” The Chinese research vessel which is expected to call on Colombo and Hambantota is a barometer on Wickremesinghe’s diplomatic skills and aggressive balancing capabilities concerning the two emerging powers”

The Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) is trying its best to be in the limelight with the next presidential elections just around the corner.

It started its ritualistic publicity stunts by trying to showcase its feeble and fragile leader, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, playing cricket in a public playground in Nuwara Eliya.

The message being conveyed by the move was that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who purportedly relieved the country from the clutches of the LTTE, is politically conscious and upright.

Rajapaksa, now ailing, clarified his position concerning the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, under which the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe is planning to devolve power to the provinces.

He said it was not the appropriate time to talk about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The SLPP is yet to realise that power devolution to the minorities and debt restructuring should go hand in hand to attract the attention of our lenders, including India, Japan and the Paris Club.

The reason is that lenders are more likely to agree to a debt restructuring package if it is tagged along with concrete steps to devolve power to all Sri Lankans and minority populations. The reluctance of the SLPP to devolve power to the minorities and provinces demonstrates that the party and its cohorts are not serious about creating a more equitable and inclusive political and economic landscape in the country.

It is a forgotten fact that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa pledged in India that he would go beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and was harping on 13+ as a formula to resolve the ethnic crisis.

The Buddhist clergy and their support groups should realise it is not their prerogative to find political solutions to complex issues such as the ethnic crisis. Anybody advocating justice and fair play will understand that Sri Lanka cannot forge ahead with a festering wound like the ethnic issue. In that context, it is essential to devise a just and equitable solution to the question plaguing the country for decades. Is it that the majority wants to delay what is due to minorities and put the whole package on the back burner?

If so, they are inviting trouble once more. Defeating a mass struggle by military means wouldn’t solve a deep-seated problem, especially one such as the ethnic crisis which has gained the backing and support from the outside world for alleged human rights violations. Except a few, Sri Lanka has been accused of gross human rights abuses by many countries in the West. This makes it significantly critical that we solve the ethnic issues within the shortest possible time frame without passing it down to another generation to find answers to the burning issue.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sagara Kariyawasam the General Secretary of the SLPP and the Asgiriya Chapter are the opposers of the implementation of the 13 Amendement. Their contention appears to be that the incumbent President doesn’t have a mandate to go ahead and execute whatever at his whim since he is only finishing the remainder of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa term.

Does that argument hold water? If Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the presidency under duress, coercion and pressure from the masses, and his mandate comes to an end with the popular uprising.

According to our constitution Parliament elects the stand – in President the successor if the incumbent leaves or dies before the end of his term. It doesn’t empower the second in command who is the Prime Minister, or for that matter the Speaker, to take over and discharge the duties of the office of President. The constitution specifically states Parliament elects the successor, which means the elected members of Parliament elects the new President. Hence it is unwarranted to say that the candidate who takes over doesn’t have a mandate. If a President elected in such a manner doesn’t have a mandate, then he is unable to perform other duties assigned to the executive.

It is a different issue if the SLPP declares that their intention was to do away with the 13th Amendment with its plan to introduce a new Constitution to replace the Jayewardene Constitution without the Provincial Council system in place. Committees have been appointed but ostensibly have lost their political clout with the departure of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

However much the government boasted about the massive Sinhala Buddhist majority they received they may not be able to do away with the 13th Amendment and abrogate the Indo- Lanka pact which came into effect in July 1987.The SLPP’s contention is that they would not support the 13th Amendment and its implementation purely because it is not the right time for such a proposition. But then, the vital question would be about the appropriate time frame to resolve the issue. The thinking of the SLPP appears to be that President Ranil Wickrememsinghe has been elected by them or rather appointed by them for a specific job, that is to salvage the country from the economic precipice and hand it back to the SLFP hierarchy to enjoy the fruits of Wickremesinghe‘s sheer efforts and put the country in yet another political and economic turmoil.

During Wickremesinghe’s recent visit to Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Modi raised the issue relating to the 13th Amendment during bilateral talks. With India keeping a close watch, it is clear Sri Lanka will not be able to repeal or make the 13th Amendment obsolete at the whims and fancies of the Rajapaksa’s or the Buddhist clergy who want to create a monolithic Sinhala Buddhist state.

The SLPP General Secretary taking an opposing view on the 13th Amendment to that of President Wickremesinghe is likely to split the party down the middle. It appears the SLPP is desperate and imbibed with the Sinhala Buddhist thinking in order to face the next presidential or general election espousing the nationalist instincts in the masses. The SLPP is going all-out to attack the 13th Amendment which has become a sore point for the Rajapaksas’ who want to wreak havoc in the country at a time it is facing an economic down turn and making a snails pace recovery with the help of key lenders for external debt restructuring.

There is no escape route for the Rajapaksas or anybody who takes over the reins as India is at it with vigour. Rajapaksa even in power would not be able to repeat the gimmick of hoodwinking India.

In 2010 while on a visit to India, Rajapaksa reassured Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about Colombo’s plan to expeditiously resettle the displaced Tamils who continue to live in refugee camps in India. He also briefed Prime Minister Singh about steps taken by his government to forge a consensus on a political solution to the ethnic conflict revolving around devolution of powers to the minorities.

Although Sri Lanka has given an assurance to India during Rajapaksa-Manmohan talks in July 2010 and subsequently to UN Secretary General Ban-ki-Moon that the government would go beyond the 13th Amendment to devolve substantial powers to Tamil dominated areas, none of the interested parties on devolution asked the pertinent question about defining ‘13 plus’. During one of the Indo-Lanka pow-wows in New Delhi, when Rajapaksa craftily evaded the elaboration of his ‘13 plus’ promise, the National Security Advisor of the Manmohan Singh government Shivshankar Menon himself asked if it was to establish an upper house of parliament to ensure greater minority representation for which Rajapaksa answered in the affirmative by nodding his head. It is against this backdrop that Rajapaksa has turned the other way, giving wrong signals.

The SLPP’s reluctance and its campaign using spent forces such as S.B Dissanayake would not yield the desired results. There is a majority in this country which would advocate moves envisaged to implement reasonable devolution of power to the minorities to put an end to the ethnic crisis once and for all.

Besides all this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue while having talks with Ranil Wickrememsinghe in July in New Delhi.

The two leaders had a “comprehensive stock-taking assessment of challenges in the maritime domain” and on “shared challenges that both sides will monitor”.

During bilateral talks, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed for devolution of powers to Sri Lankan Tamils in the form of implementation of the 13th Amendment, so that they too can live with respect and dignity as equals in the island nation.

President Wickremesinghe has pledged that his economic reform policies and devolution of powers with “justice and equity” would benefit all Sri Lankans across the country. Mentioning the northern development plan in this context, he added that Prime Minister Modi had expressed solidarity with him.

Nevertheless, by October the political equation between India and Sri Lanka is poised to take another turn with a Chinese research vessel planning to dock in Colombo and Hambantota to the chagrin of India.

It could lead to a diplomatic flash point between the two countries, putting Sri Lanka in an awkward position given the rivalry between India and China for dominance over the India Ocean region. Sri Lanka’s plan nonetheless is to remain neutral without committing allegiance to any emerging power over the melee in the Indian Ocean. It requires a lot of patience and skill to address sensitive diplomatic issues concerning the two major powers in the region. It will be a complex issue and an acid test to measure Wickremesinghe’s diplomatic skills and political acumen.