G R O U N D   Z E R O

Lanka beware, cubs can become Tigers again
India feels frustration is again growing among the Tamil minority, and has warned Sri Lanka that by dragging its feet on devolution of powers it is laying the seeds of fresh militancy in near future.
Raj Chengappa

The composure and calmness with which Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiries speaks reminds me of Oogway, the wise old tortoise featured in the Hollywood hit “Kung Fu Panda”. In one scene, Oogway tells Shifu, his student who is a master himself: “There are no accidents.” Shifu sighs and says, “Yes, I know, you already said that twice.” Oogway replies, “That was no accident either.” Exasperated, Shifu interjects: “That’s thrice”.

Over lunch at the Sri Lankan High Commissioner’s residence on Saturday, Peiries took pains to explain in his methodical manner why his government could not as yet meet the demands of greater devolution of power to provinces in the North and the East of Lanka, which are dominated by Tamils. That, as Oogway would have put it, is not an accident. Starting in 1983, for 26 years the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, which constitutes 13 per cent of the island country’s total population of 20 million, had waged a bloody insurrection, demanding equality, autonomy and even independence from the Sinhala majority.

In the mid-Eighties, fearing that it would be overwhelmed by the Tamil rebellion, the then Sri Lankan Government ruled by President Junius Jayawardene appealed to the Indian government to intervene militarily and prevent the nation from being torn asunder. India, then headed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, agreed to send troops but with the proviso that the Sri Lankan government amend its Constitution to guarantee greater provincial autonomy to the Tamil dominated areas of the North and the East. It was passed as the 13th Amendment in 1987.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Peiries (R) with Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid.
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Peiries (R) with Indian counterpart Salman Khurshid. 

That the Amendment has never been implemented in letter and spirit in Tamil dominated areas is no accident of history. It has been a deliberate policy of successive Sri Lankan governments to play a game of double-speak when it comes to giving the Tamils greater autonomy. The Indian military intervention in the late ’80s saw the Lankan government retrieve vast tracts of territory in the North and East that had been controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), then headed by its charismatic leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

After India brokered a truce, Sinhala nationalism saw an ungrateful Sri Lanka unceremoniously boot Indian troops out. The truce collapsed shortly after that, and the LTTE and the government resumed hostilities that for the next two decades saw military fortunes fluctuate between the Army and rebels. The war ended only with the defeat of the LTTE and the death of Prabhakaran in May 2009. In between, various parliamentary committees and reconciliation commissions were formed to implement the 13th Amendment to resolve the ethnic battle, but in vain.

Soon after the war ended, a triumphant Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse announced grandiosely that he would implement what he termed “a 13th Amendment plus” devolution of powers for the Tamil minority in the North and the East. It is three years now and the Lankan government is no closer to implementing the promise.

The ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) held 18 rounds of structured dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) but that broke down recently over how to move the process forward. The SLFP felt that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSE) should be formed to endorse the agreements. But the TNA wants the ruling party to sign an agreement first and then take it to the PSE, otherwise the other Sinhala dominated parties would ensure the Tamils end up with a diluted provincial autonomy.

The government’s reluctance stems from the fact that three years after its military rout of the LTTE there is growing division within its ranks over the need to devolve powers to the Tamils. There is now even talk of “13th Amendment minus”. The powerful Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapakse, younger brother of the President, has repeatedly called for abolishing the Amendment altogether. The main concern of the government is that if they grant greater autonomy, the Tamil provinces would soon become hotbeds of militancy to regroup and push for separation again.

India, which is still regarded as the big brother in the region, has been advising the Sri Lankan government to end such misplaced conjectures and make rapid progress on the twin issues of devolution of powers and its reconciliation programmes. India feels frustration is again growing among the Tamil minority and has warned the Sri Lankan government that by dragging its feet on devolution it is laying the seeds of another LTTE type of militancy in the near future.

When Salman Khurshid, India’s new External Affairs Minister, met Peiries this Friday on the sidelines of the 12th Indian Ocean-Rim Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in Gurgaon, apart from swapping tales about Oxford University (both have studied law there at different times), he reiterated India’s concerns.

There is also a growing perception in India that Sri Lanka is cosying up to China and Pakistan, and that is partly reflected in its obstinacy to move forward on the devolution issue. That complacency may be dangerous for Sri Lanka. If the root cause remains unresolved, it is likely to sprout new shoots. In this case, it is cubs that could grow to be Tigers, which the Sri Lankan government had fought so hard and wasted years of development to vanquish. That would be no accident either.






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