MonitorsPublished on Oct 15, 2010
Though the Delhi visit of President Rajapaksa was CW Games-centric, it also caused raising of eyebrows in the strategic community in New Delhi, wondering if the re-elected President, who is scheduled to visit China later this month, is seeking to strike a parity in bilateral relations with the two Asian giants.
Sri Lanka: Taking the momentum forward
< class="heading1">Analysis

By choosing to visit New Delhi for the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa may have set a healthy precedent in updating the Indian neighbours on issues of mutual concern, both of the political and bilateral fronts. Coming as it did after his State visit in June, the occasion provided an opportunity for the two Governments to review and update each other on issues discussed at the earlier summit. Be it on the three R's of rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation on the ethnic front, or on bilateral issues like Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CEPA), much improvement does not seem to have been made on the ground. Reading between the lines from published accounts, the Indian team led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems to have brought this to the notice of the Sri Lankan delegation.

Of immediate concern to India should be the slow progress made on the ethnic front. In June, for instance, the Sri Lankan Government had committed to complete the rehabilitation of the IDPs by December. At the current summit, it indicated that a month more would be required for the purpose. Not that a month is too long for the purpose considering the enormity of the task on hand, but considering that earlier deadlines set also by Colombo for the purpose, genuine concerns, particularly from southern Tamil Nadu, did have some meaning. Independent of President Rajapaksa's visit, and without notice about the same, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi had taken up the issue with ruling UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi at the Centre, during her brief stop-over at the Chennai Airport earlier in the month. Considering that Tamil Nadu is home still to tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, the concerns were not wholly misplaced. Nor could they be dismissed as centred exclusively on the Assembly polls that are due in the State by May next.

On the political solution, President Rajapaksa seems keen on his earlier outlined strategy of wanting to involve all the stake-holders in the negotiations process. As External Affairs Minister G L Peiris outlined in various public occasions in New Delhi, starting with the Second R K Mishra Memorial Lecture organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF), President Rajapaksa had already held talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the single largest Tamil party in Sri Lankan Parliament with 13 of the 14 elected MPs still sticking together. Peiris explained that they Government had to slow down the process until TNA leader R Sampanthan returned to Colombo from Chennai, where he was undergoing medical treatment. Now with Sampanthan returning to Colombo the very day President Rajapaksa landed in Delhi -- it was a mere coincidence -- Minister Peiris hoped that progress would be made on this score, starting with a fresh look at the Thirteenth Amendment on power-devolution, based on the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. Peiris also referred to the democratisation and representation process in the Tamil areas, and said that fresh elections would be held first to the local government institutions, followed by those to the Northern Provincial Council, as was the case with the Eastern Province, earlier. Independent of political perceptions and electoral results, such an opportunity would definitely give the Sri Lankan Tamil community to identify a broad-spectrum second-line political leadership, which had remained absent or sidelined during the long and terrifying tenure of the LTTE.

Seeking parity with China relations?

The Games-centric visit of President Rajapaksa came only weeks before he assumed office for a second term, following his re-election in January. Yet, in the context of his upcoming China visit, for the Shanghai Expo, later in the month, it also caused eyebrows to raise in the strategic community in New Delhi if he was seeking to strike a parity in bilateral relations with the two countries. The uncharitable among them may say that such parity could only be a smokescreen for over-enthusiastic Sri Lankan relations with China. Contestable as such a comparison may be, it is also true that throughout much of President Rajapaksa's first term in office, his Government has had a hyphenated relation with the two Asian neighbours, which candidate Rajapaksa had promoted at the cost of existing Sri Lanka ties with the West during the run-up to his election in 2005.

There is no denying Sri Lanka's developmental engagement with China, which has pumped in lots of money into the island-nation in the past years. Nor can Sri Lanka's efforts at putting India at ease on issues of security concern emanating from China be over-looked. The Sri Lankan angle in the context is provided by the southern port of Hambantota being projected as a jewel in the Chinese 'Pearl of Strings', to suffocate India in strategic terms. Colombo may have to acknowledge that seeking parity in bilateral relations may not go far to convince either of the Asian neighbours. Nor would it serve the Sri Lankan cause to try and play politics with each other, to sub-serve its larger cause. This is not to suggest that Sri Lanka has any agenda in the matter at the moment. Yet, just as Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation, whose rights at choosing friends -- if not neighbours -- is not contested by the other two, Colombo needs to acknowledge the limitations in the existing relations between India and China. When and where they decide to erase existing differences and difficulties -- real and imaginary -- neither would require an external interlocutor to bring them together. In this process, Sri Lanka should accept that seeking equidistance as may have been the case in the Sixties is one thing but striking parity is another thing, altogether.

Cooperation and irritants

For all this, however, Minister Peiris repeatedly referred to the improved cooperation between the two countries and the importance that Sri Lanka gave to India relations. He also recalled how India stood by "us in our darkest hour", a reference to the political risk that the Manmohan Singh Government had taken during the last spell of the ethnic war during election time in southern Tamil Nadu. In meetings with Indian Ministers S M Krishna (External Affairs), Home (P Chidambaram) and Kapil Sibal (Human Resource Development), among others, Peiris outlined Sri Lanka's needs and expectations from New Delhi, and obtained commitments in this regard. In particular was the Indian commitment to help Sri Lanka become 'trilingual', the first nation in the world to attempt the same. A pet scheme of President Rajapaksa, it also forms part of a larger scheme of the Sri Lankan Government to make the youth of the nation employable through exposure to English language and IT education. Peiris also repeatedly related to the Indian offer to build 50,000 homes to the war victims in the North and the East, and also to donate 500 tractors with immediate effect for the farmers in the region to revive their agriculture activities to the pre-war scale.

Yet, irritants remained in bilateral ties, as well. At the centre of the controversy could be the CEPA. Minister Peiris recalled how Prime Minister India readily proposed that India would be 'willing to wait' to sign the approved draft until Sri Lanka had prepared itself, and how President Rajapaksa had decided to appoint a committee of corporate CEOs from the country to review the draft agreement to propose changes, where needed. That was in the second half of 2008. Yet, two years down the line, there was no sign of such a committee having been appointed, nor any progress made on the proposal otherwise. The message was clear. Either Sri Lanka would have to decide in favour of CEPA, or say 'No', and explain the consequences to the affected sections nearer home -- for whom everything from food to medicine that needed to be imported would have become cheaper, though at the cost of a higher profit-margin for the local trading community, whose influence over Sri Lankan politics could not be overlooked, either.

It is not as if that the recent months have not witnessed any progress on the bilateral front ? or, there has been any reversal in the era after the conclusion of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka. Both nations have been maintaining multilateral contacts all the time, as President Rajapaksa's June-October visits and Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's Sri Lanka visit in between showed. On the strategic front, India's chiefs of Navy and Army have visited Sri Lanka in recent months, to be followed by that of the Air Force chief in the coming months. Indian naval ships called at Sri Lankan ports recently, and bilateral cooperation in military training has continued. On the maritime front, both sides have been grabbling with the fishermen's issue, which has been a constant source of concern for both sides with possibilities that could undermine the strong bonds at the level of Governments and people. Even as President Rajapaksa was in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games, a high-level Indian team was in Sri Lanka to follow-up on restoring the ferry service between the two countries, promised in the Joint Communique issued at the conclusion of his June visit. These two issues in particular would go a long way in normalizing the situation in southern Tamil Nadu, though a lot will also depend on the kind of rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation efforts at the Sri Lanka end.

Such being the case, the concerns in the Indian strategic community flows not from the intentions of the Sri Lankan Government on all issues ? ethnic, security and economic ? but the way it is getting projected on this side of the Palk Strait. In a media interview in Delhi, Minister Peiris re-asserted that the Sri Lankan soil would not be allowed to be used for any anti-India activities. True as it is, the perceived lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Sri Lankan Government in addressing these issues in a quick and wholesome way, as seen by the Indian strategic community, if not the policy-maker in Delhi, may be at fault. But considering that President Rajapaksa's enthusiasm on matters to which his he has put his heart seems to have become infectious back home, they cannot be faulted if they expect that kind of quick-fire approach to issues of Indian concern, as well!

The writer is Senior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

< class="heading1">Country Reports

Sri Lanka
< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Fonseka appeals against prison term

Retired Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal, seeking to quash the order of Court Martial-II, which convicted and sentenced him to 30 months rigorous imprisonment. In his petition, Fonseka alleged that the tribunal had been biased towards him and he had not been given a fair trial.

The petition had asked for interim relief, by suspending the conviction and the sentence until the final determination of the writ application. even as the political Opposition, particularly Fonseka's DNA and one-time ally JVP, continued to protest against his imprisonment across the country.
Source: The Island, Colombo, October 15, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Govt to ordain more boys

In his capacity as Minister of Buddhasasana, Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne has taken steps to ordain 2,600 boys next year, to coincide with the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha's attaining Enlightenment. In order to overcome the shortage of 4,000 teachers, to teach Buddhism and Buddhist Culture in Government schools, Minister of Education Bandula Gunawardhana is exploring the possibility of recruiting well-experienced young Dhamma school teachers who have passed the Dharmacharya Examination with a good pass at the GCE (A/L) Examination.

Simultaneously, The Education Ministry is also taking efforts to train principals in Government schools in communication English, whose absence has affected their official duties. "Taking thes situation into account, the Government has decided to provide a well-planned spoken English language course for all school principals in the country from next year," an official said, even as External Affairs Minister G L Peiris was exploring in neighbouring India cooperation in the field of trilingualisation of Sri Lanka in the coming yhears.
Source: The Island, Colombo, October 12, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Nasheed backs PP model on health front

President Mohamed Nasheed has reiterated the Government's commitment to corporatise health service delivery and said public-private-partnership is crucial to bring the right efficiency to the health system. Addressing stakeholders on a health analysis report, he referred to health insurance for all and social protection programme as the other two components of a three-pronged strategy.
Source: Miadhu News, October 13, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Votes against islands-consolidation

A high 62 per cent of those who voted in a public referendum on consolidating islands rejected President Mohammed Nasheed's proposal in this regard, in preparation for local government elections. There was also not much enthusiasm in the referendum with only 31 per cent of the 88,882 eligible voters participating in the process.

Likewise, 86 of the 105 islands where referendum took place were opposed to the consolidation plans. Only 19 islands voted in favour of the proposal, according to the figures announced by the Election Commission.

The referendum was called under Article 136 of the Decentralisation Act, which states that islands could be grouped to form constituencies if the respective populations appealed to the President in this regard.
Source: Miadhu Daily, Male, October 12, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Supply route reopened

Torkham's NATO supply route was reopened 10 days after it was blocked in retaliation to NATO air-strikes in Pakistan killing two soldiers. During the closure some of these trucks came under attack from the Taliban forces. According to the US transportation command routes through Pakistan bring in about 40 per cent of the supplies for NATO forces, 40 per cent comes through Afghanistan's northern neighbours and the rest 20 per cent is air-lifted into the designated areas.

The Pakistan Government has described as victory, an apology issued by the US Government .With the upcoming Afghanistan review in December such incidents could indicate the extent to which US would accommodate Pakistan's interests.
Source: Dawn, October 10, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">NRO developments

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has submitted a report of the beneficiaries of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which includes the name of President Asif Zardari. The Supreme Court was to decide whether to just take up the Government's review petition against NRO or to simultaneously take up the implementation of the NRO verdict.

The NAB was briefed of the issue in the light of Chief Justice Chaudhary asking the Government to send a letter to the Swiss authorities, asking them to reopen the cases including the ones involving the President.

The Opposition PML(N) meanwhile has filed an appeal against the appointment of Justice(Retd) Deedar Hussain as the NAB chairman ,who they claim is a PPP sympathizer. Prime Minister Yousuf Gillani however emphasised that the appointment of the NAB chairman was an administrative matter and the President need not necessarily appoint via consultation.

Analysts have suggested a deliberate slowing down of the process to prevent an outright confrontation between the Executive and the Judiciary.
Source: Dawn, October 13, 2010

< class="heading12boldGeorgia">Pakistan Nuclear Programme

Reports appearing in the British and American media have indicated an acceleration of Pakistan's military nuclear programme Based on a report from Washington-based nuclear watchdog ? the Institute for Science and International Security ? satellite images have apparently shown that the cooling towers at Pakistan's secret Khushab-III reactor have been completed.

The reports have also indicated that the plant could begin operation within months, allowing Pakistan to increase its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium substantially. It was also reported that Khushab-III, the latest in a series of reactors built to fuel Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, was located next to Khushab-II which became operational in February.

The Pakistani media however claimed that the western reports were aimed at tarnishing Pakistan's image as a responsible nuclear power. This may have some relevance as the timing of the reports coincided with a proposed Sino-Pakistan engagement on civil nuclear energy. It seems unlikely that Pakistan would act in any way to draw attention to its military nuclear programme at this critical juncture.
Source: Dawn, October 12,2010, The Nation, October 12,2010

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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