The emphasis on Tamil representation in political institutions can create a congenial climate for bilateral ties

There is hope for constitutional and political reform in Sri Lanka with the arrival of the new dispensation in Colombo led by President Maithripala Sirisena (PMS). The appointment of the new chief justice and governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka — both eminent Tamil persons — are steps in the right direction as are the appointments of a civilian governor and new chief secretary for the Northern Province.

By making pro-active appointments, the government has sent positive signals. These are precursors of national reconciliation after decades of narrow communal politics and more such measures could be expected. The current political environment is unprecedented and hopefully will mature as the country prepares for crucial general elections in mid-2015.

It is also interesting to note the absence of discordant notes in the media on current developments.

Relations with India

Internal political developments in Sri Lanka usually have a bearing on its relations with India. The impetus for change will certainly come during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Colombo next month. This will be the first by an Indian head of government after nearly three decades. Sirisena’s first major overseas visit — to India — after assuming office last month is an important event that will set the compass for forward movement in bilateral relations.

The appointment of S Jaishankar as foreign secretary has received favourable attention in the Sri Lankan media; the expectation is that he will bring a new direction to the relationship.

Sri Lanka, during the nearly decade-long rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was unprepared for a post-civil war scenario especially with regard to rapprochement, reconciliation, reconstruction and re-development.

Internal compulsions and external pressure on sensitive matters witnessed a regression in Sri Lankan political and constitutional matters. The root cause of the civil war was not competently addressed for several reasons.

There is, however, no denying the fact that Rajapaksa was the architect of the military victory. However, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s role in bringing the LTTE to a cease-fire in 2001 also needs to be highlighted. Many experts agree that this had a direct and debilitating effect on the LTTE. The rest is history.

Towards constitutional reforms

The new government has embarked on several confidence-building measures in keeping with Sirisena’s election promises, especially the desire to bring about constitutional and political reforms. More “out of box” solutions are necessary to add substance to these reforms.

One area of importance is the need to create an upper house of Parliament, mainly to give voice and representation to the provinces. A bi-cameral Parliament is both a constitutional and political necessity. The creation of the vice-president’s post is important to strengthen the existing system. These should be reasons to make Sri Lanka adopt a secular outlook without compromising on state policy.

The 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution is yet to be fully implemented for a variety of reasons. The two sticking points relate to the devolution of financial and police powers to the provinces.

Unlike India, Sri Lanka’s constabulary is controlled by Colombo in the matter of transfers, postings, deployments, recruitment and training of police rank and file. The other feature is that, again unlike India, there is no buffer between the civil police and the military to handle serious threats to national security, law and order.

The Special Task Force of Sri Lanka Police was created in the early 80s to help tackle LTTE insurgency in the Eastern Province and for security of Colombo. The continuance of the STF in its present form will perhaps remain unchanged. The need is to create a separate national police organisation on the lines of India’s Central Reserve Police Force to be stationed in the provinces for aid to civil power and other specially designated duties.

The military in Sri Lanka today is in excess of requirements. Following the demise of the LTTE, the threat to internal security has reduced. Gradual demobilisation, carefully planned and executed, will release a major chunk of funds for developmental purposes. One area of possible re-deployment of existing military is for UN peace-keeping duties on a rotational basis as was done few years ago.

There are many ways to resolve the question of devolution of financial powers. The way forward can be examined by a group of financial experts with the participation of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and other stakeholders.

A finance commission and a parliamentary committee could also look at the political aspects of the move. The role of stakeholders needs attention. The Tamil National Alliance also needs to step up and display greater maturity in making itself more relevant in the national discourse.

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The way forward

The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Programme (CEP) continues to engage the attention of the respective sides and therefore needs to be finalised quickly. It is expected to receive prominence during Modi’s visit.

Sri Lanka is the largest beneficiary of India’s development assistance. The time is now appropriate to redraw the contours of CEP and expand it into a Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (CPA). The India-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA-1987) will be 29 years old in July 2015. It is still relevant in the bilateral context and provides the way forward on strategic issues.

Military cooperation between both countries has been solid and there is every reason to believe that they will quicken and grow. This will be possible when military cooperation becomes part of the CPA. The CPA umbrella can also look at the fishermen’s issue in the form of a mutually satisfactory fisheries cooperation agreement.

The stage is now set for a resurgence in India-Sri Lanka relations. This will depend on dynamic leadership in India and Sri Lanka. India will certainly look forward to regaining lost ground in Sri Lanka and should therefore re-engage Colombo as a vibrant partner and a reliable neighbour.

The writer is the managing trustee of the Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore and a former special secretary to the Indian government

(This article was published on February 10, 2015)