High Hopes from New Sri Lankan Regime

By Ramesh Raja
In Issue 5
February 5, 2015
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Maithripala

New Sri Lakan President Maithripala Sirisena

Now that there is a  change of decade-long regime in Sri Lanka with Mahinda Rajapaksa being ousted by his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena in keenly-watched general elections, it is being speculated in New Delhi that the development would pave a way for greater role for India in the island nation. More so because both countries share a civilizational relation. The ties between the people of two neighbours are based on culture, religion and trade. But for the last few years, the bonhomie between the two has hit an all-time low, especially in wake of Rajapaksa’s growing preference for China on most of the counts, the issue of devolution of powers to Tamil areas after LTTE’s rout in 2009, the routine confrontation over fishermen, the strengthening foothold of Pakistan’s ISI in Sri Lanka to target South India and so on.

Now that there is a change of decade-long regime in Sri Lanka with  Mahinda Rajapaksa being ousted by his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena in keenly-watched general elections, it is being speculated in New Delhi that the development would pave a way for greater role for India in the island nation. More so because both countries share a civilizational relation. The  ties between the people of two neighbours are based on culture, religion and trade. But for the last few years, the bonhomie between the two has hit an all-time low, especially in wake of Rajapaksa’s growing preference for China on most of the counts, the issue of devolution of powers to Tamil areas after LTTE’s rout in 2009, the routine confrontation over fishermen, the strengthening foothold of Pakistan’s ISI in Sri Lanka to target South India and so on.

The preceding Rajapaksa dispensation had become ever more assertive of disregarding Indian concerns. India has been stressing the need for urgent steps to resettle the internally displaced persons and has urged the Sri Lankan authorities to accelerate the endeavours of rehabilitation and reconstruction in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. India has emphasized the need for a significant devolution package, building on the 13th amendment  to the Sri Lankan Constitution that would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. However, the regime of Rajapaksa was largely evasive on most of India’s demands notwithstanding the promises made by him.

Since ethnic issues have been a topic of deliberations between both neighbours, India would now hope that the new Sri Lankan regime would consider this on priority list. India would expect  the Sirisena government to take asensible approach to the subject. Since Sri Lanka, as a neighbour, is immensely important to India, a solution to ethnic problem will have to be found for ties to  progress. However, India will have to ensure that the balance within Sri Lanka is not disturbed in the interest of foreign relations  between the two countries. Another issue of India’s concern is Chinese footmark which has been expanding in Sri Lanka of late. Chinese military supplies to Sri Lanka are estimated at US $100 million a year, with China supporting the Sri Lankan defence forces in  boosting its capabilities for high technology aerial warfare, and restructuring and reorienting the military. China emerged as the largest foreign finance partner of Sri Lanka in 2010, overtaking India and Japan, and its third largest trading partner in 2012. Sri Lanka is also committed to join
the Maritime Silk Road initiative of Beijing which is a vital strategic project for China in the Indian Ocean. The island nation, for China, is an entry harbour up the western coast of India and further west to Iran, an important oil exporter to China.

It may be noted that China played a vital role, for Sri Lanka, during the last phase of the war against the LTTE. Similarly, Chinese backing has also been priceless for Sri Lanka to challenge the USbacked resolutions at the UNHRC. Subsequently, the two countries now have a declared ‘strategic cooperation
partnership’. For China, its relations with Sri Lanka give it a footing near crucial sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, as well as entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. China is financing more than 85 per cent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery and an international airport. Needless to say, China’s role is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka – economically as well as geopolitically.

India has conveyed extreme unhappiness with the tactic in which Sri Lanka and China have been embracing. The docking of the nuclear-capable Chinese submarines last year has been a major concern for India, which  feels the entry of the Chinese into Sri Lanka would pose a major security risk. There have been instances of Chinese arms being smuggled into India through the southern seas. Although Sri Lanka has often assured that it has in mind the security concerns of India, the new government would need to do more to convince India about that. Sri Lanka has argued that it is situated in a location that has made it a communication hub in the Indian Ocean and this would mean that the Chinese will use the Indian Ocean more often. On the travails of fishermen in the Palk Bay, a waterway between southeast India and northern Sri Lanka, the problem has arisen as an outcome of extreme trawling by Indian fishermen. India realizes the need for trawlers to be increasingly withdrawn from the Palk Bay region. Tamil Nadu fishermen should be encouraged to go into deep sea fishing. With trawlers out of the scene, the Palk Bay will once again become a calm area. Here, the ball is now  in India’s court.

The emergence of Sri Lanka as an ISI hub to target India via South is another issue of concern, which came to fore more recently with the arrest of a Sri Lankan national in Chennai. The operative reportedly narrated to the police about the ISI cell being based in the Pakistan’s High Commission in Colombo and was being run by their consular officer. The concern gained even more weight as India is aware that Pakistan had, in fact, supplied defence equipment
to Sri Lanka post 2009. These factors are significant and India will have to engage with the Sirisena regime on improving its defence ties to counter Pakistani influence..

The atmosphere in India is very optimistic about the electoral result. The mood that India-Sri Lanka ties, which was subjected to stresses and strains, will be restored to traditional friendship and co-operation. It must be recalled that whenever Sri Lanka faced threats to its security – internal or external – India was the first country to positively respond. However, a large section of Indian strategic community feels that Colombo, on many occasions has not reciprocated Indian gestures. There is opportunity for the two countries to reset the relations when new President visits India shortly.

It may be noted that the new President’s support base comes from political forces, which are well known friends of India. This fact definitely gives substance to  the optimistic view. Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former President, used to consult New Delhi before undertaking new political decisions. Her Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadiragamar, with Indian aid, internationalized the ethnic conflict to Sri Lanka’s benefit. Secondly, the selection of Ranil Wikramasinghe as the Prime Minister is a master stroke of smart diplomacy. Wikramasinghe is rated high in India and in Western capitals. It is hoped that under Wikramasinghe’s leadership, Sri Lanka will soon come out of diplomatic  seclusion. Worth noting, it was Wikramasinghe, who along with former Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda, created an “international safety net” against the LTTE. When he was Prime Minister, Wikramasinghe took independent initiative to introduce visa on arrival at Colombo airport which resulted in a quantum leap in the influx of tourists to the island nation.

Sirisena-Wikramasinghe team must be cognizant of the fact now that India and Sri Lanka are like Siamese twins; what upsets one will shake the other. Wikramasinghe has often stated that full potential of India-Sri Lanka ties can be scaled only after ethnic settlement takes place.

However, it’s not going to be that easy as extreme dependence on China has resulted in huge  debt burden. If Sri Lanka does not repay the loan, China will
maintain that it should have a share in equity. Such a course of action will not be in Sri Lanka’s interests. Sirisena and his team  are conscious of this threat. If Colombo boldly initiates policies to bring about ethnic reconciliation and economic diversification, India and the international community will
positively reply.