By Austin Fernando –
The article Resetting Indo- Lanka relations by Bernard Goonetilleke, Chairman of the Pathfinder Foundation had a large number of propositions for positive relations building with India. Also, I have seen a more detailed version of the recommendations in another media exposure (Financial Times). The experts have done a commendable job.
However, I am confident that the experts would have considered that “resetting” is required because the earlier settings have been displaced- past and present; and “resetting” is for the future. Of course, due to the current impasse between the two countries resetting is an urgent priority.
I have known the Sri Lanka experts also as great professionals and hence confident of capacity to deliver appropriate ‘resetting methodologies.’ Incidentally, most of them had led the Foreign Affairs terrain and one may question why they failed to convert these recommendations in to actions before the relationships became sour. My wild guess is it was due to political attitudes and decisions from both countries. These non-politician experts don’t deserve blame.
It appears that the recommendations have a basic theme. The experts have believed that problems needed to address are (a) Economic, (b) Political and Strategic, and, (c) People to People to contacts and in it sounded that economic development is primary and precedes political actions. This is the official stance of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) too.
In their words “The two countries need to work together to lay a firm foundation for closer and mutually beneficial cooperation in many fields, including security, trade, investment, education, health and culture.” No queries and appreciated though public administration is ignored. But, as stated earlier there is a past and present in operationalizing the recommendations, which are not forgotten by politicians who decide implementation or rejection of any recommendation. .
In addition, settings always had positive and negative relationships; priorities. For example, the allegation that the Research and Analysis Wing of India armed and trained the terrorists, Indian Government financed Sri Lankan terrorists were rightly heard in the past and repeated even today. Those are the negatives. However, the Indian assistance received during the conflict and even in Geneva in the past was positive experiences and the current status in Geneva is the negative in Sri Lankan eyes. The experts’ proposals for greater dialogue and commitments between GOSL and India are for the future.
For trade the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was a positive development. But, when Ministers are reported saying that ‘Sri Lanka does not need a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)’; it appears negative, especially when Indian organizations (e.g. Confederation of Indian Industries) push for CEPA. In such background for the experts to propose strengthening the FTA and promote CEPA could be seen as negating the ‘really true’ political contexts, though contextually living up to economic realities. Of course, the slow movement with India towards CEPA and comparative haste observed for trade agreement arrangements with Pakistan and China could create policy inconsistency issues, which will not assist “casting aside mutual suspicions and apprehensions of each other’s motives.”
Even in investment when large sums of money were given by India for rehabilitation after end war and movement of private capital orchestrated a positive past. However, when Sampur takes years to settle and Chinese receive immediate approvals for unsolicited investments they sound as negative relations. Even after initial agreement when Ceylon Electricity Board seniors question the Sampur Agreement anonymously, and the Governor of the Central Bank says that the origin of funds is irrelevant on the grounds of World Bank barring, if investment reaches Sri Lanka (i.e. Ada 7-3-2014) it reflects suspicion and apprehensions in India. The recommendation of ensuring “a level-playing field and adequate transparency in the processes of awarding contracts, and the need for appreciation of sensitivities in work in the strategic areas” is a great recommendation and to expect that to happen to appease Indo- Sri Lankan relationship may be interpreted as ignoring Lanka’s current geo-political ground realities. However, the strong path found may be the acceptance that the forum should be in Delhi and not in Geneva!
Even in the people to people issues there is clash of interests that had not been identified or followed. One simple issue conflicting with the recommendations for exploration is the “visa on arrival” measure. Though there are no barriers on tourism there is an issue publicized recently on visas. I believe that such decision being in the pipeline would have been known to the Indian experts and imposition of such recently exposes other considerations by Indians.
While the experts recommend introduction of measures “to strengthen connectivity between the two countries, including through further liberalization of air services” the same is demanded by the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). Exact stance of the NPC is yet unclear, but presumed as demanding from GOSL to enhance connectivity between Sri Lanka’s North and South India. If it was to be a unilateral NPC function it appears constitutionally and operationally unacceptable and difficult. However, the GOSL’s response to it as creating a totally devastating status –basing constitutionality and sovereignty- showed how reactions for such emanate. The GOSL response would have opened eyes of preparing the 2035 Road Map thought of by the experts.
The recommendations in the political sphere are much appreciated. I may refer to one crucial issue appearing in the recommendations. It is related to devolution. The recommendations speak of assisting GOSL to achieve national reconciliation, devolution among other things. Further, it encourages everyone, in particular all political parties, even in the Opposition to reposition in relation to the post-LTTE realities by (a) committing to effective devolution through provinces to grassroots level, taking into account past experiences by burying the hatchet, and, (b)”initiating a structured dialogue towards political consensus on the ethnic issue, in particular with the affected parties, and at a multiparty forum, within a specified time-frame.”
To what extent are these excellent recommendations marketable to GOSL, if it sticks to its current stances on the subject? For the Indian experts it is not new because Indians had been consistently demanding this status. Devolution to provinces- especially to North and East had been promised several times to Indians, UN Secretary General, Tamil political parties, and multilaterals and in the same breath dropped off by the GOSL using several opportunistic approaches. Conflicting statements had been made by GOSL political authorities on the subject when the Indians stuck to one demand- i.e. implementing the 13th Amendment in full. Several corrective measures in case of the Governor and Chief Secretary of the NPC made by former The Hindu Editor Mr. Ram would not have been heard if promises and corrective actions were considered as appropriate by the GOSL. Can these experts change this status and bury the hatchet?
The Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) was appointed with a specific time-frame and we have heard several political authorities repeatedly stating in and out of Parliament that it is the only forum that could discuss and decide on a political solution for the country. The leading Opposition parties are not in the PSC and hence arguably a non-functional and non-acceptable PSC is to deliver a constitutional solution. Can the experts’ recommendations make stale food tasty and palatable? One may argue that the recommendations had been handed over to super bureaucrats only a few weeks back and we should await results. Even with the thin possibility of the recommendations becoming a reality, let us be patient!
Current Geneva problem also reflects ongoing contradictions. One may believe it could be the cumulative of several issues that caused these path-finding recommendations. For India to support Sri Lanka initially in Geneva and to withdraw support in 2012 and 2013 and to offer unhesitant support the US Resolution against GOSL is the past and present in comparison. The Indian status is purely political- internal, external and bi-lateral. Whether it is security or trade or investment or constitutional amendments, the roots are political.
The members of the Study Group believe that implementing these multifaceted recommendations through strong proxies would serve to build mutual confidence which would enhance trust, cooperation and understanding in all areas of the bilateral relationship. Can the experts from both ends with the support of the bureaucratic proxies with whom the report had been shared make the politicians think in the manner they have proposed? It is reminded that as much as the experts had held positions to control damage in the past, these power packs (and their predecessors) also held the sword in their hands when relationship deterioration continued. Both groups were bureaucrats and not politicians and hence it is the political will and attitude change that can make real change happen.
If they succeed it is the best that can happen to both countries- especially to Sri Lanka and hence we should congratulate the experts unselfishly for their interest and pray change will happen.