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India-Lanka Relations Strained Over Denial Of East Container Terminal In Colombo Port – Analysis

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New Delhi to issue statement on the Lankan cabinet’s decision to back out on the East Terminal deal and offer the West Terminal instead as a sop.

Colombo, February 3: India-Sri Lanka relations have come under strain following Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from its written commitment to give Colombo port’s Easter Container Terminal (ECT) to India, and to offer the West Container Terminal (WCT) in lieu of it as a sop.

A disappointed Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Tuesday apparently to express India’s dismay about the breach of trust.  

Asked about the outcome of the discussions, the Indian High Commission said that India will issue a statement on it from New Delhi. The statement is awaited.

The suddenness of the Sri Lankan cabinet’s decision, without any prior discussion with India, had upset New Delhi, Indian sources said. The cavalier fashion in which a bilateral agreement and repeated verbal commitments were flouted is bound to have an impact on the relationship, though it is too early to say in what particular ways it will be impacted, the sources added.

As regards the offer of the West Container Terminal (WCT), the sources said that it had come out of the blue. Firstly the offer has to be made officially and with adequate details for India to consider it in depth, the sources said. As of now there is only a public statement, albeit official, that the WCT will be built and run by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) in collaboration with India and Japan for 35 years as a private public partnership to go by, Indian sources said.

Immediately after the February 1 cabinet decision, the Indian High Commission had issued a statement reiterating India’s position that all parties to the May 18, 2019 Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) – Sri Lanka, India and Japan – over the ECT, should adhere to it. It was stated that the MOC had emerged from discussions at the highest national level and was backed with assurances from the Sri Lankan government subsequently, and even recently.

Earlier in January, the Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar had indicated India’s deep interest in the ECT. “India is interested in the security and development of Colombo port,” he said in explanation when asked about his talks on it with the Sri Lankan President here.

Just a few days prior to the cabinet decision, the government of India had gifted 500,000 doses of the COVISHIELD vaccine to Sri Lanka as part of its “Neighborhood First Policy” and had committed itself to a steady supply of the vaccine. India was, as in many cases in the past, the first respondent to the virus pandemic in Sri Lanka. China has only promised to send 300,000 doses of its vaccine.

Support in UNHRC  

Earlier, Sri Lanka had made a request to India to support it at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) where a hostile resolution is likely to be introduced in March by the Core Group led by Western nations backed by the US. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had recommended “targeted sanctions” against Sri Lanka and also referring it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged “war crimes”. The US is at odds with Sri Lanka since the later rejected a grant of US$ 480 million for transport development and land registration under the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact.

In the light of Colombo’s decision on the ECT, the question that is asked is: Would New Delhi’s approach to Sri Lanka’s case in the UNHRC change? However, informed sources said that there is still a lot of time for India to adopt a stand on this issue. Much would depend on the exact nature of Colombo’s offer of the West Container Terminal and the seriousness of its intention to stick to commitments solemnly made in regard to it, they added.

Reasons For Denial

While it was true that Sri Lankan nationalists, both within the government and outside, along with 23 workers’ unions and a section of Buddhist monks, were against giving the ECT to India, it was believed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was himself in favor of the deal largely based on the May 2019 MOC.

It was believed that Gotabaya was considering several factors such as: geo-political factors, the importance of India for the defense of Sri Lanka, and the need to maintain a balance between China and India in economic and strategically important projects. The President was therefore expected to be able to convince the agitated port workers’ unions that the ECT was not going to be sold or leased out to India and that the SLPA would have majority stake (51%) in the terminal.    

But at the end of the day, the workers’ view prevailed. This was because they kept insisting that the President’s election manifesto Vistas of Prosperity and Splendor had explicitly mentioned Public-Private Sector Partnership only in the case of the development of the West Container Terminal (WCT), and not the ECT. What was implicit in the line on ECT was that the government will build and run the ECT.

Furthermore, key members of the President’s own think tank “Viyathmaga” such as Dr.Nalaka Godahewa and Dr.Priyath Bandhu Wickrama had had discussions with the workers’ unions and had reported back to the President to say that the workers’ case was reasonable based as it was on the election manifesto. The interlocutors assured the President that the workers’ were in agreement with him on Public-Private cooperation in building and running the West Container Terminal.

So far, India has not indicated whether it will accept the Lankan proposal on the West Container Terminal. The proposed deal appears to be the same as that which related to the ECT broadly. But the WCT has to be constructed from scratch and the details as to the stakes are yet to be worked out.

Some hardline Lankan nationalists would continue to agitate against giving any port terminal to India “even a 1% stake” as a union leader said.

The General Secretary of the Port Workers’ Union, Niroshan Gorakahenna, has been quoted in the Tamil paper Virakesari  as saying that the workers were opposed to giving any terminal to foreign countries whether it was ECT or WCT. The WCT could not be bartered away to get back the ECT, he stressed. The workers would now discuss what steps they should take to press their case, Gorakahenna added.

In its defense, the government could say that it is only implementing the President’s election manifesto faithfully, a manifesto for which 6.9 million Lankans (52%) voted to install Gotabaya Rajapaksa in power.

India will Mount Pressure

India is also expected to flex its muscles so that Sri Lanka does not take it for granted. It is already raising the Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic reconciliation issue especially the full implementation of the 13 th.Constitutional Amendment (13A) which stems from the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.

The 13A, which established elected provincial councils, gave the Tamil majority province (as well as other provinces) a modicum of devolved power, which in India’s view, would led to the extinction of separatist tendencies among the minority Tamils. There is an apprehension that in the proposed new Lankan constitution, the provisions contained in 13A will not find a place.

On Tuesday, the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, Vinod.K.Jacob, met two Tamil leaders from the Eastern Province, former Chief Minister and current MP, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, and former Minister Vinayagamurthi   Muralitharan, alias Karuna Amman, and  discussed 13A.

Jacob had reiterated the position of the Government of India that meaningful devolution is the way forward for achieving the aspirations of the Tamil people and stressed full implementation of 13th amendment.

The other sensitive issue is the tough resolution which is likely to be moved in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in March. While the Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has recommended targeted sanctions and hauling up Sri Lanka before the International Criminal Court for alleged “war crimes” the Sri Lankan government has taken a defiant stand accusing the UNHRC of going by falsehoods and recommending remedies which violate the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has asked for India’s support in the UNHRC since India has generally been supporting Sri Lanka in the council. Colombo hopes that with the grant of the WCT to compensate for the denial of the ECT, New Delhi will oblige Colombo at the UNHRC. Sri Lankans point out that China and Russia have already pledged support openly.

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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