By Austin Fernando
(Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India)
The title of this article may baffle the readers. I chose it knowing well that the critics of India desirous of seeing Minister Jaishankar lose would be offended.
Dr. Jaishankar, the Indian Minister of External Affairs visited Sri Lanka from 4 to 7 January on the invitation of Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena hoping for nothing but victory.
The media eagerly awaited press statements. The outcomes of all high-level discussions are not included in the media statements, but observers read between the lines. This article is based on the statements covering three specific areas—devolution, development, and defense/security.
Both ministerial statements were abstract devoid of specifics, save a few on COVID-19. However, the Indian interests are craftily incorporated into ‘partnerships’, ‘infrastructure’, ‘energy’, ‘connectivity,’ ‘Lines of Credit’ ‘fisheries’, etc. Later, the media expressed Indian concerns about specific projects.
Minister Gunawardena spoke of economics, finance, trade, commerce, defense, security, fisheries, religion, and the pandemic. His was a generalized version of what had happened. Since we were not privy to what happened, there could be gaps in this article as well, written three weeks after.
Power-sharing and relationships
Minister Jaishankar in his statement mentioned, among other things:
“It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled. That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The progress and prosperity of Sri Lanka will surely be advanced as a consequence.”
Here, Minister Jaishankar played proxy to the Tamil people, and displayed his concern about Sri Lanka’s “own interest.” Sri Lanka’s own interest” is multi-faceted, e. g., domestic, bilateral, multi-lateral, security, economic, diplomatic, etc. These could turn positive as well as negative. While there was much positive Indian support for Sri Lanka in the past, in 2012 India took a negative decision at the UNHRC. There is no guarantee of similar repetition. Going by the latest UNHRC report, Sri Lanka had better exercise caution.
In an article titled, ‘Crisscrossing 13A Abolition’ (The Island 13/11/2019), I wrote:
“PM Narendra Modi during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s State Visit, like other interlocutors, said: “I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace, and respect.”
Dr. Jaishankar repeats what PM Modi has said, the only difference being he uses ‘dignity’ instead of ‘respect’. This message has been repeated by other Indians leaders as well. This message could have been conveyed by amiable High Commissioner (HC) Gopal Baglay. India may have considered it was too serious that it had to be delivered by Dr. Jaishankar himself.
In the aforesaid article, I highlighted the instances where former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Minister GL Pieris, former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe from our end, and PMs Narendra Modi, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Minister SM Krishna from the Indian end had expressed interest and commitments as regards the implementation of the 13th Amendment. These were recalled by Minister Jaishankar as “commitments made by Sri Lanka”.
Knowing the parliamentary strength of the Sri Lankan government, and the somewhat weakened position of the Tamil Naitional Alliance (TNA) in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where devolution was demanded vociferously, one may guess that Minister Jaishankar’s top priority would have shifted from 13A. He may have thought Tamil politics was becoming too nationalistic like Sinhala politics as evident from the election of representatives of the fringe political parties in the North. Having previously dealt with parliamentarians like CV Wigneswaran and Gajan Ponnambalam, I know they will be more vociferous than TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, whom I have associated with for decades. Probably, due to the apparent weakening of TNA, Dr. Jaishankar may have volunteered to fill the vacuum.
Anyhow, the Tamil groups have united for a common cause, as seen from the 15-1-2021 communication addressed to Member Missions of the UNHRC. This kind of cooperation may be extended to their campaign for enhanced devolution, too, but Minister Douglas Devananda or Parliamentarian Angajan Ramanathan, despite being in the government, will think twice before backing the anti-13A+ camp.
When bilateral negotiations got tough, the government may have moved faster to address Indian demands as regards 13A, Eastern Container Terminal (ECT), the Trincomalee Oil Tanks, or the Palk Bay fishing. The Presidential Media Unit (13-1-2021) gave the impression that bargaining on ECT had been tougher than what was claimed in ministerial statements. The speed at which the President’s Office proceeded to negotiate with the warring trade unions implied that its primary concern was the ECT. The 13A was secondary and the Presidential Secretariat has made no mention of it to date. Some ruling party backers are criticizing the ETC deal while attempts are being made in government quarters to defend the decision to involve Indian investment in the ECT. State Minister Nalaka Godahewa and Secretary Bandu Priyath have spoken in favour of it; State Minister Nivard Cabraal has put forth more logical arguments. But their positions are not acceptable to the trade unions.
Minister Gunawardena has not mentioned the 13A or devolution as if he had not heard Dr. Jaishankar properly! However, I believe that Dr. Jaishankar would not have incorporated the matter into his statement without a discussion with his Sri Lankan counterpart thereon. Alternatively, there could have been an understanding that each party would ‘mind its priorities,’ and this may explain non-congruence. But will India remain silent on 13A?
If Dr. Jaishankar’s visit had been aimed at discussing the 13A, one of the reasons for it may have been calling for the abolition of the Provincial Council system. If the composition of the Romesh de Silva Committee, some of whose members are openly critical of 13A, is anything to go by, then its proposals may not be in favour of retaining the 13A. However, the question is whether this legislation, introduced 38 years ago, should be allowed to go unrevised, given the socio-political changes the country has undergone.
The TNA has handed over its proposals to this Committee. It is pushing for 13A Plus, to all intents and purposes, historically referring to promises and standpoints as regards power-sharing, even referring to the pre-Independence era. If such powers are devolved to the PCs, there could be extensive support even from the Southerners as these propositions vastly expand the existing devolution package. Nevertheless, India may have sought to address any attitude of negativism toward the TNA demands.
At a recent virtual meeting between PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Modi, the latter insisted: “Sri Lanka must implement its 13th constitutional amendment to achieve peace and reconciliation” and requested our Government to work towards realizing the expectations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace, and dignity.” Dr. Jaishankar has reiterated the keywords in PM Modi’s statement.
Minister Jaishankar’s insistence that the 13A is a prerequisite for ethnic reconciliation may be consequent on demands made by some Sinhala politicians, and Buddhist clergy for its abolition, irrespective of their possible effects on the JRJ-Rajiv Accord and the Indo-Lanka agreement on Kachchativu.
Secondly, even the postponement of the PC elections due to Covid-19 may be viewed as a prelude to the abolition of the 13-A, signifying a dignified scrapping. Dr. Jaishankar must have wondered why the PC polls had been postponed after the successful conclusion of a general election. Therefore, he may have tested the government’s intentions regardless of the legal obstacles to the conduct of the PC polls now.
The postponement of the PC polls could also be due to other factors such as the government’s poor performance in controlling the pandemic, the frustration of the repatriated workers, economic woes of the workforce caused by lockdowns, etc., protests by the Buddhist monks who supported the SLPP at previous elections and the grievances of the farming community such as shortage of fertilizer and failed pest control. But India must have thought of making its stance on the 13A known to Sri Lanka as speculation is rife that the PC system is to be scrapped.
Thirdly, Dr. Jaishankar is under Indian domestic pressures too, especially from Tamil Nadu, which considers the 13A and the JRJ-Rajiv Accord as the constitutional basis and the central means to addressing the Tamil aspirations. The State level pressures were heightened recently with a statement by DMK’s T R Balu, just before Tamil Nadu election season, requesting PM Modi “to ensure that the PC system remains intact.”
Tamil Nadu’s political influence on India could be gauged from the Sri Lankan government’s volte-face on the Jaffna University memorial issue. The rebuilding of the demolished monument commenced after Dr. Jaishankar had left. Simply speaking, PM Modi wants to accommodate the South Indian Tamil sentiments as part of the BJP electoral strategy.
Minister Jaishankar would have been cautious in demanding the enhancement of the powers of the PCs following the Article 370 (of the Indian Constitution) episode in August 2019 where the Indian rulers withdrew shared power from Kashmir. When queried, India bluntly declared that it was an ‘internal affair of India’. The possibility of receiving a similar response from Colombo may have been on Minister Jaishankar’s mind, but such hesitancy was not reflected in his statement. Perhaps, he would have been briefed by the TNA on representations to the Romesh de Silva Committee and the Missions of UNHRC member states and acting confidently.
Two crucial issues as regards power-sharing are police and land powers. The government is highly likely to circumnavigate them when the new Constitution is written. The Indians are aware of this. In Kashmir, land powers have been taken over by the center now. India may have thought Sri Lanka would follow suit. However, Dr. Jaishankar would have known that the TNA would ask for more.
India’s concerns are growing against the background of China’s Ladakh interventions in its northern boundary and the emerging maritime issues in the Indian Ocean Region. Therefore, maybe New Delhi does not want trouble in South India and across the Palk Strait. This issue has been heightened with China investing in the Colombo Port City and already having substantial control over the Hambantota Port. India cannot allow Sri Lanka to further slip into China’s sphere of influence. This would have invariably a burning issue troubling Dr. Jaishankar; this is discussed in Part II of this article.
The political changes in the US should also be taken into consideration. The Joe Biden administration in the US seems to be pro-India as could be seen from statements the new President has made and the inclusion of a considerable number of people of Indian origin in his administration. Further, Samantha Power entering a high position in his administration may revert certain aspects of administrative issues, and the Indian support might become necessary for Sri Lanka especially considering the US India Strategic Partnership in action. Hence what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa mentioned about geopolitics is true.
These will influence decision-making on the 13A or business deals.
Sohan…adapting to the ‘new normal’
Surprisingly, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have galvanised our entertainers into action.
True, most of the big bands are finding the going pretty tough, these days, as most public shows, like concerts, sing-along, and dances, have been put on hold.
Fortunately, we do have artistes who capitalise on unexpected situations to continue to keep the public, and their fans, entertained – of course, doing it differently
Band leader Sohan, of Sohan & The X-Periments fame, who is always innovative, when it comes to music, has hit upon a novel idea, in order to keep his band occupied, for the next three months.
He has decided to put The X-Periments into ‘recording mode.
Says Sohan: “I’m getting them involved in doing in-house recordings at my home studio.”
And, what’s more, I’m told that Sohan has found a secret sponsor, so the boys will be paid, too. Obviously, it’s a win-win situation and that makes Sohan extra happy!
The veteran artiste/entertainer went on to explain that the main CD will contain cover versions of his favourite songs, and will also include a duet with his daughter Erandika who is scheduled to be in Sri Lanka, hopefully, in May. She is currently in the States.
The song, Sohan has in mind, is that immensely popular golden oldie, made popular by the late Nat king Cole (and daughter Natalie Cole) – ‘Unforgettable.’
Clifford Richards will be seen in a virtual concert, along with Corrine Almeida, and Sohan
The second CD will feature Sohan’s original songs, both western and oriental.
Sohan will be working with Shobi Perera, Kumar de Silva, Rajiv Sebastian, Roshan de Silva, Chrys Wikramanayake, Rukshan Perera and Damian Wikkramatillake on his novel project, while Krishantha de Silva, who manages Sonexco Enterprises, will take on the role of coordinator.
Although this project will keep The X-Periments, busy, one day of the week will be designated as ‘recording day’ and they have a deadline of three months to complete this project, said Sohan.
There is also a possibility of Sohan inviting a few of his friends to join him in the vocals but that will depend on the materiel he decides on.
“There is no point in hanging around, waiting for work. Musicians have to innovate and create work to keep going, during these challenging times.”
Sohan is also working closely with Corinne Almeida and Clifford Richards and has an idea of doing a virtual concert, with the same line up that was featured at the Valentine show, called ‘Love at the Edge.’
Rajitha, of Misty, is helping them with the technical details of the show,
No doubt, things are looking a bit rosy for Sohan & The X-Periments, and Trishelle..
The guys are also working with Benjy and Aquarius, on a mega event, for Richard de Soysa, to be held at Nelum Pokuna, which is scheduled for mid- May, of 2021, and will feature 10 leading artistes ..
Remembering Dr. Neville Fernando
This tribute is in remembrance of my father-in-law, the late Dr. Neville Fernando who would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 9th March 2021. He passed away unexpectedly on the 4th of February 2021 due to the deadly COVID-19 virus.
His birthday will be remembered with an almsgiving to the priests at the Kotikawatta temple to invoke merits on him to attain the Supreme bliss of Niravana. Religious observances on his birthday were an annual occurrence even during his lifetime.
As I ponder his memories, being ‘no more’ is the saddest thought that crosses my mind. I suspect that if you are reading this you understand what I mean logically. Death means that our loved ones never grow a year older, although logic does little to clear up our confusion when his birthday continues to happen year after year.
His memories and deeds throughout his life brought back towards the day I joined his family, when I was just a medical house-officer at the Nawalapitiya Hospital in 1982, through the marriage to his only daughter. Even then he was known to be a real legend and an honest politician. Today, I am in this position as a cardiologist due to his encouragement, loving care and continuous assistance in whatever means. My mind is full of memories of those loving moments shared together. He was a loving, kind and straight gentleman. I may also use the words handsome and charismatic leader. He will inspire us throughout our lives. His pleasant disposition will charm anyone and uplift our mood.
He led a good life and now has a left a good legacy of four children( three boys and one girl) whom any father would be proud of, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren loved by everyone. He is now no more and no one can fill the void nor bring back the warmth and love he exuded.
We all have courage and we have our convictions, but rarely have the courage of our conviction. His kindness and compassion were his key attributes that made him so special. He had been a good general practitioner before coming to Parliament defeating a formidable leftist politician Leslie Goonewardene who represented Panadura for decades. It was a landmark victory for the UNP in 1977. He was a kind and compassionate doctor who served the rich and poor alike in Panadura for many years and was sought after by his patients for his well known ‘athguna’ (healing hands). This is where he earned his loyal fan base to enter into politics.
Among many things he achieved in Panadura establishing the “Kethumathi” Maternity Hospital, the only one of its kind outside Colombo, helping Sri Sumangala Girls College expansion programme, starting Agamathi Girls school and Janadhipathi Boys School and self funding the Sri Saugatha Vidyalaya Pirivena building at n the Rankoth Viharaya temple in Panadura. Likewise he helped many Buddhist temples during his tenure.
He also started an industrial zone in Modarawila, Panadura which was an abandoned marshy area before that. He had provided the first computer lab and two acres of additional land to expand the Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya which is spoken with gratitude by the students of his alma mater. He did not expect anything in return.
He was a fearless ,principled and honest man who opposed JRs’ motion to takeaway Mrs.Bandaranaikes’ civic rights as he never wanted to compromise his basic human qualities over politics. Very soon he left the Government before any attempt to expel him and formed a small party with few other honest politicians. Later he joined SLFP on the invitation of Mrs.Bandaranaike and worked in the party as an Assistant Secretary for the progress of the country.
He was a maverick par excellence ,an entrepreneur ,extraordinaire and a businessman with a foresight. As one of the pioneers in the hospitality industry, he built hotel Swanee, subsequently he started JF and I, one of the most modern printing and packaging factories in the country to date. He also pioneered a porcelain factory called “Royal Fernwood Porcelain” in Kosgama. Which provided so many employment opportunities and in time to come, helped to economically develop the area.
Continuing his political career, he entered Parliament again as an SLFP opposition member. Later on in 1994 he decided to give up politics.
His divestments in the Porcelain factory enabled him to purchase Asha Central Hospital which was developed with latest equipment and brought to international standards. This is the time I had to take a difficult decision to leave the Government as a Consultant Cardiologist and join Asha Central Hospital in 1998 to help him in his endeavour. He developed and managed Asha Central Hospital till 2007 and subsequently sold it to start his new venture SAITM or South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine with the encouragement of the then Min.of Higher Education Wishwa Warnapala.
Infact I was very much concerned about the new development because of the past experience in the country with the North Colombo Medical College. He always used to tell “every child should have the right for a decent education either in a government or non-government organisation”. His main vision was to give a higher education opportunity for the students .Therefore apart from medicine he also established nursing, engineering , IT, management programmes with the help of esteemed academics who believed in his vision. He established the Dr Neville Fernando Teaching hospital (NFTH) in Malabe to provide clinical training for his students at the medical faculty .It was a impressive state of the art hospital with 1002 beds and latest medical equipment . All of this was done during his 80s which was a remarkable achievement.
SAITM gave him immense pride and a lot of pain at the same time. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to give so many scholarships to deserving students (close to Rs.600 million scholarships during his time).In addition to saving a tremendous amount of foreign exchange he was also able to give an opportunity to students to stay in Sri Lanka with their parents, without having to go overseas for their education leaving behind all family and friends.
However, he had to face many obstacles during this period and was socially and politically crushed due to SAITM. With time, he made a decision to give the NFTH to the Government in return for the clinical training of the medical students of SAITM. In 2017 SAITM was closed down by Maithripala Sirisena who gave in due to the heavy opposition made by the unions against private medical education.
At 89 years of age he was an avid Facebook warrior and used to keep abreast of what was going on in the social media. He was a big cricket fan and never missed watching a cricket match day or night.
Writing about this unique personality cannot be limited to a few words. His life is a monumental story full of new chapters. He dreamed big and his dreams were of public service, even when he was no longer a politician. He yearned to make this country a better place for people to live in, even in his eighties.
May his journey of Sansara be a short one and may he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!
Dr Mohan Jayatilake
Boogie Night with Suzi
Yes, music lovers, get ready to boogie the night away, this Saturday, March 13th.
From 9.00 pm to 10 pm, you would be given the opportunity to see Friends’ former female vocalist, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger) boogie away on Facebook, on Talent Network Group (TNG).
Suzi is excited about this new scene, which will be live streamed, worldwide., and she plans to belt out songs from the Friends’ era (’80s and ’90s), country, and rock ‘n’ roll.
She is already working on her repertoire and says she will make ‘Boogie Night with Suzi’ a real exciting event.
TNG is a Dubai-based project, administered in Dubai, with moderators, worldwide.
And, that means, the whole world is going to see Suzi boogie away.
Several local artistes have already been featured on TNG.
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