“Irreversible excellence” was how then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar referred to Sri Lanka’s relations with India. Centuries old ties between the two neighbours cemented by the links to Gautama Buddha and Buddhism have had its up and downs in more recent years, none so devastatingly severe than India’s active involvement from the highest levels of [...]


Vital role for PM in India


“Irreversible excellence” was how then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar referred to Sri Lanka’s relations with India.
Centuries old ties between the two neighbours cemented by the links to Gautama Buddha and Buddhism have had its up and downs in more recent years, none so devastatingly severe than India’s active involvement from the highest levels of its Government, in the bloody northern separatist insurgency that was unleashed in this island nation.

It has been a well-established tradition that newly elected leaders of Sri Lanka go to New Delhi only after paying homage to the temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Next week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe follows these traditional footsteps with a host of issues to discuss, and hopefully come to mutually acceptable agreements.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a cardinal mistake. He did some things right. He took bilateral relations with India out of the scope of the Ministry of External Affairs at a crucial time. That Ministry had already made a hash of the country’s foreign policy. A troika operating from the presidential secretariat under the then President’s immediate supervision dealt directly with New Delhi during the final stages of the military campaign to defeat the LTTE – which by then had burnt its boats with India by assassinating one-time premier Rajiv Gandhi. Without India ‘looking the other way’ as it were, and the fighting gathered momentum in those early months of 2009, a military victory would have been even more difficult for the Sri Lankan Government.

Soon thereafter though, the channels of communications fell apart and Sri Lanka’s overall foreign policy drifted rapidly towards a heavy pro-China stance sending shivers down India’s spine, none more severe than the Colombo Port city project capped with a visit of a Chinese nuclear submarine. Gentle messages from New Delhi were not taken seriously, and despite direct telephone calls from India’s leaders and film star intermediaries, India had other plans for Sri Lanka. A regime change and a friendlier Government in Colombo was to India’s liking and Mr. Rajapaksa is now heard to complain that India did him in by engineering the cross-over of his Health Minister, and the eventual toppling of his Administration.

That is now water under the proposed Adam’s bridge. Plans are afoot to construct a land link between India and Sri Lanka – and forge a second stage to the existing Free Trade Agreement by way of a CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement). As India tries to consolidate its footprint on Sri Lanka through trade and even goods and services (read personnel) it is time for Sri Lanka to be alert if India has abandoned its one-time aggressive hegemony policy of destabilisation to a ‘soft’ foreign policy of trade, yoga and religion to reach out to Sri Lanka.

The Prime Minister appears to be in favour of such trade agreements with India. On the eve of the general elections he told reticent local businessmen not to fear CEPA as it would bring more good than bad. Local entrepreneurs on the other hand know the ground situation better; given the sheer enormity of the India’s now bustling economy and Sri Lanka’s in comparison. The fact of being swamped by Indian imports while Sri Lankan exports get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape and state taxes on the other side is a very real fear they entertain.

The twin issues of a land bridge connecting India with Sri Lanka through Rameshwaram and Talaimannar and CEPA must be seen in the backdrop of how India is treating the poaching issue in the Palk Strait. India is blatantly violating the International Maritime Boundary Line (IBML) demarcated by mutual agreement by the two countries and allowing its fishermen to rape Sri Lanka’s fisheries resources, the sea-bed environment and deprive Sri Lanka’s own fishermen of their livelihood.

Sri Lanka watches helplessly – its diplomatic initiatives of the past in settling cross broader issues of this nature non-existent; our politicians frozen with fright as India deftly side tracks the poaching issue for Fishermen’s Associations to resolve knowing only too well it will never happen. At least, do so with a moratorium in place. No. Indian fishermen come in mechanized boats engaging in illegal fishing methods and sweep the ocean floor in front of the eyes of local fishermen and the Sri Lanka Navy under orders not to precipitate an issue.

Sri Lankan politicians do not have what it takes to stop this. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe told a Chennai based tv channel in March that Sri Lanka had the right to shoot the intruders comparing it to the right of self-defence towards a burglar. The same day the Indian Foreign Minister who was in Colombo took up cudgels and the matter ended there.

If this is how India treats an outstanding issue concerning Sri Lanka in absolute violation of International Law, is one to expect India honouring agreements like CEPA once signed? Or will India be bull-dozing its way with weak political leadership on this side encumbered by all sorts of other headaches like UN resolutions requiring Indian support and India breathing down on power-sharing mechanisms in this country, and thereby meekly surrendering to India’s will.

Statistically, India is Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner (15% of all trade) closely followed by China (12%), though the disparities in exports and imports to the two countries vary hugely. India is the third biggest export market for Sri Lanka while China is 17th. India’s imports to Sri Lanka amount to US$ 4 billion or 20% of all imports in 2014 (inclusive of petroleum products) while Sri Lanka’s exports to India bring in a measly US$ 625 million.

While it is essential for the Prime Minister, a friend of India, to re-calibrate Sri Lanka’s shaky relations with India, and reassure it that this country wishes to maintain ‘equicloseness’ with no particular affiliations with any one country or bloc. It is equally important that he comes back with a substantive public statement that Sri Lanka’s maritime sovereignty will be respected. CEPA, on the other hand need not be an imperative for good bilateral relations and needs greater convincing of local stakeholders.

Neither side has made public what the agenda is for the September 15 talks in New Delhi. A few years ago, the then Minister of External Affairs went without officials and compromised his country big time allowing the Indian side to run the show and draft the joint communiqué; then hold Colombo accountable to what was agreed.

There are several big issues on the table no doubt; from the UNHRC report to the 13th Amendment, nuclear cooperation and the Colombo Port city project. There are also issues like the issuance of visas and physical attacks on Sri Lankans visiting Chennai. This is an important visit by the Prime Minister to India, the significance of which cannot be downplayed in any way.

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