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Sri Lanka’s Ham-Handedness Has Dismayed Traditional Friends – Analysis

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The Russo-Lankan spat over the detention of an Aeroflot aircraft is only the latest in a series

With the Colombo Commercial High Court issuing an order for the immediate suspension of it’s injunction against an aircraft belonging to Russia’s Aeroflot Airlines, the aircraft took off for Moscow with 191 passengers on Monday after a four-day detention which soured Russo-Lankan ties.  

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With the release of the plane, the spat ended, but not without leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the Russians, who had sided with Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council on “war crimes” issue. The Russian Foreign Office and the Russian Ambassador in Colombo had taken the aircraft’s detention very seriously as it had taken place despite the existence of a prior agreement with the Sri Lanka government on the operation of the aircraft. The Sri Lankan Ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the Russian Foreign Office and a protest was lodged. Sri Lanka was warned that bilateral relations would be jeopardized if the plane was not released.

The Russians were not convinced by the Lankan government’s contention that it had nothing to do with the court’s order as it had been given by the court in a commercial dispute between the Ireland-based lessor of the plane and Aeroflot. The Russians perhaps believed that the Lankan State did not do its bit to safeguard its long standing good relations with Russia. Of course, eventually, the Lankan State did what the Russians wanted and intervened in the court to get the injunction withdrawn.

This is not the first time that the Sri Lankan State had not kept its relations with friendly countries in mind to prevent unpleasant situations. In November 2021, Sri Lankan plant quarantine authorities refused to allow the landing of a consignment of 20,000 tonnes of organic fertilizer sent by the Chinese company Qindao Seawin Biotech on the grounds that it contained a harmful bacteria. The court also ordered a bank not to release money (US$ 9 million) for the cargo. But the Chinese company contended that the testing at Colombo was scientifically flawed that, at any rate, there was no quarantine requirement in the contract. The company also went in for arbitration in Singapore. With the Chinese and the Lankan governments intervening, a fresh consignment was brought for which US$ 6.9 million was paid.  

This issue could also have been handled carefully outside the public domain by timely diplomatic engagement, but quarantine officials were allowed to the talk to the media which messed up the issue. Lankans forgot that China had stood by Sri Lanka in the UN on the war crimes issue and had also invested US$5 billion in infrastructure projects.

Later, an ADB-sanctioned US$ 12 million Chinese project to set up solar power plants in three islands off the Western coast of Jaffna was abruptly cancelled because India had raised security issues. This is said to be one of the reasons why China is dragging its feet on financially aiding Sri Lanka in the current forex crisis. It is also refusing to reschedule the repayments of the loans given to Sri Lanka.   

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Bad official handling marked two Japanese projects, a Colombo urban rail project and the Bandaranaike International Airport modernization project. The US$ 2 billion urban rail project to be done with a soft loan from Japan, was suddenly cancelled by a two-line order issued by P.B.Jassundara,  the then Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Following this, the Japanese refused to participate in funding the Colombo East Container Terminal.

Just when the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe was trying to woo Japan back for financial assistance as well as investments, and India was persuading Japan to join it to help Sri Lanka get out of the current economic quagmire, the Lankan Minister of Aviation, Nimal Sripala de Silva, shot off a letter to the Japanese government lambasting it for delaying the execution of the Bandaranaike International Airport modernization project. He also faulted the Japanese for not installing the required security systems. The Japanese have not reacted to this. But their traditional keenness to help Sri Lanka has faded thanks to the ham-handedness of Sri Lankan officialdom.  

Japanese investments in Sri Lanka are equal to China’s (a little over US$ 5 billion) but Japanese interest rates are lower, according to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Meanwhile, the Lankan media criticized the grant of solar projects in Mannar and Pooneryn in North Sri Lanka to the Indian tycoon, Gautam Adani, who had already been given the contract to build the Western Container Terminal in Colombo port.

“It is with deep regret that we note that the Adani Group has chosen the back door to enter Sri Lanka. Avoiding competition is not something we take kindly. It hurts our battered economy, aggravates the balance of payment issues, and causes further misery to our citizens,” The Hindu quoted Ajith P. Perera, chief executive of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Lanka’s largest opposition party.

The agreement was for two large-scale renewable energy projects, with an estimated investment of U$ 500 million. But it had been kept a secret until the Lankan media exposed it.

“PM Modi may have given us crucial financial assistance during our current economic crisis, but that doesn’t mean our renewable energy sector’s most valuable lands and resources can be stolen for his friend Adani…The [Rajapaksa] government has many decent ways to thank PM Modi rather than pampering his notorious friends,” Ajith Perera said, but added that a global player like Adani would be “most welcome through proper channels.”

SJB MP and economist Dr. Harsha de Silva said the agreement violated the Sri Lanka Electricity (Amendment) Act of 2013 that mandates competitive bidding for all electricity generation projects.

There is already a Sri Lankan nationalist opposition to the India-Sri Lanka deal on the Trincomalee oil tanks. The nationalists’ goal has been to take over the 99 tanks which had been handed over to India for joint development with Sri Lanka, through a bilateral agreement. Some past Sri Lankan governments had tried to take them over but had failed as India insisted that a bilateral agreement could not be terminated unilaterally and arbitrarily.

Such demands persist in Sri Lanka, despite the fact Sri Lanka critically depends on Indian aid now, at the height of the forex and supply crisis. India has this year alone pumped in US$ 3.5 billion worth of aid, while other countries have given only token assistance or have been idle spectators of the tragedy unfolding in front of them.

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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