New chapter for Sri Lanka

One hopes that after winning a bitter ethnic conflict against the LTTE, Mr Rajapaksa will demonstrate that statesmanship lies in winning enduring peace through devolution of powers

Over a quarter of a century has elapsed since Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inked the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in a strife-torn Colombo on July 29, 1987.

The accord devolved powers to a Tamil-dominated north-eastern province, while providing for a referendum in the multi-ethnic eastern province to determine whether its people wished to stay together with the Tamil-dominated north. The accord devolved far greater powers, like administration of land, agreeing to have a police force of its own, use of Tamil as an official language, etc to an elected provincial Assembly in the north than the powers Sri Lankan Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelavanayakam was able to secure in agreements he signed with Prime Ministers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Dudley Senanayake in 1957 and 1965.
In the 1965 accord, Sri Lankan Tamils agreed to the devolution of limited powers to district councils, with the use of Tamil permitted in district courts. In the 1987 accord, the powers delegated to provincial councils and chief ministers exceeded those of state legislatures in India in certain areas of economic activity. Moreover, Tamil was accorded the status of a second official language in Sri Lanka.
After having agreed to abide by the accord, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam founder and chief Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran chose to embark on an orgy of violence against the Sinhala population in the east, which would have led to an extremist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna takeover of the island and uncontrollable violence against Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere.
It became clear that Prabhakaran was unwilling to abide by democratic norms and face fellow Tamils in scheduled elections. A crackdown by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force followed, accompanied thereafter by elections to the provincial council, which were won by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front.
A quarter of a century after these elections, the dastardly assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE and the untold suffering of people across Sri Lanka, elections are again being held in Sri Lanka’s northern province on September 21.
India has worked steadfastly in the recent past to ensure that elections are held in the northern province, and that in keeping with assurances of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, powers devolved to the Provincial Assembly under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lanka Constitution, enacted after the July 1987 Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene accord, are not diluted.
There are powerful voices within the Sri Lankan government seeking to deprive the provincial chief minister of police powers and powers on lands. Sri Lankan concerns about arming a Tamil police force in the north can be addressed through the vast powers the provincial governor and the President wield on national security and by the presence of Union armed forces and Navy in the north.
Moreover, while there were concerns in devolving powers on lands in the multi-ethnic eastern province, it is strange that these concerns are now being raised only in the northern province and not elsewhere. The Tamil demand in the 1980s for merger of the northern and eastern provinces is no longer relevant, given the fact that Tamils are a minority in the eastern province and the Muslims and Sinhalas oppose a merger, thanks to past LTTE excesses.
There have been efforts to dilute the powers of the chief minister of the northern province, primarily by members of the ruling party, by referring the issue to a parliamentary select committee, which at present includes an overwhelming number of members from the ruling coalition.
The select committee has been boycotted for different reasons by the principal Opposition — the United National Party, the Sinhala chauvinist JVP and the Tamil National Alliance. The Sri Lanka Muslim Conference, with a presence in the northern province, has opposed any dilution of provincial powers.
One hopes that after winning a bitter ethnic conflict against a terrorist group like the LTTE, Mr Rajapaksa will demonstrate that statesmanship lies in winning enduring peace through devolution of powers and moves to promote national reconciliation.
Sri Lanka will be hosting the Commonwealth Summit — which traditionally discusses issues ranging from democracy, good governance, gender equality and human rights to multilateral trade and international peace and security — on November 15-17.
While announcing the elections, the Sri Lankan government has declared that it is closing down 13 military camps in the northern province. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is under pressure not to attend the summit. He would be well advised not to yield to this pressure as the summit provides an opportunity to get international support for India’s position on developments in Sri Lanka.
Dr Singh should use his presence at the summit to ensure that the Commonwealth leaders jointly obtain a commitment from Mr Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka will abide by commitments under the 1987 accord to devolve powers to the northern and eastern provinces. This is essential to pre-empt any future moves in Sri Lanka after the summit to erode powers devolved to the chief minister and the provincial legislature.
Civil wars across the world are invariably bloody and brutal. What is important is to promote reconciliation after the conflict ends. South Africa demonstrated unique statesmanship by establishing a “Peace and Reconciliation Commission” after the war against apartheid.
Sri Lanka should ensure that it faithfully implements recommendations by its “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”. India is providing generous assistance for rehabilitation of those affected by ethnic conflict and for improving communications with the northern province.
It would be useful if commercial organisations in Tamil Nadu like Spice Jet, which have commercial interests in Sri Lanka, contribute to the effort of reviving economic development and educational facilities for the people of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Economic empowerment of the people of the northern provinces should be a long-term objective.
In the meantime, the continuing disputes over fishing rights between fishermen of Tamil Nadu and their Tamil brethren in northern Sri Lanka need to be managed amicably. Possessing more modern fishing equipment than their counterparts in Sri Lanka, fishermen from Tamil Nadu will soon denude the waters across the northern Sri Lankan coastline of their remaining fishery resources. Wisdom demands a comprehensive dialogue, facilitated and backed by governments in New Delhi, Chennai and Colombo, between fishermen of the two sides to seek and obtain international assistance for undertaking deep sea fishing across the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The writer is a former diplomat who was Indian consul-general in Karachi and Indian high commissioner to Australia

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