India’s support has made a “world of difference” to Sri Lanka’s economic situation, said Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, on his first visit to India since he was appointed last year, making it clear that the flurry of agreements announced in recent weeks have allowed the neighbours to move on from the problems of the “immediate past”.
In an interview to The Hindu, he cautioned, however that the unresolved conflict over fishing rights is a “constant irritant” in bilateral relations, and the recent clashes between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen that led to the death of two Sri Lankans, was a “flashpoint” in ties that he hopes to resolve through talks.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that Indian support at this critical juncture has made a world of difference. It has helped us to tide over the immediate difficulties which were obviously acute,” Mr. Peiris told The Hindu, referring to a series of announcements, including one billion dollars in various lines of credit, a currency swap arrangement of $400 million and a debt deferral of $515 million for two months from India.
In addition, India and Sri Lanka concluded a long pending agreement to jointly develop oil tank facilities in Trincomalee, and have planned a number of infrastructure projects involving the private sector, which will be further discussed when Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa visits Delhi in the next few weeks. Sri Lanka has also invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the BIMSTEC summit in Colombo on March 30, and hold “substantive” bilateral talks.
“All of this has engendered a degree of confidence which we didn’t see in the immediate past. And it has brought into being very special relation… there is a feeling that India has always stepped in when Sri Lanka needed it,” Mr. Peiris added.
Ties between India and Sri Lanka plummeted in February 2021 over the Rajapaksa government’s decision to cancel an MoU with India and Japan for Colombo’s East Coast Terminal project, which it later cleared for a Chinese company. Several other projects involving India had also been delayed for what Mr. Peiris called “logistical issues and bureaucratic reasons”. Subsequently, Sri Lanka awarded the West Coast Terminal project to the Adani group, and after a number of rounds of talks, including calls between PM and President Gotabaya, as well as three meetings between the foreign ministers on the sidelines of events in New York, Dhaka and Abu Dhabi, relations have seen a “new enthusiasm and a fresh energy”, he said.
Mr. Peiris met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla on Monday, as a part of his three-day visit. In a tweet, Mr. Jaishankar said they held “productive talks,” which included discussions on economic cooperation, energy security, pending agreements on infrastructural projects, and agreed to schedule bilateral mechanism talks on the fishing rights issue at an “early” date.
Mr. Peiris said in the interview that he also hoped to consult India and other BIMSTEC members including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand about the best way to tackle the “problem” of whether to invite Myanmar to the summit, or to follow the ASEAN grouping decision to exclude the military regime that took power in a coup last year.
Mr. Peiris also said apprehensions in India over Sri Lanka’s close ties with China were not “logical”, and the relationship with China was not at the “expense of India”.
“We are part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has played a significant role with regard to the development of our ports and harbours and infrastructure of which we are appreciative,” he said, adding that Colombo hoped that China will soon restructure Sri Lanka’s debt, given its economic problems, a request made to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to the island last month.
When asked about the issue of Tamil reconciliation and devolution of power to the North and East, that India has consistently pushed for, Mr. Peiris said a committee of experts would submit a draft on the issue within two months to the President’s Council, but added that no decision can be implemented unless there is “sufficient consensus” from the Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority. In January, several legislators from the North and East wrote a letter directly to Prime Minister Modi, seeking India’s intervention in ensuring the Sri Lanka government keeps its commitment to the process.
When it comes to confidence, the question of China often becomes an issue between India and Sri Lanka, particularly when projects are cancelled in China’s favour, and we saw a visit by FM Wang Yi to Sri Lanka last month….
That’s not a new problem. There’s no exclusivity in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. We have cordial relations with all our friends. But the relationship with India is in every respect a very special relationship. That is partly due to circumstances relating to history, geography, economy, it’s the destiny of the two countries is inextricably interwoven, but it’s also a matter of conscious choice is not that destiny has put us together.
There has a realisation in both countries that further integration represents a win win situation. In every sector People to People contact outtake tourism that is low hanging fruit, the Ramayana trail, developing 52 sites, tourism sites. At the time COVID-19 hit us about 1/3 of the tourists coming into Sri Lanka were from India. India is our largest is our second largest trading partner, the third largest source of investment into Sri Lanka.
We do have a relationship with China. We are part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China has played a significant role with regard to the development of our ports and harbours our instruction infrastructure of which we are appreciative but that is not at the expense of India. And we have repeatedly assured that under no circumstances would we allow any part of Sri Lanka’s territory territorial waters are aspirants to be utilised in any manner that is detrimental to India or to any other other friends. So there really is no need for apprehensions to be entertained. It is it is just a kind of fear, which has no logical basis.
Just recently, two Sri Lankan fishermen were killed in clashes between a fisherman on both sides. Is there some kind of a new package or some kind of a new way forward, that you are discussing with India?
There have been discussions about retraining Indian fishermen with regard to methods of deep sea fishing discussions among fishermen’s cooperative societies on the two sides and other long term solutions. We do need something of a more immediate nature. I would say this is a real flashpoint in the relationship between the two countries it is a constant irritant. And we really do need to find a solution to these. There’s goodwill on both sides, and there is the realisation and the result. To address this matter in earnest and find a solution, I hope my visitwill play a constructive role in that regard.
To turn to the Tamil issue, legislators from the North and Eastern Provinces wrote to PM Modi asking for his intervention in ensuring an implementation of promises on devolution and the 13th amendment. Do you see this as another flashpoint? Should India have a role?
No, I won’t say that…India has taken interest [in the past]. But the principal responsibility, obviously is of Sri Lanka, and Sri Lankan political parties must engage primarily with the Sri Lankan government. There is at the moment, a comprehensive constitutional reform exercise that is underway. There is a committee of experts who is preparing a draft that is expected to be ready and to be submitted within the next two months. And this [devolution] is one of the issues that will no doubt be addressed in that draft. But whatever is done must be backed up by a sufficient consensus in the country. You know, if there is a great deal of resistance experienced, then it will be difficult to implement on the ground. So, we will we will try to talk to all stakeholders and arrive at understanding with regard to arrangements which will really stand the test of time.
But it has been eight months since talks were supposed to be held between the Tamil leaders and President Gotabaya, and have not been held yet?
We many things, principally Covid-19 has intervened. But it is something that we are committed to and we will have those discussions quite soon.