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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 40, New Delhi, September 26, 2015

Colombo Restores New Delhi’s Faith

Monday 28 September 2015

Sri Lankan Premier Ranil Wickremasinghe’s visit to India (September 14-16) marked an important step in bringing India-Sri Lanka relations to healthy parameters on several counts, the most significant of which is the restoration of India’s faith in the policy-directions of the Sri Lankan Government.

New Delhi’s confidence in Colombo’s intentions, both domestic and international, was completely eroded during the last few years (especially since 2009) of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. While domestically New Delhi learned to its regret that Rajapaksa’s repeated assurances that he would secure justice for the Tamils were all hogwash and mere tools of fooling it as well as the international community, his flagrant display of the game of playing the so-called China card to “discipline” India truly worsened the bilateral relations. It also brought in the added irritant of encouraging the Maldives to play the same game.

The proposed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) discussed during the visit and committed to be drafted by December this year, if properly implemented, will lead to larger trade between the two countries aimed at correcting the severe trade imbalance. Sri Lanka had long complained against the situation (in 2013-14 exports from India accounted for $ 3.98 billion out of the total trade of $ 5.23 b.) urging New Delhi to buy more Sri Lankan goods.With the CEPA coming into force, Colombo will hopefully be selling more goods to India.

The CEPA will also see a spurt in Indian investments in Sri Lanka. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some of his Ministers proposed larger investment in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure and connectivity. It is expected that when the CEPA is adopted by the parliaments of both the countries sometime in 2016. a larger Indian presence in these two sectors (now visibly dominated by Chinese companies) would be a reality.

Not surprisingly, the progress in respect of the CEPA achieved during the visit has already become a controversy (largely created by the Sri Lankan media which is long adept in India-bashing) in the island nation. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe defended strongly their government’s eagerness to build up economic relations with India on a wider scale than at present at a media conference on September 18.

The Sri Lankan Premier’s visit coincided with the long-awaited release of the United Nations Human Rights Commission report on the alleged atrocities committed during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war (January-May 2009), and the visit was largely focused on its implications for Sri Lanka and the measures already taken and being contemplated by the government to heal the wounds of the war.

Unlike other bilateral relations, India-Sri relations have been traditionally coloured by the ubiquitous Tamil question. While public opinion in Tamil Nadu had forced New Delhi at times to seek a direct or indirect intervention in Sri Lanka, the widespread Sri Lankan antipathy towards the “Big Brother” India had been equally reinforced by such acts and policies.

India, therefore, logically hopes for an eventually mature and sensible Sri Lankan policy towards the Tamil question as also towards the other significant minority community, the Muslims. Incidentally, the Muslims (or Moors, as the community loves to describe itself) had always fared far better than the Tamils at the hands of the majority Sinhala community except for the last years of the Rajapaksa regime. During this period, organised assaults on the community, especially its business establishments and places of worship, came under what suspiciously looked like a state-sponsored pogrom.

The talks that Prime Minister Wickremasinghe held in New Delhi, therefore, dwelt at length on the present government’s plans and policies on the ethnic issue. As Wickremasinghe enumerated, a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence will be set up in consultation with countries like South Africa which have already been advising Sri Lanka in this respect.

An Office on Missing Persons will also be established based on the principle of the affected families’ “right to know what happened to their missing members”. To operate this particular authority in “line with the internationally accepted standards”, the right expertise will be sought from the International Committee of the Red Cross which was present in Sri Lanka throughout the 26-year-old armed conflict.

Thirdly, a judicial mechanism will be put in place with special counsel which will take into account “the right of victims to a fair remedy” and address the problem of impunity for human rights violations suffered by all the communities during the civil sar.

Fourthly, an Office for Reparations will be created for implementing the recommendations to be made by the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Office of the Missing Persons, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (set up by the Rjapaksa Government) and any other entity.

The government also plans to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission, reduced to a virtual non-entity during the previous regime, in line with the Paris Principles and to sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

The government will also issue instructions to all branches of the security forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited and those found responsible for such acts will be punished.

In the aftermath of the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka was widely expected to do away with the Prevention of Terrorism Act, perhaps the largest contributor to the Tamils’ agonies, but the previous regime apparently did not heed any such expectation. The present government now proposes to replace the Act with an anti-terrorism law in tune of “the contemporary international best practices”, as Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in Geneva while addressing the 30th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on September 15.

As both Wickremasinghe and Samaraweera emphasised in New Delhi and Geneva respectively, all the revolutionary measures the government is initiating to correct the misdeeds of the past are under the umbrella of a new Constitution that will be adopted by Parliament. This Constitution may well prove to be an ideal document to run a country on a platform of equitable justice for all its citizens.

However, as President Sirisena pointed out on September 18, it will be a “long” way for Sri Lanka to achieve national reconciliation. At the same time, the government is under no illusion to expect a smooth ride over that long journey.

For, the indications of a very stormy ride are already manifesting themselves. Apparently inspired by the Rajapaksa clan and its supporters, voices are rising over attempts to malign the security forces in the name of meting out justice to the victims of atrocities during the war. These voices are reminding the country that the security forces are actually “national heroes who defeated a deadly terrorist gang” and saved the country from eventual destruction.

Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was the erstwhile President’s henchman, said at a hearing of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate serious acts of fraud, corruption and abuse of power, state resources and privileges on September 18 that he now wished he did not end the war because “he has had to report to all the commissions. None of these commissions would be there if he had not finished the war.” He also called the UN report “totally biased on the needs of the Tamil diaspora. What the diaspora wants is to punish the security forces and former political leaders.” He also said he hoped that the President and the Prime Minister would not agree to any move to punish the security forces and political leaders by an international court.

The eventual constitution of the trial court in respect of the alleged war crimes, which the government believes should be a judicious mix of domestic and international judges, may well prove to be a major problem for the government. Judging by the thoughtful and balanced approach the government has taken so far in dealing with the myriad issues confronting it, this step should also prove to be widely acceptable both inside and outside Sri Lanka.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.