Monday, 19 January 2015 00:01
India has once again returned to the centre-point of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has lost no time it healing ties that were at best band-aided during the last few years under the previous Government. But tough challenges lie ahead.
Immediately after taking oaths Samaraweera was “invited for lunch” by his Indian counterpart. Never one to lose an opportunity, the newly-hatted Foreign Minister accepted, assuming it would be a largely unofficial affair. But the focus of the Indian Government seems to have been caught with Samaraweera promptly scheduled for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Security Advisor.
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 was causing headaches to New Delhi 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 advent 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.
Samaraweera will have two main points to focus on during his short 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. A start has been made by appointing a civilian Governor and senior diplomat H. Palihakkara, who was also part of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), as Governor of the Northern Province, but President Sirisena’s now iconic manifesto has been deliberately blurry about specific measures that would be implemented to assure power devolution.
There has also been little discussion of political prisoners, land and police powers and resources allocated to the Northern Provincial Council. True, it has been little over a week and optimism is still high but there are also senior members of Sirisena’s coalition calling for former top LTTE members to be tried and jailed. Then there are the thousands of people who are eagerly awaiting resettlement in their original homes. High security zones have to be dismantled and Army presence in the north reduced – two things Sirisena promised he would not do.
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. Good relations with India’s Central Government is essential to limit Tamil Nadu’s wrath, which is surely at 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.