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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 10, February 28, 2015

India - Sri Lanka Ties: Sirisena Visit - An Appraisal

Sunday 1 March 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

Like most of his predecessors, Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena chose to make his first official visit abroad to India in mid-February, thereby reinforcing the special relationship between the two South Asian neighbours.

Though the visit was thus the latest manifes-tation of a tradition, it was also vested with several exceptional features. It came at a time when India-Sri Lankan relations had dived headlong, having raised a number of uncomfor-table questions about the previous Sri Lankan regime’s foreign policy directions. Even the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s domestic policies were causing serious concerns in India.

It was against this background that the Sirisena visit assumed an unusual import. To the satisfaction of both the sides, all the right steps were taken indicating that the prepara-tions by both the governments, such as consulta-tions and draft agreements, were well-conceived and capably executed. But, above all, the visit spoke eloquently of a creditable synchronisation of the policy directions by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments.

Undoubtedly, the domestic and foreign policies adopted by the new Sri Lankan Government, which are diametrically opposite to those of the Rajapaksa Government, facilitated the quick understanding reached with New Delhi. The various actions and policies initiated by Colombo immediately after the Sirisena Government took office served to confirm to New Delhi’s satisfaction that the poll promises by the then Opposition presidential nominee were not spurious and that the island-nation had at last embarked on an honest course correction.

In fact, not only India but the international community as a whole has begun to look upon Sri Lanka in a benign manner, again in sharp contrast to the light in which the Rajapaksa regime was looked at. It was President Rajapaksa’s deliberately crafted policies that alienated the majority of other countries and elicited support from a few, notably China and Pakistan. This is no longer the situation with the new regime being extended a prolonged probation period to prove its sincerity.

The visit has produced several agreements between the two countries, of which the civil nuclear cooperation for peaceful purposes agreement has attracted considerable regional and international attention. Described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as yet “another demon-stration of our mutual trust”, the agreement allows cooperation in transferring and exchanging knowledge and expertise, sharing resources, capacity building and training personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy including use of radioisotopes, nuclear safety, radiation safety, nuclear security, radio-active waste management, and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation and environ-mental protection.

Since nuclear energy for peaceful use is automatically identified as a possible way toward nuclear defence capability, which the previous President was certainly seeking though surreptitiously, the agreement immediately raised eyebrows.

New Delhi has, therefore, clarified that while the agreement was only an “initial” one, it would not lead to any construction of nuclear energy reactors “immediately”. Incidentally, it was a little over two years ago that India began discussing nuclear energy with the Rajapaksa Government, prompted by Colombo’s concerns over possible nuclear radiation from the Tamil Nadu-based Kudankulam nuclear plants affecting Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa had at the time surmised that India was not really keen to help his country acquire nuclear energy capability and in a thinly veiled ploy to blackmail New Delhi, had dropped broad hints that, if necessary, he might seek Chinese nuclear cooperation in the Pakistani (clandestine) manner.

However, negotiations had started during 2014 over the training of scientists, cooperation on safety mechanisms as well as tackling irradiation, which had also begun to gather speed. This probably explains the impressive alacrity with which the agreement was signed on February 16.

How dramatically the relationship between the two countries has lately changed was in a way reflected in the fact that the Sri Lankan signatory to the agreement was the country’s Power and Energy Minister Champika Rana-waka, the very person who had led the Sri Lankan campaign against the possible dangers from the Kudankulam reactors.

The other agreements signed are on strengthening defence and security cooperation in the existing trilateral format (the third counry being the Maldives), enhancing cooperation in performing arts and cultural documentation, a Memorandum of Understanding enabling Sri Lanka to participate in the Nalanda University project, and another MoU under consideration to facilitate ties in agro-processing as part of wider cooperation in agriculture.

 The bonhomie witnessed in New Delhi in no way deflects from the Indian Government’s serious concerns over certain developments during Rajapaksa’s tenure which have not fully gone away, such as, the docking of a Chinese submarine in the Colombo harbour on two occasions. India had voiced strong protests at the time, which China sought to allay by claiming that the docking was necessary for refuelling. But New Delhi’s suspicions bout the submarine’s activities have not gone away, and Sri Lanka’s role in facilitating the docking is viewed similarly. New Delhi obviously remains on alert and will keep a watch on Sri Lanka’s future actions.

While the perennial fishermen’s problems, shared by both the countries, have now acquired quite correctly the humanitarian angle (New Delhi seems to appreciate the northern Sri Lankan fishermen’s vital dependence on unhindered fishing in Sri Lankan waters, but Colombo has not yet adequately reconsidered its opposition to Tamil Nadu fishermen’s fishing in disputed waters), the litmus test for Sri Lanka (in India’s view) is to truly take all necessary steps to implement the 13th Amend-ment to the Sri Lankan Constitution granting effective autonomy to the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Will this really come to pass? Similarly, the international community has graciously allowed a breathing space till September to the Sirisena Government to establish its bona fides in facilitating a fully independent and objective enquiry into the alleged killing of nearly 40, 000 civilians during the last phase of the civil war with the aim of punishing the guilty.

As far as this particular issue is concerned as well as the Tamils’ concerns over a number of very serious grievances like the Army’s takeover of cultivable land and the latter’s overwhelming presence and role in the Northern Province, the Sirisena Government has so far taken all the right steps. The acquired land has already begun to be returned to the rightful owners, and compensations are being paid to the deserved people. There are many other equally important tasks to accomplish, and the Tamils, Muslims and the international community are equally watching how the situation in Sri Lanka unfolds in the coming days.

A very vital test for the sincerity of the new government is to do away with the frightening hold of the security forces over the various government Ministries whereas in a democracy they have no business to be there in the first place. Similarly, it is time to restore the widely appreciated role that civil society and intrepid activists played in Sri Lanka over the years in protecting human rights. And, are the days of fear over for the media? For once, will sudden and unexplained disappearances, killings and physical assaults on journalists come to an end? The Sirisena Government has all the good wishes of the international community to prove its genuine democratic credentials but only for a reasonable period of time.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.