Rajapaksa wants India to lean on Tamil parties

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapakse on the sidelines of a regional summit on Tuesday, hours after a five-nation coalition moved a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council, condemning the island nation’s human record during its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, speaking to journalists on board the Prime Minister’s flight back to New Delhi, said Sri Lanka’s President had been “courteous, sensitive and forthcoming”.

Mr. Khurshid said Dr. Singh had used the meeting to underline the case of de-militarisation in the Jaffna peninsula. Sri Lanka says it has already scaled back troops from a war-time peak of 175,000, and promised that a further drawdown will take place as de-mining and reconstruction operations are completed.

President Rajapaksa, Mr. Khurshid said, in turn asked India to use its offices to persuade Tamil parties to engage with Parliament on devolution of powers to the Northern and Eastern provinces. Mr. Khursheed quoted Mr. Rajapakse as saying that Tamil engagement was critical to building a consensus among Sri Lankan political parties on devolution.

The 25-minute meeting was the first between the two leaders since 2012, when India first voted against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and comes against the backdrop of criticism by political parties in Tamil Nadu.

Engagement with Sri Lanka will help Tamils: Khurshid

“I hope that both our friends and critics in Tamil Nadu will keep foremost in their minds the interests of the Tamils of the Northern Provinces”, Mr. Khurshid said. “When I went to the Northern Provinces, I did not hear a single voice calling on us not to engage with the Sri Lanka government”.

“Everyone in politics has the rights to promote their interests”, Mr. Khurshid added, “as long as they keep the national interest in mind. Today, India’s national interest is in engaging with Sri Lanka to protect the interests of the Tamils of the Northern Provinces.”

Dr. Singh and Mr. Rajapakse also discussed the arrests of fishermen who had transgressed the maritime border. Mr. Rajapakse, Mr. Khurshid said, argued that India’s trawlers were damaging the marine ecosystem, hurting the long-term sustainability of the fishing grounds off Sri Lanka. “He was at pains to emphasise that both sets of fishermen were ethnic Tamils”, Mr. Khurshid said, “and that that he was defending the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.

India vote still unclear:

In spite of the External Affairs Minister’s words of praise for Mr. Rajpakse, India did not commit to a position on the UN human rights resolution. Dr. Singh, Mr. Khurshid said, told Mr. Rajapaksa his officials had not yet had time to study the resolution. The two countries have, however, committed to be in touch as India firms up its position.

The draft resolution, sponsored by the United Kingdom, United States, Mauritius, Macedonia, Montenegro, calls for the United Nations human rights commissioner to continue investigating war crimes allegedly committed by Sri Lanka’s armed forces. It welcomes progress in reconstruction and recently-held provincial elections, but adds that considerable work lies ahead in justice, reconciliation and demilitarisation.

India controversially voted against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in 2012 and 2013, reversing its traditional opposition to international intervention in countries’ domestic affairs.

Dr. Singh also did not attend a Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka last year, in response to intense opposition from political parties in Tamil Nadu. However, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid attended the summit in his stead.

Mauritius, along with Canada, stayed away from the Commonwealth summit, and also declined to host the next summit, citing its concerns over Sri Lanka’s presence.

Bangladesh discussions:

Dr. Singh also met with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed. Dr. Singh, a spokesperson said, told his Bangaldeshi counterpart that there was no consensus in India on a proposed treaty on sharing the Teesta river’s waters. Both leaders have backed a river treaty, but have been stonewalled by opposition from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Ms. Wajed, the spokesperson said, thanked India for the completion of a line carrying electricity from India to Bangladesh, and for tabling an agreement on the two countries’ long-running land boundary dispute in Parliament.

BIMSTEC leaders hail progress:

In his speech to leaders of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, Dr. Singh said that “connectivity and integration across a fragmented Asia are becoming the new vehicles for advancing peace and prosperity in the region”.

Earlier, the BIMSTEC leaders signed off on a declaration expressing satisfaction at enhanced regional cooperation, and setting up a permanent secretariat in Dhaka. India will meet 32 per cent of the secretariat’s cost.

Sumith Nakandala, Sri Lanka’s former deputy high commissioner stationed in Chennai, will serve as the organisation’s first secretary-general.

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