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Rajapaksa's loss can be Modi's gain

By G Ganapathy Subramaniam
February 16, 2015 16:06 IST
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Narendra Modi with Sri Lankan President Maithripala SirisenaDealing with the Sirisena government in Sri Lanka, says G Ganapathy Subramaniam, is a lot easier for India than engaging with the Rajapaksa regime.

More than 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees live in Tamil Nadu. Hundreds live elsewhere in India while thousands live in other parts of the world -- Canada, France, the US, Australia. These displaced Tamils are not confident of a decent life with basic respect and security if they return home to Sri Lanka.

The 13th constitutional amendment promised by the Sri Lankan government for devolution of power to Sri Lankan Tamils living in the island's northern province remains on paper.

The demand for justice for those who lost their lives in the brutal 2009 war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam remains unheeded.

Will the United Nations investigate war crimes and get Sri Lanka to respect human rights remains a question.

Despite all this, there is hype and hope over President Maithripala Sirisena and expectations from his coalition government. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan are out of the way.

In fact, the entire election campaign and its outcome was more about the domination of the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka rather than Sirisena. That explains why the atmospherics have changed so much without much a change on the ground.

The same perception is reflected in India. For the Narendra Modi government, maintaining a balanced relationship with Sri Lanka has become simpler as it does not have to deal with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It is not that human rights activists and Tamil Nadu politicians do not oppose the new Sri Lankan government, but in comparison to the outpouring of anger that Rajapaksa or his family triggered in the southern state, the opposition to Sirisena is a mere whimper. Some political parties have flagged the issues the Modi government should discuss with Sirisena rather than calling for a boycott.

That is the change brought about by the fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Modi had convinced Rajapaksa to release many Tamil Nadu and Puducherry fishermen who often confronted arrest and harassment by the Sri Lankan navy. The then Sri Lankan president even pardoned three fishermen facing the death sentence on charges of smuggling narcotics and sent them back to India.

Sirisena has taken a step forward and released the boats of Indian fishermen, impounded in Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the arrests of Indian fishermen, which had become a regular feature in recent years, has not occurred with the same frequency after the Sirisena government took over.

The changes have made it easier for Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in more ways than one. First, India can now focus on strategic ties with Sri Lanka, especially the important need of keeping China away from the island nation, rather than fire-fight in Colombo as the Manmohan Singh regime was compelled to do with Rajapaksa.

Even though assembly elections are due in Tamil Nadu next year, Modi may be the first Indian prime minister to visit Colombo -- since Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. The time is ripe for India to mend its relationship with Sri Lanka in the national interest rather than get bogged down by Tamil Nadu politics.

Indian diplomats have ensured a good beginning by making sure that Sirisena visited India ahead of any other country. Apart from checking Chinese designs, New Delhi needs to ensure that Sri Lanka is not used by anti-India terror groups as a convenient base.

Bilateral issues continue to be on the table. Both sides have made the right noises about the return of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to their homeland. That is easier said than done.

The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu is unlikely to be a party to this rehabilitation without the consent of the refugees and a commitment from the Modi government about their future welfare in Sri Lanka.

Only if the governments of India and Sri Lanka put in their best efforts will it be possible to relocate the over 100,000 refugees currently based in India. The war-affected Tamils in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka still complain about the lack of proper rehabilitation though the war with LTTE ended in May 2009.

The real issue is the 13th constitutional amendment promised by the Sri Lankan government, but never taken anywhere close to implementation during the Rajapaksa regime.

While there are people who make claims that LTTE leader V Prabhakaran is alive and insist only a separate Eelam matters for Sri Lankan Tamils, devolution of power seems the only practical solution in the current context.

This is the argument emphasised by seasoned politicians like Northern Province Chief Minister C V Vigneswaran. If the deployment of the Sri Lankan army and Colombo's interference can be minimised while providing more powers to the elected governments of the northern and eastern provinces, the Tamils will feel more secure.

The Tamil National Alliance's support for Sirisena in the presidential election should encourage the Sri Lankan president to work for the war-affected families with empathy.

It is not clear if Sirisena will allow too much outside interference since he was part of the Rajapaksa government during the 2009 war. The onus is on India to quietly push for justice while going all out on the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils and their empowerment.

Sinhala superiority vanquished Rajapaksa. The shock defeat was more a result of his family's domination over Sri Lanka politics -- Mahinda was president; Basil, the economic development minister; Gotabaya, the defence secretary; Chamal, the speaker; and finally Namal, Mahinda's son, an MP.

Corruption and coterie-ism did the Rajapaksas in. Sirisena will not lose by giving Tamils their due just as the Rajapaksas could not win by denying the Tamils the same.

Image: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on his first foreign visit after ascending to the presidency, seen here with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, February 16. Photograph: MEA/Facebook


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