MR’s Deviation And Kachchatheevu
Opposition skeptical on government’s approach towards the ethnic issue
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement on re-convening another All Party Conference to discuss a political solution to the national question has indicated the government’s indecisive approach towards the ethnic issue.
Rajapaksa since first assuming office in 2005 has come forward with various proposals and actions claiming to find a solution to the ethnic issue.
Given the government’s indecisive approach towards finding a solution to the ethnic issue, opposition political parties are now skeptical and have expressed their lack of faith in the mechanisms proposed by the government.
The actions that have so far been taken and some proposed vary from All Party Conferences, an independent commission appointed by the President, talks with the TNA and a proposal to set up a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to find a solution.
All these actions however have helped the government delay its approach in finding a solution to the ethnic issue.
The first move by President Rajapaksa after assuming office was to convene an All Party Conference with the representation of all political parties in the country to discuss and find a solution to the ethnic issue.
On July 11, 2006 Rajapaksa decided at the All Party Conference to appoint a committee of representatives, the All Party representative Committee (APRC) mandating it to formulate constitutional reforms.
The APRC was asked to propose a “homegrown new constitution” that would provide a “comprehensive approach to the resolution of the national question.”
Simultaneously, Rajapaksa also appointed a panel of experts to make another set of proposals.
The experts’ panel in 2006 presented two reports – a majority report and a minority report.
In January 2008, the APRC Chairman Minister Prof. Tissa Vitharana handed the proposals to the President.
However, the proposals in the APRC report were not implemented and the government discarded the report itself.
The next move by the President was to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 to look into the incidents that took place in the country since 2002 till the end of the war in 2009.
The LLRC was asked to make proposals on overcoming another ethnic issue and ways to deal with the existing issues.
The LLRC report was handed over to the President last year.
Once again the government failed to take any positive action on the recommendations made by the LLRC amidst calls by opposition political parties for its implementation.
The President last year also initiated a dialogue with the TNA to discuss a political settlement.
A government delegation was appointed to discuss with the TNA and even after a year, the discussions failed to reach any substantive agreements with regard to a solution to the ethnic issue.
The talks between the government and the TNA finally came to a standstill after the former withdrew from the discussion table saying the proposed PSC is the only forum to discuss and propose a political solution.
The TNA meanwhile is determined not to participate in the PSC until it reaches a substantive agreement with the government on a political solution.
Back To Square One
It is in this backdrop that Rajapaksa last week announced during a meeting with heads of media institutions that an All Party Conference would be reconvened to discuss the national issue.
He had said such a conference was needed due to the delay in constituting the proposed PSC.
The irony is that Rajapaksa’s statement aimed at highlighting the government’s move forward towards finding a political solution is in fact an indication of the whole process going “Back to square one.”
The main opposition UNP says the government needed to inform its stance on the ethnic issue first.
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake said the government first needed to make known its stance with regard to the solution to the ethnic issue.
He told The Sunday Leader that the President should also work towards implementing the recommendations of the LLRC.
“The government said the LLRC would address the issues faced by the country, but now the report has been released and the recommendations have not been implemented,” he said.
He added that the UNP was prepared to discuss and support the government in its effort to implement the LLRC recommendations.
According to Attanayake, before speaking about reconvening an All Party Conference which had failed previously, the government needed to pay attention to the LLRC recommendations.
The TNA has slammed the President for his move to reconvene an All Party Conference.
The party says that President Mahinda Rajapaksa should stop vacillating in finding a political solution to the ethnic issue and honor the undertaking given to the TNA.
TNA parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran told The Sunday Leader that the President should not be changing his stance with regard to finding a solution to the ethnic issue.
“He keeps changing his stance every now and then,” he said.
He explained that the President has given an undertaking to the TNA that a solution to the ethnic issue would be discussed with the party.
“However, he then proposed a parliamentary select committee (PSC) and asked the TNA to submit names to it. The TNA then agreed to provide names after reaching a substantive agreement with regard to the solution in the talks with the government. Now the President is trying to convene an All Party Conference,” he observed.
“It is not good for the President to be changing his stance. He must honor the agreement with the TNA,” Sumanthiran noted.
A Non Starter
The JVP meanwhile dismissed the proposal made by President Mahinda Rajapksa to convene an All Party Conference to discuss a solution to the ethnic issue.
JVP Propaganda Secretary and parliamentarian Vijitha Herath told The Sunday Leader that the All Party Conference is a failure.
He noted that the President had previously summoned an All Party Conference and it was a failure.
“The All Party Conference did not have an agenda and there was no proper outcome from it. It was a failure and there is no guarantee that the same exercise would not be repeated once again,” he said.
“The JVP handed its proposals and an agenda for the talks when the all party meeting was convened by the President last time, but they were not considered,” he added.
According to Herath, the All Party Conference was nothing but a time-buying exercise and a move to engage the international community.
The government’s response to the question on its stance on the solution to the ethnic issue is that the political parties should participate in the PSC to be informed of the matter.
Acting Cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa had told the Cabinet press briefing that the government would inform its stance on the matter to the proposed PSC.
He had added that the political parties should participate in the PSC if they want to know the government’s stance on the issue.
Tamil Nadu Continues Agitating For Kachchatheevu
The South Indian state of Tamil Nadu continues with its long standing struggle to regain Kachchatheevu, a 285 acre uninhabited island situated between India and Sri Lanka.
Last Friday Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha said that she would not stop her struggle until Kachchatheevu was retrieved.
She observed that the issues faced by the Tamil Nadu fishermen at the hands of the Sri Lanka Navy had to be addressed and regaining Kachchatheevu would be a step in that direction.
Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah also called on the Central Indian government to regain the island. The Indian government however maintains that there was no issue over the Kachchatheevu Island following the 1974 agreement with Sri Lanka.
The issue over Kachchatheevu has come to the forefront with the increased number of clashes between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay. The Indian fishermen continue to encroach into Sri Lankan waters with Kachchatheevu being used as the grounds for the Indians to fish in the area. The island is located in Sri Lankan waters.
Kachchatheevu was under Indian control until 1974 when India ceded the island to Sri Lanka. However, politicians from Tamil Nadu have continuously pressured the Central government to nullify the 1974 agreement.
They have even gone to the extent of saying that the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, had handed over Kachchatheevu due to her personal relations with then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike.
The issue over Kachchatheevu first figured in the 1921 conference between the two countries that was held in Colombo on October 24. India and Sri Lanka met to discuss the question of “delimitation of the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar” between the British Government, which administered Ceylon, and the British Government, which administered the Madras Presidency.
As the Conference proceeded the head of the Ceylon delegation, Horsburgh, proposed that the “delimitation should follow the median line, subject to an incursion beyond that line so as to include the Islet of Kachchatheevu and three miles to the Westward”. Horsburgh had quoted from the correspondence with the Government of India in which Ceylon claimed possession of the island and “it was to be inferred, acquiesced in”.
However, on May 17, 1966 the then Indian External Affairs Minister Dinesh Singh had said, “there was a meeting in 1921 in which representatives from the Government of Madras and Ceylon had agreed that while the Zamindari rights of the Raja of Ramnad would continue, the island belonged to Ceylon. The Secretary of State for India does not accept this fact and since then, the dispute has been going on.”
Despite the uncertainty over legal ownership of Kachchatheevu the island remained in Sri Lanka’s possession.
In June 2011, the Tamil Nadu government led by J. Jayalalithaa filed a petition in the Indian Supreme Court seeking the declaration of the 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka on ceding of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka as unconstitutional.
The Court had earlier ruled in the Berubari case that cession of Indian territory to another country had to be ratified by parliament through an amendment to the constitution. Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka in violation of the Court order under the 1974 and 1976 agreements without the approval of the two Houses of Parliament.
It is in this backdrop that Tamil Nadu Governor K. Rosaiah last week called on the state government to regain Kachchatheevu Island and restore the lost rights of the fishermen.
Delivering his maiden address to the State Assembly, Dr. Rosaiah had said the government was deeply concerned about the continuing attacks and harassment of fishermen of the State by the Sri Lankan Navy.
“Despite our protests, such incidents are being repeated,” he had said, and urged the Center to take up the issue with Sri Lanka.
Nevertheless, the Indian government maintains that it cannot take back Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka since it falls on the Sri Lankan side of the international maritime boundary line (IMBL), as well as the fact that India had formally ceded it to the island nation through the 1974 and 1976 agreements.
India also has to pay great attention to the agreement reached with Sri Lanka. The country has already signed maritime boundary agreements with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Therefore, any violation of an agreement by India would have an adverse impact on its image.
The Indian government’s stance towards the issue has since relaxed and despite pressure from Tamil Nadu, the Central government has opted not to pursue the Kachchatheevu case with Sri Lanka.
A Settled Matter
Indian External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna, last year, made this known in Parliament and simply stated that the matter of Kachchatheevu’s sovereignty is “a settled matter”.
On August 26, 2011 Krishna making a speech on Sri Lanka to the Lok Sabha also referred to fishing rights for Indian fishermen at the Kachchatheevu Island.
“I wish to bring to the attention of the august House that our fishermen have access to visit the Island for rest, for drying of nets and for the annual St. Anthony’s Festival, and that the rights do not cover fishing around Kachchatheevu Island,” he had said.
Krishna had further noted, “We will have to also bear in mind the fact that as per the Agreements we have concluded with Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976, Kachchatheevu Island lies on the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary line. These agreements were laid before the Parliament. Therefore, as far as the Government of India is concerned, the issue of the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka, and consequently, that of sovereignty over Kachchatheevu Island is a settled matter.”
The waters off Kachchatheevu Island is an important fishing area used by fishermen from both countries.
However, under the treaty agreement of 1974, Indian fishermen have rights to the fishing grounds around Kachchatheevu in the Sri Lankan territorial waters and could attend the feast at the St. Anthony’s shrine on the island.
Although movements of the Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen were restricted during the period of the war, the situation has now eased with the end of the war in 2009.
The Sri Lankan government meanwhile has opted to ignore the South Indian agitation over Kachchatheevu’s ownership.
Government Spokesperson, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella noted that Kachchatheevu was a political issue raised by some South Indian politicians.