Sri Lanka’s classic dilemma

india flag    In what has become an all too familiar refrain, India has once again renewed calls for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Of course, the call was coated in a lot of diplomatic saccharin, with its External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, not only assuring that India would do everything possible to work with the Government of Sri Lanka, to enable a lasting political solution through meaningful power devolution, but also commending the Sri Lankan Government for successfully holding the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections. 

India has never veered from its stance on the 13th Amendment; the outcome of the controversial peace accord brokered by New Delhi in 1987, and has been emphasizing the full implementation of the 13th Amendment as the political solution to the Northern issues. The Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, though ostensibly agreeable to going beyond the 13A solution, has however been playing its usual Janus game of saying one thing and meaning something else altogether, ably supported by its rabidly nationalist coalition partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the National Freedom Front (NFF), both making a clarion call for the total abandonment of the Amendment. The JHU in fact withdrew from the proceedings of the special Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), citing government failure to reveal its stance on the Party’s demand to dilute the Amendment prior to the Northern Provincial Council election.

However, the latest call by India, especially in view of the assistance rendered by the Manmohan Singh Government to secure the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo, places the government in a classic dilemma. Should it decide to go back on its pledge given to its Indian counterparts and water down any part or powers inherent in the 13th Amendment, it will not only reveal its hypocritical mien, but also invite the scorn of the international community in general and India in particular. On the other hand, should it agree to India’s plea and extend the powers of the 13th Amendment, there is every chance of the nationalist elements within and outside the government going literally berserk at the perception that they have been betrayed. That is not a very kind proposition.

The Sri Lankan Government simply cannot keep playing the game of ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hound’ anymore. When the moment arrives, the government has to take that lonely stand. With the resounding victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the Provincial Council elections in the North and with the ostensible endorsement of the TNA policies, especially in relation to the implementation of the 13th Amendment by an overwhelming majority of the Northerners, the onus on the TNA leadership and its Chief Minister and other line ministers is tremendously significant and cannot be understated at all.

Whether one likes it or not, an Indian role, in whatever package it comes, is going to be a reality one has to deal with. India’s geographical proximity and cultural similarity to Sri Lanka are two crucial elements in the India-Sri Lanka equation.

Certainly Khurshid’s visit wasn’t limited to impressing upon the Sri Lankan Government the importance of fully implementing the 13th Amendment. As media reports indicated, other concerns such as the nagging fishermen’s issue and many prospective trade agreements had also been on the agenda.

 India’s mastery in the handling of foreign relations with her neighbours is well-chronicled and has come up for international praise and commendation, and the visit of the Indian External Affairs Minister is no accident. With the CHOGM fast-approaching, the attendance of Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, is yet to be confirmed and the anxiety that must be occupying the busy minds of those in the Sri Lankan power hierarchy must be indeed gripping. A snubbing by the ‘Big Brother’ would be extremely cruel and it must be avoided, at least to save face. Moreover, the absence of the Indian Head of Government from the CHOGM would be felt by every attendee and magnified many times over, especially by Sri Lanka’s other South Asian neighbours.

Whatever message Salman Khurshid brought from India would undoubtedly have had a good hearing from the Sri Lankan side and we sincerely hope that all is well that ends well. (CT)

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