By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The lull following Brexit and US Presidential elections in the regular arrival of international meddlers would appear to be over. During the last two weeks, a galaxy of parliamentarians and officials were in Colombo. A bipartisan delegation from the United States House of Representatives, Indian Foreign Secretary Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a group of senior Chinese Communist Party officials with the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister and a group of French Senators, all descended on Colombo.
The government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained its usual silence which follow visits by foreign dignitaries to Sri Lanka. Not one single Press Meet by visitors and their counterparts from Sri Lanka was to be seen as is customary in most other countries. The public as usual are left to gather whatever possible information from media releases issued by foreign dignitaries and their embassies. Visits by foreign dignitaries could be good or bad. On the one hand, such visits enable the host country to show case the country, its people and the economy with a view towards obtaining assistance in areas having scope for further improvement and development. On the other hand, such visits unless suitably agreed and coordinated could result in unwanted complications, especially when meetings take place between visitors and local political groups. Statements by visitors after such meetings invariably tend to encourage local non state actors to harden attitudes in the belief of support from foreign governments.
The sectarian divide between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in Iraq is perhaps more deep routed than differences between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka. Yet, there is no known record of US Senators, Congressmen or bureaucrats meeting with Sunni leaders to listen to their grievances, let alone interceding on their behalf with the Iraqi government despite the sinking of billions of dollars in introducing ‘democracy’ in Iraq. In the not too distant past, India called off long overdue bi-lateral discussions with Pakistan at Foreign Secretary level due to a meeting held by the Pakistani High Commissioner to India with Hurriyat Conference leaders, considered Kashmiri separatists by India. Indian attitude was “either talk to us or talk to them”. In the back drop of such track records, it is but natural to question the game plans of our visitors and their respective governments.
Indian Foreign Secretary’s recent assertion in Colombo “India will not press for merger of north and east” is welcome from a narrow perspective. Yet, from a broader perspective, separate meetings with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) delegations led by their respective leaders inside the Indian High Commission in Colombo is but a clear sign of India’s intentions of a continued involvement in Sri Lanka’s ‘national question’. The very same Indian Foreign Secretary, in his keynote address at the Raisina Dialogue held recently in Delhi requested China to be “sensitive to its sovereignty”. He further stated, “China is a country which is very sensitive on matters concerning its sovereignty. So, we would expect that they would have some understanding of other people’s sensitivity on their sovereignty.” In the same token, should not India too be ‘sensitive to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty’?
China, to its credit, has no record of involvement and meddling in local affairs and with politicians in countries it is involved economically. It has been China’s policy for nearly three decades.
In most countries, the Head of State, of Government and cabinet ministers visit foreign missions (embassies) only on special occasions such as to sign a book of condolence and attend national day functions. Similarly, in most countries, the Leader of Opposition is equal in rank to a cabinet minister. However, in Sri Lanka, the current Leader of Opposition makes it a point to meet his Indian benefactors inside the Indian High Commission.
His message to all recent visitors he met barring the Chinese was similar in content; a briefing on the formulation of the constitution; the need for the new Constitution to contain features that will provide more powers to Provincial Councils on matters of socio-economic development; the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions; the lack of progress on the UNHRC 30/1 resolution cosponsored by the government. The Leader of Opposition has supposedly told the visitors that an extension of time to the government to fulfil its commitment to the resolution should be granted only under strict conditions, asserting that the resolution should be implemented in its entirety and that the government should take all steps necessary to ensure reparations, guarantees of non-recurrence, accountability, and justice. In response to a question by a US Congressman of Chinese and Indian interests in Sri Lanka’s political affairs, he has reportedly stated “China did not interfere in the internal affairs of the country whereas India continued to demonstrate interest in the Constitutional Reforms in Sri Lanka”. It must be noted, in the narrative of our Leader of Opposition, any Chinese involvement is ‘interference’ whereas Indian involvement is a ‘demonstration of interest’. His already diminished stature as the Leader of Opposition due to his insistence in involvement on matters pertaining only to the Tamil community is further diminished due to his dependence on foreign actors and governments in pursuit of self-determination for his community.
Other than extremists who are found in all communities, no sane person will dispute the fundamental right of all Tamil persons to live in Sri Lanka as equal citizens and with equal opportunities. Their right to manage their own affairs in the Northern Province and that part of the Eastern Province with a Tamil majority perhaps amalgamated to the Norther Province, within the framework of a unitary state too should not be disputed provided the same status quo can be implemented in seven other provinces. The Eastern Province with a Muslim and Sinhalese population could be jointly governed by the two communities. The Tamil community should think long and hard on the issue of devolving Police powers to the provinces. Repercussions of handing over seven Police forces to seven Chief Ministers outside the North and East rather than a separate Police force for the North is the issue. It could be a recipe to lawlessness and anarchy, which in the long term will also impact the welfare and livelihood of the Tamil community, both in and outside the Northern Province.
Mutually agreed solutions are preferable to impractical solutions implemented at gun point (Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 wherein MPs were taken to Parliament under armed escort and made to vote in favor). The so-called unity government should have given the impetus for a bipartisan set of proposals for negotiation with TNA. Unfortunately the opportunity is being squandered away by around fifty MPs under the banner of Joint Opposition. It is regrettable, this lost opportunity too will go down in history as yet another instance of the intransigence of the Sinhalese.
That said, the Sinhalese do not monopolize intransigence. The Leader of Opposition, made a 90-minute speech in Parliament on February 22 during the adjournment debate on the constitution. He waxed eloquent of the previous occasions the Sinhalese dominated state concluded pacts which were later abrogated. He referred to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact 1957, Dudley – Chelvanayagam Pact 1965, Indo-Sri Lanka Pact of 1987, President Chandrika Kumaranatunga’s proposals in 1995, 1997 and 2000 and Mangala Moonasinghe Select Committee proposals in 2000.
Yet he was silent on efforts by President Premadasa who even went to the extent of arming the LTTE in order to be rid of the IPKF from Sri Lanka and also provided air transportation to senior LTTEers, to the utter consternation of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Also overlooked was President Chandrika Kumaranagunga’s offer of handing over the Northern Province to LTTE supremo Prabkharan for a period of 10 years with no necessity of holding elections. Had that offer been accepted, it would have included Police and Land powers, one of the current contentious issues. Yet another effort overlooked was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s CFA in 2002, so deviously agreed to by the LTTE for purpose of regrouping and rearming and discarded thereafter.
During his speech, he referred to remarks made by President Rajapaksa during the inaugural meeting of the All Party Representatives Committee and the Multi Ethnic Experts Committee in July 2006. In fairness, he should have also mentioned of his own role as the main spokesman for the LTTE in the deep South and in Sri Lanka’s Parliament and his endorsement of the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil community.
The Leader of Opposition is considered a Tamil nationalist by some and a moderate by others. One could also say he was a terrorist sympathizer and supporter till May 19, 2009. He is of the view a civilized and democratic government must safeguard its international status, a task exceedingly difficult so long as he and others in TNA and TPA keep bellyaching to international meddlers. Our Leader of Opposition is a master at running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.