Tall order talks

Friday, 11 July 2014 01:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TALKS with India have always held importance to Sri Lanka and this has taken even more emphasis since External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris took wing to New Delhi on Wednesday to hold talks with his latest counterpart Sushma Swaraj. The two will be having the first bilateral discussions since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in last month. While Prof. Peiris was part of the delegation accompanying Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the swearing-in ceremony and sat in on the discussions that took place afterwards, this will be the first definitive meeting that will outline the new Government’s policy regarding Sri Lanka. Previous discussions with Modi made it clear that the Indian Government was focused, much as Congress was before it, on a political solution to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka with the 13th Amendment as the catalyst. The fact that this visit follows closely on the heels of South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is also significant. Ramaphosa conducted a short but poignant tour to Sri Lanka to explore the possibility of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) being established to promote internationally-credible reconciliation in the country. His visit was kept quiet by the Government but meetings with the Tamil National Alliance that included Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and a stopover in Jaffna showed this to be very much on the agenda. Whether a TRC-like mechanism will be pushed forward by the Sri Lankan Government, however, remains to be seen and the matter will certainly get much attention in India. As the United Nations investigation inches closer, Colombo will also be keen to evaluate India’s position and its level of support. The TNA’s steadfast refusal to join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) despite the previous Indian Government’s encouragement to do so will leave Modi’s administration in an interesting position. What will there call be for the TNA? And will the TNA comply? The questions are many. Closely linked to the Tamil issue is the increasing divide with the Muslim community. The tragic events of Aluthgama and Beruwala, triggered by rising extremism in Sri Lanka, has already caused concerns across the Palk Strait that has been openly stated by the Indian Government. New Delhi’s concern over Muslim extremists has already motivated the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to write to the Indian High Commissioner and demand specific details as such statements can severely impact the already tenuous local relationship between communities. India will have to tread very carefully on this issue and it would be interesting to see whether they call on the Sri Lankan Government to rein-in hardline religious organisations. Rajapaksa’s deft touch of releasing Indian fishermen ahead of Modi’s appointment has since lost much of its lustre with at least 81 fishermen being detained by the Sri Lankan Navy in June. The ever-vocal Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has already written to Modi several times demanding intervention by the central Government. Nonetheless, proposed high-level talks are yet to be finalised even though a Sri Lankan delegation has already been appointed. The simmering issue is integral to the development of the Northern Province and for winning the hearts of a largely-marginalised group. Nationally and internationally Indo-Sri Lanka relations are undoubtedly at a critical point.