It’s not diplomacy, Mr Watson

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The way he is continuing with his India-bashing exercise even as he remains the nation’s envoy to Myanmar, the Foreign Ministry should advice Prof Nalin de Silva, it is just not on, given the diplomatic niceties to which he is unaccustomed to. Better still, if he were to continue this way, call him back and assign him a political role within the ruling dispensation. He may be cut out for that kind of job and may feel comfortable with.
Going beyond the common Buddhist connections, both India and Myanmar are friendly neighbours. In a recent letter, mentioned in a section of the media, Prof De Silva has referred to Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) S Jaiishankar’s Colombo visit, and shot off a volley of questions without full knowledge or understanding of such high-level visits between nations.
Among other issues, Prof De Silva has linked India’s reiteration of the long-standing position on 13-A and the more recent offer to supply Covid vaccines. If nothing else India knows that China is already waiting on the wings to supply the vaccine to Sri Lanka and every other Third World nation, and would not have done it the way Prof De Silva’s imagination runs riot.

The way Prof De Silva has gone about it all, saying that New Delhi should provide residence for TNA leaders R Sampanthan and M A Sumanthiran in ‘India House’, Colombo, it does not require condemnation, but something more. Or, is it that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, as with the ‘Jaffna memorial’ issue around the same time, embarrassing the Government leadership. In this case, too, the leadership may not know if Prof De Silva was being fed from Colombo, but it knows all the same the diplomatic protocols and political repercussions, both within the country and outside.

If nothing else, the likes of Prof De Silva are by tradition and otherwise forbidden from talking about the affairs of third nations from the kind of positions they hold. If nothing else, Myanmar, too, may not want to be seen as ‘encouraging’ such behaviour, even without anyone having to take it up with Naypyitaw.

Cart before the horse

There are those in this Government that know how the ruling Rajapaksas hold a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and does not have to report or seek the help of a friendly India, Myanmar or any other nation, to have a new Constitution passed. The latter class is equally aware that any change in the overall character of the Constitution should go back to the people, for a referendum, and whatever they may propose, whatever the reason, will have to be acceptable to the hard-line sections within the majority Sinhala-Buddhsit community in this country. They know that putting the cart before the horse is just not on.

If India still talks about 13-A, it is not because there is the Indian angle flowing from the Rajiv-Jayawardene Accord of 1987. Instead, it is because anything more at the moment will be unacceptable to sections with the Sri Lankan State structure and also the Sinhala-Buddhist camp. No Government in Colombo, including predecessor GNU, will do anything that hurts Sinhala-Buddhists political sentiments, whether acceptable or otherwise.

The argument that the ‘ethnic issue’ has been solved with the extermination of the LTTE is over-simplistic. It was the kind of conclusions on ‘Sinhala Only’ in the mid-fifties, and the Government of the day and those afterwards acting on such simplistic constructs that led to the four ‘Eelam Wars’ and years of LTTE terrorism.

The armed forces eliminated the LTTE and terrorism. They left it to the elected political leadership to resolve what was acknowledged as the ‘national problem’ even afterwards. Leave alone what post-war Governments have promised the international community, including India, the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa Government also negotiated a political settlement with the TNA, post-war, thus acknowledging the existence of a political problem beyond the LTTE and the need to address it, through negotiations.

The current talk by some in this Government, for dissolving the Provincial Council, which are a creation of 13-A, through the PC Act, also of 1987, is like cutting one’s own hand off instead of cleaning up a festering wound. No thanks to the confrontational Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran, elected on the TNA ticket, the Tamils did not enjoy even the minimal benefits that a PC offered.

So, they are not going to miss it in real terms, but the Sinhala provinces are going to. They have already been missing the PCs, both at the level of party cadres and the people at large. Delayed PC polls was among the reasons why the GNU lost the larger presidential polls. There was no feedback from the grassroots, and the leaders continued to fight among themselves at the helm. Both lost out in the end.

For the Tamils, however, Provincial Councils are a political issue, their answer to power-devolution aimed at ending Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic hegemony. The power-package is an expression of how much power that they are vested with and trusted with. It was the line that Wigneswaran took as the Chief Minister of Northern Province. In doing so, he also declined the existing reality, and denied his constituents the kind of assistance that the existing system was extending to them, as a matter of course.

It needs to be acknowledged that through the war years, rather decades, the Sri Lankan State continued to send food and medicines, to the North and the East, under LTTE control, and most of those stocks went to the LTTE’s war-chest. Tamils outside the country coughed up ‘tax money’ fixed by the LTTE, for fear of reprisals against near ones caught in the ‘LTTE areas’ back home.  The Diaspora cannot now say that they enjoyed the situation, as occasionally the LTTE did send out a clear message, both inside Sri Lanka and outside, that they meant business – and, how bloody it could be.

Lessons from 2015

It is unclear why the Government leadership should persist with the new Constitution, just now, when the nation’s priorities should have been Covid management and economy. If they could buy time from the UNHRC, in its upcoming session, without actually having to ‘compromise’ on the known positions of the present leadership, they should have considered the possibility.

There are lessons from Elections-2015. Sinhala nationalism plays out only up to a point. Team Rajapaksa should feel confident that this constituency is going to be with them for a long time to come. What they need, even in electoral terms, is the non-committed Sinhala-Buddhist votes, whose ranks are swelling, also due to the weakening of the UNP, the country’s failed GoP. The Government leadership should be concerned about catering to that constituency, which voted back the Rajapaksas in twice in as many years, now.

To that constituency, economy matters, prices matter, law and order matter, and a personal sense of security matters – and a nightmarish feeling of a midnight knock at the door, even if of the neighbour’s matters. In the case of the predecessor GNU dispensation, the last one fear was replaced by the Easter Sunday serial-blasts, and they lost.

Then there was the multiple directions in which the Government was travelling at the time. A rapidly urbanising Sri Lanka read about it, saw it on the telly, and there was/is also the social media. They changed the governments in 2015 and 2019, not necessarily the Tamils.

The Covid Phase-2 has exposed the government leadership. The Phase-1 had contributed to the ruling SLPP’s massive electoral victory in the parliamentary polls of August last. The likes of ‘Jaffna memorial’ issue indicates a mind-set at one level, and confusion in government at another level. The likes of Prof De Silva’s unbridled utterances, too, belong there.

Hence also the avoidable delay over the need to conduct the much-delayed PC polls early on – and the need to find new excuses for a possible delay. The new Constitution offers one, but then, underneath such efforts is an increasing apprehension that the voter’s mood is not the same as it was in November 2019 and August 2020.

That is what needs addressing, and it includes Covid management, economy and the inherent individual’s sense of security – nothing more, nothing less. SJB Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa’s recent declaration that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should be held accountable for the ‘war crimes’ charges against the armed forces is a departure from his earlier position of refusing to acknowledge all such charges, may hold a handle to a possible public mood in the Sinhala country.

If true, then the indications are that the UNHRC is no more an issue for the majority Sinhala voters, to be able to polarise them, as already pronounced once earlier in Elections-2015, It also means that 13-A and political solutions too are not. Any failure of this Government or any other in its place to ensure permanent peace across the country, and without involving the armed forces in new skirmishes or even less in the Tamil areas all over again, is not going to be taken kindly by more and more people than anticipated!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: