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Updated: March 19, 2011 05:46 IST

In Sri Lanka, seeking to square the circle

K. Venkataramanan
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The Hindu

India wanted Chandrika to split Defence portfolio to resolve ‘cohabitation' crisis with Ranil

India made an unsuccessful effort to resolve the ‘cohabitation' crisis in Sri Lanka between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe late in 2003 by suggesting that the Defence portfolio be split so that he could have effective control over military affairs in the north and east as he remained in charge of the stalled peace process.

Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen's suggestion did not convince Mr. Wickremesinghe, from whose Cabinet the Defence, Interior and Mass Commuication portfolios were taken away by Ms. Kumaratunga in November 2003. However, according to the contents of a conversation between Milinda Moragoda, a senior Cabinet Minister who was coordinating the peace process from the government side, and Jeffrey J. Lunstead, the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister had no objection to India trying to sell the proposal to the President while she was in Islamabad for the SAARC summit in January 2004.

Mr. Lunstead reported the development in a cable dated December 29, 2003 (12953: confidential), accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks. The context was the lengthy stalemate in the peace process after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) withdrew from the peace talks in April 2003 and, six months and hundreds of ceasefire violations later, came up, on October 31, with a controversial proposal for an ‘Interim Self-Governing Authority' for the northeast. Four days later, Ms. Kumaratunga, marginalised in the decision-making regarding the peace process and left with the feeling that her presidency was not given the respect it deserved, divested the Defence, Interior and Information Ministers of their portfolios. This resulted in the ‘cohabitation crisis' reaching a point of no-return. Mr. Wickremesinghe thought he could not pursue peace without control over the military – as maintaining the ceasefire was the foundation of the process – and believed that a fresh parliamentary election was the only way out.

On December 26, Mr. Moragoda met Mr. Lunstead to review his upcoming visit to the U.S. and told the latter that the only effort to resolve the political stalemate “was a proposal being brokered by Indian High Commissioner Sen following his consultations in Delhi.” The Ambassador said: “Sen was pushing the idea that the regional commands (for the North and the East, presumably) could be carved out of the Defense Ministry and put under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's control. This would give him the operational control he needed to resume the peace negotiations. Milinda [Moragoda] did not know if this idea would fly. Even the PM was not fully convinced it was useful, but he was willing to let Sen try it out on the President. Milinda thought that the Indians would push this idea with President Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga (CBK) at the SAARC summit in Islamabad in early January.”

In a cable sent two days later, on December 31, 2003, containing a report on the handing over of a letter from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Mr. Wickremesinghe (12992: confidential), Mr. Lunstead said he had asked the Prime Minister if there was any chance of Mr. Sen's initiative succeeding. “PM said he did not think this would go anywhere, and even if he liked it, he did not think the Service Chiefs would accept it.”

Chandrika willing

According to a cable sent on January 5, 2004, Mr. Lunstead spoke on January 2 to Mr. Sen, who, “without any prompting,” said: “The technical means of squaring the circle are available. The problem is that Ranil does not want that much – he wants everything. She (the president) is willing to compromise, the problem now is his objection to accepting any piecemeal solution” (13027: confidential).

Mr. Sen explained that the President was looking for a way out by offering to delegate a number of defence matters to the Prime Minister, “but the PM was trying to get everything.” He added that External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee might raise the issue with the President during the SAARC summit.

Throwing light on what exactly Ms. Kumaratunga's ‘way out' was, Mr. Lunstead said in another part of the same cable, while recounting his meeting with Ms. Kumaratunga to deliver a separate letter from Mr. Powell, that she was willing to make Mr. Wickremesinghe Minister of National Security and turn over to him parts of the Defence portfolio related to the peace process.

Mr. Lunstead's own comments show that the U.S. did believe that the Prime Minister could not be blamed for the impasse, but at the same time he should be told that he should “give some meaningful role to the President, if he expects her to give him back operational control over defense.”

“We have urged her to compromise, and will continue to do so, but she will not listen to us if we ask her to consent to her own political oblivion,” he observed.

When Mr. Moragoda said on December 26 that during his U.S. visit he planned to convey to the Deputy Secretary [Richard Armitage] that the international community should understand that the President caused the crisis and was prolonging it with her obstinacy, Mr. Lunstead replied that the U.S. understood that the President had caused the crisis but its public statements had to be relatively even-handed.

The Indian efforts, however, did not bear fruit as Ms. Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament soon and called fresh elections that were held in April 2004 and brought her party back to power.

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