India and Sri Lanka’s National Problem

by Rajan Philips

The recent meeting in New Delhi between the Indian Prime Minister and TNA MPs has led to a great deal of speculation among Sri Lankan pundits. The Indian Government’s rejection for a similar meeting some months ago had led to opposing speculations at that time.

[TNA parlimentarians with Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh]

It is not difficult to see the pattern here. The government and the LTTE spokespeople tend to welcome only India’s statements and signals that are favourable to their respective benefactors. Conversely, they will ignore or even denounce anything that is unfavourable to their sides.

Thus the LTTE is programmed to ignore India’s condemnation of that organization’s human rights record and India’s assertion that the solution to Sri Lanka’s National Problem should be within the island’s territorial unity. Equally, the government advocates euphorically welcome India’s every snub of the LTTE but turn a deaf ear when India insists that no solution to the National Problem is possible within the island’s current unitary constitution.

Recently, there have been several criticisms against India’s concern over the de-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces as the merger of the two provinces, albeit “temporarily,” is a fundamental feature of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. India has been variously accused of interfering, of being disrespectful to the Supreme Court of a small country, and of deliberately ignoring other unfulfilled aspects of the 1987 Agreement — especially the disarmament of the LTTE.

Twenty year regression

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the 1987 Agreement. Rather than picking on India, the political leaders and pundits on all sides in Sri Lanka should reflect on the thoroughly depressing fact that after twenty years the country is back in the same situation, if not worse, as in 1987.

The significance of the 1987 Agreement was that India rescued the Sri Lankan State which at that time was lapsing into a permanent state of dysfunction. India’s obligations under the Agreement were to (1) insure the territorial unity of Sri Lanka and permanently puncture the extremist Tamil dream of dividing the island; and (2) facilitate a process of power devolution in Sri Lanka to resolve the Tamil problem based on the Provincial Councils system. India delivered on both counts and has been consistent in its positions since.

India went further and brought in the Indian Peace Keeping Force at the request of President Jayewardene, something it had not anticipated that it would be called upon to do, to contain and militarily neutralize the LTTE. Two years later, in 1989, India pulled the Peace Keeping Force out of Sri Lanka when ordered to do so by President Premadasa. Adding grievous injury after Premadasa’s insult, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu in 1991.

In between, the implementation of the Agreement was tested and thwarted by extremists on both sides — the JVP, the LTTE, and senior Ministers (Premadasa and Athulathmudali) in the Jayewardene government, all the while acting in collusion with each other. It did not take long, after Jayewardene retired and the IPKF left, for these colluders to turn on each other. The JVP and the LTTE are the main survivors from these costly feuds. Objectively, their current agendas seem to be mutually reinforcing.

The principal beneficiary of the Agreement, President Jayewardene, himself was cautious at best and reluctant at worst in delivering his side of the bargain. He managed to get the Thirteenth Amendment to enable the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement, through the Courts and the Legislature, but his successor, President Premadasa, saw to it that theses changes would be a non-starter in the two Provinces they were most intended for.

The upshots of shenanigans

The upshot of these shenanigans was the emergence of the LTTE as the sole armed adversary of the Sri Lankan government. The sequence and impacts of these political developments are conveniently ignored in the legal and punditry arguments that are now being made linking the de-merging of the Northern and Eastern Provinces to the failure to disarm the LTTE.

They also ignore the reversibility of this argument. For instance, cannot the LTTE claim that remerging the two Provinces should precede any talk about decommissioning its weapons? To say that the LTTE cannot make such a claim because its activities are illegal only begs the political question.

To its credit, the Supreme Court, in ruling that the two Provinces could not be kept merged by a Presidential executive order without legislative authority, did not preclude the legislature from acting to revalidate the merger. Only, the Sri Lankan government has now decided to pursue a different political path, and given the professions to friendly bilateral relations between the two countries India cannot be faulted for expressing its concern over its neighbour’s deviation in direction.

That said, the situation in the Eastern Province is very different now and a great deal more complex than it was in 1987. This is due in no small measure to the political shenanigans that pitted the Muslims against the Tamils, and the LTTE’s blunder of viciously alienating the Muslims. A new politico-spatial solution has to be found within the principles of devolution that predicated the Agreement of 1987, and to address the experiential concerns of the Muslims of the Eastern Province. There is no point in pretending that the problem has been solved by administratively de-linking the two Provinces.

The way ahead

India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, during his recent visit to Colombo, has reiterated the now commonplace advice to the government and the LTTE to pursue a political solution through dialogue rather than prolonging the island’s misery by continuing to fight to the ever elusive finish. The proven failure of the latter approach is hard to ignore.

Worse, to persist in this madness is a shameful abdication of responsibility by Sri Lankan government and LTTE leaders. It is nothing but disgraceful to have the UN in Washington raising alarms on behalf of Sri Lankan civilians who are being killed, maimed, or displaced in the aerial, artillery and human bombings carried out by the government forces and the LTTE.

On Wednesday (January 10) President Bush made his last speech of consequence, announcing an expansion of the American forces in Iraq as a prelude to its eventual withdrawal, with or without victory. A day earlier in New York, Senator Edward Kennedy had in anticipation eviscerated the Bush’s new ‘Vietnamisation approach’ that President Johnson began and Nixon built on, to America’s great grief.

President Bush is not only a lame duck president but also the loneliest man in America now, with no one with credibility supporting his ‘more troops for no troops’ policy. Two years ago he was a hero in the eyes of a war-exercised public. Today, his stocks have fallen before war-weary Americans. But as I have said before, America is big country capable of pulling through the blunders that its current President is putting it through. Not so, one must say, for smaller countries like Sri Lanka.

Also, much of the fallouts of Bush’s blunders are borne not by the Americans but by the Iraqis. Unlike the US, Sri Lanka does not have the luxury of exporting the sufferings of war, and Sri Lankans of all walks of life have been forced to suffer for decades without much respite from the war. On the other hand, Iraq’s political future is worse than hopeless whereas Sri Lanka has patches of a foundation to build a future from.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 is an important cornerstone. There have been other initiatives since, including the ongoing All Party Conference and the Experts Panel Reports initiated by President Rajapakse. The President should give high priority to his own political initiatives, and India would be more than willing to offer a firm helping hand. []

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