A significant neighbourly call

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

In Delhi in the last week of February, President Chandrika Kumaratunga discusses with Indian leaders a range of issues, including the process to settle the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

MUCH importance is attached to Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's three-day visit to India in the fourth week of February. It was Kumaratunga's first visit to Delhi after she was re-elected President in December 1999. The visit came at a time w hen the peace process facilitated by the Norwegian government in the island was gaining momentum. A Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry official said that Kumaratunga's visit to Delhi could "be seen as a prelude to peace talks" with the Liberation Tigers of Tami l Eelam (LTTE).

Kumaratunga met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and apprised them of the peace talks and her government's efforts to introduce constitutional reforms to meet the demands of the Tamil people for greater devo lution of powers.

The Norwegians have put forward a set of confidence-building measures to facilitate the process of resolution of the ethnic conflict in the island. In recent days, Kumaratunga has expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for peace and emphasised t hat the opportunity to end the fratricidal war should not be lost. In an interview to a television channel in Delhi, she said that talks with the LTTE could start in two months. Kumaratunga said that she had the "total support" of the Indian government i n her efforts to bring about a lasting solution to the ethnic problem.

A statement issued by the External Affairs Ministry after the conclusion of the Sri Lankan President's visit said: "India reiterated its consistent support for the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka and for a negotiated political s ettlement of the conflict, as the only way to restore lasting peace which would meet the aspirations of all elements of Sri Lankan society."

Reports said that the United Kingdom and Japan would be invited to send observers to monitor a peace agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Officials in the External Affairs Ministry have said that during Kumaratunga's wide-ranging tal ks with Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh, India's "well-known" views of the concept of third-party monitoring were made clear. The officials pointed out that India was opposed to the concept of third-party monitoring in Jammu and Kashmir. India told Sri Lanka that it should approach the issue of "third-party monitoring" with caution and that third-party involvement had the potential to complicate matters further in the island nation. Indian officials pointed out that "third parties" may have their own agendas .

The Indian government seems to be unsure about the ramifications of multilateral mediation in the Sri Lankan conflict. Moreover, New Delhi is reluctant to be a mediator between the two sides. Indian policy-makers seem to be weighing the long-term implica tions of multilateral intervention in Sri Lanka for India's own internal conflicts. The official statement issued during Kumaratunga's visit said that the discussions "reflected the high priority attached by both countries to the maintenance of close and friendly relations based on mutual trust and understanding".

Although the Sri Lankans insisted that the issue of a monitoring group was premature, they pointed out that once a truce was in place groups from outside, acceptable to both parties, would have to do the monitoring. According to the Sri Lankans, no count ry has been short-listed for the job. An observer of South Asian affairs said that New Delhi was wary of the idea of "truce monitors" because it wanted to forestall the possibility of India being requested to send a token force to monitor a truce and thu s getting involved in the ethnic conflict. On the other hand, after the visit of the Sir Lankan Foreign Minister to Islamabad in mid-January, Pakistan gave $20 million in credit to Sri Lanka for military purchases.

"Some sort of a mechanism is necessary to oversee a ceasefire. This should not be a source of controversy. They (the monitors) should be treated like election observers from various countries. The monitoring mechanism should not be under the U.N. umbrell a, as no self-respecting sovereign country will accept it," said a Sri Lankan observer. Norway, he said, was ideally placed to play the role of a facilitator, as it had "no agenda and is far away from the area of conflict". Besides, Norway is one of the few countries that had a leverage over the LTTE, he added. Norway has given asylum to many Tamil refugees.

According to External Affairs Ministry officials, the Sri Lankan President's visit gave both countries an opportunity to discuss substantive issues. An important topic discussed during Kumaratunga's stay in Delhi was the South Asian Association for Regio nal Cooperation (SAARC) process. Indian officials said that there was a "forward movement" on the issue since the visit of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in December 2000. India had then agreed to re-start official-level meetings of the SAARC.

During Kumaratunga's visit, India announced that the SAARC Standing Committee meeting could be scheduled for the middle of 2001, provided the date was convenient for the rest of the SAARC members. The Standing Committee is the forum of Foreign Secretarie s of the member-nations. However, the External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that no consensus had emerged on the holding of the SAARC summit.

Sri Lanka, however, feels that it had broken the logjam and re-started the SAARC process. Sri Lankan officials give considerable importance to the SAARC process since they believe that it would help bring about peace in the region. The Sri Lankans point out that a SAARC summit would allow Vajpayee and Pakistan's Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf to meet at a neutral venue. But a SAARC summit may not take place in the near future because of the strains that developed recently between New Delhi and Kathman du. The next SAARC summit is to be hosted by Nepal.

The Sri Lankan President kept the Indian leadership abreast of her government's efforts to speed up the process of introducing constitutional reforms. Kumaratunga has always insisted that any solution to the Sri Lankan conflict should be within a united Sri Lanka, with the devolution of more powers to the regions.

A senior Sri Lankan analyst said that the devolution process was almost over as much of the decentralisation process had been completed. He said that the focus was now on the proposed new Constitution as a bigger devolution package would be more difficul t to negotiate in a divided Parliament. The radical constitutional changes envisaged by Kumaratunga are needed to give the LTTE additional incentives so that it will give up terrorism and get involved in the democratic process. The efforts of the Kumarat unga government to get the new Constitution adopted before the general elections in October 2000 proved the honourable intent of her government to address the genuine grievances of the Tamil minority.

According to the analyst, the first challenge is to get the LTTE to accept the new Constitution. The second challenge is to get the Opposition, inside and outside Parliament, to support the new Constitution. As things stand, it was for the first time tha t Douglas Devananda and Feral Ashraff, two MPs from the north and the northeast, were given important portfolios in the new Cabinet.

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