Familiar challenges, new faces

Saturday, 14 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Tomorrow President Maithripala Sirisena will kick off his first foreign tour since being elected to office. The decision to make India the first choice for a visit is pregnant with potential and promises for a fresh start. Sri Lanka needs Indian support to face the looming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) battle and possibly gain breathing space to implement its pledges to promote reconciliation. For now the Indians seem equally keen to mend fences. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s more China-oriented policy, India no doubt felt that it was increasingly backed between a rock and a hard place. Feet-dragging on the power devolution front and implementation of the 13th Amendment were giving New Delhi headaches but they dared not push back too hard with China so close at their heels. Often frustrated by the attitude in Colombo, India voted for the resolution on Sri Lanka and promptly earned the wrath of President Rajapaksa. Even the arrival of Prime Minister Modi failed to completely defrost the situation as during the first meeting he made it very clear that India would not deviate from the 13th Amendment, as Rajapaksa’s administration hoped he would. But timelines could be played with and diplomacy dragged out, leaving the situation largely in limbo. Sirisena will have many points to focus on during his tour. The most important element will be to debrief the Indian Government on plans the new administration has for power devolution and addressing burning issues of reconciliation. Ahead of the visit Cabinet approved a proposal to release 1000 acres of land currently engulfed by a High Security Zone. An overture made all the more significant by the fact that the Northern Provincial Council released a resolution on the “genocide” of Tamils by successive Governments just a day before the crucial Cabinet meeting. It is baffling why the council took such a step when tentative steps are being taken to address their issues and at long last begin the journey towards real reconciliation. Experts have pointed out it shows the need for stronger dialogue between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to iron out differences and present a united front. India for its part has criticised the move and indicated its support to Colombo. Undoubtedly New Delhi’s views will play a huge role in the reconciliation march. The present administration has also insisted it would not partner an international inquiry but pledged a credible domestic process. It is now imperative for the Government to receive India’s stamp of approval and assist it in the next round of United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in March. It could also be why both Premier Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena assured continued strong relations with China during a meeting with the Ambassador last week. Monumental debt aside, Sri Lanka still needs China. Balancing out these loyalties and generating some form of progress on fishermen issues will be critical. Building good relations with India’s Central Government is essential to limiting Tamil Nadu’s wrath, which is surely experiencing a temporary lull presently. The stakes could hardly be higher for the Sirisena administration but simply the relief of change may give Sri Lanka breathing space.