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Sri Lanka: Too much On The India Plate, But Too Little Take-Away Yet? – Analysis

Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Source: Sri Lanka Government.Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Source: Sri Lanka Government.

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Two VVIP visits to India in as many weeks, and both incidentally one-way, and there is so much on plate for the two nations to grabble with and resolve. Yet, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s three-day official visit to New Delhi, followed by President Maithiripala Sirisena’s trip to Goa as part of the BRICS Summit, only provided quick occasions for the two nations to reiterate known, peaceful positions on pending issues, which however remain intractable, all the same.

None expected the two nations at high-level talks, involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Indian side, to find instant solutions for issues that have remained for years and/or decades now. For both Governments, that came to power in their respective nations one after another – in India it was May 2014, followed by the January 2015 regime-change in Sri Lanka, have inherited the issues, not that predecessors did not try their hand at resolving them, but the chances are that they too might leave it behind for future generations too to grabble with.

There is no denying that underlying tensions between the two South Asian neighbours have eased since the Maithiri-Ranil duo took over in Sri Lanka. For India, it was a continuance of existing Sri Lanka policy, which PM Modi refurbished first by inviting all neighbourhood Heads of Governments for his inauguration, and followed it up with the first Indian VVIP visit to Sri Lanka since 1987.

Feel-good factor

Unlike then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Colombo to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, when he was also attacked by a Sri Lankan naval rating, the Modi visit in March 2015 was full of positive missives and pleasant memories for the two sides to relish for long. There is also no denying that the regime-change in Sri Lanka triggered a bilateral feel-good factor that was missing towards the end of the Rajapaksa regime – as was the case on the nation’s domestic front.

On the Indian side, the feel-good factor pertained to the China factor, where there is no anxiety pertaining to Sino-Sri Lankan military relations. Even while large Chinese investments in Sri Lanka continues to attract concern in sections of the Indian strategic community, there is no apprehension whatsoever in official circles that a repeat of Chinese submarines wading through Sri Lankan waters is a thing of the past.

The fact however remains that in the past again, Sri Lanka did not have specific intentions or commitments to have any military agreement of any kind with China that would impinge on Indian security and trigger concerns on the other side of the Palk Strait. One thing led to another in bilateral relations of the UNHRC variety for instance, and Sri Lanka’s dependence on China broadened from development funding to include political and diplomatic support in international politics.

Extra-regional help

In Colombo and elsewhere, PM Wickremesinghe has repeatedly reiterated his Government’s continued commitment not to let China convert the Hambantota port project, funded by it, into any military facility even while developing an SEZ there. His Government and Ministers too have said that the China-funded Colombo Port City, which Ranil had suo motu promised to cancel if voted to power – but not anymore – would only be a ‘financial city’ scheme without any military element now, as was considered in the past, too.

Yet, on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Goa, President Sirisena is reported to have told Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping about his nation’s interest in expanding cooperation with the latter in international politics and more. Whether President Sirisena with ‘Executive’ powers was speaking for himself, as has been the case in recent past – or, so would it seem – or also for the Government requires to be clarified.

In continuance thereof, it remains to be seen if the Sri Lankan State apparatus is visualising a UNHRC-like situation where it might require ‘extra-regional’ help of the 2012 Chinese variety, going beyond what the post-poll American friend may have offered, and/or may be willing to offer, still. Incidentally, Sirisena also met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Goa, where the latter is reported to have offered his nation’s continued support to Sri Lanka. In this context, he also recalled how Russia had worked with Sri Lanka on international issues (of the UNHRC variety in recent years).

Ethnic ‘silence’

Surprisingly or otherwise, there was no mention in either Delhi or Goa about any interactions between the two sides on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue, ‘accountability probe’, power-devolution and Constitution-making. It’s not inconceivable that both sides had thought it wise not to mention their interactions in this regard in public lest the Sri Lankan leadership especially should come under tremendous pressure nearer home on alleged continuance of ‘taking orders’ from India, a la 13-A.

Total radio silence on the subject is one thing, but total silence is entirely another issue altogether – and for both Governments, and their respective constituencies nearer home. If nothing else, should India have a view on any or all of the issues concerned – given the ethnic considerations on either side of the Palk Strait and also past commitments – any later Indian entry/re-entry into the ongoing constitutional process could cause more harm than any good.

Even the very views of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, and the TNA in particular, leave alone their sympathy-base in southern Tamil Nadu, could become a cause for bilateral concern, more than ever in the post-war past. Yet, the hard-liners in the Tamil polity suspect India, and their Sinhala counterparts, incidentally identified with the Rajapaksas, are adversarial to India, almost since the conclusion of the presidential polls of January 2015, if not immediately earlier.

‘Fishing’ on ETCA?

In context, bilateral relations just now have been reduced to both sides discussing the fishers issue periodically without any viable solution in sight, and also setting deadlines for signing the proposed Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), a take-off from the forgotten CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement), which in turn the Rajapaksa regime dropped like a hot-brick and on India’s feet after initialling the final MoU.

The Ranil leadership’s repeated commitment to ETCA reads more surrealistic than realistic, given the Sri Lankan political compulsions from the past to the present. The Rajapaksa-centric ‘Joint Opposition’, not recognised by Parliament but still has a substantial number still, has openly opposed the ETCA, with former Foreign and one-time International Trade Minister G L Peiris calling upon President Sirisena to intervene in good time, and/or order national referendum before proceeding in the matter.

President Sirisena’s continued silence on ETCA is as pregnant as his delayed reactions to the Ranil leadership’s actions on a host of other fronts, including ‘accountability probe’ and graft investigations against veteran Service chiefs. At the same time, the Prime Minister himself has been going overboard on his Government’s concerns over Indian fishers continuing to cause livelihood concerns for their Tamil brethrens in war-ravaged Northern Sri Lanka in particular.

Unlike in the Rajapaksa era, when Parliament was never ever encouraged to discuss what still remains the most sensitive of bilateral issues on the table, more real than even the ‘China factor’, PM Ranil himself has responded to queries from the floor on more than one occasion in less than two years in office. In context, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) too has taken up what’s essentially a livelihood issue for TN fishers, too, both in the Northern Provincial Council and Parliament, apart from party forums.

Incidentally, the Rajapaksa camp is seeking to project and promote ETCA as ‘livelihood issue’ of another kind. It has the support of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) and other ‘Services’ sector organisations in their endeavour. So much so, nothing much has moved on either ETCA or fishers issue, though on the former, PM Ranil has promised a done-deal before year-end, and both sides are meeting again in Delhi on 5 November to discuss the fishers’ issue, but with no real hopes of arriving at a functional solution, when incidentally the draft Constitution process nearer home (alone) too would have made some headway but without any real headway, either.


About the Author

Observer Research Foundation
Observer Research Foundation
ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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