by Nirupama Subramanian
Sri Lanka told India it would implement a devolution plan for Tamil areas going beyond the 13th Amendment to its Constitution, but Indian officials were privately sceptical of the assurance.
Several U.S. Embassy cables accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks reveal that India pushed Sri Lanka on its devolution plans for months before the conclusion of the military operation against the LTTE.
The cables also reveal that the U.S. sought a bigger role in pushing a political solution for Tamils but was kept at bay by India.
As the military operations were drawing to a close, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon told the U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Peter Burleigh on May 15, 2009 that the Sri Lankan government had reassured India that “the government would focus on the implementation of the 13th Amendment Plus as soon as possible.” (207268: confidential, May 15, 2009)
But, the cable notes, “Menon was sceptical.”
National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan was a mite more optimistic. Returning from a visit to Sri Lanka on April 24, he had told the U.S. Charge that President Mahinda Rajapaksa “intends to pursue political devolution (‘the thirteenth amendment plus') and will make a gesture soon to win over Sri Lanka's Tamils.” (204118: confidential, April 25, 2009)
Earlier, in January 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo reported in a cable (189383: confidential, January 29, 2009) on External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit that President Rajapaksa had spoken of a 13th Amendment Plus plan.
Briefing the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission and other diplomats, the Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, Vikram Misri, said Mr. Mukherjee's visit was mainly to press Sri Lanka on ensuring the safety of civilians during the military operation against the LTTE.
In discussions with the Indian Minister on the political front, the cable noted, “President Rajapaksa said he supports a 13th Amendment- plus approach, but did not specify what the ‘plus' would entail.”
It is no secret that even before 2009, India wanted Sri Lanka to hasten on a political settlement to the Tamil question that would go beyond the 13th Amendment that flowed from the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. The cables only confirm this.
In November 2008, senior presidential adviser Basil Rajapaksa returned from New Delhi. Briefing the Americans about the visit, he said India had pressed Sri Lanka to devolve more powers to the Eastern Province. (cable 176664: confidential, November 4, 2008)
Mr. Rajapaksa told U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake that the Indians had expressed particular concern about civilian casualties from Sri Lankan military operations, as well as the need to do “a better job of winning Tamil hearts and minds.”
According to Mr. Blake's cable, Mr. Rajapaksa told him that “the Indians argued that progress on these issues would help keep the region “free of outside interference” and would enable India to better support Sri Lanka in its fight against the LTTE.
Mr. Rajapaksa said both sides had agreed on the need to “move toward” towards a peaceful, negotiated political settlement. India wanted Sri Lanka to begin by devolving non-controversial powers such as agrarian services to the Eastern province.
But the presidential adviser — he is also his brother — told the Americans that India's “No. 1 concern” was the Sri Lankan Navy firing at Indian fishermen.
In the same cable, Mr. Blake reports a later conversation with Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Alok Prasad. Contrary to Mr. Rajapaksa's impression of his New Delhi meetings, Mr. Prasad said the primary focus of the meetings was devolution, and not the issue of fishermen.
While the talks primarily focussed on how to speed up devolution in the East, Mr. Prasad noted that India had told Sri Lanka it should be thinking of “the outlines of a settlement that goes beyond devolution of power under the 13th amendment.”
But Mr. Prasad told the U.S. envoy that “India had very little hope that Sri Lanka would do more in this regard,” as the President did not have the required parliamentary majority to amend the Constitution, and some political parties were opposed even to the 13th Amendment.
It appears from the cables that the U.S. wanted constant reassurances that India was pushing for a political solution. At one stage it even suggested that there should be a joint India-U.S. effort on this front.
In August 2008, Joint Secretary T.S. Tirumurti “avowed” at a New Delhi meeting with Mr. Blake, the Indian government's “continued advocacy for devolution of power in Sri Lanka, and said India was preparing to share specific ideas with Sri Lanka.” (cable 167817: confidential, August 29, 2008)
The Indian official said New Delhi was pitching for a power-sharing formula that went beyond the 13th Amendment.
At the same meeting, Ambassador Blake proposed that India and the U.S. together encourage Sri Lanka to articulate its power-sharing vision “now” and engage in “quiet talks” with the LTTE.
He also suggested encouraging a “quiet dialogue” between the UN and the LTTE so that internally displaced people in the Vanni would be free to move south from LTTE-controlled areas “out of harm's way.”
India was clearly not interested in the U.S. suggestion. Mr. Tirumurti responded that “Rajapakse wants Prabhakaran dead.”
Pushing the ball back to the U.S. envoy, he spoke of a “credibility problem” for the West as the LTTE continued to raise funds in Europe, which was a source of concern for Sri Lanka and India.
But Mr. Blake pushed back, saying that while the U.S. would be glad to see Prabhakaran captured or killed, “the U.S. and India should not allow Rajapaksa to predicate progress on a power-sharing agreement on Prabhakaran's demise.”
A year later, the Indian Foreign Secretary seems to have briefly toyed with the idea of involving the U.S. and other powers to put pressure on Sri Lanka to resolve the political issues after the fighting ended.
The Foreign Secretary suggested to Mr. Burleigh at his May 15, 2009 meeting that “it would be useful for India to convoke an international conference — noting that India, the Co-Chairs [of the peace process, Norway, Japan, the U.S. and U.K.] and China should attend — to look at the post-conflict landscape. Menon characterized this as an opportunity for India; prohibitions on contacts with the LTTE had prevented useful engagement in the past, but now there would be space.”
Mr. Menon expressly wanted China in the grouping. According to the cable, he argued “that best results from Sri Lanka could be expected when the West, India and China all worked together. Otherwise, Sri Lanka would find ways to play its international interlocutors off against each other.”
But it seems to have been just a passing thought, as no such meeting took place. (courtesy: The Hindu)