the 13th Amendment or its fuller implementation that have been forced on the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and all citizens of Sri Lanka. Also it is proposed in the name of reconciliation and devolution of power no intervention of external state parties or other parties including South Africa shall be considered as a facilitator.” The JHU which has also opposed “external intervention” is to make particular reference in a new set of reform proposals it is now formulating.

Minister Weerawansa said yesterday his party would with the help of other like-minded groups oppose any “outside involvement” in reconciliation efforts. “We are talking to other groups now,” he said. Weerawansa was conspicuous by his absence at last Thursday’s weekly ministerial meeting, the third such occasion he kept away. That seems to have irked President Rajapaksa. Without making pointed reference to the Construction Minister, Rajapaksa was to remark that ministers should not keep away from their weekly meetings. He pointed out that there were occasions when they absented themselves. They tried to absolve responsibility when decisions were made saying they were not present. This went against the principle of collective responsibility. He said the ministers should desist from doing such things. If they were unable to take part, they should give valid reasons in advance. Rajapaksa announced that from next week, the weekly ministerial meeting would be followed by a meeting of all partners of the UPFA. He said that would give an opportunity for those in the alliance to raise issue over any matters every week.

Minister Weerawansa is known to have at least two different memoranda for consideration by ministers every week. This week there was something relatively important — proposals for the formulation of a National Housing Policy for Sri Lanka. He has explained that this policy is “to ensure the right to live in a stable, qualitative, affordable, sustainable, eco-friendly and secure house with facilities adequate for creating a high living standard on the timely needs of the people.” Among the objective linked to the policy are:

Housing programmes targeting poor communities, providing financial and technical contribution through state intervention.

Extending financial and technical assistance to irregular income earners for construction of new houses and improvement of existing houses, taking into account their economic and social capabilities

Offering maximum contribution of the private sector parallel to the state sector in providing of houses to the middle class

Implementing housing development programmes for high income earners in collaboration with the private sector with optimal use of resource of the country
Weerawansa has sought the appointment of an inter-ministerial committee on national housing policy comprising relevant ministries. He also wants district housing committees, divisional housing committees and village-level committees covering the entire island to implement the functions of the said institutions and to run them efficiently.

How he would raise state funds, particularly in the light of his ongoing public spat with Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera remains a critical question. Weerawansa’s biting criticism against the Government has also had its repercussions. One of his party members, Piyasiri Wijenayake, complained this week that some senior UPFA leaders were befriending NFF local government members and grassroots-level supporters to carry out what they call a “mudslinging” campaign against Weerawansa. Last week, when he met President Rajapaksa, the latter was livid.

Just before the meeting proper began, Rajapaksa asked Weerawansa, “What are you trying to do? This is an unnecessary problem. People will think differently if it is allowed to continue.” An apologetic Weerawansa explained that it was not his party’s intention to campaign for the ouster of the Government. He said there were certain “wrongs” that need to be “corrected.” When the meeting began, the Minister handed over the NFF’s 12 point “reform proposals.” Rajapaksa was to refer to remarks by NFF members about the proposed Seed Act.

The item is also one of those listed in the 12 point reforms. The NFF said “transferring of farmer’s rights to multi-national companies under the new Seed Act,” would weaken the local agro industry. “Who said that there is going to be a Seed Act? I have already given instructions that such a law should not be introduced,” declared Rajapaksa. He then handed over the document containing the 12 points to Minister Dullas Allahapperuma and asked that the matter be discussed with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main partner in the UPFA. Weerawansa said yesterday that his party was awaiting intimation from Rajapaksa for the next round of talks where he hoped to elaborate on issues already raised.

These developments come as some countries that voted for the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council raised issue over further delays in the naming of an international investigation team for alleged war crimes. According to reports from Geneva, the delay has been caused by some who sought to be made members of the team having declined the offer. According to these reports, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay is likely to brief the 26th sessions of the Council meeting in Geneva from June 9 to 27, on the action taken to appoint the international investigation team. Ahead of this, she is expected to announce the composition.

All in all, there are now international (war crimes probe), regional (Indian demands) and domestic issues for Rajapaksa to contend. This is while preparing the electorate for a provincial poll to be followed by a presidential poll. Rajapaksa is confident of a victory for the UPFA and himself. However, what he is seeking is one with a larger margin, a message to all his critics that he still enjoys the confidence of the people. Thus the question is whether the Opposition could match that or watch it in awe.

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