Half Yearly Review

India and the Peace Process in Sri Lanka: So Close, Yet So Far

11 Aug, 2013    ·   4083

N Manoharan comments as part of the IPCS Database on Peace and Conflict in South Asia

During the first half of 2013, there was no forward movement on the peace process front in Sri Lanka. Instead, some of the measures taken by the Sri Lankan government under Mahinda Rajapaksa have put things in the opposite direction. India was concerned. Trends on India’s role in the peace process in the island during this period revolved around this concern.

Sri Lanka tried to duck itself from various commitments made to the international community, including India, both on ethnic reconciliation and long-term political settlement. India strongly felt that unless Colombo made a substantial progress on these two fronts, it would be difficult to claim that the ethnic conflict has come to an end. In fact, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during the debate on President’s Address in Parliament on 06 March 2013, said “We are firmly of the view that issues of reconciliation and political devolution in Sri Lanka need to be addressed with a sense of urgency.” However, to New Delhi’s disappointment, such a “sense of urgency” was not recognised by Sri Lanka. This aspect stood as an irritant in the bilateral ties, which otherwise remained smooth.

Ethnic Reconciliation
After ‘Eelam War IV’, India has asked Sri Lanka to sincerely work for achieving a genuine national reconciliation. In this regard, India has taken keen interest in the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of the conflict displaced persons. India considered these ‘3-Rs’ important prerequisite for a successful reconciliation. Thus, apart from providing substantial monetary assistance, India has sent 2,600 tonnes of galvanized steel sheets to construct shelter for approximately 5,000 families living in relief camps in northern Sri Lanka and an additional aid to construction of 50,000 houses to the IDPs.
When President Rajapaksa appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010, India welcomed it as a serious move. New Delhi believed that the “report of the LLRC and its findings and recommendation provides a window of opportunity to forge a consensual way forward towards a lasting political settlement through genuine national reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all its citizens.” However, in due course, India found indifference on the part of Colombo to the very recommendations made by a Commission appointed by the President himself. India, therefore, did not have many options left except to join the international community to support a resolution in the UNHRC in March 2012 calling the Sri Lankan government to “implement the constructive recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) and to “initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.”

On the issue of accountability, the Sri Lankan Army has appointed a Court of Inquiry as an initial fact-finding mission. The five-member body, in the first part of its report submitted on 15 February 2013, concluded that the Army “took all necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties, and all those who came under the control of the Sri Lanka Army, including surrendered/captured LTTE cadres, were treated humanely observing the IHL [international humanitarian law] to the letter.” On the other hand, it blamed the LTTE for “using civilians as Human Shields, summary executions of civilians who attempted to escape to army lines, forced conscription of children for combat purposes etc.” 

While there is no doubt on the LTTE’s involvement, the Army’s total denial of the killings is perplexing. According to the Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka submitted in November 2012, “most casualties were caused by Government fire, and included attacks on UN premises, and hospitals.” Even if the UNs’ report is discounted as an exaggeration, and a 50:50 ratio is taken between the LTTE and the Army, the latter would still be responsible for about 20,000 of the estimated 40,000 killings.

Fresh video evidences of the killing of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, had made the task of the Sri Lankan delegation at the UNHRC a bit more difficult. The call, therefore, was for an independent international enquiry.

Some headway was made in the implementation of the LLRC recommendations, but the results on the ground were not encouraging. Colombo presented the National Action Plan in July 2012 listing out the implementation of recommendations according to Activity, Key Responsible Agency, Key Performance Indicator and Timeframe. A Task Force (headed by the Secretary to the President) was appointed to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan. But there were too many implementing agencies identified without clear-cut budget breakups. Surprisingly, Provincial Councils and other local bodies, which are closer to the people and which are in a better position to implement the recommendations, were totally left out.

In addition, undemocratic acts like the impeachment of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, and discriminatory legislative measures like the passage of the Divinugema Act (that encroached on Provincial Councils on development), Land Acquisition Act, Code of Criminal Procedure (Special Provisions) Bill, Bill to Amend Suppression of Terrorist Financing Act No 25 of 2005 has created doubts on the sincerity of the Rajapaksa regime on reconciliation. Security has been cited time and again to bring in various legislative and military measures.

These prompted the West to introduce another resolution at the 22nd Session of the UNHRC in March 2013 “to follow through on its [Sri Lanka’s] own commitments to its people, including implementing the constructive recommendations from the report by Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.” On its part, India did not wish to support an ‘intrusive’ resolution against Colombo. At the same time, it wants Sri Lanka to take reconciliation and devolution seriously. Therefore, New Delhi tried to balance out by diluting the otherwise hard resolution. The move was not to upset Colombo, but with good intentions to move the process of reconciliation forward. India is convinced that a successful reconciliation is the first step in arriving at a meaningful long-term solution to the ethnic issue. The coalition government in New Delhi also had to face intense pressures from Tamil Nadu to persuade Sri Lanka to deliver especially to the Sri Lankan Tamil minority community. Large-scale anti-Sri Lankan protests engulfed the southern state in March 2013 to press the demand. Unfortunately, these Indian intentions and constraints were not acknowledged, leave alone appreciated, by Sri Lanka.

Political Settlement
On the long-term aspect of the ethnic issue, India’s consistent position has been in favour of “a politically negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights.” This was reiterated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a debate in Lok Sabha (6 March 2013) on the subject: “Our Government will remain engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka to promote a durable settlement of the Tamil problem that enables the Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka to lead a life of dignity and self-respect with equal rights.”

However, recent developments in Sri Lanka suggest opposition to 13th Amendment especially from the Sinahala hardline parties like Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), National Freedom Front (NFF), and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Interestingly, two of them are constituents of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government. To them, Provincial Council system is a divisive mechanism and “does not suit” a country like Sri Lanka. The system, to them, was not indigenous, but was “forced on Sri Lanka” by external forces like India. Unfortunately, a section of the government, led by the President’s brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, subscribes to this viewpoint.

But, a dominant section of the present UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) government including President Mahinda Rajapaksa support dilution of Provincial Council System, termed as the “13th Amendment Minus” framework. The argument is, since whatever limited police and land powers that are vested with the provinces were not practically implemented, the move now is to devolve only those implementable portions. In the words of an incumbent Sri Lankan minister, “In practice we are giving provincial councils more police powers. But in theory, one can say they will have less powers.”  A Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has been set up to review the entire gamut of provisions in the Amendment. But, main actors like the principal opposition party, UNP (United National Party), and the dominant Tamil entity, TNA (Tamil National Alliance) have refused to be part of the PSC process. While the UNP is sceptical of the outcome because of a lack of clarity in the government, the TNA sees the process as a political gimmick to hoodwink the international community, especially India.

To convey their apprehensions, a TNA delegation visited India in June 2013 and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian Prime Minister expressed his dismay on the Government of Sri Lanka’s plan to dilute certain key provisions of the 13th Amendment ahead of elections to the Northern Provincial Council. It was noted that the proposed changes raised doubts about the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government to India and the international community, including the United Nations, on a political settlement in Sri Lanka that would go beyond the 13th Amendment (called “13 plus” framework). It was also pointed out that the proposed changes would also be incompatible with the recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that called for a political settlement based on the devolution of power to the provinces. This Indian position was conveyed unambiguously to Basil Rajapaksa who was visiting India on 05 July to brief Indian political leadership on the latest developments on the political settlement. Also, during his visit to Sri Lanka on 08-09 July for a Trilateral Maritime dialogue, India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon expressed India’s concerns over “13 Minus” moves by Rajapaksa regime.

A sustainable peace can only be achieved when Sri Lanka reconciles with its minority communities, reaches out to the opposition that is presently weak and polarized, practices democracy in the real sense, desecuritises its functions, and makes up with the international community. Finding a lasting political settlement by taking into account the root causes and grievances of the aggrieved communities are vital in establishing sustainable peace.

However, going by the trends in the first half of 2013, efforts by the Sri Lankan government in finding a long-term political settlement to the ethnic issue is nowhere in sight. Though the Rajapaksa government has been talking of finding a “home grown solution” to the ethnic issue, what is on cards is a diluted version of the 13th Amendment. India has time-and-again conveyed to Colombo on the need to devolve powers to the island’s minorities. But, riding on a majoritarian popular wave, Rajapaksa government has been following delaying tactics. Unfortunately, India could not exercise leverages to break Sri Lankan obduracy. While the international community could do something to force Colombo to deliver on reconciliation, it could not on the long-term political settlement.