Calming moves

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

Sri Lankas assurance on the humanitarian situation in the countrys North and East defuses tensions, for the present.

in Colombo

GOOD news is a rare commodity in Sri Lanka these days. With a war raging between the security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an estimated three lakh internally displaced persons (IDPs) are suffering untold miseries; with inflation at close to 30 per cent, ordinary citizens are experiencing one of the worst periods in the countrys post-independence history. So Colombos assurance on October 26 to India on civilian safety in the districts of the North and East came as a huge relief to Sri Lanka watchers. The public outcry in Tamil Nadu over the plight of the people caught in the war zone and the pressure that the South Indian State mounted on New Delhi to spur Colombo into action were threatening to snowball into a crisis. However, the deft handling of the situation by Colombo, New Delhi and Chennai has defused the threat. It now remains to be seen how Colombo implements the commitments it has made.

That the concerns of India, particularly Tamil Nadu, were not misplaced was vindicated by the report of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sri Lanka Country Team, a consortium of the United Nations and international non-governmental agencies engaged in emergency relief operations in troubled zones. Its report for the period from October 16 to 23 shows that the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu, where military and the LTTE have been engaged in fierce battles for several weeks now, are the worst affected. The number of IDPs in the two districts is close to three lakh. These people have no escape route, and the sheer logistics of providing minimum comfort to them is mind-boggling, particularly after the Sri Lankan government, in early September, ordered the U.N. and other relief agencies to move out of the LTTE-controlled areas. The report lists the number of families and individuals displaced in the three districts of the North and five districts of the East (see table).

On the Jaffna peninsula, the report noted, the general security situation remained tense during the week, especially in the areas around the Forward Defence Lines. Checks on vehicles and personnel in the mainland and islets have increased. Cordon-and-search operations, especially in the Thenmarachchi area, have increased. Roads continue to be blocked regularly to allow military convoy movements, the report said.

The general situation in Vavuniya and Mannar district remains tense and potentially volatile. Security forces remain on high alert and regularly carry out cordon-and-search operations, it said.

Restrictive procedures at Medawachchiya and at checkpoints along the A-14 road continue. Small numbers of IDPs continue to arrive in Mannar by sea from LTTE-controlled areas. The population at the Sirukkandal IDP site now stands at 142 families (323 individuals), whereas 217 families (497 individuals) are accommodated at the Kallimoddai site. The WFP [World Food Programme] transported 755 MT [metric tonnes] of mixed food commodities, including 403 MT of rice, 250 MT of wheat flour, 71.4 MT of lentils and 30.8 MT of vegetable oil to provide a weeks ration for approximately 210,000 beneficiaries in the Wanni.

It is against this backdrop that diplomatic manoeuvres commenced in Colombo and New Delhi. The outcome of the discussions, articulated in the form of a joint statement and a joint press statement on October 26, is significant. The statements were the result of frenzied behind-the-scenes negotiations, spread over 10 days, between New Delhi and Chennai, on one hand, and New Delhi and Colombo, on the other. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa dispatched Basil Rajapaksa, his brother and Senior Adviser, for the clinching round in New Delhi. The results of his mission were indeed pleasing for both sides. The joint statement on fishing arrangements is an important breakthrough. If implemented in letter and spirit, it will go a long way in tackling a problem that has been a source of constant friction between India and Sri Lanka for years.

It involves the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk on both sides of the Palk Straits and has evaded a satisfactory answer, especially since the current phase of hostilities in Sri Lanka began in June 2006. The dimension of the problem could be gauged from the fact that on an average an estimated 200 fishing boats/trawlers stray into the territorial waters of the other side every day. The Sri Lanka Navy has been walking a tightrope in taking care of the safety of the fisherfolk while ensuring that the LTTE does not take advantage of the situation. For the first time since the 1974 agreement under which India conceded the Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka, Colombo has made significant concessions in favour of the fisherfolk. The understanding was made public in the form of a joint statement under the title India-Sri Lanka Joint Statement on Fishing Arrangements.

It reads: Keeping in mind the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of the fishermen issue, India and Sri Lanka have agreed to put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). This was agreed to during the visit to New Delhi on 26th October 2008 of Honourable Basil Rajapaksa, Member of Parliament and Senior Adviser to the President of Sri Lanka.

As part of these practical arrangements, following the designation by the Government of Sri Lanka of sensitive areas along the Sri Lankan coastline and their intimation to the Government of India, Indian fishing vessels will not venture into these identified sensitive areas. Further, there will be no firing on Indian fishing vessels. It was agreed that Indian fishing vessels would carry valid registration/permit and the fishermen would have on person valid identity cards issued by the Government of Tamil Nadu. India and Sri Lanka have agreed to continue with their discussions, initiated in 2005, on the proposed Memorandum of Understanding on development and cooperation in the field of fisheries.

It remains to be seen what kind of mechanisms will be put in place to implement the statement with a certain degree of transparency.

In contrast, the concerns expressed by India over the humanitarian crisis were outlined in a press release. New Delhi made it known right from the day an all-party conference presided over by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on October 16 urged the Government of India to counsel Colombo to cease fire, that the war being waged by the Sri Lankan forces against the LTTE was an internal matter of the island nation and New Delhi had no jurisdiction over the issue. It sought to make a difference between the war against the LTTE, an organisation banned in India in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, and the sufferings of innocent citizens caught in the crossfire.

The operative portions of the joint press release are self-explanatory. It reads: India conveyed its concern at the humanitarian situation in the northern part of Sri Lanka, especially of the civilians and internally displaced persons caught in the hostilities, and emphasised the need for unhindered essential relief supplies. Mr. Rajapaksa briefed the Indian authorities of the efforts by the Sri Lanka Government to afford relief and ensure the welfare of the civilian population in the North. He assured that the safety and well-being of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka is being taken care of.

As a gesture of goodwill, India has decided to send around 800 tonnes of relief material to Sri Lanka for the affected civilians in the North. The Government of Sri Lanka will facilitate the delivery. Both sides agreed to consult and cooperate with each other in addressing these humanitarian issues. Both sides discussed the need to move towards a peacefully negotiated political settlement in the island, including in the North. Both sides agreed that terrorism should be countered with resolve. The Indian side called for implementation of the 13th Amendment [to the Constitution] and greater devolution of powers to the provinces. Mr. Basil Rajapaksa emphasised that the President of Sri Lanka and his government were firmly committed to a political process that would lead to a sustainable solution. Both sides agreed to further nurture the democratic process in the Eastern Province. Mr. Rajapaksa briefed the Indian side of the large development effort under way in the Eastern Province.

In his interview to the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, N. Ram, on the evening of October 27, a day after the two statements were released, Mahinda Rajapaksa elaborated on various elements of the understanding between New Delhi and Colombo and made use of the opportunity to address matters of concern to the leaders and people of Tamil Nadu in particular and India in general. Let me reiterate that my government is firmly committed to a negotiated political solution based on devolution of power and ensuring the democratic, political, including linguistic, rights of all our Tamil brethren within an undivided Sri Lanka, he told Ram, allaying apprehensions that his government was for a military rather than a political solution to redress the grievances of minorities in the island nation.

I am absolutely clear that there is, and can be, no military solution to political questions. I have always maintained this. A military solution is for the terrorists; a political solution is for the people living in this country, he emphasised. Conceding the slow progress of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC), which was constituted by him to evolve a consensus on the resolution of the ethnic conflict, in coming up with its final proposals, he asserted: I myself will take charge of the political process and see it through politically.

Emphasising that our military operations are directed exclusively at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a terrorist and secessionist organisation banned or designated as terrorist in more than 30 countries he renewed his call to the LTTE even at this late stage to lay down its arms, surrender, and enter the democratic political process. He further argued that the military operations directed against the LTTE were not intended to harass Tamil civilians or cause any harm or hardship to them. His government was doing, and would do, everything in its power to mitigate and resolve the plight of the civilians displaced or affected by the conflict. In addition to ensuring that food, medicines and other essential commodities were within the reach of every one of our Tamil brethren affected by the conflict, it would rehabilitate every civilian affected by the conflict in a fair and transparent manner.

On the contours of the political solution he had in mind, Rajapaksa explained his four Ds approach demilitarisation, democratisation, development and devolution.

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