Originally Published 2020-02-10 11:25:46 Published on Feb 10, 2020
Where from here 13-A?

At a joint media-meet after talks with visiting Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his nation’s desire for implementing 13-A, signed between the two nations, as far back as 1987 to find the promised post-war political solution to the vexatious ethnic issue. Elsewhere in the Indian capital, PM Rajapaksa announced his Government’s willingness to talk to elected Tamil representatives, and pointed out that it would become possible only after the twin-polls to the nation’s Parliament and also to the Provincial Council. He did not elaborate if the PC poll reference was only to the Tamil-majority North or also included one to the multi-ethnic East, whose merger Tamils back home still insist upon after court-ordered de-merger a decade and more back, in 2006.

“In Sri Lanka, we spoke openly on issues related to reconciliation,” Modi told the global media after the talks. “I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will realize the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within a united Sri Lanka. For this, it will be necessary to carry forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka,,“ he added.

In more than one way, PM Modi’s statement could have been pulled out from the past files of self and his predecessors, from the very day slain predecessor Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord with then Sri Lankan President, the late Junius Richard Jayewardene, in 1987. Generally, Indian statements on the subject used to refer to it all only as ‘Tamil aspirations’ in Sri Lanka. This time the phrase has been changed to ‘expectation’…. Again, there is no clear reference to whose ‘aspirations’ they used to be, or whose ‘expectations’ they now are.

If anything has moved on the ground viz 13-A, it is only backwards, not forwards. Sri Lanka’s North and East, one of the key elements of the Accord, implemented through a parliamentary legislation the very same year, is back on the negotiations table, from the Tamil perspective. Neither the majority Sinhala polity, nor this Government, even more so the Sri Lankan State apparatus is enthusiastic or enamoured about reopening the same.

While powers pertaining to Education, a sore-point for the Tamils, and Health and Transport, are still on the Provincial List under 13-A, in reality, National Schools, National Health and the demands of transportation of people and goods have rendered them all irrelevant. If thus, PM Rajapaksa and Government believes that they would talk to elected Tamil representatives after the twin-polls (as he told The Hindu in New Delhi after the official talks), it may well have to begin almost at the beginning.

International trap?

In an interview to theThe Hindustan Times, New Delhi, PM Rajapaksa refused to comment on the Indian Parliament abrogating the ‘special status’ thus far given to the troubled northern State of Jammu & Kashmir, since August last. It was an internal matter of India, he said, acknowledging the official line taken by New Delhi, whenever and wherever foreign interventions have been sought to be made – or, foreign Governments have adversely commented upon the abrogation of Article 370 of the nation’s Constitution.

It is anybody’s guess why successive Governments in Colombo has stuck to such an non-interventionist position on India’s ‘internal matters’ and not take a similar position viz their own ‘internal matters’, which is what the ethnic issue and the conclusive ethnic war was all about. One reason is that the 13-A is already on the statute book and New Delhi’s participation and commitment are acknowledged through the facilitating Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. For the Rajapaksas especially, after Mahinda R’s electoral defeat as incumbent President seeking a third term through the 18-A in 2015, ignoring India’s intent blatantly and brashly may not be on.

The idea thus seems to be for the Sri Lankan Government to let fresh negotiations to run the course. If something good comes out of it, fine, If not, the Tamils could well stand ‘exposed’, or so would it seem from a certain State perspective. If nothing else, Modi’s India is also now well aware of the ground situation as all their predecessors in Delhi, to be able to acknowledge that the ‘India-friendly, Tamil-sympathetic’ predecessor Government too did not and/or could not do anything whatsoever effectively on the ethnic front – as expectations and promises stood, both to nations like India and to the Tamil population ins the country and overseas, too.

The last time substantive talks occurred under the post-war Mahinda regime, the TNA, the latter wated more than 13-A and the Government was not unwilling to offer some, negotiate and/ore re-negotiate some others. The talks faltered when the TNA unwittingly fell into an ‘international trap’ and claimed that they were behind the US and the rest moving the UNHRC on ‘war-crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’.

The successor Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government’s promise of a new Constitution and the setting up of a new Constitution Assembly were a farce from the beginning, It was however the best and more acceptable way to offer the Tamils nothing, against the TNA’s crucial parliamentary support for the Wickremesinghe leadership at critical moments. Their methods wee diametrically opposed to the Rajapaksas’ straight-talk, which got dubbed up to a time and dismissed afterwards as ‘shifting of the goal-post’.

There are issues now, again. As Prime Minister and past master in negotiations with the TNA, whose leadership content and competence too has not changed, Mahinda R, as also his brother and President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, know full well that nothing much would move even if they wanted. As experience has shown, the Government side would discuss the process and proceedings of such negotiations with select few internally and evaluate their posturing and position.

The TNA instead takes instructions from multiple sources and forces. With the result, as with the LTTE, which however had other motives and goals, the TNA could be seen as ‘shifting the goal-post’, time and again. Such problems had bedevilled the Rajapaksa Government’s post-war negotiations with the TNA, which chose a select set of earlier reports and chose selectively from the former’s Tissa Vitharana Report, which after a time, both sides side-stepped, effectively and not always wisely.

The first differences to be thrashed out would thus be over the question if the two negotiations team, whenever constituted, should take into account all past recommendations of previous formations and formulations or start afresh. The TNA could be expected to stick to the Steering Committee Report of the Constitution Assembly, which might well disappear with fresh parliamentary polls, unless re-constituted at the instance of this Prime Minister or another, as the case may be.

Side-stepped or what

In his joint media meet along with counterpart Modi, PM Rajapaksa did not address the latter’s reference to 13-A. Clearly, the Indian side had flagged the same at their talks earlier, and the Sri Lankan response seemed to have been at best perfunctory. The reasons are many and not far to seek. As PM Rajapaksaa told The Hindu, as President he did order PC polls in the Tamil North even while knowing that his undivided SLFP of the time stood to lose – and lose badly.

Whether it was good intention or international pressure or whatever that was behind the Government decision at the time, President Mahinda also invited TNA’s own choice , retired Supreme Court Judge, C V Wigneswaran, as Northern Province Chief Minister, post-poll, and administered the oaths personally, in the place of the local Governor. Surely, the Rajapaksas did not wish for it, but then, as was only to be anticipated, the TNA was busy fighting itself, and Wigneswaran is now fighting the TNA, from outside and not even inside as used to be the case.

Like the last time round, the Rajapaksas need have no illusions about the TNA sweeping the parliamentary polls in the Tamil areas and capturing power in the Northern PC, once more time. There are already multiple claimants to the chief ministerial position. It is unclear if the TNA leadership has matured enough to handle internal affairs of the alliance better than earlier. If not, the Rajapaksa Government would need only to provide internal distractions for the international community, to watch and wait…

The TNA and the international community (read: West) need to acknowledge that political solutions, whether of the 13-A or 13-Plus or 13-Minus kind, and the UNHRC process cannot go together, and they expect any Government in Colombo to fall for it, now or ever. How they are going to delineate the two now that the UNHRC’s session is up later this month, and a more serious one, later in the year, is the question on which they would have to convince not only the Rajapaksa regime, but also the larger Sinhala-South.

Two, and more importantly, how are they going to convince a divided UNP Opposition to back a Government-TNA pact in Parliament, whose approval it would need? In a way, a two-thirds majority for the Rajapaksas-led SLPP-SLFP combine may be the best way for them both to fix the Government side, to any negotiated settlement than otherwise.

This is more so, going by the UNP’s track-record of burning the all-acceptable ‘Chandrika Package’ inside Parliament Chamber, full 20 years back – and still claim to stand by the Tamils. It will be even more so for an UNP under failed presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, who is now the fore-runner not only for party leadership but also its declared prime ministerial nominee for the parliamentary polls. If the Rajapaksas have since moved half way away from the ‘southern Sinhala-Buddhist mind-set’ on the ethnic issue, Premadasa is still very much there, whatever he or his camp may say otherwise.

As a politician of long-standing, Mahinda R is known to understand, appreciate and acknowledge the internal political predicament of those in similar position, both inside and outside the country. As an Indian newspaper reported, PM Modi’s public pronouncements on 13-A after talks with counterpart Rajapaksa, was aimed at addressing his audience in southern Tamil Nadu. Likewise, you can expect the Rajapaksas wanting Modi, India’s most seasoned and trusted politician of our times, in turn, to understand their own internal compulsions on the ethnic front, if and when it came to that.

This commentary originally appeared in Colombo Gazette.

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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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