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G.L.Peiris visit a flop: India browbeats Lanka

[Sunday Times.lk, Sunday, 22 May 2011 10:26 No Comment]

The leaders of the country’s main political parties were in ‘shraddavantha’ (pious) mode this week. The 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanthi – 2600 years since the Enlightenment of the Buddha and the enunciation of the Doctrine of the Middle Path that revolutionized half the known world at the time, would have had a sobering effect on them.

The lay leaders of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the party spearheaded by a group of politically active Buddhist monks, shaved their heads and took ‘sil’ (religious vows) for several days. Unfortunately, as some commentators have pointed out, the ego factor, one of the fundamental flaws in humankind as the Buddha has pointed out was the most difficult to shed. Photographers kept ‘shooting them’ and the pictures found their way to the media.

So too did President Mahinda Rajapaksa take ‘sil’, but on Vesak day only. He was the third head of State to do so, after William Gopallawa and Ranasinghe Premadasa. He too was disturbed by the bright lights and the clicking and whirring of cameras that conveyed to the public through state television the religious observances he was engaged in.

At ‘Temple Trees’ where the President was thus engaged, the Ven. Madagoda Abeytissa Thera was invited to deliver the Dhamma desanava or the sermon. The monk made some appropriate points only a Buddhist monk could to an all-powerful President. He was to say "Mr. President, you or anyone here will not take the wealth accumulated in this world to the next world when you die." He cautioned the President saying that though there might be several people around him, it was useless and that he should trust only those who worked for the upliftment of the country.

The President was seen nodding his head in seeming approval, and his acceptance of the monk’s advice.

The previous day, President Rajapaksa visited the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara in the outskirts of Colombo. Also taking part in Bodhi pooja (offerings to the Buddha) was Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a long-time lay trustee of the historic temple. While Wickremesinghe took his MP from the Colombo district, Ravi Karunanayake, now in the centre of a storm within the United National Party (UNP) over his appointment as the party’s National Organiser, Rajapaksa took his controversial Public Affairs Minister and the area’s party organiser Mervyn Silva, who also had a run-in with some of his colleagues in the government over an extortion racket at the nearby fish market.

Shortly after the religious ceremonies conducted by the temple’s chief monk, Ven. Dr. Kollupitiye Sangharakhita Thera, the VIPs were taken to lunch. At the lunch the talk between Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe turned to the recent escapades of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn who had just been jailed in New York over an alleged sexual assault case. The Frenchman, a one-time Finance Minister and known in his country as ‘DSK’ was a possible Presidential candidate from the opposition Socialist Party to challenge the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe discussed the pros and cons of the entire episode being a ‘fix’ to prevent him from contesting the French presidential elections scheduled next year. The man’s reputation for womanising, however, preceded him and he had been warned by Sarkozy himself when he was taking the job as IMF chief with headquarters in Washington DC that the Americans were not as liberal as the French in these matters.

Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe later went their own ways as the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi celebrations ranged from the mega state-sponsored events to the Kottu roti and ice cream dansala to Chinese lanterns on tree tops and the humble decorations in thousands of homes island-wide.

Minister Peiris in New Delhi

While these celebrations were in full swing in all Buddhist countries, Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris was in New Delhi on an official visit, in what was the only political and diplomatic activity for the week. Alas, by all accounts, the visit was not a success for Sri Lanka.

One of the more significant aspects of the Peiris visit was that none of the Foreign Service professionals accompanied him. It was an unprecedented step taken. Usually, the secretary to the ministry is by the minister’s side should any professional advice be required; so too is the director in charge of India. But on this occasion, and for the first time, such a high profile visit on such important issues was without a single Foreign Service official.

Peiris was meeting not only his counterpart S.M. Krishna and Indian prime Minister Manmohan Singh but also senior External Affairs Ministry officials, known as the ‘Brahmins’ of the much-admired Indian public service. For Peiris to go to that den alone, accompanied only by a junior MP, Sajin Vaas Gunawardene, was brave if not foolhardy. The results showed that it was more of the latter.

The photograph of Peiris meeting Manmohan Singh depicted the Indian premier stressing a point with the Sri Lankan Minister with his hands clasped, listening. Even if a photograph only captures a mere split second of a moment, the joint statement that was issued after the official talks speaks for itself. It bears testimony to completely one-sided ‘talks’ between the two countries.

We carry below relevant extracts from this joint statement in bold type with how political and diplomatic analysts see it.

The joint statement begins by referring to the Peiris visit and that the "entire gamut of bi-lateral relations" were reviewed by the two sides. It would be more appropriate to say that the entire gamut of India’s concerns in the bi-lateral relations was reviewed by the two sides.

Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the joint statement have this to say (quoted fully);

4. " Both sides agreed that the end of armed conflict in Sri Lanka created a historic opportunity to address all outstanding issues in a spirit of understanding and mutual accommodation imbued with political vision to work towards genuine national reconciliation. In this context, the External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government’s commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the ongoing dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package building upon the 13th Amendment would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation.

5. " The Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka reiterated the commitment of his Government to continue to address issues related to resettlement and reconciliation in a focussed and progressive manner. In this regard, the Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka referred to the work of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and set out the steps taken by the Inter-Agency Advisory Committee (IAAC) chaired by the Attorney General in implementing the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC in relation to detention, law and order, administration, and language issues and socio-economic and livelihood issues. In response, the External Affairs Minister of India urged the expeditious implementation of measures by the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure, resettlement and genuine reconciliation, including early return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their respective homes, early withdrawal of emergency regulations, investigations into allegations of human rights violations, restoration of normalcy in affected areas and redress of humanitarian concerns of affected families".

By paragraph 4 above it seems that Peiris has committed the Rajapaksa government to giving more than the 13th Amendment, and what is more can only be police powers and land distribution powers to be devolved to the Made-in-India Provincial Councils. Rajapaksa himself has said he would give 13A Plus, but not specified what the plus is. He reassures the majority Sinhalese constituency by saying that he will not give anything politically what the LTTE demanded by waging war. Now, Peiris has committed the government to a "devolution package building upon the 13th Amendment". So then, what could that be, is the question.

India wants genuine reconciliation

Having put the knife in paragraph 4, India turns it in paragraph 5 by asking the government of Sri Lanka to ensure "genuine reconciliation". What India is saying in everyday parlance is that stop beating about the bush, stop dragging your feet — provide proper devolution beyond the 13th Amendment according to what the Tamil parties in Sri Lanka want.

In paragraph 5, India goes one step further i.e. it wants allegations of human rights violations investigated. Vague as it is, it keeps open the question as to whether India wants a domestic investigation or an international mechanism as demanded by the controversial report of the UN panel of experts appointed by the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The panel had probed the last stages of the war against the LTTE in 2009. One might argue that India is even endorsing the UN panel report without saying so. It would, however, appear to many analysts, that India has deliberately left the question open to use it later as a bargaining lever against Sri Lanka, especially when it sees Sri Lanka gravitating more heavily towards China than India.

The Sri Lankan minister has been unable to get any assurances from India that investigations of such a nature would be purely domestic and not an international probe. This is a huge setback for Sri Lanka as it tries to ward off international pressure, especially from western countries that are pushing towards an international probe on ‘war crimes’ allegations.

Sri Lanka was unable to get India to challenge the UN panel report’s unverified account of 40,000 civilian deaths having taken place in those last stages of the war, a figure that Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, repeated in the UN Security Council a week ago attracting a protest from Sri Lanka.

The remainder of the joint statement is as bad. In paragraph 7 Sri Lanka has caved into pressure for "early finalisation of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)" — something the Rajapaksa government torpedoed at the last minute in the face of stiff opposition to it from influential local entrepreneurs.

In paragraph 8, there is a complete let down of the northern Sri Lankan fishermen by agreeing to abide by the lop-sided October 26, 2008 Fishing Arrangements which provide for ‘accidental’ intrusions into each other’s territorial waters along the Palk Strait.

The joint statement says both sides agreed that "the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances and that all fishermen should be treated in a humane manner. The Indian side conveyed that the incidents of continued violence against Indian fishermen in the vicinity of Sri Lanka were of serious concern".

But the Sri Lankan side was unable to get a sentence included about the poaching by Indian fishermen "in the vicinity of Sri Lanka".

Peiris’ performance draws flak

glpeiris And so, at the end of it, it is reasonable to ask what Sri Lanka got out of the talks. Peiris’ performance has already drawn flak from a pro-government nationalist organisation, the Patriotic National Movement (PNM). It has said that Peiris has betrayed the country on his Indian visit and PNM President Gunadasa Amarasekera has asked if all this was agreed to with President Rajapaksa’s concurrence.

Sri Lanka goes into next week when the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) meets with India non-committal while several western powers are expressing eagerness to bring allegations of human rights violations under the microscope of the world body.

Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe and Nimal Siripala de Silva have already left for Geneva to meet any prospective challenge. They are to be joined by Attorney General Mohan Peiris. Two international human rights organisations have already fired salvos to coincide with the UN sessions.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly writing in the Indian-based Asia Age newspaper (May 17) taunts India to pursue a hostile approach towards Sri Lanka. "Now India has a new opportunity to promote justice for Sri Lanka’s war victims. Instead of being on the side of the abusers, India should be working alongside governments that wish to see that the people responsible for terrible crimes are held to account. India should not hold back," she writes.

Amnesty International (AI) in a public statement the same date called for the UNHRC support for an international investigation to "address impunity for violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law". It also urged the UNHRC to support the UN panel report’s recommendations calling for an international mechanism to probe these purported allegations.

AI goes on to provide an eight-point agenda for action and one of them is to get Sri Lanka to ratify the Rome Statute and co-operate with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

If Sri Lanka banking on India to help it out with the Ban Ki-moon report was a setback the political situation in India itself is a matter the government will need to closely monitor. Right now it is in a state of flux as the defeated Mutuvel Karunanidhi not only licks his political wounds, but is thoroughly disappointed with the central Government and his ally the Congress Party for permitting his daughter Kanimozhi to be sent to jail for her alleged involvement in a massive telecom scam.

The Congress Party tried its best to delay the process, but now the Indian Supreme Court has intervened and despatched the 43-year-old Kanimozhi to Thihar Jail, India’s Welikada in New Delhi. To aggravate matters Congress President Sonia Gandhi has telephoned J. Jayalalithaa and congratulated her signalling a possible future alliance in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu politics has influenced New Delhi’s decision-makers for decades. Despite the people of the state complaining of step-motherly treatment from the north, political alliances between national parties (like the Congress) and regional parties (like DMK or AIADMK) are compulsory for control of the national parliament. Former Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s recent autobiography ‘Matters of Discretion’ illustrates the point well.

In 1997, when he was PM, the Jain Commission that investigated the assassination of one-time premier Rajiv Gandhi confirmed a special police report of the nexus between the LTTE and the DMK, and added that the DMK had aided and abetted in the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE. The Congress Party to which Gandhi belonged, demanded the DMK be sacked from Gujral’s coalition government, something he refused to do. The Congress then withdrew its support to Gujral and his government collapsed.

Since then, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, assumed the mantle of the Congress Party and had no qualms in striking an electoral pact with the DMK for future elections. The shaky Congress government in New Delhi will therefore like to be on the good side of the voters of Tamil Nadu and Jayalalithaa, who on winning the elections made a stinging remark that the Sri Lanka President and his government must be investigated for alleged ‘war crimes’.

On Thursday, Ranil Wickremesinghe telephoned Jayalalithaa to congratulate her, but she was not available to take the call. Wickremesinghe and former Foreign Minister the late Lakshman Kadirgamar were probably the only two Sri Lanka political leaders who have met her and kept in regular touch. However, she had returned the call, and Wickremesinghe, a frequent visitor to Chennai said he would meet her "after she has settled down".

[Full Coverage]

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