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minister of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province

PIC: SONIA SARKAR
The war in Sri Lanka may be over, but the battles continue. The 30-year-long civil war in the Northern Province ended five years ago. Yet, for the people of this troubled area, there is no end to the conflict.

“The official war has ended but the unofficial war has just started,” says C.V. Wigneswaran, the province’s first Tamil chief minister.

Four years after the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was wiped out by the Sri Lankan army, elections were held in the war-torn Northern Province of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. Wigneswaran was appointed the CM in the 2013 polls, which was held after 25 years.

The chief minister, who was in Delhi last week to attend the World Hindu Congress, organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, may be looking at informal alliances in India. “There is need of Hindu solidarity as far as the Northern Province is concerned. So I came,” he says in his first interview to an English paper in India after his election.

Many Sri Lanka watchers in India, however, stress that Wigneswaran’s attitude towards India has been ambivalent. For instance, he refused to be part of the Sri Lankan delegation, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May.

“It was nothing against India,” he clarifies. “By asking me to be part of the delegation, Rajapaksa wanted to show the world that we were all together. That was nonsense.”

How does he compare the two leaders of the neighbouring nations? “Modi is like Rama and Rajapaksa is like Ravana,” he laughs. Does he see Modi as a strong leader? “He could be strong but those who are strong need to be humane too. Your humanity shouldn’t be deadly,” he replies.

The chief minister is more direct when asked to comment about the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which have been espousing the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Wigneswaran believes that it’s time they stopped worrying about the Lankan Tamil community.

“There is no need for the political parties in the South to become our spokespersons. Now we are here to voice the issue of Tamils.”

A staunch critic of Rajapaksa, Wigneswaran says that his presidency is no less than a dictatorship. He accuses the government and the army of human rights violations.

The huge presence of the army in the Northern Province is a reason the region is still troubled. “The soldier to civilian ratio in the north is 1:8,” Wigneswaran says. “Acres of lands have been taken by the army to set up camps. There are areas where even I, as chief minister, cannot enter without the permission of the army,” he complains.

He blames the “flawed” 13th Amendment for much of the province’s problem. The amendment was a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed by then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene.

Under this, the “only official with executive powers” is the governor, who is appointed by the President. “Without the governor’s approval, the council and the chief minister are ineffective,” he points out.

He says that there is starvation in some areas of the province, but the government has neither given it funds nor allowed the UN World Food Programme to reach out to the people. He also accuses the government of discriminating against Tamil fishermen who, unlike Sinhalese anglers, are not allowed to use trawlers.

What about the issue of Indian fishermen who are often jailed in Sri Lanka? On Wednesday, Modi thanked Rajapaksa in Kathmandu for releasing five Indian fishermen sentenced to death for drug trafficking.

Wigneswaran is not impressed. “Rajapaksa wants to show the world that he is majestic enough to oblige Modi by releasing the five fishermen,” he says. But the irony, he says, is that three Sri Lankan fishermen, who were also sentenced to death in the same case, have not been pardoned.

Wigneswaran, who calls himself a “reluctant” politician, was a judge in Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court and a fierce critic of Rajapaksa even before he joined politics.

Getting into politics was accidental, he explains. He was persuaded to fight the election five months before the polls by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a conglomeration of five groups – Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi, the Tamil United Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation. The TNA won 30 seats in the 38-member provincial council.

He believes that India should now follow in the footsteps of the European Union and lift the ban on the LTTE. The 75-year-old politician, sitting in his room in a five-star hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri, shrugs off apprehensions voiced by Sri Lankan government officials that giving away too much power to the Tamil-dominated TNA could lead to the resurgence of the LTTE.

“This is nonsense. There has been no activity of violence for five years,” he says.

Wigneswaran believes that Rajapaksa’s popularity is diminishing in Sri Lanka and he predicts that he will face a drubbing in snap polls scheduled for January 8, 2015. Rajapaksa’s fading popularity is evident from the fact that his party won the recent polls in the southeastern province of Uva, but with 21 per cent fewer votes than in 2009. Many members of his government and party, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, have joined the Opposition, unhappy about the concentration of power round Rajapaksa and his family members who hold key positions in the government.

“The Rajapaksa family has taken control of the economy, power and the party in the country. They should go,” he says.

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Sri Lanka has described as “unfortunate” Manmohan Singh’s absence from last month’s Commonwealth meeting in Colombo and denied information about a visit by the Prime Minister announced by finance minister P. Chidambaram last week.

“It was unfortunate that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo,” Sri Lanka’s high commissioner in India Prasad Kariyawasam told The Telegraph over a fortnight after the November 15-17 conclave.

The envoy’s comments come days after Chidambaram told a Chennai conference that the Prime Minister would visit Sri Lanka’s war-scarred northern province of Jaffna.

Chidambaram had mentioned no dates for Singh’s visit at the conference, whose theme was “Sri Lankan Tamils’ right to livelihood and India’s stand”. The finance minister had, however, justified as “wise” the Prime Minister’s decision to skip the Commonwealth (CHOGM) meeting and send foreign minister Salman Khurshid instead.

But high commissioner Kariyawasam termed Singh’s decision an “opportunity lost”. He said not only would have Singh’s presence at the CHOGM been widely applauded, he would have also had the chance to see the “enormous progress” in the work done with Indian help in the northern province of Jaffna that is home to Tamils.

“The progress we have made in the northern province with Indian help is enormous. Had the PM visited Jaffna for CHOGM, he would have been able to see it himself. It would have helped the India-Sri Lanka partnership and the reconciliation process further. It was an opportunity lost,” Kariyawasam said. The envoy said the Lankan government had no information about any forthcoming visit by Singh.

Sources said Colombo had got an impression that it was Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony who persuaded the Prime Minister not to attend the meeting to protest alleged rights violations of Tamils in the civil war with the LTTE and its aftermath.

Pressure had also come from Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, who repeatedly urged Singh to stay away, and an Assembly resolution calling on the Centre to boycott the CHOGM meet.

But Colombo voiced dismay. “It is sad that Manmohan Singh succumbed to internal pressures without thinking about the long-standing relationship between the two countries,” a senior official in the Sri Lankan high commission here said.

A diplomat in Delhi said President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “highly disappointed”. “When heads of all states were arriving at CHOGM, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got the biggest applause. This applause would have gone to Singh if he had attended the meeting because he would have appeared as the tallest leader of the region who did not succumb to any internal pressure,” the diplomat said.

Speaking at the Chennai conference, Chidambaram said Singh would during the forthcoming trip meet the newly elected chief minister of the northern province, C.V. Wigneswaran, who had invited Singh earlier to visit Jaffna.

But some parties in Sri Lanka are not happy about Singh’s proposed visit. John Amaratunga, a senior leader of the main Opposition United National Party, is opposed to it because Singh did not attend the Commonwealth meet.

Other Sri Lankan officials said India’s leverage on the island nation had been reduced. “Now, we will not feel obliged to do things India tells us to do. For example, we conducted the northern province elections because Congress leaders here (in India) persuaded us to do so. We are afraid we will not have such negotiations with this (UPA II) government in the future,” a Sri Lankan official said.

Sri Lanka conducted the provincial polls in north in September after 25 years according to the 13th Amendment, which was a byproduct of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987 and focused on the devolution of powers to provinces. Since the conflict in Jaffna ended in 2009 after LTTE chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan Army, there have been allegations that the Rajapaksa government has engaged in toruture and killings of the Tamil minority.

Widespread protest by human right actvists worldwide also provoked British Prime Minister David Cameron to demand that the Sri Lankan government order an independent inquiry on war crimes by March next year.  But Colombo is defiant about not accepting deadlines from Cameron.

“We do not accept deadlines from other countries. Deadlines in democracies are determined only by their own people,” Kariyawasam said.

“We require time and space to solve issues. External interference is counter productive. It can vitiate the carefully nurtured reconciliation process. The current excessive international attention by some parties in the West and in Tamil Nadu is a product of a campaign by Tamil separatist elements who are determined to bring disrepute to Sri Lanka and to get even with Sri Lanka for defeating the separatist LTTE,” he added.

 

But Sri Lanka has started counting the number of people dead, wounded or missing in the civil war.  “We are doing it primarily because it was a recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Government in 2010,” Kariyawasam clarified.

( A shorter version of the story appeared in The Telegraph, December 5,2013)

Lanka regrets Singh cancellation

Sri Lanka’s move to review — and perhaps repeal — the 13th amendment to its constitution has sent India in a tizzy.

It seems India’s troubles with its neighbours will never cease. Even as Pakistan keeps up the pressure on the line of control, another neighbour, Sri Lanka, seems to be gearing up to make India uncomfortable. In Sri Lanka’s case, the issue is a legal one — albeit something that is the internal matter of that country.

Sri Lanka has formed a Parliament select committee to review the 13th amendment to its Constitution. A product of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, signed between former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene in 1987, the 13th amendment created provincial councils in Sri Lanka. There was devolution of powers related to land, police, health, education,finances, tax collection, housing and construction to the provincial councils, which were to work on the model of India’s state governments. The amendment came into being mainly to safeguard the interests and rights of Tamils who were agitating for self-determination and separate statehood in the northern province of Jaffna. The accord also made Tamil, along with Sinhala, one of the official languages of the country.

Needless to say, India is concerned about the possibility of Sri Lanka doing away with the amendment as that may impact the interests of ethnic Tamils in the country. Especially as provincial polls are going to be held in September after 25 years.

But Sri Lanka feels that the 13th amendment has lost its relevance today. “When Sri Lanka was a conflict state, the 13th amendment was thought to be a solution. But we have peace now. This is the time for reconciliation, reconstruction and development,” says Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lankan high commissioner to India.

Sources in the Sri Lankan government too assert that the provincial council system was “forced on Sri Lanka” by an external power like India. Hence, doing away with it would be the best option.

But that argument doesn’t go down well with India. “Sri Lanka’s 13th amendment is a constitutional provision. So we want the Lankan government to wait till the provincial councils come into being. We want to ensure that it follows a political process for deciding the fate of 13th amendment,” says a ministry of external affairs (MEA) official, adding that the decision to dilute or repeal the provision should take place only after the September elections.

But strategic affairs experts say that Sri Lanka is ignoring this plea, leading to huge embarrassment for India. “It would be a slap on India’s face if Sri Lanka dilutes or repeals the 13th amendment,” says V. Suryanarayan, former director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. “India should pursue this harder as it has to live up to the commitment that it has made to the Tamils in Sri Lanka that it cares for them,” he says.

Experts say that there is a conflict of interest between India and Sri Lanka over the 13th amendment. India thinks this is the best mechanism to safeguard the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka while the latter is clearly not convinced.

“It is not sacrosanct since we have run into problems in implementing the provisions relating to land and police powers,” says Kariyawasam.

Many say that the 13th amendment was drafted in a way that control in most affairs related to land and police remained in the hands of the central government. As it stands now, land is a provincial subject as all rights related to land tenure, transfer and alienation of land use and settlement are enjoyed by the provinces. But there is a national land commission set up by the central government that formulates policy with regard to land use. And the 13th amendment states that the powers shall be exercised by the provincial councils with due regard to the national policy.

The situation is the same in the case of police powers. Public order and the exercise of police powers related to law and order is supposed to be under the provinces, but not national security.

In fact, the Sri Lankan government now seems to want to do away with the powers related to land and police that were given to the provinces. “A dominant section of the United People’s Freedom Alliance government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa feels that since the limited police and land powers vested with the provinces were not practically implemented, there should be a move to devolve only the implementable portions,” says N. Manoharan, a Delhi-based independent researcher.

Experts also say that the Lankan government wants to do away with the 13th amendment before the provincial elections in September because it fears that if the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) comes into power, the latter will demand that the 13th amendment be implemented in full.

Kariyawasam won’t admit that the TNA is a cause of worry. But, he says, “Our provincial councils have not matured enough to handle the full range of police powers. We fear that these powers could be misused.”

However, the Government of India too has its compulsions in seeing to it that Sri Lanka does not follow through on its move to ditch the 13th amendment. Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh twice to urge Sri Lanka not to repeal or dilute the amendment. And last month Singh assured her that India was serious about the devolution of political powers to ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and would ensure that they were “masters of their own destiny within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.”

Naturally, the powers that be in Sri Lanka resent India’s position on this. “India is trying to pacify its local Tamil political parties by creating a noise about this. There is an impression in Sri Lanka that India is meddling too much into our internal matters,” says a senior Sri Lankan government official.

But the Indian government refutes these allegations. “There is no internal pressure,” insists an MEA official.

But experts say that if Sri Lanka does dilute or repeal the 13th amendment, Lankan Tamils might be greatly aggrieved. “The disgruntlement may lead to conflict in the north again. And it is India’s responsibility to see that there is no new trouble in the neighbourhood,” says P. Sahadevan of South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

So India is clearly caught between a rock and a hard place here — putting pressure on Sri Lanka will be construed as meddling in its internal affairs and not doing so will be treated as a reluctance to safeguard the interests of Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamils. It remains to be seen how the Indian government tackles the problem.

Lanka’s Legal Salvo



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  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...