Monday, December 27, 2010

Denial And Deception: Sorry ’Bout That

Just as we thought Sri Lanka’s apology had settled that curious diplomatic fracas, Colombo strenuous denied ever having said sorry to us. So we are back to the old question. Did or didn’t President Ram Baran Yadav ask his Sri Lankan counterpart, Mahinda Rajapakse, to be a peace mediator in Nepal?
Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris repeatedly told his country’s parliament that Yadav had done so during a meeting with Rajapakse in China in late October. Colombo’s latest stance bolsters that position. Peiris, of course, had a vested interest in extolling Rajapakse’s credentials as a peacemaker, especially as an alternative to the regional you know who. As his nation’s top diplomat, Peiris may have easily employed that time-tested tool of his profession in what he considered the pursuit of national interest.
Our own media had reported that Yadav had met Rajapakse in Shanghai, the only foreign counterpart he did so in China, saying they had discussed the peace process. From the local coverage, Yadav had made a bland request for Colombo’s support to the peace process. So when the Sri Lankan media reported Peiris’s far more definitive claim, our president’s press secretary issued a flat denial. Yet Peiris persisted.
When Sri Lanka’s Deputy Foreign Minister Neomal Perera arrived in Kathmandu for a regional conference, few Nepalis seemed to associate him with his boss’s assertions. During a courtesy call on Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, according to section of the Sri Lankan media, Perera offered an apology on behalf of Peiris. The idea ostensibly was to keep things quiet. Once word got out, Colombo issued a flat denial. Clearly, this is much more than a story of who lied.
To Maila Baje, the circumstances in which it gained traction remain far more complex and merit greater scrutiny. When Rajapakse suppressed the once seemingly invincible Tamil Tigers, he sparked easily audible voices of displeasure in India. Although the Tamil Tigers were responsible for the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi did not seem too happy with the suppression of the group. Among other things, the overt backing of Beijing had made Colombo’s enterprise particularly galling for New Delhi.
Through that triumph, Colombo felt it had broken out of the sphere of India’s influence – psychologically if not physically – which New Delhi expected to have formalized even after its ill-fated military expedition two decades ago. Thus, as the Rajapakse government has discovered to its discomfiture, the storyline has now shifted to allegation of Sinhala war crimes against Sri Lankan minority Tamils.
President Yadav, for his part, had hosted Rajapakse as the first head of state to visit Nepal since it became a republic. Yadav thus went into the Shanghai meeting with a high comfort level. Our president, moreover, already had demonstrated his eagerness to gratify his Chinese hosts. In a republic as wobbly as ours, the presidency remains the most vulnerable institution. How far Beijing has reconciled itself to Nepal having become a republic – at least in its current form – remains open to question. Around the time of Yadav’s trip, Beijing had hosted Vice-President Parmananda Jha, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and leading Maoist commanders. And as far as China is concerned, every visit has a remarkable degree of official halo.
So President Yadav tread familiar path on befriending China. He urged Beijing (through its top rep in Lhasa) to accelerate the extension of its railway network up to Nepalese border, sidestepping the abiding obsession of the Indians. Any fallout from the south would be manageable, in Yadav’s estimation, by the sheer orientation of the Nepalese government.
Once in Shanghai, Yadav could have been carried away by his ebullience. It would not be hard to see how he might have sought Rajapakse’s role in Nepal’s peace process as part of his northern charm offensive.
It is easy to be sidetracked by Yadav’s current public persona as ceremonial president. Scratch the veneer a bit and you can see his keenness for a new version of that much-maligned Article 127, notwithstanding his professed desire to return to his village as a farmer. Yadav essentially remains a Nepali Congress stalwart and his partisan role during the recent party convention has been amply chronicled by the aggrieved faction.
While Yadav would indeed emerge stronger in the arena of plausible deniability, why would the Sri Lankan foreign minister lie – if that were indeed what he did – and stand firm? Projecting the smaller South Asian nations’ ability to extricate themselves from their own problems is an objective Colombo shares with Beijing, an aspiration non-official Nepal would easily endorse.
Then there is the fact that Peiris’s claim came after Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Sri Lanka, ostensibly to open consulates in the southern and northernmost parts of the island nation. Krishna travelled to the southern town of Hambantota to open a consulate barely a week after the government launched the first stage of a 1.5-billion-dollar Chinese-funded port there. The other new Indian mission is in northern Jaffna, the former stronghold of the Tamil Tigers and ostensibly the most ideal venue to whip up the war crimes allegations against Colombo.
Who would benefit from a falling out of the two nations on northern and southern ends of South Asia, intent on redefining the region’s strategic balance? That’s where the heart of the matter lies, regardless of who may be lying around the edges.