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Sri Lankan President’s Visit to New Delhi: Economic and Political Dimension

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Sri Lankan President’s Visit to New Delhi: Economic and Political Dimensions
Ashik Bonofer*



Mahinda Rajapakse, the President of Sri Lanka, will arrive in New Delhi on a three day state visit on Tuesday, June 8, 2010. The visit synchronises with a massive publicity campaign launched by the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, British Broadcasting Corporation. The Time and the Economist carrying reports that during the last days of Eelam War IV the Sri Lankan Army committed horrendous crimes against the Tamil civilian population. They naturally demanded that the Sri Lankan President and others responsible for the genocide should be brought to book by the international community.

A year after the decimation of the Tigers, Mahinda Rajapakse has emerged as the strongest executive head in the post independent history of Sri Lanka. The massive mandate received in the Presidential election was followed by a thumping victory in the parliamentary polls. The United National Party performed badly, what is more, there is simmering discontent within the party ranks against the leadership of Ranil Wikramasinghe. The Sinhala radical organisation, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, despite Sarat Fonseka’s support, did not perform well, the reason being the thunder from the JVP was stolen by Mahinda Rajapakse. The overwhelming majority of Tamils, numbed by the turn of events, and disenchanted with government policies, did not exercise their franchise. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has emerged as a credible political force in the north and the east, has yet to put its house in order; it has yet to articulate its policies and programmes relevant to the post- LTTE era. It has yet to open its branches in different parts and enthuse its cadres for the work lying ahead.

Mahinda Rajapakse is jubilant that he has been successful in thwarting the attempts made by the Western countries to condemn Sri Lanka for human rights violations and isolate it in the United Nations. With the support of China, Pakistan, Libya and unfortunately even India, Sri Lanka was able to emerge without much damage to its prestige. Colombo hopes that the appointment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (packed with President’s nominees) would enable Colombo to neutralise and finally win over the support of the United States and European Union. The appointment of Prof. GL Pieris as the Minister for Foreign Affairs is an important step in this direction. Articulate and suave, Prof. Peiris can undo the recent damage by projecting his government as a much misunderstood and much maligned victim of international propaganda. He will use his persuasive skills to make the international community believe that Sri Lanka is making sincere efforts to uphold the rule of law, bring about ethnic reconciliation and launch a massive development programme.

While at the official level, President Mahinda Rajapakse will get a red carpet welcome in New Delhi, sections of Indian media, opposition parties and human rights organisations are of the view that the Machiavellian President will go back on all promises that he will be making to the Government of India. He will naturally capitalise on New Delhi’s apprehensions about the growing influence of China and Pakistan in Sri Lanka. It is also interesting to note another significant development in the island. The JVP has been split and one section is an ally of the Government, while another section is in the opposition. Those JVP members, who are with the Government, have also recently spoken about the dangers of New Delhi extending its economic stranglehold over Sri Lanka. This point of view has also the support of powerful business interests. President Mahinda Rajapakse will adroitly use this domestic constituency to postpone and delay the implementation of several projects which New Delhi is keen to implement.

The media in Sri Lanka has speculated that the President’s visit would lead to the signing of five agreements, namely 1) Agreement to fight terrorism jointly; 2) Agreement for transfer of sentenced prisoners; 3) Agreement for mutual legal assistance in criminal matters; 4) Agreement relating to enhanced cultural co-operation and 5) Agreement on Indian assistance to small and medium development projects.

In order to understand the prospects and hurdles of economic co-operation, it is necessary to keep in mind certain realities. India and Sri Lanka signed the Free Trade Agreement in 1998, since then the trade between the two countries have expanded multi-fold. Based on the successes and shortfalls of this agreement, India and Sri Lanka started negotiating on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) since 2003. This agreement was expected to be signed during the current visit of the President to India. As mentioned earlier, there is growing opposition to this agreement from powerful sections in the Sri Lankan establishment. According to well known Sri Lanka watchers the President and the ruling establishment are encouraging these dissenting voices, in order to use it as leverage against India. Take the case of the Sampur power plant. It was in the cards for past few months and has not seen the light of the day because of the financial bickering between the NTPC and the Ceylon Electricity Board. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the Norocholai plant that was established with the support of China is moving fast towards the implementation of the second phase, construction is yet to commence in the Sampur plant. The blame game between the two countries has stalled one of the largest Indian investments in Sri Lanka. The only silver lining in the area of business cooperation is the establishment of Airtel in Sri Lanka and possible oil exploration by Cairn Lanka limited, a subsidiary of Cairn India Limited, in the Mannar Basin.

On the political front, the resettlement and rehabilitation of over 80,000 Tamils living in IDP camps will naturally be a subject matter of discussion. While the Sri Lankan Government also voices it concern for these people, there have always been a disconnect in numbers shown by the international agencies and the Sri Lankan Government. Many Sri Lanka watchers feel that rehabilitation of IDPs was never a top priority for the President. Even those who have been rehabilitated are living in shacks without water, sanitation and employment opportunities. A less known fact about the IDPs should be highlighted here. A substantial number of IDPs in Manik Farm camps are Tamils of Indian origin who migrated to Northern Province from hill country from mid-1960’s onwards. They became landless labourers for Sri Lankan Tamil landlords and when the ethnic conflict started they became a buffer between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE guerrillas. Their sad plight has not attracted the attention of either Colombo or New Delhi. New Delhi should raise this subject with Colombo and ensure that these unfortunate children of Mother India are properly rehabilitated with employment opportunities, identity cards and citizenship papers.

Next on the cards will be the issue of political solution. It is clear the 13th Amendment has become defunct and outdated. The merger of the north and the east has been undone by judicial decision, Mahinda Rajapakse has made it clear that police powers will not be devolved to the provinces and what is more saddening, Sinhalese settlement in Tamil areas has started in a big way. The proposal to expand the armed forces and establish cantonments in the Tamil areas will further reduce the Tamil population in their heartland. And, therefore, any verbal assurance on the part of Colombo that the13th amendment will be the basis of political solution goes against political realities. Then what is the need of the hour? Before his visit to India, the Sri Lankan President invited the Tamil parties for a meeting and assured them that he would work on a political solution. The President has been repeating this mantra several times during recent years. He used the Fourth Eelam War as an excuse to delay a political solution. The war has ended, but the political solution is not in sight. Nobody today speaks of the All Party Recommendation Committee (APRC) that was formed to work out a political solution. One cannot escape the conclusion that the Tamil struggle for justice and equality, has been pushed back by several years.

The present visit of the President should be made use of for finding solutions to some of the pressing problems facing Tamil minorities. These include the following: 1) Tamils in camps should be properly rehabilitated and resettled in their place of origin. 2) Creation of employment opportunities for the Tamils in the Northern Province. Companies that invest in Northern Province should give preference to Tamils in employment. Indian companies that invest in Sri Lanka can take the lead by employing war victims. 3) The Sri Lankan Government should be persuaded to allow humanitarian agencies to carry on their noble work among the IDPs and war affected. 4) The President should be persuaded to come out with a time bound plan for political solution. 5) India cannot afford to have an alienated Tamil minority in its southern neighbourhood, and, therefore, the most important task before New Delhi is to bring together Colombo and the Tamils and work an honourable solution to the problems of nation building, New Delhi should be in touch with democratic Tamil parties in Sri Lanka and try to work out areas of understanding between Tamils and Colombo.

* Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai.