Strong note of caution from India

Strong note of caution from India

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  • Wants 13A and Provincial Council elections
  • Seeks to respect “mutual sensitivity”
  • Public Security Minister says Indian EAM interfering in internal affairs
  • Speculation over new portfolios

The “high-level segment” – Visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar in talks with President Gotabaya RajapaksaIndia cautioned this week that it is in Sri Lanka’s “own interest” to fulfill “commitments made to New Delhi on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”

This, in essence, is the most important message Indian Foreign Minister, Dr Subramaniam Jaishankar, delivered to government leaders during a two-day visit to Colombo. A former distinguished career diplomat, who also served in Sri Lanka, reminded that “our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is longstanding, as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony.”

The visit came as the partner leaders of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Nidhas Sandhanaya  (SLPNS) decided to put off Provincial Council (PC) elections. This is until a new constitution for Sri Lanka, now being formulated by an experts panel, is discussed with various stakeholders, and later adopted by Parliament. Added to that is the raging Covid-19 pandemic. This was confirmed to the Sunday Times last week by Minister Mahinda Amaraweera. Earlier, the matter figured at a cabinet meeting where three ministers –  Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Bandula Gunawardena – opined that the polls should be put off until a new constitution was in place. Against this backdrop, several government leaders have spoken publicly about the need for changes to the 13th Amendment and on the structure of Provincial Councils.

Though Jaishankar said that his visit was the result of an invitation extended a year ago when Foreign Minister Gunawardena was in New Delhi, there is little doubt that it was hurriedly arranged. The Protocol Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had less than three days to put together the arrangements. Earlier, South Block (where the Indian External Affairs Ministry is located) had sought a date for a visit in late November last year. However, it was pointed out to New Delhi that one of the government leaders was unwell. There had been a reminder thereafter in late December where the available dates were sought and obtained.

Jaishankar’s statement was extremely nuanced and to the point. The operative paragraph in this regard said, “As we promote peace and well-being in the region, India has been strongly committed to the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is longstanding, as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled. That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The progress and prosperity of Sri Lanka will surely be advanced as a consequence.”

These remarks demonstrate that India continues to hold that the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and dignity remain unfulfilled in Sri Lanka. This has been reiterated by underlining the need of the Sri Lanka government to deliver its commitment to “meaningful” devolution, which has been deftly connected to the controversial 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Indian External Affairs Minister’s observation that the progress and prosperity in this country being consequential to devolution is an added feature. Does this mean that India’s future cooperation and assistance to Sri Lanka would be dictated to some extent by this aspect? Cognizance would need to be taken of the underlying messages delivered to ensure robust bilateral relations with India.

Another key reference in the statement is: “I carry the message of an India that will always be a dependable partner and reliable friend, open to strengthening its relationship with Sri Lanka on the basis of mutual trust, mutual interest, mutual respect and mutual sensitivity.” This illustrates that EAM Jaishankar has whilst outlining the basis of strengthening the relationship between the two countries (as being through mutual trust, interest’ and respect), which are already stated principles, in this instance, sought to introduce a new characteristic of “mutual sensitivity.” It cannot be ruled out that this initiative could be in relation to India’s message on meaningful devolution together with the implementation of 13A. Hence, India’s position based on strengthening bilateral relations has been clearly stated.

It is important to note that External Affairs Minister Jaishankar read out a statement at what was described as a news conference. He was followed by Foreign Minister Gunawardena adopting the same format though what he said resembled more a farewell speech. Seeking further elucidation of the respective positions, both of India and Sri Lanka, was not possible since no questions were taken. Journalists attending the event were advised earlier that they should undergo PCR tests. Some did not turn up. In order to ensure a wider reach of their message, the Indian High Commission in Colombo arranged for live streaming of the event on the internet.

There was no direct response from Foreign Minister Gunawardena to the assertions made by EAM Jaishankar. The only reference, in a three-page statement, was: “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa firmly stated that he is committed to the wellbeing progress and opportunities of all our citizens Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and all. During our talks, we focused on multiple areas of mutual cooperation in the identified sectors of economics, finance, trade, commerce, defence, security, and fisheries, cultural and particularly on the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the post-Covid – 19 era that we are moving forward to and efforts we have jointly taken since the outbreak last year.”

In lackluster remarks, Foreign Minister Gunawardena noted that Sri Lanka was blessed thrice by the visits of Gautama Buddha 2600 years ago. He added, “the arrival of Mahinda Maha Thera and Sangamitta Thera, son and daughter of Emperor Asoka the Great of Bharatha, established the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka. The immense cultural bonds strengthen our friendship at all times. Furthermore, today our two nations are the foremost parliamentary democracies in Asia.”

FM Gunawardena declared that Sri Lanka has “sought India’s partnership for our economic revival, stability through enhanced investments in different sectors of the economy. Of course, as neighbours and being littoral states of the Indian Ocean, we discussed defence and security related matters, as well as the issues related to maritime and fisheries sectors.”

Among the other salient points made in the five-page statement of EAM Jaishankar were:

=   There are many proposals under discussion, including infrastructure, energy, connectivity etc. Their early implementation is obviously in mutual interest and would definitely accelerate Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. We have discussed some important opportunities including special zones for pharmaceutical manufacturing and also in tourism.

=   India and Sri Lanka have a long history of ensuring maritime security and safety. India has been the first responder in emergency situations. We stand ready to enhance Sri Lanka’s capabilities to meet growing maritime and security challenges.

Among matters that have engaged the attention of the Experts Committee now drafting the new constitution, is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The Committee has examined some modifications. However, there is no finality so far. In the case of Provincial Councils too, the Committee is mulling over certain changes. This is besides the outstanding issue over the electoral system under which PC elections should be held. As matters stand now, polls cannot be held until amending legislation is introduced. This raises a billion-dollar question — will the ruling alliance heed the Indian concerns or go ahead with what is now on the drawing boards for a new constitution?

Views within the Government are diverse – one influential section is of the view that New Delhi’s concerns should be addressed. This is mainly on the grounds that 13A, including the Provincial Councils, is the outcome of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. President J.R. Jayewardene, who signed the agreement with Premier Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to the measures. Thus, there is a commitment from one sovereign nation to another. They also contend that it was unwise to antagonize a powerful neighbour. There is another influential group that holds the view that it was time for the Government to carry out “what is necessary for the greater good of the country and the vast majority of her people.” The latter has gained some traction.

One of those who hold the latter view is Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera, a confidant of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He is a one-time Navy officer who also served as Director, Naval Operations, during the separatist war. At various public fora, he has called for the abolition of 13A and thus the Provincial Councils system.

“The Indian External Affairs Minister cannot interfere in our internal affairs. It is true that India is a friendly country. They can raise issue at international fora but they cannot force us to implement 13A,” he told the Sunday Times. He argued that President Jayewardene had “forced the 13A on us.”

The remarks that “they can raise the issue at international fora,” quite clearly, are not in keeping with the Government’s goals. Firstly, the Government does not expect India to raise issues over domestic matters at any international fora. To the contrary, it would expect India to support Sri Lanka. This becomes relevant at the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In fact, the UNHRC Secretariat is still awaiting Sri Lanka’s reactions and comments over the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s draft statement which was sent to Colombo months earlier. She is expected to deliver this when the UNHRC commences sessions in March.

Weerasekera added: “India cannot force us to implement 13A or conduct our elections. They can propose but cannot force us. Our political leaders will decide. The time is also not suitable because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The Government has decided to wait until a new constitution is formulated. The new constitution will have changes in the electoral system. Therefore, the provincial election system would also change.”

Tamil leaders, however, welcomed EAM Jaishankar’s stance. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) front liner Abraham Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times, “We thanked him for the no change of policy taken by the Indian government reiterating the implementation of 13A and Sri Lankan commitments.” The TNA delegation also gave him a copy of the party’s constitutional proposals it sent to the Committee of Experts. This came during a meeting with a TNA delegation headed by Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. Sumanthiran said, “He (Jaishankar) was concerned about the delay in conducting PC elections. He was of the view that elections must be held as early as possible.”

The economic development of the Northern and Eastern parts of the country was among the other topics. The TNA delegation said they would welcome public or private partnership-led investments in the former war-torn areas to improve the livelihood of the people.” This is a welcome request. Since the end of the separatist war, there are thousands of youths with no employment. Making matters worse is the rise in liquor consumption as well as drug abuse. No major development projects have taken shape. However, it must be noted that such investment should come through the central government.

Mavai Senathirajah, leader of Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi -ITAK – (a partner of TNA) told the Sunday Times, “We discussed in detail issues that are critically important to the Tamil people. It is welcoming to note that the Indian External Affairs Minister also made it clear to the Government of its commitment to implement the 13th amendment and go beyond that to resolve the ethnic conflict as promised to India in the past.  “Both parties have decided not to publicize the things discussed but I assure you that all the critical issues faced by the Tamil community were taken up,” Senathirajah said when asked to be specific on the contents. The meeting which began at 9.30 a.m. went on for more than one hour at the Indian High Commission premises at Galle Face.

Suren Surendiran, spokesperson for the London-based Global Tamil Forum said in a statement that ”Minister Jaishankar’s reference that “ commitments made by the Sri Lankan government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment” is immensely significant.”

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya  (SJB) appears to be in favour of only some parts of 13A and opposed to others. Last Monday, just a day ahead of EAM Jaishankar’s arrival, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa had a briefing for select editors of newspapers. Most represented the Sinhala media. Ariyananda Dombagahawatte, Editor of the Irida Lankadeepa, asked him what the SJB stance on 13A and the Provincial Councils were. He replied that his party stood for both. Siri Ranasinghe, Editor of the Lankadeepa interjected to ask, “what about Police powers?” Premadasa replied “As I said before, we are in favour of all what has been given. We are not for the others.” That meant, not only police powers but the SJB was also opposed to land powers being given to Provincial Councils. In other words, the SJB’s position vis-à-vis 13A and PCs is conditional. Endorsing the position was SJB General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara who said, “There is no need for provincial police powers. The police have to remain as it is today.” Funny enough, such positions of the SJB are never made public through statements nor explained in Parliament.

Since arriving in Colombo on an Indian Air Force (Brazillian built) ERB 135 Embraer VIP aircraft last Tuesday, Jaishanker has had a string of engagements. The main one on Wednesday was with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa where all key issues were discussed. Accompanying him on his main engagements was Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay. He also met representatives of the business community. On Wednesday night, EAM Jaishanker was hosted to dinner at the Wijerama residence of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The only minister to take part in the event was G.L. Peiris. Conspicuous by his absence was Foreign Minister Gunawardena.

Just 24 hours before the dinner-meeting, Premier Rajapaksa made a statement in Parliament over the East Container Terminal at the Colombo Port. He said there was no decision to vest the ECT “in its entirety or partially” with a foreign entity “or hand over its management.” Those remarks, obviously ahead of meeting Jaishankar, are quite significant. Premier Rajapaksa charged that the previous Yahapalana government had concluded a deal for the ECT without involving the Ministry of Ports and Shipping. There were reports of an understanding reached between India’s Adani Group and John Keells for a joint venture for the ECT.

Maritime security, one of the areas of discussion between India and Sri Lanka, also assumed a new dimension in the light of new developments. One is not too sure whether the Foreign Ministry which has been dabbling in this subject at length in the recent months has factored in some realities. There are experts who say that in the coming years, the geostrategic importance of Sri Lanka will incrementally decrease to an arising Mauritius which could offer strategic outposts (for naval and military purposes) across the Indian Ocean. That would see a lowering in Sri Lanka’s own geographic position from a strategic standpoint though it will remain an important port for shipping.

India has a special relationship with Mauritius, an island-state off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. It has an Indian population of 70% with political and administrative power vested with the indigenous Indian population. India permitted Mauritius to host the secretariat of two important Indian Ocean organizations namely the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) in their capital, Port Louis.

Mauritius which permits the operation of offshore companies is a tax avoidance jurisdiction.  In 2018 Mauritius was the second largest FDI contributor to India. In 2019, Mauritius has become the fourth largest FDI contributor with the US and Singapore leading in FDI flows to India. These funds are primarily from offshore companies taking advantage of tax benefits in Mauritius.

Much of the maritime assets of the Mauritius Coast Guard including an Advanced Patrol Vessel (APV) are from India. The recent determination of the arbitral tribunal constituted (under Annex VII) to the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (March 2015) on Chagos Archipelago (Diego Garcia), continued occupation of the islands by Britain is untenable and it is likely that Mauritius will get sovereignty under the condition that US maintains the military base in Diego Garcia.

Such a concession by Mauritius to the US will grant Mauritius a status of an associate of the Quad (United States, India, Japan and Britain) and will yield significant clout in Indian Ocean affairs. It must be noted that Mauritius sponsored the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council together with the United States. It also boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Colombo. These turns of events will give Mauritius the largest area of an Extended Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean and have islands dotted from southeast Africa to the Central Indian Ocean. There are no Indian Ocean organizations based in Colombo, though Colombo is the centre of the Indian Ocean. As an example, India established the Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean (IFC-IOR) making the Sri Lanka Maritime Rescue Coordinating Centre (MRCC) insignificant. Again, this is taking away any Indian Ocean role for Sri Lanka.

The establishment of a Permanent Secretariat for the Trilateral Maritime Agreement (India, Maldives, and Sri Lanka) to which very soon Seychelles and Mauritius will join can make Sri Lanka the epicentre for strategic discussion on Indian Ocean affairs. This is an aspect which has to be looked into.

Fast-tracking development process

Other than EAM Jaishankar’s visit, a significant event at Temple Trees on Thursday was a meeting to fast track the development process. It was initiated by Basil Rajapaksa, who is heading the Presidential Task Force on Economic Recovery. Besides him, both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa took part in the event that lasted nearly two hours. Government MPs and officials numbering more than 800 also took part in the event.

Premier Rajapaksa gave way for President Rajapaksa who arrived late. He called upon state sector officers not to take umbrage under rules and regulations but to help the public whenever and wherever possible. He exhorted that they should take a pragmatic view. Premier Rajapaksa was to point out that budgetary allocations made for development work were available and they should be utilized.

President Rajapaksa is to give high priority to the development process. He is to soon name senior Army personnel as Additional Secretaries to development-oriented ministries to carry out his programme of work. This is besides naming

Senior Army offices as Co-ordinating Officers to the 25 districts to help counter the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government this week announced that a new Agricultural and Animal Husbandry Corps has been set up. Previously such tasks were carried out by the Army’s Works Services Regiment. The focus of this new unit is to enhance agricultural production.

Amidst these developments, government sources speak of the likelihood of induction of a few more MPs with special tasks as part of efforts to expedite development tasks. Though slated to take effect later this month, no firm decision has yet been made, these sources added. Nor has the format of such appointments been decided upon. Since there are constitutional restrictions on the number, a “national government,” a possible way out, is also being looked upon.

Another significant development this week is the Government laying to rest the issue over the burial of Muslims who are Covid-19 victims. Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told Parliament on Thursday that in keeping with regulations, all bodies will be subject to cremation. In remarks made earlier, she also disowned any knowledge of a new committee that had re-examined the question of burials.

It was only last Monday, Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon, Britain’s Minister of State for South Asia, and the Commonwealth announced that he had summoned Sri Lanka High Commissioner in London, Saroja Sirisena to express his government’s concerns. He said last November, he had also spoken on the telephone to Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The UK High Commissioner in Sri Lanka too had raised concerns with the Government on December 22, he said.

In a three-page despatch to the Foreign Ministry on January 2, seen by the Sunday Times, Ravinath Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to United States, has said that despite two reports he sent earlier to the Foreign Ministry on Covid-19 related human bodies of Muslims, the Embassy’s request four days in advance, for an update on this fast-moving issue, to be used at this meeting, that none was received.” The meeting he is referring to was held with a group of Sri Lankan Muslims on December 30 last year on Covid-19 related Muslims who die in Sri Lanka.

The report listed ten different issues, Aryasinha, the former Foreign Secretary, said, “I noted that unfortunately this issue has got politicized, which is not helpful in finding the correct solution to the problem. GoSL is engaged with the Muslim community to find an amicable solution for this matter, based on scientific advice — as made abundantly clear by both HE President and Hon. Prime Minister and even the consideration of the option of conducting these burials in the Maldives, respectful of the religious sensitivities.” So here is proof, from the former Foreign Secretary, that a request was indeed made to the Maldives for Muslim burials. This is despite the denial by co-cabinet spokesperson Minister Ramesh Pathirana. He blamed social media for what he called the false reports. It is such remarks that chip away the Government’s credibility and cause disbelief among people.

The raging Covid-19 pandemic, as expected, has telescoped into 2021 requiring the continued attention of the Government and necessitating funds to fight on. In this midst, this week’s developments show that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other leaders of the alliance are now saddled with more challenges than expected. Those are enormous indeed.

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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