Having taken the co-chairs of donor countries, the USA, Norway, European Union and Japan, who had pledged $ 4.5 billion aid to Sri Lanka, for a ride, President Mahinda Rajapksa is all set to smother Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with his charm when the two leaders meet in New Delhi on 27 November. His job is made all the more easy by the clutch of ?advisers? surrounding the Prime Minister.
At the end of the meeting of representatives of the Co-Chairs in Washington on 21 November, R Nicholas Burns, US Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, said on behalf of his country: ?We have faith in the government and in the President of Sri Lanka. They do want to make peace. We also believe that the LTTE is a terrorist group responsible for massive bloodshed in the country and we hold the Tamil Tigers responsible for much of what has gone wrong in the country. We are working with Sri Lanka as a partner in counter-terrorism as well as counter-proliferation. We do have an assistance programme for that government, in fact a very intensive one and we intend to continue that of course.?
Despite stringent peace conditionalities attached to $ 4.5 billion pledged by the donor countries, including $ one billion by India, at the meeting of representatives in Tokyo in 2003, and the steady escalation of the war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces in the last 12 months of Rajapaksa rule, the bulk of this pledged amount has already been disbursed to Colombo, admitted Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese representative, at the Washington meeting. The Sri Lankan government has interpreted the outcome of the Washington meeting as endorsement of its policy of military action against the LTTE in the interest of national security.?
Keheliya Rambukwella, the government`s defence spokesman, said in Colombo ?the Co-Chair`s deliberation vindicated the government`s position that it had the right to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.? This ?right to defend? certainly does not include indiscriminate bombing of Tamil areas inflicting heavy casualty on civilians.
With a perennial smile on his face, Rajapaksa has so far succeeded in convincing the world that he is a man dedicated to peace but has been drawn into this war by the intransigent Tamil Tigers, and went about quietly demolishing whatever gains the Tamils have made through prolonged negotiations with the Sinhala leaders since Independence. The one solid achievement of India since it was drawn, willy-nilly into the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict in 1983, was the merger of the Northern and the Eastern provinces, traditional homeland of the Tamils, by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 when JRD Jayawardene was the President. Every President who succeeded him has honoured this international treaty. Rajapaksa, who wanted to undo this merger, instigated the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana, his electoral ally, to challenge the merger in the Supreme Court and got the expected order to de-merge the two provinces. The Supreme Court order is based purely on technical grounds. Chief Justice Sarath N Silva, presiding over a five-member all-Sinhala Bench, struck down the merger on the ground that it was effected through a Presidential decree under the Emergency Regulations rather than a parliamentary Act. The merger was a longstanding demand of Tamils of all shades of opinion seeking a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka to solve the ethnic crisis. The opposition United National Party wedded to finding a federal solution, offered support for a parliamentary Act to make the merger permanent. Rajapaksa ignored the offer and missed a golden opportunity.
The root cause for the intractable ethnic problem Sri Lanka has been facing since independence is the transfer of 100 per cent political power to the Sinhala people who constitute only 70 per cent of the population and leaving the remaining 30 per cent, the bulk of whom are ethnic Tamils, to fend for themselves and be at the mercy of the Sinhala politicians. If only the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the two main parties which had been in power alternately, had adopted a bi-partisan approach to the ethnic issue, Sri Lanka by now would have taken its place among the South Asian economic giants like Singapore and Malaysia instead of bleeding to near death in the last 23 years of armed conflict. It is the donor nations that are keeping the country afloat.
Every time the party in power came out with a workable solution, the party in opposition scuttled it. It happened in 1957 when the SLFP Prime Minister, S W R D Bandaranaike, reached an agreement with S J V Chelvanayakam, unchallenged leader of the entire Tamil community and a great believer of Gandhian methods of solving political problems like Satyagraha and peaceful agitation, the UNP led a country-wide violent agitation forcing Bandaranaike to tear up the agreement. Similarly, when the UNP Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake entered into power sharing with the Tamils and invited their Federal Party to join his government as a coalition partner, the SLFP opposed it tooth and nail and forced Senanayake to renege on his agreement with the Tamil party. It happened again in 1987, by which time Sri Lanka had adopted the Presidential form of government. President J R D Jayawardene of the UNP signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi providing, among other things, for the merger of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces and devolution of power to the Tamils so that the country`s unity and integrity were preserved, the SLFP, which was in the opposition, launched a countrywide agitation against the accord, culminating in the de-merger of the two Tamil provinces by Rajapaksa, albeit under the pretext of the Supreme Court order.
In between, the SLFP President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, came forward with a package in 1995, considered by far the best by a Sinhala politician, but the UNP refused to co-operate for its safe passage in Parliament. It was in such a grim background that Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the UNP, came forward boldly and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with President Rajapaksa for a two-year period ?extending support to the government in the persuit of a negotiated settlement to the on-going conflict while opposing terrorism in all its manifestations and upholding human rights.? Although the MoU was signed on 23 October, there is no sign of any concrete steps to seize this rare opportunity and move forward towards a peaceful settlement of the ethnic problem. Instead, he has appointed yet another all-party conference to arrive at a consensus.
?Basis for talks?
The chairman of the All-Parties Representative Conference (APRC), Tissa Vitarana, said: ?We will as quickly as possible try to reach a final consensus and come out with a common position which can be the basis of talks with all parties concerned to work out a lasting negotiated settlement to the national question.? What the ethnic minorities need is not finding out ?basis for talks? but a set of concrete proposals. Tamil Nadu is getting impatient with the dilatory tactics of the Sri Lanka government as Rajapaksa arrives in New Delhi on his second visit on 25 November to convince Manmohan Singh that all is well in Serendip which is anything but serene. Foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon who was deputed to Colombo on Thursday to hold preparatory talks with Rajapaksa was told in polite but firm tone not to press for devolving autonomy for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and that Colombo was getting tired of India`s impatience. Meanwhile, exodus of Tamils from war-torn North-Eastern Province of Sri Lanka into Tamil Nadu is gathering momentum, straining the resources of the state government. New Delhi has a responsibility to stop this flow of refugees which can be achieved only if Rajapaska is persuaded to stop the war and offer the Tamils an autonomous province by re-merging the Northern and the Eastern Provinces.