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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Govt.’s double speak on 13 plus

Krishna makes one claim, Peiris another, President yet another; confusion confounded
UPFA allies JHU and NFF oppose extra powers while TNA also goes here and there

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to celebrate Thai Pongal, the widely observed Hindu harvest festival, it was one day too late.

The event was observed last Sunday by Hindus worldwide and with much gaiety in the neighbouring southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The next day, (Monday) when the event was fixed at ‘Temple Trees,’ it was Maattu Pongal or Cattle Pongal Day where Hindus pay reverence or thanksgiving to cattle. Bulls and cows are given a special prominence for ploughing fields or providing nourishing milk. They are washed, horns painted and covered with glittering metal tops. Tied around their necks are tinkling bells, coloured beads, sheaves of corn and garlands made of flowers. Respect to cows is shown by devotees bending down, touching their feet and thereafter the forehead.

It is more than likely that the event was fixed for Monday for another reason. Eighty year old Somanahili Mallaiah Krishna, the External Affairs Minister of India, was arriving that evening. After reaching the Bandaranaike International Airport on an Indian Air Force jet, he flew to Colombo on a Sri Lanka Air Force VIP helicopter. After a brief ‘freshen up’ at his suite at Taj Samudra, he was off to ‘Temple Trees’ accompanied by India’s High Commissioner Ashok Kantha. He became the virtual ‘guest of honour’ at the Thai Pongal celebrations there. It was Krishna’s counterpart, G.L. Peiris, who had invited him after arrival at the airport. Conspicuous by their absence at the event were parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). They were not invited. Tamils of Indian origin outnumbered their local counterparts in what seemed a scene setter for Krishna.

As Rajapaksa mingled with his invitees, an Indian journalist asked him whether he was going to give any assurances to Krishna. “He will neither ask for such assurances nor will I give any,” he said jokingly with his inimitable guffaw. Barely six hours later, the joke turned out to be just the opposite of what he said. Krishna did ask and Rajapaksa did give him an assurance. To put it in Krishna’s own words, “The Government of Sri Lanka has on many occasions conveyed to us its commitment to move towards a political settlement based on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and building on it, so as to achieve a meaningful devolution of powers. We look forward to an expeditious and constructive approach to the dialogue process. We believe that continuation of the dialogue between the Government and the TNA would pave the way for a political settlement, including under the rubric of the (proposed) Parliamentary Select Committee.”

He made the remarks at a noon news briefing at the External Affairs Ministry (EAM). After a breakfast meeting with Rajapaksa the same morning, Krishna drove to the EAM for talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Peiris. A call on Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne and a restricted meeting with Peiris and some of his aides preceded the formal talks attended by the two Ministers and ten aides from either side. The news briefing followed.

Krishna said, “I discussed this matter with His Excellency the President this morning. The President assured me that he stands by his commitment to pursuing the 13th Amendment plus approach.”
A journalist asked, “Mr Krishna you said that at the discussion he expressed his commitment to pursue 13th Amendment plus. There has been speculation in the Sri Lankan media that there would be Indian input during your talks. What I would like to ask is whether any timeframe was discussed.

Krishna replied, “Well we did not discuss a timeframe. By the sheer nature of the complexity of the problem it would not be desirable for me to either suggest to the President or ask him about a timeframe. It was heartening to hear from the President himself that he is committed to the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution and the process will automatically follow.”

The next question was to Peiris. He was asked “Will the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister elaborate?” He declared, “Well, as the Indian External Affairs Minister said, it is a process. It has been commenced. Issues have been identified, substantive discussions about those issues have commenced. I agree entirely with his comments. We have had many proposals that have been prepared and submitted to parliament. In some cases, what is required this time around is something different. The emphasis needs to be on implementation and that is what we all need to work towards.”

Even if he is known as a linguistic acrobat, this time, Peiris appears to have outdone his Indian counterpart. In saying “I agree entirely with his (Krishna’s) comments,” Dr Peiris has unequivocally endorsed what Krishna said. He has not only acknowledged the need to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution “in full” but also to go beyond it with what is commonly called “plus,” a reference to a proposed Senate or a second chamber. The idea of such a body was first mooted by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, when he was a member of a three-member team that discussed bilateral issues with their counterparts alternatively in Colombo and New Delhi. The other members were Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

What Krishna spoke at breakfast with Rajapaksa at ‘Temple Trees,’ and at the teak panelled office of Peiris at Republic Square later remained a secret until the former’s assertions at the news conference. There is little doubt Krishna pulled off a major diplomatic feather in the cap for India in making an official pronouncement on Sri Lankan soil that President Rajapaksa had once again agreed to “the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and building on it, so as to achieve a meaningful devolution of powers….” That was within hours after talking to Rajapaksa. If he were to say it after his return to India, that could have been construed, as being misquoted. That was a sovereign assurance from a sovereign head of state and head of government. It came after a pendulum like swing back and forth in government positions, first opposing provisions like limited police and land powers and later agreeing to consider them. If indeed the government explained to Krishna that some provisions in the 13th Amendment including police and land powers could not be given, there was no one in the government to explain it.

Krishna’s declarations were made in the presence of Sri Lanka’s External Affairs MinisterPeiris and his Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama. For good measure, Peiris added, “we are confident the threshold which we have reached with regard to Indo-Sri Lanka relations is not something fleeting, not something confined to a short period, but it is something which we are confident to nurture and safeguard. There are two things which strike me about his visit to us in November 2010 and his current visit. It is very significant; the range of issues he is dealing with in the course of brief, but exceedingly productive visit it straddles every aspect of public policy.” That Krishna pulled off a diplomatic coup has won plaudits for him from Peiris who calls it an “exceedingly productive visit.”

It will be recalled that after his official visit to New Delhi last year, Peiris issued a joint statement with the Government of India calling for “genuine reconciliation” in Sri Lanka, a reference that drew controversy.
Krishna was still on Sri Lankan soil on Thursday when a response of sorts to his remarks came from President Rajapaksa. He and Gampaha District UNP parliamentarian Karu Jayasuriya were signatories to the wedding of a talk show anchor on a private TV channel. The signing ceremony was held at the Seema Malaka of the Gangarama Temple that abuts the Beira Lake. Set on three linked platforms rising out of the lake, the novel structure was apparently inspired by the design of Sri Lankan forest monasteries such as those at Anuradhapura and Ritigala, which feature similar raised platforms linked by bridge like walkways.

For security reasons, only the close relatives of the bride and the groom were allowed into a room there. Rajapaksa who was locked in an informal conversation with Jayasuriya referred to his meeting with Krishna. He said he had agreed to enforce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The ‘plus’ was the creation of the Senate, a matter which Rajapaksa said was being looked at. He said that the question of Police powers (under the 13th Amendment) was an issue that would have to be determined by the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In other words, Rajapaksa has made clear that a “full implementation” of the 13th Amendment would not be made without recourse to the proposed PSC. Quite clearly this is different to what Krishna said at his news conference.

In terms of the 13th Amendment, the Sri Lanka Police shall be divided into – (a) the National Division (including Special Units); and (b) a Provincial Division for each province. The National Division shall consist of the IGP, DIGs, SSPs, ASPs and other ranks recruited at the national level. A Provincial Division shall consist of the DIG, SSP, SP and ASP, all seconded from the National Division and Provincial Assistant Superintendents of Police, Chief Inspectors, Inspectors, Sub-Inspectors, Sergeants and Constables recruited in the Province. Members of the Provincial Division shall be eligible for promotion to the National Division.

To underscore his reluctance, Rajapaksa said even Minister Arumugam Thondaman, was opposed to the granting of Police powers to Provincial Councils. It goes without saying that land issue is an even more contentious matter.

The enforcement of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a political weather cock, has been changing directions many a time. Just last month, President Rajapaksa told local media representatives during his monthly news conference at ‘Temple Trees’ that “if Police powers are given I will not be able to go to my village sometimes. Journalists will complain to me that they have been assaulted because they wrote something about a Chief Minister. There are good reasons not to give Police powers. Already 750 Tamils have been recruited to the Police. In the past they did not allow the Tamils to join the Police.” (Political Commentary – the Sunday Times December 25, 2011).

Since then, official government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella was quoted in different media articulating the government’s position those Police powers to Provincial Councils under the 13th Amendment were not required. He went further to say that Constitutional Amendments were being proposed to remove or moderate references to police powers. Suddenly, weeks ahead of the Krishna visit, he articulated just the opposite of what he said — the government was willing to discuss limited police and land powers with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

This on-again-and-off-again situation, without doubt, has undermined the government’s credibility both domestically and internationally. There is little doubt that the Indian factor is the cause for the see-saw in policy change. However, making sweeping statements to appease visiting Indian dignitaries and thereafter falling back to another position can become a very costly exercise. More so, when there is very little or no inputs from the Ministry of External Affairs – once a powerful engine that guided and safeguarded Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and national interest. This has left Sri Lanka’s envoys abroad in a muddle over what to say on behalf of the government. Some, therefore, tend to echo their own private sentiments. Viewpoints kept changing in Colombo and they are not briefed. A Ministerial source said, “Rajapaksa could give several other subjects to Provincial Councils as set out in the Concurrent List of the 13th Amendment. That includes ones like Co-operative Societies etc.”

The scenario has been made worse by the breakdown of talks between the government and the TNA as exclusively revealed in this political commentary last week. The situation seems paradoxical. President Rajapaksa has hinted that a political package to address Tamil grievances, including police powers, would have to be formulated by the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee. Hence the government wants the TNA to nominate its representatives to the PSC. On the other hand, the TNA has taken up the position that the talks with the government should go parallel with the PSC.

The Government delegation leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva, told the Sunday Times, “It is a Cabinet decision that the TNA should nominate its representatives to the proposed PSC to continue the negotiations with the TNA. As a negotiator personally I will not put this as a condition, but this is a collective cabinet decision. Therefore, the TNA should honour that. I have explained the government position to TNA leader Mr. Sampanthan. We do not want to pull out from the talks, but we hope they will make their nominations to the PSC.”

However, at Tuesday’s news conference, Peiris had a different version to relate. He was asked, “Is it true that the government has called off talks with the TNA? In that case where will a solution to the problem emerge from?

His reply: “It is not correct to say that the government of Sri Lanka has called off talks. Not at all. On the contrary we want to make the talks a success. And we believe that there is an absolute necessary condition for success. We cannot expect to achieve success in a matter that is complex like this if the talks exclude vast areas of political opinion in this country. They must find expression.

“It is because of the government’s commitment to that spirit of inclusivity and its desire for a forum in which that kind of all inclusivity discussions could take place that the government has requested that the TNA to participate in the deliberations of a Parliamentary Select Committee which has not been constituted as yet. It cannot be constituted because the TNA is not sending in their names, so the government far from calling off the talks has said that it would like to make the talks constructive and purposeful by (the TNA) sending in the names of its representatives without delay so that the PSC can be constituted and the talks can move forward towards a practical solution.”

The fact that the Cabinet had decided that there would be no talks until TNA forwarded a list was lost on Peiris. Maybe he was touring West Africa at the time and did not have the time to read the Cabinet minutes. If indeed he was present at the Cabinet meeting when the collective decision was taken then it makes his position all the more peculiar. Rajapaksa told Krishna that Police powers would be a matter that had to be determined by the PSC, but there was no mention of this by Peiris.

Interesting enough, talks between the government and the TNA began in January last year. It was after a meeting President Rajapaksa held with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he travelled to New Delhi to attend the Commonwealth Games in October 2010. Immediately after his return to Colombo, Rajapaksa held a meeting with TNA leader Sampanthan to initiate talks with the government.
TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times, “We are now being accused of not sending the names for the PSC. This is contrary to the decisions we made during talks with the government delegation.

“We don’t want to name members to the PSC. If we do, they (the government) will stop the talks. If we don’t, they will say we are boycotting. We are not boycotting.”

Other TNA sources explained their fear that they would then be forced to heed whatever decisions made by the PSC that may include representatives of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the National Freedom Front.

Udaya Gammanpila, Deputy Secretary of the JHU told the Sunday Times, “The announcement that the President had committed himself to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ‘plus’ solution came from the visiting Indian Minister S.M. Krishna and not the President himself. This is a clear indication that this is something which the Indians want. The Indians should look at the consequences of the 13th Amendment. They sent their Army to Sri Lanka to supervise a truce with separatist guerrillas and implement Provincial Councils. The North never got its Provincial Council; it only saddled the rest of the country with white elephants in seven provinces. India eventually lost over 1000 soldiers and failed to achieve anything. Therefore solutions cannot be enforced on a country by force, persuasive or military.
“It has been the President’s opinion that land and police powers cannot be given, but the Indians want these powers included. Whether it is police powers or land powers, it should be discussed at the PSC. This too they should be able to prove the necessity of such powers to be considered. India should find a way to pursuade the TNA to attend the PSC deliberations.”

NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa told the Sunday Times, “We are still not clear on the character of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and ‘plus.’ Any settlement would have to be within the unitary character of Sri Lanka. The government does not have a mandate from the people for a federal state in any form”.
Some in the TNA also fear even the United National Party (UNP) may go along mostly with views of the government side for fear of losing its Sinhala vote base.

Sampanthan said the TNA’s precursor, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), was then opposed to the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. “We did not accept Provincial Councils. We wrote to late Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian Prime Minister,” added Sampanthan. Edited excerpts of an interview with him appear in a box story on this page. This Amendment was the result of the good offices extended by India when J.R. Jayewardene was the President.

On the one hand, it is time for the government to be clearer on its intentions regarding the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. A clear elucidation of its position would help those in Sri Lanka and outside to discern which the official policy is. That will lay to rest contradictory pronouncements. One stance externally and another internally will only pose serious problems of credibility for the government.

On the other hand, the critical question is how the imbroglio with the TNA over the conduct of talks and the proposed PSC will be resolved. If talks do not resume, the government would be left with little or no choice except to go ahead with a PSC. In such an event, whether the UNP or the Democratic National Alliance would nominate representatives would be a question. Otherwise, talking without TNA whose MPs are elected representatives in the North and East may turn out to be a pyrrhic exercise.
By ST Political Editor


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