Col R Hariharan
The month of September 2020 was a crucial one for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been impatiently waiting to gain two-thirds majority support in the parliament in the parliamentary poll, to go ahead with his agenda. Gaining it with the reaffirmation of Sinhala majority has given him confidence to handle the nation, facing unprecedented economic woes due to global Covid pandemic.
In what appeared to be a hasty move, the government presented the 20th Amendment (20A) to the constitution bill to replace the 19th Amendment (19A) brought by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, to make the president more accountable to parliament and clipped some of his powers in key appointments of governance.
This move provided a bone to pick for the opposition, demoralised after their dismal performance in the parliamentary election. There were chaotic scenes when the bill was introduced, with the Opposition staging loud protests inside the House, countered by equally loud counter protests by the ruling party members.
The 19A decentralised the appointments to the nine commissions including the Elections Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Finance Commission, the Public Service Commission, among others to a Constitutional Council. It rolled back the 18th Amendment, earlier brought in by the outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa that removed the two-term bar on incumbent president from contesting a third time. Under the 19A, the President also lost his power to sack the Prime Minister. It also placed a ceiling on the number of ministers and deputy ministers. Evidently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa through the 20A has tried to not only undo 19A, but out do even the 18A.
Apparently, even within the government parliamentary group, there was some criticism of the 20A when it met before the bill was fielded. According to the local media at least three ministers wanted the 20A to retain some of the provisions of 19A, which debarred dual citizens from contesting elections. There was also criticism of reducing the age of eligibility to contest the election from 35 to 30. Another change proposed in 20A was to allow the President to dissolve the parliament after four years of its five-year term, instead of the earlier four and half years under the 19A.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives expressing its concerns in the 20A bill, said “It seeks to remove the checks and balances on the executive presidency. In particular, it abolishes the binding limitations on presidential powers in relation to key appointments to independent institutions through the pluralistic and deliberative process of the Constitutional Council.” This appears to be the essence of the problem. Eighteen political parties led by Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa have filed their objections to the bill at the Supreme Court, which is expected to dispose it off by first week October, 2020
Surprisingly, the President seem to have prioritised strengthening his constitutional position through the 20A fulfilling his election promise, rather than implementing than more down to earth issues affecting the common man, particularly after the Covid pandemic has severely affected the economy and livelihood sources of the people.
India-Sri Lanka Summit
From the Indian perspective, the key event during the month was Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first-ever virtual summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi held on September 26. Both the leaders are trying to manage in their own ways China – the elephant in the room. The two countries are affected by four criticalities impacting their multilateral relations, in which they can help each other. These are: economic recovery after the havoc created by the Covid pandemic, strategic security compulsions of worsening India – China relations, threat of terrorism and insurgency from third country and managing the 4-nation Quadrilateral linkages to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific.
Of course, there are two perennial areas of suspicion, distrust and dissension: Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters and the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord 1987 in letter and spirit to meet the aspirations of Tamil minority in Sri Lanka (and as a corollary implementation of 13th amendment to Sri Lanka constitution providing limited provincial autonomy).
At the meeting, PM Modi said, “We are giving special and high priority to our relationship with Sri Lanka in accordance with my government’s neighbourhood first policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) doctrine.” Apparently, it was a reiteration of India agreeing to continue and further strengthen their mutual cooperation on personnel exchange and training and maritime security, made during PM Rajapaksa’s visit in February when he was interim prime minister. The current situation in India-China standoff in Ladakh also came up during the discussion. However, India is probably more comfortable with Sri Lanka on China’s presence in the country, after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear that Sri Lanka was adopting an “India first approach” as its regional foreign policy plank. As Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary Admiral Colombage said in August, that meant “Sri Lanka will not do anything harmful to India’s strategic security interests.” According to official media briefing, the leaders also acknowledged the progress made in information sharing and cooperation in counter-terrorism efforts, as well as, in dealing with regional drug trafficking.
They also discussed working to strengthen bilateral financial cooperation. India has already provided a $400 million currency swap facility to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in order to assist with economic recovery and to tackle Covid related disruptions. This was perhaps the most urgent issue to bale out the cash strapped Sri Lankan economy. After the talks, MEA Joint Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Amit Narang said “An additional request for a bilateral currency swap arrangement worth around $1 billion by the Sri Lankan side remains under discussion. Technical discussions on Sri Lanka’s request for debt deferment are going on.” He was referring to Sri Lanka’s request for a three-year moratorium for $960-million debt owed to India, which had been pending since last February. PM Modi in his opening remarks touched upon the issue and said that Sri Lanka’s additional request for a currency swap arrangement worth around $ 1 billion was “still under discussion.”
According to Narang, the two leaders also exchanged views on reconciliation in Sri Lanka. “Prime Minister Modi called on the new government in Sri Lanka to work towards realising the expectations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka by achieving reconciliation nurtured by implementation of the Constitutional provisions. He emphasized that implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution is essential for carrying forward the process of peace and reconciliation.” PM Modi’s reference to the 13th amendment was widely welcomed by Sri Lanka Tamil leaders, who had been uneasy after President Rajapaksa had come out against devolution and Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, minister for provincial councils, had called the 13th Amendment and provincial councils “burdensome and useless” and suggested abolishing them.
However, in the joint statement, PM Rajapaksa expressed confidence that Sri Lanka would work towards realising the expectations of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people and implementation of the constitutional provisions.
PM Modi’s reference to the peace process and reconciliation was equally welcomed by Tamils, particularly after President Rajapaksa disowned Sri Lanka’s sponsorship of the UN Human Right’s council resolution in 2018.
The two leaders exchanged views on fishermen-related issues. They agreed to continue and “strengthen the ongoing constructive and humanitarian approach to address this issue through existing bilateral mechanisms and instructed relevant officials on both sides to this effect,” rather a vague commitment.
It was interesting to see there was considerable focus on the soft aspects of diplomacy in their interactions. These included exploring opportunities in common heritage such as Buddhism, Ayurveda and Yoga. In this connection, PM Modi announced that a delegation of Buddhist pilgrims from Sri Lanka will be aboard the inaugural of the international flight to the sacred city of Kushinagar. He also announced a grant $ 15 million for promoting Buddhist ties between the two countries. The two leaders also agreed to facilitate tourism by enhancing connectivity and by early establishment of an air bubble.
Overall, the summit was an exercise in building better understanding between the two leaders, when their countries are going through troubled times. They seem to have focused on “do-ables”, deferring the gritty issues, to be taken up as and when they come.