- Indian PM says he is 100% with TNA, but wants them to talk to Colombo Government –
- Swamy once said Lanka should be a federated state of India, now the Govt. gives the self-styled leader a red-carpet welcome –
- President’s foreign policy advisors misreading geopolitics;
- Public attacks on US but costly PR stunts to repair ties
Subramanium Swamy who said ”Sri Lanka should become a part of the federated state of India thus denouncing its sovereignty and territorial integrity” in April 2000 changed to Rajapaksha’s ‘mouth pies’ in 2014. He is accused of receiving gifts and FREE holidays from Rajapaksha Government as return.
A few hundred metres away from one of New Delhi’s best known addresses – No 7, Race Course Road – security men stopped a three-vehicle convoy. The occupants were told to alight and board three other vehicles for the rest of their journey. It was to the official residence of the Prime Minister of India. There, with clasped hands Premier Narendra Modi greeted Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and five of his parliamentary colleagues. He said Vanakkam, the Tamil word for greetings.
As they settled down in their seats, Modi turned to Sampanthan who was next to him and declared in Hindi: “I want to listen to you first.” It was translated by an interpreter. The meeting scheduled for 30 minutes lasted almost an hour. At the end, when Modi used the parting words “we are hundred per cent with you,” it signalled the beginning of a new and perhaps decisive chapter in the relations between Sri Lanka and India. Ties have remained bumpy and taken egregious turns with the previous Congress Government. However, very clear insights into how the Modi administration will deal with issues are now emerging. Whether the UPFA Government, with its present woeful inadequacies on the foreign policy front could read correctly the different nuances in New Delhi’s diplomatic approaches, remains a critical question. This has been proven by its recent questionable actions to improve Sri Lanka-India relations. Now, the TNA visit to India lays bare plenty more.
With his arms hugging each other at his chest, Modi listened intently as Sampanthan gave a detailed briefing. It focused on three different aspects which he called militarisation, colonisation and the changing of the demography of the North. He also touched on a number of other issues. He said there were an estimated 15 divisions of the Army in the north and alleged this was “disproportionate.” He said the military was acquiring land in the Valikamam Division of the Jaffna peninsula. Some 1,600 acres had been taken over from citizens there to accommodate military families, he alleged. Some houses and other buildings have been destroyed whilst cases filed by the legal owners, residents of the north, were still pending. Though it has been brought to the attention of the President, he said, no action had been taken.
Charging that there was “structured colonisation” under way, he claimed that a programme to construct 10,000 houses for military personnel was to be implemented. He also said the Army was currently engaged in vegetable, fruit and paddy farming within the High Security Zone. The Army involved in commercial ventures, Sampanthan said, pointing out that he had once raised these issues in Parliament. He said senior officials were present in the Officials Box but no one had contradicted him through their Ministers or MPs.
Sampanthan alleged that in Mullaitivu 5,000 Sinhala persons had been registered as voters.
President Rajapaksa had repeatedly assured the TNA that he would not extend the term of the Governor of the Northern Province, retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri. He alleged that this senior-most official in the north had actively campaigned for the ruling party at the provincial elections in September last year. Yet, he had been re-appointed. He charged that the Governor was not allowing the functioning of the NPC and had refused to give his assent to the Council’s budget.
Moreover, the Chief Minister, he said, had now been debarred from appointing a Secretary. He handed over a letter from Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran to Modi.
Sampanthan said various pressures were being brought on Wigneswaran to resign but added that it would not happen. The Indian Premier said he would extend an invitation to Wigneswaran to visit New Delhi. He directed his officials to take note.
In India, however, a Chief Minister of any of its state’s visiting a foreign country on official business must obtain the prior permission of the Central Government. It would be interesting to see how this works out in Sri Lanka. Will the invitation by Modi be channelled through Colombo and will Wigneswaran ask for Colombo’s approval if and when the invitation arrives.
Sampanthan dealt at length with matters relating to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
He said that during the past five years, President Rajapaksa had given different promises to the Government of India that he would implement it and “go beyond.” However, those promises had not been kept.
He gave the reasons why the TNA was not participating in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) appointed to formulate a political package to resolve the national question. The TNA leader also referred to developments in the Eastern Province. He said persons displaced due to the Indian backed Sampur power project were still living in transit camps. Allowances paid to them as refugees had been stopped.
He alleged that the ‘hot wells’ — or the natural water springs in Kanniya, (near Trincomalee) — which were under the control of Hindu devotees had now been handed to a nearby Buddhist temple.
This was despite objections raised by the Pradeshiya Sabha of the area. The TNA leader urged that the Government of India take necessary steps to arrest the deteriorating situation.
Premier Modi, who responded briefly, made clear he was conversant with the issues raised. Though Sampanthan had asked for a special emissary to handle issues, he said, that was not necessary. He said the Indian High Commission was equipped to deal with them. During the time of late Premier Indira Gandhi, she had tasked Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy, with cabinet rank, as special envoy to deal with Sri Lankan matters. However, her son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi dealt directly with then Indian High Commissioner, the loquacious Jyotindra Nath Dixit. The BJP leadership believes that India’s envoy in Colombo Y.K. Sinha, though he keeps a low profile, is best suited in the light of his excellent diplomatic skills and positive approach.
The Indian Premier acknowledged that President Rajapaksa had given assurances to the Government of India that he would implement the 13th Amendment and go beyond it. Premier Modi, like External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who met the TNA delegation before the Modi meeting, urged the TNA to conduct a dialogue with leaders of political parties, representing Tamil speaking Muslims and Tamils in the plantations sector.
Premier Modi also urged the TNA to begin a direct dialogue with the Government. He was reiterating India’s earlier call that the Government should have a blateral dialogue. India has concurred with the TNA’s position in not taking part in the Parliamentary Select Committee. The earlier request was made in the days after the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva adopted the third US-backed resolution to launch an international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. India which abstained from voting held the view that a dialogue between the Government and the TNA would have had a salutary effect on Sri Lanka.
No doubt, that would have also taken a part of the sting away from the US resolution. That is by driving home the point that talks for reconciliation have got under way. The move did not materialise since both sides were wary about an unconditional dialogue. The idea was to carry forward only the outcome of such a dialogue to the Parliamentary Select Committee. There were strong indications in New Delhi last week that Premier Modi also hoped to talk to leaders of other opposition political parties in Sri Lanka as well as politicians of repute not in active politics now. That indeed would be a marked shift.
The first meeting of the Special Parliamentary Select Committee appointed to recommend and report on “measures to be taken to create a political environment, where all Sri Lankans could live as one nation” was held on July 9, 2013. It was presided over by Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva. Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa named 19 members to this parliamentary body. Though it is expected to have 12 opposition members, opposition political parties have refused to serve.
In June (2014) Parliament approved the extension of the time limit granted to the PSC. Minister de Silva said then that the term would have to be extended by another six months. What was set to expire on June 22 was thus extended till December 21, 2014.
The UPFA members in this Committee, besides Minister de Silva are G. L. Peiris, Basil Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, John Seneviratne, Susil Premajayantha, D. E. W. Gunesekera, Douglas Devananda, Rishard Bathiudeen, Lakshman Seneviratne, Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, A. L. M. Athaullah, Deputy Minister Muththu Sivalingam, MPs Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Janaka Bandara. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) does not have representation.
The response of the UPFA Government was somewhat contradictory. Minister Susil Premajayantha, General Secretary of the UPFA, declared that talks with the TNA could be held if they made a request. However, this week, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa told reporters that the TNA should work with the existing powers before asking for more. If that view represents official policy, it shuts the door to any possible bilateral dialogue. The remarks came when Rajapaksa launched a Divineguma loan scheme. Recipients would receive Rs. 50,000 at an interest rate of four per cent and repayable only after a year. Needless to say, with the presidential elections round the corner, there will be a big draw for them.
For the UPFA Government, holding bilateral talks with the TNA would have been a complete reversal of its stated policy. It has continued to insist that any settlement to the national question should come from the PSC. However, making policy changes midstream is nothing unusual and the UPFA’s catalogue is long enough. Among the highlights is the refusal to recognise UN Secretary General’s three-member Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka delegation nevertheless testified before the panel secretly. Their surreptitious act was exposed when the PoE released its report. For five long years the Government rejected international appeals for a domestic inquiry into accountability issues. Some weeks ago, the Government relented. Now, it has even named its own international advisory panel to the Disappearances Commission whose scope has been broadened to cover alleged war crimes.
There are also contradictory policies that are enforced concurrently.
Domestically the UPFA Government chastises the United States. The US Ambassador and staff have been at the butt end of vicious personal attacks by state-run media outlets. Externally, public relations/Lobbying firms are being hired to woo the US Government and the political establishment there.
Just a week ago, President Rajapaksa told foreign correspondents no visas would be given to the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) team conducting the international investigation into alleged war crimes to visit Sri Lanka. They have not sought such visas so far. Rajapaksa’s remarks drew an editorial comment in the New York Times. It noted that “…..Mr. Rajapaksa’s intransigence puts Sri Lanka in the company of North Korea and Syria, two countries that also barred access to United Nations human rights investigators. Mr. Rajapaksa claims Sri Lanka can handle the inquiry on its own. This is doubtful. It was the Sri Lankan government’s failure over several years to prosecute and punish perpetrators of abuses during the civil war that prompted the United Nations Human Rights Council in March to request a comprehensive investigation…..”
The well-known and highly respected newspaper is published in New York, the heart of the global financial system that holds 40 per cent of Sri Lanka’s debt. It is clear, that the damage this bad publicity causes is self-inflicted and not caused by Sri Lanka’s enemies. The shots were fired before foreign correspondents to be conveyed to the world. How wise was this self- destructive exercise and who was responsible? The word “accountability” is so dirty in UPFA circles that the answer will not be known. It would no doubt make another welcome case for hiring more PR/lobbying firms, to use the Central Bank parlance, to “re-calibrate” (or change) US foreign policy in favour of Sri Lanka. Who cares even if more public funds are used? All these notwithstanding, direct talks with the TNA, at a time when presidential elections are around, would lead to acute embarrassment for the UPFA. For this reason, for the second time around, the TNA is not going to shy away. This is particularly in the light of the request coming from Premier Modi. The first was from the caretaker Congress Government with the Indian parliamentary elections then just round the corner.
The Indian Prime Minister’s office issued a brief statement on Modi’s talks with the TNA. Here is the full text:
“Aug 23, 2014 – The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, today received a six-member delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) from Sri Lanka. The delegation is currently on a visit to India. The visit of TNA leaders is part of India`s continuing engagement with the Government and political parties in Sri Lanka.
“The TNA delegation briefed the Prime Minister on the situation in Sri Lanka and their assessment and expectations regarding devolution and national reconciliation.
“The Prime Minister stressed the need for a political solution that addresses the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. In this context, the Prime Minister urged all stakeholders in Sri Lanka to engage constructively, in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation, towards finding a political solution that builds upon the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution. ”The Prime Minister also assured the TNA delegation of India’s continuing support for relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction works in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka particularly in projects relating to housing, livelihood generation, capacity building, education, hospitals and infrastructure.
“The TNA delegation is led by Mr. R. Sampanthan, MP, and comprises Mr. Mavai S. Senathirajah, MP; Mr. K. (Suresh) Premachandran MP; Mr. P. Selvarajah MP; Mr. Selvam Adaikkalanathan MP and Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran MP. ”The Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Shri Nripendra Misra, the National Security Adviser Shri Ajit Doval, and the Foreign Secretary Smt. Sujatha Singh, were present at the meeting.”
Another significant event was a precursor to the TNA-Modi meeting. After arriving in New Delhi on August 21, Sampanthan and his delegation called on former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his private residence. Singh declared that he was deeply touched by the TNA’s gesture. Sampanthan asked the former Premier whether he would grant a big favour to the “TNA and the Tamils of Sri Lanka.” That is by telling his successor Modi how President Rajapaksa promised the implementation of the 13th Amendment, go beyond it and the way things have moved since then. “I have already told him,” replied Singh who added “Now that you have asked, I will meet the Prime Minister again and tell him.”
The next day (August 22), the TNA team had a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Different meetings had been held earlier with her Ministry Secretary Sujatha Singh and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. EAM Swaraj also told the TNA to talk with both leaders of parties that represented Tamil-speaking Muslims as well as the Tamil Diaspora. The remarks seemed to suggest that India sought a broader polity and hinted at the prospect of engaging them too. An insight into these talks emerged when EAM spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin fielded questions at a media briefing that followed. Here are edited excerpts:
“Question: Today, the Tamil National Alliance from Sri Lanka met our External Affairs Minister. What was the agenda of this meeting? Can we expect any outcome?
Official Spokesperson: “A six-member delegation of the Tamil National Alliance from Sri Lanka is in Delhi. The delegation is led by Mr. Sampanthan who is a Member of Parliament there, a veteran Tamil leader…..
“This is the first delegation of the TNA to visit India after the new Government in India has taken office. Obviously this is part of our effort to engage with the Government of Sri Lanka as well as all political parties in Sri Lanka as part of the ongoing process of reconciliation. (Note: The response, as said earlier, India’s move to “engage with the GOSL as well as all political parties…)
“The TNA delegation made a presentation to the External Affairs Minister in a fairly detailed manner about what they perceive as the current situation in Sri Lanka is in terms of the political environment and their engagement or otherwise with the Sri Lankan Government.
“On our side the External Affairs Minister did patiently listen to them, and she stressed the need for a political solution that addresses substantially the aspirations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. The delegation is meeting tomorrow with the Prime Minister and they intend to put forth a detailed projection of their understanding of the situation as well as suggestions that they may have in this context about Indian engagement on this issue.
“There was also, in addition to this, a discussion about the Indian developmental projects in the region including in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka. This included the housing project as well as hospitals and various other projects including reference to the Sampur thermal power project also”.
Question: Have you taken any decision on sending the Sri Lankan refugees back to their homeland?
Official Spokesperson: “No, there is no decision. However, this was raised in the context of the discussions by the TNA delegation saying that the number of Indian refugees who would like to go back and resettle, however, they are having difficulties because of land-related issues in the Northern Province”.
Question: On Sri Lanka, when you say substantial solution, that is the Thirteenth Amendment, right? Or are you alluding to something else?
Official Spokesperson: “You are aware that the Thirteenth Amendment was stemming from the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and that is something that the Sri Lankans have themselves adopted as their legislative framework, and that is the framework in which we are working currently”.
Question: When Tamil National Alliance leader Sampanthan met Sushma Swaraj in the morning and when he came back he met the reporters and he said that Tamil monuments were destroyed by the Sri Lankan military, and that they said everything about that particularly to Sushma Swaraj in order to find a solution. So, what is Indian stand on this particular issue?
Official Spokesperson: “Let me first of all acknowledge that Mr. Sampanthan speaks with lucidity and with a felicity that I cannot even compare with. I have explained to you that he explained at great length his views about it. I also told you what the External Affairs Minister’s response was. And that is, ‘we are for a political settlement which substantially provides for a life of respect, dignity for the Tamils in Sri Lanka within the framework of a united Sri Lanka’. That is our view about it. And Mr. Sampanthan of course has his view which he very eloquently explained to the External Affairs Minister.”
Three TNA delegation memebers — Mavai Senathirajah, Pon Selvarajah and Selvan Adaikkalanathan — returned to Colombo while others proceeded to Chennai. Adaikkalanathan thereafter returned to Chennai to join the others. Senathirajah, currently General Secretary, is tipped to become leader of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). They are the principal partner in the TNA and the alliance is recognised officially by the Commissioner of Elections under the ITAK label. There are two aspirants for the ITAK General Secretary’s post. Vying for the post are Pon Selvarajah and Krishnapillai Thurairajasingham, Deputy Secretary and a member of the Eastern Provincial Council. He was a former MP.
In Tamil Nadu, the TNA delegation cautiously avoided a meeting with Chief Minister Jeyaraam Jayalalithaa. The move appears to avert criticism that Premier Modi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had joined hands for a political campaign against Sri Lanka. Instead, Sampanthan held a closed door meeting with BJP leaders in the southern Indian state, at their local headquarters. It was chaired by Pon Radhakrishnan, Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises in the Modi Government. Dr. Tamilisai Sounderarajan, the head of Tamil Nadu unit of the BJP, Ila Ganeshan, a local BJP leader and National Council member, M. Chakravarty, Vice President, BJP Tamil Nadu and Vanathi Srinivasan, State Secretary, BJP were among those who took part. The BJP is looking to make inroads in the south of India having swept the north in recent parliamentary elections. As a first step it is seeking to make a major push at the scheduled 2016 state assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and mount a challenge to Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK.
At a largely attended news conference, televised live by some TV channels, Sampanthan fielded questions. Here are a few among the questions he faced and the answers he gave:
On the first step Premier Modi should take: “He has already taken the first step. There is no leader in the world who had acted on an external issue within 24 hours of assuming office. During talks with President Rajapaksa, he looked in his eyes and asked him to implement what he promised India in the last five years”.
On the absence of Sri Lanka Government representatives at his talks with Indian leaders: “I have met several Indian Prime Ministers. No such representatives were present then”.
The role of BJP parliamentarian Dr. Subramanian Swamy: “He is absolutely entitled to his views. I have been told officially at the highest levels of the BJP as well as the Government of India, no less than the Prime Minister included, the official position. I leave it for you to decide”.
On the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces: “We are for the merger. The Supreme Court verdict that led to the de merger was not on the grounds that a merger was not possible. They held there were procedural errors”.
On the transformation taking place in the North: “Before the NPC polls in September last year, then India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon visited Sri Lanka. He raised issue with President Rajapaksa about matters relating to this, particularly those being carried out by a Government dignitary. He cautioned that if such things happened, there would be serious consequences. President Rajapaksa assured he will go into the matter. He also called me to discuss it”.
The advent of the Modi Government in New Delhi and its UPFA counterpart’s initiatives in Colombo to shore up relations leave much to be desired.
The most visible and much publicised exercise was a seminar in Colombo by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. The organisers described it as “track two diplomacy.” BJP parliamentarian, Subramanian Swamy, was a key player in the event. Influential sections of the UPFA believed he had strong clout in the BJP Government and could influence policy. Such a belief led to Swamy being given VVIP treatment on his visits to Colombo. He made a second visit within weeks. This time it was for the seminar organised by the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. Most regarded him as a voice of the Modi Government. In fact, he spoke for the Modi Government and went as ‘BJP leader’. It has become clear now that the man, who once tried to cross the Palk Strait with a flotilla of boats, to avoid Tamils being “massacred” in Sri Lanka, is only portraying himself as a leader in the New Delhi Government.
A former Commander of the Army, General Gerry de Silva, a respected officer, had this to say of Swamy in his book titled A MOST NOBLE PROFESSION:
“…. The 340 Independent Infantry Brigade and the 54 Infantry Division (in India) had rehearsed amphibious and air landing operations. The Brigade trained for the specialised task of Sri Lanka, the latest being in April 1987. The Division was deployed until May 1987 on Operation “Trident” in India but had previously rehearsed for the special task of attacking Sri Lanka……. Giving further credence to the mindset; a day after EPS (Elephant Pass) fell into the hands of the LTTE in April 2000 Dr. Subramanian Swamy made a public statement to the effect that if Sri Lanka wanted India to intervene once more she would have to submit to demands of being a federated state of India…..”
Here was Harvard educated Swamy saying that Sri Lanka should become a part of the federated state of India thus denouncing its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even Velupillai Prabhakaran, the guerrilla leader who fought for a separate state but failed, did not make such a demand. The same Indian politician is now hailed by Sri Lanka. The same Swamy is not only an honoured guest at a seminar on defence but is also taken under heavily armed escort to see military installations in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts including areas where the final battles against Tiger guerrillas were fought. Such is politics.
Swamy was making some sweeping statements while in Colombo. He said the TNA must get the Sri Lankan Government’s approval before meeting Premier Modi. One wag was to ask if he got his Government’s permission to meet President Rajapaksa. Premier Modi met the TNA as we know and the TNA did not get any permission from the Rajapaksa Government to do so. So what is Swamy’s standing, really, with the BJP Government in New Delhi?
Herein lies the deep flaw in the UPFA Government’s approach to relations with not only India but many other countries. How did the UPFA leadership come to believe that Swamy was such a key player that laying out the red carpet for him would be the answer to all the ills with the Government in New Delhi?
This shows that the correct inputs are not reaching the Government. The EAM is virtually useless when it comes to counselling the President. Thus, judgements are made on fairy tale stories that are fed to the leadership.
This was the case with the US where its diplomats in Colombo were shunned. Now PR/lobbying agencies are being hired in secret deals using vast sums of public funds. There were all forms of name calling on the United Nations, Britain and other countries, too.
Now, it had to take a TNA visit to New Delhi for the leadership to realise all is not well with Sri Lanka’s neighbour. The UPFA Government’s main problem appears to be not its enemies but its friends. Most of them are in wrong positions for the right connections they have. They are doing most of the damage.