MEMBERS of Parliament from across the developed world love Sri Lanka. In just under two months, individual members or delegations from Canada, England and the United States have visited the country, lectured to its politicians, holidayed in the sunny beaches, and gone back.
There is, of course, also the Blake Lecture tour: Robert O’ Blake Jr, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, is a regular. He meets civil society representatives, lectures the government, and makes completely off-the-mark remarks to the media before leaving. (For instance, last September he announced that the talks between the Tamil National Alliance, or the TNA, the credible representative of the Tamils living in the Northern Province, and the Sri Lankan government would restart in a week. See the online edition of The Hindu, September 14, 2011. The talks, which broke off in August 2011, are yet to commence at any level.)
Hence, the news of the visit of an Indian parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka was met with the usual scepticism. A week before the delegation left New Delhi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo Jayalalithaa pulled out of the “junket” her representative, the one-time television anchor Ravi Bernard. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president M. Karunanidhi followed in her footsteps and pulled out his party’s representative, the North Madras MP and DMK organising secretary T.K.S. Elangovan.
But the manner in which the delegation went about its job made people sit up and take notice, and engage with it, and even gave the hope that there would be an “outcome”. The delegation excluded some of the stops that did not suit its primary agenda articulated in the Indian Parliament in its last winter session – that of exploring where the Tamil question stood now – and concentrated on meeting a wide cross section of Tamils in a bid to understand what best could be done under the present circumstances. These circumstances include the absence of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a government in victory mode, intransigent Tamil representatives in the TNA, and a sea of distrust on all sides of the ethnic question.
In some ways, the outcome of the visit of the Indian joint parliamentary delegation, led by Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, from April 16 to 21 was pre-written. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the members of the delegation the assurances they sought.
When he repeated to the visiting Indian MPs his now sickeningly familiar assurance on the “13th Amendment plus” solution to cater to the political hopes and ethnic aspirations of the Tamils in the Northern Province, he was merely following a pattern: promise everyone in authority anything they demand, but do not deliver.
The President had made the same assurance to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2009, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in June 2010, and visiting Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna in January 2012. In between, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, in a joint statement with his Indian counterpart at the end of his visit to New Delhi in May 2011, promised the very same thing – implementation of the 13th Amendment as a means to finding a lasting political solution to the problems of the Tamils of the North. However, soon after Krishna left, Sri Lanka denied that it had made any promise to him in Colombo with regard to the 13th Amendment ( Frontline, April 20).
Asked if the Indian delegation had raised with the President the issue of his saying one thing and doing another, Sushma Swaraj said: “We emphasised this point in every meeting. Even today with Mahinda Rajapaksaji, and as you rightly said, we also reminded them that you have given assurance to the Prime Minister of India, the Honourable External Affairs Minister of India, and even to me, as the Leader of the Opposition, when I called on him. But they say that the Parliamentary Select Committee [PSC] will discuss this and they said that we are very, very serious [about finding a solution to the Tamil question]. We said that you are talking not only about the 13th Amendment but also about 13th Amendment plus. That means something more than the devolution of power.”
But that is not the entire story. The delegation was told that the PSC would suggest a solution to the ethnic tangle. In effect, the President told the visiting MPs that he would implement the 13th Amendment plus (which guarantees some rights to the provinces) and that the PSC would have to decide the very same issue. The MPs went back satisfied with the reply though the second assertion of the President relating to the PSC virtually cancels the first assurance!
On April 24, The Island newspaper reported that the issue of implementing the 13th Amendment plus was not even raised at the meeting between Sushma Swaraj and Rajapaksa. It reported: “The Sri Lankan Government yesterday [April 23] strongly denied a statement attributed to Indian Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj that her delegation had received an assurance from President Mahinda Rajapaksa of his commitment to the 13th Amendment and his readiness to go even beyond it. GoSL [Government of Sri Lanka] sources said that President Rajapaksa had met the Indian Opposition Leader twice – on Friday and Saturday, but such an assurance was never given or asked for. During Saturday’s breakfast meeting at Temple Trees [the President’s official residence], President Rajapaksa recalled how India had forced the 13th Amendment on the then Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene. Saturday’s meeting was attended by the entire Indian delegation, along with Indian High Commissioner, Ashok K. Kantha, now engaged in a stepped-up campaign for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, sources said.”
This approach looks to be of a piece with the strategy of the Tamil Tigers. They switched on the ‘implode’ button when they exhausted friends and allies over the three decades of their resort to this dubious tactic of making one promise and going back on it the next moment. The government, firmly in LTTE mode nearly three years after the end of the war, refuses to snap back to reality. For some strange reason, it refuses to realise that the state is held a trifle more accountable by the comity of nations than a certified terrorist organisation.
At the end of the visit, the Indian delegation issued a joint statement. This virtually buried any hope of revival of the government-TNA talks and pushed for the constitution of the PSC, a dead end in any case.
The joint statement was in the works for a few days. The Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Ashok K. Kantha, who had been speaking to all the MPs and had been in touch with New Delhi, drew up the statement amid a hectic schedule. The members saw the statement soon after they met Rajapaksa on April 21. While all the members agreed with the sentiments expressed in the statement, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP T.K. Rangarajan had reservations about Item 8 of the statement, which pushed for the early constitution of the PSC. It read: “We would urge the Government of Sri Lanka and other stakeholders, including the Tamil National Alliance, to resume dialogue and move towards an early political settlement. We would earnestly suggest urgent consultations to create conditions for the launching of the Parliamentary Select Committee.”
Soon after the discussion on the joint statement with the MPs, a press conference was called. Just before it began, on April 21, Rangarajan was seen conferring with both Kantha and Sushma Swaraj. Asked about this, Rangarajan said over phone from Chennai that he had indeed agreed with the statement.
But still, he had to make clear his opposition to the clause. Rangarajan’s issue with the statement was about the wording on the constitution of the PSC. It was not the job of the delegation of Indian MPs to emphasise where and how discussions should be held, he said. In his opinion that was for Sri Lanka to decide.
The joint statement pretty much summed up what anyone interested in the Sri Lankan issue has been asking of the country: It urged the Government of Sri Lanka and “other stakeholders, including the Tamil National Alliance”, to resume dialogue and move towards an early political settlement.
However, it was more about hope than anything concrete. The delegation expressed its hope that the government would “seize this window of opportunity and follow an enlightened approach to reach a genuine political reconciliation, based on a meaningful devolution of powers, which takes into account the legitimate needs of the Tamil people for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect. We have been assured in the past that this will be done within the framework of Thirteenth Amendment-Plus.”
The delegation noted that the end of the armed conflict had provided “a historic opportunity for moving towards national reconciliation and political settlement. The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has underlined this and has made a number of constructive recommendations for addressing issues related to healing the wounds of the conflict and fostering a process of lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It is important that these are pursued with a sense of urgency. This is the message we have conveyed to our Sri Lankan friends during the course of this visit.” On the resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons, the team noted that a significant number of them continued to be in transit situations or with host families.
“Our task will not be complete until they return to their original homes. Similarly, while there has been substantial progress in the area of rehabilitation and reconstruction, a lot remains to be done. We are prepared to assist in whatever way possible, in a spirit of partnership and cooperation,” the statement said.
The delegation noted that the discussions over four days had brought out clearly the need for expeditious implementation of the measures proposed by the LLRC 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 demilitarisation, including phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities; and the restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province. “We have noted the assurance given by the Government of Sri Lanka in Parliament that it will ensure the withdrawal of security forces from community life and confine their role to security matters.”
The delegation visited several sites of India-aided projects, including railway projects in the North and the South, a housing project, the Kankesanthurai harbour, and some of the schools, hospitals and vocational training centres. “These projects gave us some satisfaction that India’s assistance, especially in the areas of humanitarian assistance, temporary shelter, housing, demining, education and vocational training, public health, connectivity, and revival of agriculture and other livelihood activities, has been able to make a difference to the lives of the people,” the statement said.
Response to Jayalalithaa
In fact, the visit was so tightly packed that the delegation had to skip some of the places it was supposed to visit because its priority was to meet people, not merely visit Indian project sites. Responding to Jayalalithaa’s statement that the tour was just a series of lunches and dinners hosted by the Sri Lankan government, Sushma Swaraj said: “I will specially speak to Madam Jayalalithaa [and tell her] that this visit is not a picnic trip; it is not a junket. I can just give you one example. Our day always started at 6-30 a.m. and ended at 11-30 p.m. One member complained to his wife, when she phoned him up, [asking him] that have you seen Colombo, he said I have not even seen the hotel, what to talk of Colombo. We did not get even an hour to see Colombo, to go for shopping, or to do anything else. This visit has been so purposeful, so purposeful, to call it a picnic is doing injustice to the delegation.”
The day the delegation was scheduled to leave Jaffna, on April 19, the Jaffna High Court extended the remand of five Indian fishermen who were held on flimsy charges. Of course, the delegation had no clue of this. Elaborating on the larger issue of Indian fishermen crossing over to the Sri Lankan side for fishing, Sushma Swaraj said this was an emotive issue which ought to be handled with care on both sides.
“As we explore possible solutions, both sides must ensure that there is no use of force against the fishermen and that they are treated in a humane manner. We were happy to learn that the Joint Working Group on Fisheries, which met in January this year, was able to look at various options to address this issue in a larger framework. We hope fishermen on both sides can meet again and talk directly to each other,” she said.
The twist in the tale
One of the many points the delegation raised in the meeting with Rajapaksa was about the Army’s increasingly embedded role in society in the Northern Province. “We told them [the government] that the Army is interfering in their [Tamils’] personal life, in their civil life. And the President was very candid. He said that he will see to it that the Army will not interfere in their civil life,” Sushma Swaraj said.
Most members of the delegation had done their homework; they were aware that as much as 60 per cent of the Sri Lanka Army was deployed in the Northern Province. India has trained a number of officers of the Sri Lankan forces. As many as 22 of the past 60 chiefs of the Sri Lankan armed forces have spent significant amounts of time in India.
Soon after the delegation left for New Delhi, the Sri Lankan government fed its preferred media what it thought was fit. The Sunday Island reported on April 22 that the President had told the MPs that the Army would not move out of the Northern Province.
“‘Can I send them to India?’” the President queried in response to the visiting Indian parliamentary delegation’s concern over the post-war deployment of GoSL forces in the Northern Province,” the newspaper said. It also reported that a member of the delegation had said that the troops should move about in civilian attire.
Of course, the briefing at Temple Trees eluded the Indian media. While it is unclear whether the Indian or Sri Lankan side had the final say in keeping the Indian media away from the meeting of the MPs with the President, the fact remained that senior officials in the Sri Lankan side were reluctant to brief the Indian media. The person who turned up was Arun Thambimuthu, a lightweight in the government, who has been roped into the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in Batticaloa in a bid to wrest the Eastern Province from the current Chief Minister, Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan (Pillayan, a former LTTE child soldier, who runs a political party in the East). The Eastern Province is expected to be dissolved soon, according to local media reports.
While the government’s “victory mode” since May 2009 blinds it to the realities of the situation, the intransigence of the TNA makes a halfway meeting point impossible. A few MPs found the TNA inconsistent, and it seemed that the TNA, too, refused to recognise the ground realities. The delegation repeatedly pressed the TNA to rejoin the talks. But the TNA, which always wants to win every single argument that it enters into, is in no mood to rejoin unless its conditions are met. And, for now, there appears to be no meeting point, with the government insisting that the PSC is the way forward.
The Indian MPs agreed that if the government felt that the PSC was the way forward, then it should be so. It, hence, appealed to all parties to join the process in the PSC. “He [TNA leader R. Sampanthan] reiterated thrice that he wants a negotiated settlement, and that too within the parameters of an undivided and united Sri Lanka. And he said that he is a proud Sri Lankan. We told the government side that if these are the parameters, then there should not be any problem. There is every scope of moving forward,” Sushma Swaraj said.
But the delegation placed the onus of constituting the PSC and beginning deliberations on an early date on the government. It noted that the talks to find a negotiated political solution to the Tamil ethnic question were deadlocked.
“We told President Mahinda Rajapaksa that this stalemate has to be broken,” said Sushma Swaraj. “He said we can’t bring them [the Tamil National Alliance] by force. I said yes, you can’t bring them by force, but you can bring them by persuasion,” she said. This was the theme running through the visit, she explained. “Persuade TNA, persuade UNP [the United National Party, the main opposition party] to join the talks. And unless and until the Parliamentary Select Committee works, the deadlock will remain. So in every meeting, we have emphasised this point,” she added.
Unfortunately, the delegation did not meet Sinhala civil society formally. The people it met – politicians, Ministers, MPs, officials – are seasoned campaigners on either side of the debate and speak the line that can be ascertained from New Delhi. Why the delegation did not insist on engaging with Sinhalese intellectuals and others, who form the majority, remains unclear.
Tamil Nadu angle
An important outcome of the visit was the across-the-board realisation in Sri Lanka that the Tamils’ issue in the country was not merely a concern of Tamil Nadu. “It is not a Tamil Nadu issue, it is India’s issue,” Sushma Swaraj reportedly remarked in one of the first meetings with the representatives of the Sri Lankan Parliament.
With her visit and her assertions, she announced, loud and clear, that the Indian government, its opposition, and its Parliament were on the same side when it came to the ethnic question in Sri Lanka. How many of these gestures and statements those in power in Sri Lanka understood is difficult to gauge.
in Colombo, Jaffna & Batticaloa