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Ranil Wickremesinghe visit: Can India and Sri Lanka build bridges over troubled waters?

The visits acquired an added importance after former President Mahinda Rajapakse played India vs. China in Sri Lanka.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | New Delhi |
Updated: October 7, 2016 5:04:43 pm
Ranil Wickremesinghe Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is received by Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on his arrival at IGI Airport in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

In Sri Lanka, it is known as “doing puja to New Delhi”, but that nothwithstanding, newly elected Sri Lankan leaders have a tradition of making the Indian capital their first port of call. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s arrival in New Delhi on September 14 is in that sense customary. The visits acquired an added importance after former President Mahinda Rajapakse played India vs. China in Sri Lanka. What gives Wickremesinghe’s first visit even more significance is that he is perceived by New Delhi as a Sri Lankan leader who is pro-India, pro-business and not anti-Tamil.

On this question, Wickremesinghe correctly describes himself as “pro-Sri Lanka”.

It is interesting that after taking office in January in return for supporting President Maithripala Sirisena in his election, Wickremesinghe did not make any official trips aborad except to Guruvayoor, waiting till he was a fully elected Prime Minister to step outside the shores of his country.

In meeting with the political leadership and government officials, Wickremsinghe is expected to push Sri Lankan concerns, especially of Tamil fishermen in northern Sri Lanka, about the relentless poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The fishermen in the North are perplexed that their brethren across the Palk Bay, who are otherwise quick in their demonstration of political support for the Tamil cause, don’t care about kicking them on issue that really hurts – their livelihood.

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It is the most badly kept secret between India and Sri Lanka that hundred of fishermen set out on given days of the week from the Tamil Nadu coast, deliberately crossing the maritime boundary to fish in Sri Lankan waters. During the country’s long conflict, Sri Lankan fishermen were barred from fishing in the northern waters by the security forces. The waters are therefore richer in marine life. Post conflict, Sri Lankan fishermen eagerly put out to the sea only to find their nets wrecked and sometimes their boats damaged by “bottom trawlers” from Tamil Nadu. With their ‘double nets”, the Tamil Nadu fishermen are fast depleting marine life in the Sri Lankan waters after finishing with the Indian side.

Wickremesinghe, who said earlier in the year, that the Sri Lankan Navy was well within its right to shoot down Indian trespassers, is likely to make a strong case. India wants that the Indian fishermen should be given some fishing rights in Sri Lankan waters.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister is likely to have a lunch meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 15, aside from meetings with others in India’s political leadership on the same day.

For its part, New Delhi has high expectations of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, though not necessarily all to be fulfilled in this one visit. On New Delhi’s laundry list are the fast tracking of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
The two countries have been talking about a CEPA for nearly 10 years, and in 2012 had also finalised a draft, but strong opposition to it from the Sri Lankan business community stalled its finalization. Sri Lankan businessmen fear that the Indian service sector such as bankinng and insurance and the IT industry could swamp the small market. His relationship with New Delhi being what it was, Rajapakse did not push for it either.
Wickremesinghe has been a votary of CEPA with India, expressing his support for it only two months ago at a business forum in Colombo, and asking Sri Lankan businessmen not to fear it but see it as an opportunity.
India, government sources said, will now be looking to tying up the details with the Wickremesinghe -Sirisena government and work towards finalising the agreement.

In an indication of the sensitivities involved, on the eve of Wickremesinghe’s visit, a minister in his cabinet Malik Samarawickrama, who looks after International Trade, put out an apparent assurance that the agreement would not come up for discussion and was not likely to be finalised or signed during this visit.

Wickremesinghe has also spoken in favour of a land bridge between Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Thalaimannar on Sri Lanka’s western coast. Much of Sri Lanka’s commodities such as sugar, pulses, onions, chillies etc are imported from India.As the channel between the two countries is too narrow for big vessels, these commodities are shipped around the island to Colombo port, their price increasing with every nautical mile. One of the arguments advanced by the Rajapakse regime for building the controversial Hambantota port was that the ships could stop there instead of going further aroud and up the western coast to Colombo, and the prices would be cheaper.

But a land bridge would cut the costs dramatically. Ranil has spoken of a land bridge as a connecter of Sri Lanka with the wider globalised world. More than the Sethusamudram project, ever had – it has now been virtually given up — the idea of a land bridge has enthusiastic supporters in the Modi government. Sri Lanka’s northern Tamils also welcome the idea. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha was earlier opposed to it on securty grounds, but with no LTTE threat now, she may be differently disposed to the idea.

India will also be looking for indications from Wickremesinghe that the Sri Lankan government will not allow the controversial 1.5 bn dollar Port City project, awarded to the Chinese by the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, to go ahead. The project is at the moment suspended, pending an environmental impact assessment. India does not want a situation where the reclaimed land becomes Chinese property. So far, the Sri Lankan government has held off a decision.

Wickremesinghe’s visit comes at a time the Human Rights Council in Geneva is meeting. The HRC will take up a report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes. The report is likley to press for a further investigation into the killings of civilians, disappearances and other rights violations by the Sri Lankan military.
Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have said they prefer a domestic investigation. The United States has said it would move a resolution supporting a domestic enquiry.

The Northern Provincial Council led by the Tamil National Alliance, on the other hand, has called for an international investigation. The TNA is now the main opposition party in the Sri Lankan parliament. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will look to New Delhi for help to forge a compromise with the TNA on this issue.

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