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Sunday, 14 February 2016





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Pushing for economic diplomacy

India puts the Tamil question in the backburner and prioritises others:

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe greet each other - gettyimages

The visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on February 5-6 indicated the direction in which New Delhi wants India-Sri Lanka relations to proceed.

India appears to want the relations to be based on economic and strategic co-operation and engagement, rather than political engagement to solve the long-standing Tamil question (as had been the case since 1983).

With the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration becoming manifestly accommodative towards the Tamils (even if only to safeguard itself against challenges from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa), New Delhi thinks that it can put the Tamil issue on the backburner, give it lip service at best, rather than put any kind of pressure on Colombo to solve it.

The other reason for sidestepping the Tamil issue is the non-cooperation of key elements of the Tamil polity. The formation of the extremist Tamil Peoples' Council (TPC) under the leadership of Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, is seen as an impediment to India's efforts to build a strong common Tamil front to fight for the community' political rights.

Common Tamil front

If political compulsions result in the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also getting radicalized (if the past is any guide, this could happen), India will have no motivation to push the Tamil case. New Delhi may then have to choose between two options: Either push its economic and strategic interests by cultivating good relations with Colombo or back the Tamil cause and fail on both fronts. Given the increasing hopelessness of the Tamil cause, thanks to growing Tamil radicalization, New Delhi may choose to team up with Colombo, which appears to be more accommodative.

In the talks which Sushma Swaraj had with the Sri Lankan leaders, the subjects related to economic engagement dominated, with Tamil demands being on the margins, if they were discussed at all. The Indian Foreign Minister did hear out the leaders of the TNA leaders but in the end, she got them to say that they are ready to cooperate with the Sri Lankan Government to find a political solution acceptable to all people.

Sushma Swaraj was also to visit Jaffna to ceremonially hand over the rebuilt Alfred Duraiappah Stadium to the people of the North, but eventually called off the visit.

The officially stated reason was lack of time, but it is believed that she did not wish to meet Chief Minister Wigneswaran who is seen as a spoke the wheel of India's efforts to get Colombo and the Tamil leadership to meet half-way, instead of sticking to their positions and grandstanding on the issue.

The United Nations, of which India is an ally, is also slowly veering away from the Tamil cause.

The UN High Commissioner of Human rights, Prince Zeid, ending his four-day visit to Colombo on February 9 said that Sri Lanka is facing danger from 'extremists of both sides' - Tamil as well as Sinhalese. He appealed to the moderates on both sides to raise their voice so that extremists are heard less.

On the critical question of having foreign judges in the proposed Judicial Mechanism to try war crimes cases, Prince Zeid said that it is Sri Lanka's sovereign right to determine the type of mechanism it puts in place.

The UN's concern is only that the mechanism must inspire the confidence of the victims about its impartiality. The UN human rights establishment is, thus, virtually on the side of the Sri Lankan Government, in a perceptible departure from the past.

Transformative change

Meanwhile, utilizing the 'transformational change' in Sri Lanka brought by the January 8 and August 17, 2015 elections, and the new regime's friendly disposition towards it, New Delhi is keen on pushing its economic agenda and this was manifest in the communiqué issued at the end of Sushma Swaraj's two-day visit.

The Indian Foreign Minister obtained Sri Lanka's consent for the establishment of a Special Indian Economic Zone (SIEZ) in Trincomalee, a place of strategic value to India. On the long-delayed project to set up a 500 MW power plant at Sampur, she was assured that environmental clearance had been got and work should start soon.

As regards the yet unused oil tanks in Trincomalee, it was agreed that a team from India's oil major - Oil and Natural Gas Commission Vidhesh -, will visit the site to chalk out plans for the use of the tanks in line with the Indian Petroleum Minister's plans to use the tanks as a major storage depot for India's oil.

Sushma Swaraj also got her Sri Lankan counterpart, Mangala Samaraweera, to 'explore' the establishment of an India-sponsored IT Park in Trincomalee, to attract foreign investment. It is significant that as the Indian Foreign Minister was pressing for an IT Park, the Indian IT sector should hold a highly sophisticated exhibition to highlight India's advances in this sector, 'Digital India.'

Pushing hard for the signing of the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) in the face of opposition from Sri Lankan professionals and entrepreneurs, Sushma Swaraj said that India will hold a workshop in Colombo in early March to clear doubts and misapprehensions in the Sri Lankan minds and address concerns.

Colombo meet

Since the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement is beset with unattended issues like Non-Tariff and Phytosanitary Barriers, the Colombo seminar will address these concerns too.

The Indian Foreign Minister persuaded the Sri Lankan side to allow India's continued involvement in the island's rail and port development, despite the adverse comments and reports of the just concluded US$800 million Indian rail development project in the island.

To push India's case, the Indian Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu, will be in the island soon. Given that India has a strategic and political interest in the airport/airbase at Palay in the Jaffna District, a team from the Indian Air Force will visit the base to upgrade it.

India will also be upgrading the Kankesanthurai harbour, also located in the Jaffna District.

Indians are the single largest group among tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. New Delhi would like it to be that way even against growing competition from China. Sushma Swaraj, therefore, suggested that India and Sri Lanka develop the 'Ramayana Trail', connecting places in the island mentioned in the Hindu epic 'Ramayana' .

To attract Buddhist pilgrims to South Asia, she suggested the joint development of the Buddhist circuit in the region.



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