When he returned to the Foreign Ministry last week, Mangala Samaraweera first rearranged the furniture so his office would look as it used to. Then he flew to New Delhi—to do the same for India-Sri Lanka relations. Mr. Samaraweera has taken charge of diplomatic affairs after an eight-year hiatus. He was foreign minister in Mahinda [...]


‘This is Sri Lanka’s Burma moment, everyone should help us’

Back in his old office as the new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera speaks to Namini Wijedasa following his official visit to India

When he returned to the Foreign Ministry last week, Mangala Samaraweera first rearranged the furniture so his office would look as it used to. Then he flew to New Delhi—to do the same for India-Sri Lanka relations.

Cementing relations: Mangala Samaraweera with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pic courtesy PMO India

Mr. Samaraweera has taken charge of diplomatic affairs after an eight-year hiatus. He was foreign minister in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government from 2005-2007. He lost the portfolio in January 2007 before being sacked from cabinet altogether. He defected to the opposition later that year but is now part of President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration.

Back in his wood-panelled bureau at the Republic Building, Mr. Samaraweera made clear that things will change, particularly between India and Sri Lanka. “My message to the Indians was that we no longer see India as a threat but as an opportunity,” the Minister said, in an interview with the Sunday Times.

There will be a “course correction” in overall foreign policy. While paying special consideration to the sensitivities of neighbours (particularly India), Si Lanka will not be tilted towards any power (such as China). This was conveyed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and other officials.

His welcome in New Delhi had been warm and cordial, Mr Samaraweera said. He was greatly moved when Prime Minister Modi, who spoke Hindi during their meeting, broke out spontaneously in English: “India is yours, Mr Minister”.

The press release issued in Colombo at the conclusion of Mr Samaraweera’s tour was non-committal, alluding mostly to future reciprocal visits by the Indians. He affirmed, however, that substantive issues were taken up. Among these was the question of a political settlement to longstanding Tamil grievances.

The Minister said there was no pressure from Prime Minister Modi to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. “I talked about it before he even mentioned it,” he said. There was broad acceptance that Sri Lanka would take practical measures towards reconciliation first, before looking at a political solution.

Sri Lanka showed evidence of a new reconciliation process in the North and East. The Indians greatly welcomed the replacement of the military governor in the North with retired Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, who was a key architect of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report.

“What we told them, which they also agreed with, is we will take practical measures in the first 100 days,” the Minister said. “Then, once this new system is in place, especially after the general election after April, sometime in June, we will certainly look at the full implementation of the 13th Amendment.”

Sri Lanka was committed to finding a political settlement for the Tamil people, the Minister had underscored. But there will be no reinvention of the wheel. Many committees have studied and made recommendations on the issue.

“What is now needed is, not another Select Committee with another set of proposals, but the political will to implement what is there,” Mr. Samaraweera said. “India realised that we were sincere in our attempts but as they said it must be done at our own pace.”

The question of “demilitarisation” of the North did not arise during meetings, Mr. Samaraweera said. But Sri Lanka affirmed that it wanted to return the area to civilian rule and to restore to evictees their original lands.

In the meantime, the UN Human Rights Council probe into alleged rights violations “is looming on the horizon”. “But as we said during the election campaign, we feel a domestic mechanism could look into many of these allegations,” the Minister emphasised. “We are in the process of setting up a domestic mechanism.”

Nevertheless, the government will cooperate with the Council. Senior Adviser to the President on Foreign Relations Jayantha Dhanapala is travelling to Geneva, Switzerland, tomorrow for talks with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

Was New Delhi approached for assistance in this regard? Mr Samaraweera smiled. “We didn’t really ask for help but India is in a mood to help Sri Lanka,” he said. “I think, frankly, not only India but the whole world should help Sri Lanka. This is Sri Lanka’s Burma moment.”

The Minister said the government will take action against perpetrators of war crimes provided there was proof. “To begin with, there are allegations of serious human rights violations against various sections of the army and those in power,” he averred. “Whether those are war crimes or whether such crimes amount to genocide or not will have to be decided by a domestic inquiry.”

“But if, in such an inquiry, it is proven that serious violations have taken place and there had been war crimes committed, then we have our own justice system and our own prisons to deal with those responsible for such crimes,” he said.

Would punishments be given even if it was politically difficult to go down that path? Mr. Samaraweera replied that Sri Lankans will object to any of these violators—“if there are to be any”—being sent to an international tribunal. “If they realise there are wrongdoers inside the country, I’m sure they will want them to be punished according to the laws of the land,” he said. “And we will certainly not hesitate for them to do so.”“We don’t have to send them to The Hague or anywhere else,” he concluded. “Our prisons are just as good.”

Poaching problem: Sri Lanka fishing for interim solution

The contentious issue of Indian poaching in Sri Lankan waters was also taken up during bilateral talks between Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the Indian government. Excerpts from the Minister’s interview on the problem:

Was the issue of poaching in Sri Lankan waters taken up?

It was discussed both with the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. As a gesture of goodwill we released all 15 Indian fishermen in our custody on Thai Pongal day. The 87 boats in our custody will also be released. For that, the owners themselves must come forward. If there’s a delay, it is until the owners come and present themselves.

This doesn’t serve the interests of Sri Lankan fishermen. Will there be a continuous cycle of arrest and release, arrest and release?
No. We want to find a long-term solution. In order to discuss the parameters of such a solution, the fishing associations from both sides are meeting next week in Chennai.

What of the Joint Working Group on Fisheries?

As most Working Groups, it has not come up with anything much. So we said we will initiate the fishermen’s associations. Basically, these are Tamil fishermen on either side of the Palk Strait. Their livelihoods are affected and we feel it has to be dealt with. One of the problems we have is with those bottom trawlers. Of course, it may take a little time for them (Indian poachers) to move on from those trawlers because I was told that these were trawlers that had been introduced to Chennai by the Norwegians. And, of course, we also have a problem that many of these trawlers, who are straying in from India, are owned and managed by Indian politicians who have quite a lot of clout.

But these are known issues.

No, so, we have to look at how we are going to deal with them and what the recommendations are. Once they (fishermen’s associations) meet between the 26 and the 31 January, they will give us the recommendations.

The problem is that this is a law versus livelihoods issue. The law is very clear that you cannot have poaching in Sri Lankan waters, especially with the kind of equipment of they use. Have you a basic idea of what to do regarding this or are you waiting for suggestions to come first?
We want the suggestions to come first because deep sea fishing is something they (Indians) have to graduate to at a later stage, they say. We are looking for an interim solution and on our side we thought, perhaps, strengthening the coastguard for the moment. Because on the Sri Lankan side it’s the Navy that’s looking after it but having the coastguard there has also been suggested for the time being. But let’s see what suggestions we get at the end of the month. We will try to implement some form of an interim solution as soon as those are given to us.
So, officially, you are going to look for an interim solution, the shape of which you don’t know yet?

Don’t know yet, but we hope that we will have the interim solution in hand when Sushma Swaraj will come to Sri Lanka, hopefully, sometime next month.

Did you give any signals to show it’s alright to keep poaching here in the meantime?

No, the poaching shouldn’t continue but, of course…

Did you say that?

Yes, yes. We both agreed that what is happening is wrong. But even though that is agreed upon in principle, to stop it practically is not as easy. So that is why we have to have an implementable interim solution as soon as possible.

Did Prime Minister Modi make a commitment on the fishing issue?

No, again, he also raised the issue and so did we. And we also left at the point of getting the two parties to meet at the end of the month.
Did he make any requests?

Not a request but he thanked us for releasing all the fishermen.

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