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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Indo-Lanka ties near breaking point; Moves to repeal 13th Amendment

Gota, JHU push for abolition of provincial councils; TNA-Govt. dispute back to square one
China wants to know what TNA discussed with India; KP issue comes up again

A deal brokered by India for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to engage in a dual track dialogue with the government, revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times of October 7, has run into serious problems.
One such track was to be the resumption of the bilateral talks between the Government and the TNA. The other was TNA’s participation in the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In a dramatic turn of events, the TNA will not make any statement declaring its willingness.

Nor will the government of India stand guarantor for what would have been the outcome of its own new attempt at rapprochement. Initiatives have broken down within weeks after they began.

This has spawned some unexpected realities. Main among them is a firm polarisation of views between the Indian and TNA leaders who visited New Delhi last week. This is on common issues related to Sri Lanka. More importantly, it has placed a greater strain on the already overstrained ties between Sri Lanka and India. Some diplomats, both Sri Lankan and Indian, fear the levels of strain are unprecedented and warn that coming events could further exacerbate the situation. They do not hide the fact that New Delhi is incensed over recent political developments in Sri Lanka.

No sooner had the TNA members returned to Colombo, they were invited by China’s Ambassador Wu Jianghao for a meeting. Even China, which is pumping in millions of dollars for development activity in Sri Lanka, remained aloof in the past. Now, it seems to have a keener and more overt interest in political developments in this country. A TNA delegation briefed the Chinese envoy on its visit to New Delhi, the on-going stalemate over the talks and even discussed Sri Lanka-China relations. According to one TNA delegation member, there were searching questions from the Chinese about their dialogue so far with the government.
 The recent short-lived Indian initiative had its origin in a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi last month.

That visit itself was the subject of an involved diplomatic process. At first, Rajapaksa was invited to the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh by its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh. It was to lay the foundation stone for a University of Buddhist and Indic Studies in Sanchi. The central government in New Delhi had sought to only facilitate the visit and ensure the strictest security arrangements were in place. These security arrangements included almost door-to-door plainclothesmen and armed police and helicopter cover in the air.

A diplomatic question had arisen after Rajapaksa, through official channels, had expressed a wish to meet the newly elected Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, whom he regards as a personal friend. He had wanted to congratulate him on his election to the high office. Both Rajapaksa and Mukherjee have been talking on the telephone on occasions when there was a spike in tensions between the two countries. Mukherjee, then Finance Minister and one-time External Affairs Minister in the Congress-led government, had used his good offices to present the Rajapaksa administration’s point of view.

Does he go to New Delhi in his personal capacity with no official engagements or invitations from the centre? How would he be received in New Delhi with all courtesies without an official invitation? These were among many questions that confronted both Sri Lankan and Indian officials. The issue was overcome with the Indian government extending an invitation, declaring the visit official and laying out the red carpet.

That was how Indian Premier Singh held talks with Rajapaksa on September 20 and later hosted him to a lavish banquet. During those talks Premier Singh had touched on a number of issues. They included matters relating to the anti-Sri Lanka campaign in Tamil Nadu, the Colombo government’s travel advisory warning Sri Lankans against visiting the southern Indian state (since withdrawn), the need to resume talks to evolve an acceptable political package to address Tamil issues where they could live with “self-respect and dignity” and elections in the Northern Province. Singh is learnt to have said there was a perception that the Sri Lanka government was going back on assurances it had given New Delhi.

Rajapaksa was to strongly counter some of the issues raised by Singh. He said that elections to the Eastern Provincial Councils had already been held. He had announced that elections to the Northern Provincial Council would be held before September next year. The Government was willing to resume talks with the TNA as soon as it expressed willing to serve in the proposed PSC. The only delay, he had pointed out, was on the part of the TNA. Thus emerged the broad parameters of an Indian initiative to persuade the TNA to resume both bilateral talks with the Government and at the same time serve in the PSC. India was to talk to TNA and try to persuade it to go to the negotiating table again.

“We were invited to India by their External Affairs Ministry. This was consequent to President Rajapaksa’s visit to India and talks with Premier Manmohan Singh,” TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times. He said the TNA delegation told the Indian Premier, “it is not our assessment that the Sri Lanka Government is genuinely committed to a reasonable settlement.” He said Premier Singh “seemed to appreciate our position”. Hence, Sampanthan added that no pressure was brought on his alliance. Sampanthan was to brief the Indian Prime Minister on a number of issues. He had complained that displaced people were now located in “half way homes”. He had alleged there was “military interference in civil administration” and there were problems related to the livelihood of those in the North.�(See story for questions answered by Sampanthan.)

Even whilst the high profile visit to India by TNA continued, the government in New Delhi appears to have been concerned over political developments in Sri Lanka. There were several thorny issues that were hurting the bilateral relationship more than before. One of them was the controversial Divineguma Bill, which India believes, takes away subjects now under the Provincial Councils (PCs). These powers were vested with the PCs in terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment became part of Sri Lanka’s Constitution after India played a key facilitator role. It came in the years that followed the ethnic violence in July 1983.

The TNA delegation was engaged in talks with the Indian Premier for more than 45 minutes. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Ranjan Mathai and other officials were present at that meeting. Ahead of that meeting, the TNA delegation had a brief discussion with V. Narayanaswamy, Minister in the PM’s office. They also held a meeting with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna for 45 minutes and were hosted to lunch at the Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan by EAM Secretary Mathai. There was also a 90-minute meeting separately with Menon. They gave a briefing to Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj. The TNA delegation was invited to a Q&A session at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and met with heads of diplomatic missions who had no permanent representation in Colombo.

Another jolt for India came last week when, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa fired a salvo that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should be repealed. A fuller implementation of provisions of this Amendment and more concessions were key measures India proposed to address Tamil grievances. They formed the highlight of joint statements issued after the end of visits either to India or Sri Lanka by dignitaries of the two countries. The last was when External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris visited New Delhi. Rightly or wrongly, some officials in the Indian External Affairs Ministry believe that a repeal of the 13th Amendment is being sought ahead of the planned Northern Provincial Council elections before September next year. They claim that in such an event, there would be no provincial council in the North or a body which would be toothless. However, a ministerial source who spoke on grounds of anonymity said a repeal of the 13th Amendment would naturally abolish PCs countrywide and hence fears of its impact on one PC “are unfounded”.

Now, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has supported the Defence Secretary’s proposal. “There will be no issues in scrapping the 13th Amendment as it was proposed through the Indo-Lanka Agreement. We are all aware that this Agreement was forced on Sri Lanka and therefore withdrawing from it will not have any implications,” JHU Deputy Secretary Udaya Gammanpila told the Sunday Times. (Note: The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 signed by the late President J.R. Jayewardene and then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, does not make any reference to a 13th Amendment to the Constitution.) He said the JHU had planned a series of meetings countrywide to mobilise public support for the repeal of the 13th Amendment. The first such meeting will be at the Public Library in Colombo tomorrow, (Monday, October 22). (See box story on this page for Gammanpila’s remarks.)

  There were more causes for Indian concerns this week. One, it later turned out was a blunder, which was rectified though the tensions generated by it remain. Lakshman Hulugalle, Director General of the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS), told a newly introduced weekly news briefing on Wednesday that Kumaran Pathmanathan better known as ‘KP’, a man who headed the procurement wing of the militarily defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been freed from ‘state protection’ and allowed to carry out NGO activities “freely from Kilinochchi.”

“He was under state protection and not under custody. He has now been allowed to move freely,” Hulugalle said. Pathmanathan, who helped the Tiger guerrillas obtain weapons and thus modernise the LTTE’s arsenal for every phase of the separatist war, was arrested in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August 2009 in a dramatic operation and flown down to Colombo in a special SriLankan Airlines aircraft. He is the only surviving suspect in the assassination of Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. The news of ‘KP’ being free to move around was widely reported in the Indian media. However, barely hours after the news conference the Department of Information said ‘KP’ was still under “special protection” but “was permitted to engage in his NGO work?.” On Friday, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, had to face more questions when he briefed the media on cabinet decisions. Yet, the rebuttals did not receive the same wide publicity which the original announcement did. Here are relevant excerpts:

Journalist: (Lakshman) Hulugalle said as far as the government is concerned KP had no allegations against him. After Prabhakaran’s death he was the leader of the LTTE.

Minister: I suppose, the fact that there were no allegations was a misinterpretation. So far as the government of Sri Lanka is concerned the armed conflict is over. We don’t want that again. But if we do not handle it properly then in 15-20 years’ time there will be another one. Ban Ki-moon (UN Secretary General) has asked us to speed up development programmes, embark on reconciliation and many other things. We need to give a hearing to those views. Treating that man (KP) bad and others differently is not the case. All this can be surpassed if we have lasting peace at the end of the day. That is the primary and foremost idea of government.

Interpol and others could “not arrest KP.” Our army and CID did it. It was a classic operation. Interpol failed to do that. The question is not about forgiving or forgetting what he did. If we have a law to work in a better picture then that is it.

Journalist: In 2007, the government said it will pay a reward of one million rupees to anyone who would provide information leading to the arrest of KP. Was that offer relaxed?

Minister: We have to look at this problem in a wider angle. The war is over. But the problems are still not. You should not break the law but bend the law. To solve this problem we have to do that. The war is over now and we have to solve this problem as human beings. There are people who killed people now in Parliament. Is it right to punish a person who picks pockets forever or engage in a humanitarian action and put them right.

Journalist: Can a person who is under arrest run an NGO? India is after this man and can Sri Lanka let him run a NGO for his sake?

Minister: This is not for his sake but for country’s sake. This aspect has not stopped with war.

Journalist: You said that our intelligence caught KP. Also while he was to be caught our Army and intelligence believed that he was a big leader in LTTE. Now you say that there are no allegations against him. Was that information by the Army wrong?

Minister: We released 30 people from jail. Courts did it. Intelligence caught them. Some are taken on a statement. If no proper witnesses are there, they are released. The law says anyone can be a government witness at anytime. After 30 years of war we have to face the Diaspora now. So we have to see how we can actually solve this case and do what we can.

Journalist: Were these meetings with the Diaspora successful?

Minister: Yes, through some of the statements made by KP, we have gained fair success up to now.

Journalist: Is he given a pardon for the sake of the government? To make him a government witness?

Minister: We haven’t pardoned him?

Journalist: Why is he then running an NGO?
 Minister: Can’t a person arrested run an NGO?

Journalist: Can’t because he is in jail.
 Minister: He is under house arrest. We gave permission. We have a Department to grant permission for NGOs. If we can solve problems of the Diaspora through those NGOs, why can’t we do that?

Minister Rambukwella also announced that reconciliation talks with the Tamil diaspora, through the good offices of ‘KP’ would begin soon. Though Rambukwella is the official spokesperson, his remarks are sometimes not taken seriously and dismissed by those at the highest levels of the government as mere rhetoric. However, he still speaks for the government and if he is right in this instance, a dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora to work out a political package to address Tamil grievances is being held using a man who is most wanted for the murder of late Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. One need hardly say if it would be viewed as a friendly gesture by the Indian government, though the Indian government is yet to react to these developments.

 Developments with regard to Sri Lanka-India bilateral relations in the recent weeks make clear that ties are at an almost free-fall decline.


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