India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sprung yet another surprise on the foreign policy establishment by announcing that his first trip abroad will be, not to any of the centres of influence that had been speculated on, but to neighbouring Bhutan. The tiny Himalayan Kingdom’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was among other SAARC leaders [...]


Will the thirteenth amendment be modified?


India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sprung yet another surprise on the foreign policy establishment by announcing that his first trip abroad will be, not to any of the centres of influence that had been speculated on, but to neighbouring Bhutan. The tiny Himalayan Kingdom’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was among other SAARC leaders who all extended invitations to Modi to visit their countries. Modi’s decision appears to underline the importance he attaches to the South Asian region – first signaled by his surprise invitations to regional leaders to attend his oath taking ceremony in New Delhi.

Meanwhile other countries too are staking their claims to host a visit by the Asian giant’s new leader. The US in particular seems to be engaged in high powered outreach to mend fences with the former Gujarat Chief Minister, who was refused a US visa in 2005 over alleged complicity in the 2002 riots in the state. A US visit by Modi is now on the cards possibly in late September. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal is currently in New Delhi and scheduled to hold meetings “establishing the first high level contact between the Obama Administration and the Modi government,” according to the Indian Embassy website in Washington. Biswal’s weekend trip would overlap with a two day visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi who is due to arrive today.

These developments would seem to show the strategic importance attached to India by the rest of the world. While big powers scramble to establish good relationships with the new government, or fix troubled ones, as the case may be, how has Sri Lanka fared in its initial encounter with the new leader of its only and all-important neighbour?

Publicity mishandled
The score card doesn’t read too well. First there was the mismatch between Sri Lanka’s official statement on the meeting between Modi and President Rajapaksa, and the summary of that event given by Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh during a news conference at the end of the bilateral meetings. The GoSL news release conspicuously omitted any mention of the 13th amendment which had figured during the discussion, according to Singh’s account.

In Parliament on Wednesday, External Affairs Minister G L Peiris was reported saying Sri Lanka ‘made it crystal clear’ at the talks that devolving police powers to the provincial councils was unacceptable, and that any solution to the national question would have to be via the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva at an SLFP news briefing said that “no one can dictate to Sri Lanka” on the issue.

It should be a matter of concern that the government has not only mishandled publicity relating to the talks, but seems to have adopted a petulant tone in its first contact with the new government of a regional power whose diplomatic support is going to be crucial in the months ahead. The state and its armed forces are about to be subjected to a western-backed OHCHR ‘war crimes’ investigation that will be anything but evenhanded, given its antecedents. India being the regional superpower, also well acquainted with the realities of the war, could be Sri Lanka’s only shield against that onslaught in the international arena.

None of Sri Lanka’s provinces enjoy the police powers set out in the 13A at present, and it may well be that the devolution of certain police powers is inadvisable. But shouldn’t the government engage in discussion with stakeholders on the issue through the PSC, rather than simply asserting its position?

Process derailed
While India has expressed support for the PSC and urged the Tamil National Alliance to participate in it, the process has been boycotted by the opposition parties including the TNA. The PSC’s current composition, comprising only government members, itself betrays an element of farce. Minister Tissa Vitarana who has valuable experience chairing earlier all-party discussions on the subject, was left out of the government delegation. So was Minister Rauf Hakeem whose party has the largest Muslim minority representation in parliament. It is believed that the derailing of the PSC process in this manner was the result of manipulations by the government’s Sinhala hardline coalition partners, the National Freedom Front and the Jathika Hela Urumaya.

Both NFF’s minister Wimal Weerawansa and JHU’s minister Champika Ranawaka have of late been in the media spotlight, articulating strong views on the national question. Weerawansa has threatened to quit the government if his 12-point agenda for reform is not given serious consideration by the president.

The timing of these moves is interesting. The 12 proposals though adopted by the NFF on 5th May were made public along with the ultimatum only on 19th May, one day after Victory Day celebrations. Weerawansa held his own commemoration event at which he reportedly slammed one of the president’s pet projects in Hambantota. His demands also came two days before the vote on a UNP-led no confidence motion against the government, during which both the NFF and JHU abstained.

The NFF and JHU share a common aversion to the 13th amendment, devolution of power and any form of external facilitation relating to the national question. One of NFF’s 12 points specifically refers to the South African initiative which, if it materializes, will be headed by a respected South African leader.

Intriguing question
The more intriguing question however relates to how the president and the SLFP appear to be held to ransom publicly by such numerically small coalition partners. Would the ruling coalition be any worse off if it lost the NFF’s MPs – all two of them? In contrast to the ‘butter-fingers’ approach adopted with Weerawansa, Hakeem’s group of eight MPs gets short shrift.

Recent statements from government seem to indicate a slight shift from the seemingly inflexible position adopted earlier on the 13A. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella on Thursday said the government was ready to “negotiate on devolution of certain powers as long as they do not affect national security and are necessary for the administration and management of provincial council,” the state-run ‘Daily News’ reported.

No external party will be left with any bone to pick with Sri Lanka if its Sinhala majority government is able to reach an accommodation with its minorities by mutual agreement. While it is not clear what has brought about the change in the government’s stance, what is clear, after the many rounds of failed talks, is that the country’s leadership will have to demonstrate the ability to resist hardline pressures, if it expects to convince the new results-oriented, pragmatic dispensation in Delhi of its bona fides.

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