By Sugeeswara Senadhira*
“Solicitation of foreign interference in an election represents a betrayal of public trust because it threatens to undermine the people’s right of self-determination—a foundational norm of our Constitutional order,” said Dean of Cornell Law school, Jens David Ohlin in his book ‘Election Interference’ published by Cambridge Press.
Although the above comment was in response to alleged foreign interference in the United States (US) presidential elections in 2016, it is applicable to foreign interventions in an election anywhere. This logic is equally applicable to soliciting foreign interventions for resolving local political issues and such attempts are also clear instances of betrayal of a nation.
Donald Trump’s solicitation of Russian email hacking during his Presidential Election speech in Florida in July of 2016 had led to re-examining of the legal status of the domestic norm against soliciting foreign interference and a demand was made that the US Congress should pass a new statute criminalizing the solicitation of foreign involvement in elections.
A section of Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 18, asking him to intervene on their behalf to have Provincial Council (PC) elections held, among other outstanding demands. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA)’s action of soliciting foreign intervention is indeed an act of betrayal of the nation.
By writing to the Indian PM, the TNA MPs have ignored the advice of India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla who told them during his visit to Sri Lanka recently, not to expect India to fight their battles with the Sri Lankan Government.
TNA – Indian HC meeting
A delegation of MPs, led by senior TNA leader R. Sampanthan, met the Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay on January 18, and handed over the letter. The seven-page letter foregrounds the many ‘un-kept promises’, made by different Governments in Colombo, to implement the 13th Amendment (that devolves power to the provincial councils set up under that amendment) and even go beyond it to ensure meaningful power devolution.
On the same day, there was a strong signal from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that the Government is deeply committed to resolving local issues through discussions in a consensual manner by adopting an attitude of give-and-take. President Rajapaksa clarified the Government’s position when he said: “We reject racism. The present Government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore, I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.”
President Rajapaksa was opening the Second Session of the Ninth Parliament on January 18, and he assured vast reforms including drafting a people-friendly all-new Constitution and called for the support of all political parties for the same.
“I need your support and support of the people to make our plans a success,” he urged the people’s representatives. “I took action recently to pardon and release a group of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) members who have been in detention over a long period of time. We are also preparing to make relevant amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that had been in force since 1978,” the President further said.
With the Indian intervention in 1987 (when an Indian peacekeeping force was sent to Sri Lanka) in return for a devolution package that was offered to the North and the East with the establishment of the Provincial Councils. It has resulted in some significant degree of power sharing. Further improvements will require trust building between the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities. Hence, it is important for Tamil political leaders of all parties to begin mending relations with the Sinhala and Muslim communities.
While initiating the appeal to Indian Prime Minister Modi, the TNA leaders have tried to rope in the hill country Tamil and Muslim parties to their cause but they have rejected the offer. The TNA writing to the Indian Premier is a clear betrayal and undermines the nation’s unity and sovereignty.
The TNA comprises of the Tamil political parties that had acted as mouthpieces of the terrorist outfit LTTE for over two decades until the terrorist organisation was defeated by the Armed Forces in May 2009. It was only after the Sri Lankan Security Forces crushed the LTTE that the TNA could talk without any fear as Tamils’ representatives.
After the end of the conflict in 2009, the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government implemented a massive infrastructure development programme in the North and the East. While more than 80 per cent of the military occupied land was returned to the original owners, with the removal of landmines, agricultural and fishing activities were commenced in the two provinces.
Subsequently the PC elections were held and former Supreme Court Judge C. V. Wigneswaran became the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). However, the NPC failed to implement any development programmes during his five year tenure.
In 2015, the TNA entered into an understanding with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, the Government failed to deliver on its promises, leading to frustration and disappointment when political demands were not met. That does not, however, give the TNA justification to seek Indian intervention in the domestic issues of Sri Lanka.
In many countries, there are legal provisions to prevent soliciting foreign interventions. Sri Lanka lacks such laws to make soliciting such foreign interventions unconstitutional.
The Singapore Parliament has passed a law aimed at countering foreign interference. The law allows the authorities to compel Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and social media platforms to provide user information, block content and remove applications used to spread content they deem hostile to the nation. Under that law, groups and individuals would be required to disclose foreign funding sources and subject them to other counter measures to reduce the risk of overseas interference.
The TNA seems to think that India has an obligation towards them as the Indian intervention in 1987 has resulted in the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the establishment of the PCs. However, that Indian intervention took place at a time when the support of Tamil Nadu (TN) political parties was essential for the survival of the Coalition Government in New Delhi. Now the power equation has changed and the importance of TN parties has subsided.
Furthermore, New Delhi realized that through the 1987 intervention India lost the natural goodwill that existed among the majority of Sri Lankans for whom India was their most sacred land, the Jambuddhadweepa or the Land of the Buddha.
Another reason for India’s balanced approach is the current regional power rivalry. India is very keen to have good relations with Sri Lanka and to check Chinese interests in the region.
Hence, it is advisable for the TNA to seek solutions within Sri Lanka in the interest of the Tamil people in the North and the East.
They should make use of the conciliatory note struck by President Rajapaksa in his address to Parliament calling for everyone’s support. He made a specific pledge to safeguard human rights and to bring in normality to the North and the East and called for the support of MPs representing the North and the East for the same. He urged Parliamentarians representing the people of the North and the East to “set aside various political ideologies, at least temporarily” and support the Government’s efforts to “improve the living conditions of the people in your areas”.
President Rajapaksa has thus made his offer and now it is up to the TNA leadership to reciprocate favourably.
*The writer is a senior Sri Lankan journalist and political commentator.