India happy with the regime change
Should support Sri Lanka’s domestic inquiry on war crimes says N. Ram:
The Indian Government and its political parties are happy about the regime change, even though former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies remain a strong political force in Sri Lanka, say Chairman and Publisher of The Chennai-based Hindu Group of newspapers and former Editor- in- Chief of The Hindu, N. Ram who was in Sri Lanka recently.
In this interview with the Sunday Observer, he opines that the national government was a worthwhile political experiment and added that, “there are political forces against it. But then you have to be positive, be bold and try out something new when everyone knows the old solutions haven’t worked.”
Q: Sri Lanka witnessed a surprise regime change early this year. There is a national government in office. What is your take on Sri Lanka’s current political situation?
A: Following the regime change that occurred in two phases – the January 8 presidential elections and the August 17 general election – the Sri Lankan political situation, which was deteriorating by the day, has been turned around.
I mean turned around from the standpoint of democracy, normalcy, ethnic relations and reconciliation, human rights, and also external relations. The national government is a worthwhile political experiment.
I think Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena demonstrated rare political statesmanship in bringing the two main parties, the antagonists, together in this interesting experiment. Notwithstanding the unhappiness with this arrangement among perhaps a significant section of SLFP MPs, this is a more straightforward way of forming a viable government.
The agreement is only for two years and there is no guarantee that this concord will hold. I realize there are political forces against it. But then, you have to be positive, bold and try out something new when everyone knows the old solutions haven’t worked. The national government certainly has its tasks cut out. Everyone who values democracy and decent governance will wish it well.
Q: What bearing will it have on country’s ambitious economic goals and foreign relations?
A: You can’t expect immediate economic results but if the broad agreement can be reached within the national government, obviously the country and the people will benefit.
As for priorities, I can do no better than quote Prime Minister Wickremesinghe: “We have tremendous issues to resolve, more than our personal or political rivalries; the employment issue; how you are going to fit into the international economy; restoring national democracy, working on national unity; upgrading our system of education; free education, free health; and national debt.”
A stable, democratic government that is focused on these key tasks starts with an advantage on the external relations front. I know that India, the government as well as all the major political parties, are happy with the regime change in Sri Lanka.
Q: How far has New Delhi been re-assured by Colombo’s adjusted foreign policy, that may perhaps distance China and Russia?
A: There is a great deal of respect and goodwill for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his government. India knows him very well – and trusts him.
He believes that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy should be more balanced and more nuanced than it has been in the past decade. But there is no need to distance Sri Lanka from China and Russia, economically and politically. A balanced foreign policy means good relations all round, starting with your neighbours.
Q: The interview with The Hindu was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first after assuming office. What was the most striking point he made?
A: We are happy that it was his first interview. The most striking point was Wickremesinghe’s straightforwardness and clear-headedness. He answered every question. His answers were direct, crisp, assured; no equivocation, no dodging, no pontificating.
Here was a man who knew what kind of political animal his government was going to be and also knew what he wanted to do this time.
Sri Lanka has had a succession of strong leaders, whether you agree with their policies or not. Your Prime Minister certainly has the capability and wisdom in leading the government and the country in meeting the key challenges.
Q: Recently some LTTE leaders were arrested by the Indian Police in Rameswaram while trying to cross the border to Sri Lanka. Do you think LTTE may revive itself with Tamil Nadu as its base?
A: The Tamil Nadu Police are vigilant now – in contrast to the days the LTTE and other armed militant groups had a free run of the State, before Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE assassination squad in Sriperumbudur.
My considered political assessment is that the LTTE is finished, notwithstanding some pro-LTTE noises in Tamil Nadu and notwithstanding the mock-heroic postures struck by elements of the Tamil diaspora who think they can wield power, or rather influence, without responsibility.
Q: Is Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue and LTTE still a ‘popular saleable commodity’ in Tamil Nadu and among its people?
A: The LTTE and Tamil Eelam are not a popular saleable commodity in Tamil Nadu. But helping Sri Lankan Tamils win a substantial measure of self-administering opportunity within a united and undivided Sri Lanka, is.
Sympathy with the Tamils is widespread. But the overwhelming majority of people in Tamil Nadu do not want any truck with Tamil armed militancy or separatism. I am certain about this.
Q: Do you think the LTTE will continue to maintain its support base in Tamil Nadu? How much leverage will the likes of Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Vaiko and Nedumaran have on Narendra Modi?
A: The LTTE does not have any support base in Tamil Nadu. The pro-LTTE propaganda by fringe groups is nothing more than propaganda.
I would differentiate the position of Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, major politicians who have been Chief Minister for multiple terms, from the position of Vaiko and Nedumaran. The pressure Tamil Nadu politicians put on the central government, if you filter out the ambient noise, is to ensure Sri Lankan Tamils a just political solution.
Q: The US seems to have changed course and is poised to help a domestic inquiry on war crimes by Sri Lanka. Do you think New Delhi will support this move in Geneva?
A: Yes, I expect the Indian Government to support this move. In any case, it should.
Q: Why should they support it?
A: The demand for an international enquiry into alleged human rights abuses, alleged violations of international humanitarian law and alleged war crimes within a country is against India’s longstanding policy.
For example, India has over decades, opposed the internationalization of the Kashmir question.
This includes opposition to any demand for an international investigation into alleged atrocities and alleged human rights violations by the security forces in Kashmir.
Having said this, I would emphasize the need for Sri Lanka to have a strong, credible, independent, quick-acting domestic mechanism to investigate the serious allegations without further delay.
Q: Is the ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa in January an appropriate decision by the voters here?
A: Yes, it was time for a big change, for an array of reasons.
But I note with interest that it was pretty close and would have been mighty close in the August 17 general election had the SLFP not been so conspicuously divided and disoriented at the top.
The former President and his supporters remain a strong political force. They must be reckoned with. I hope that, in turn, they will respect the wishes of Sri Lankan voters as a whole.
Q: The 26-year war ended in May 2009 with the elimination of the LTTE. Do you think Sri Lanka is on the right path towards reconciliation and the war would remain a thing of the past?
A: The end of the war and the elimination of the LTTE six years ago should have seen purposeful movement towards an enduring political settlement of the longstanding Tamil question. In fact, this should have been a top priority for the government but the opportunity was lost.
In my view, the political solution can only be a very substantial measure of self-administering opportunities within a united and undivided Sri Lanka.
It does not matter what this arrangement is called and get caught in terminological disputes over ‘unitary’ versus ‘federal.’ It is the substance of devolution that matters. The solution can be on the basis of the 13th Amendment, maximizing it.
Significantly, the Prime Minister himself said this in his interview, adding that he has tried to keep the UNP position flexible.
It is also good that President Maithripala Sirisena seems to be on the same wave-length and that the former President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, will be involved in the effort to solve the problem.
A: It is no surprise that the TNA, an alliance of moderate political parties and other elements, is divided over the role it should play at this juncture.
I was happy their election manifesto firmly committed it to finding a federal solution within “a united and undivided Sri Lanka.”
The TNA has at its head a committed statesman of sagacity, integrity, and great experience – my longstanding friend, R. Sampanthan. It has other political leaders of long experience including brilliant younger people at the top leadership levels, especially M.A. Sumanthiran. Unfortunately, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran – a man of integrity, no doubt, but someone without political experience, who can even be considered apolitical – has taken some strange and confused political stances in recent months, presumably under pressure from sectarian elements in the Tamil diaspora.
Having a Chief Minister who is out of sync with the TNA’s current political thinking is a serious problem the TNA needs to overcome. I am confident that they will meet the present Sri Lankan Government’s forward-looking political initiatives at least half-way.
Q: When did you last visit Sri Lanka and what are your impressions of the country today?
A: I have visited Sri Lanka frequently since 1980s. My previous visit was a couple of years ago. Many issues, and especially the direction ethnic relations would take, were unresolved then.
The end of the war and the elimination of the LTTE provided Sri Lanka a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for ethnic and social reconciliation by putting in place an enduring solution to the longstanding Tamil question. But the opportunity was squandered.
Today Sri Lanka looks more assured and relaxed – and shall I say, a happier – country, certainly in socio-political and moral terms. But complacency is the last thing it needs.