In one-on-one talks for an hour Friday with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, visiting Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is said to have conveyed that he will not allow “any third country or third force” to come in the way of the strong bilateral ties between Delhi and Colombo.
Modi announced a $50-million Line of Credit for security and counter-terrorism, and another $400 million for development and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.
This is Gotabaya’s first overseas visit after he took charge of the country as President less than two weeks ago. He invited Modi to visit Sri Lanka as the first head of government after he assumed office.
Brother of Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya is learnt to have conveyed to Modi that relations with India will be his “top priority”.
In a public statement after the bilateral meeting at Hyderabad House, he tried to assuage Indian concerns on Chinese projects in the island country. “While with India, our cooperation is multi-faceted, with priority given to security-related matters; With other countries, initiatives for cooperation are by and large economic and commercial (in nature),” he said.
“We will continue to work closely with India to ensure that the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace.” This was aimed at Delhi’s concerns, stemming from its past experience with the Rajapaksas between 2005 and 2015 when Gotabaya was Defence Secretary under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency, and Chinese ships and submarines had docked at Lankan ports.
Maritime security in mind, Modi, who called Sri Lanka as India’s “closest maritime neighbour and a trusted friend”, said that in line with the government’s “Neighbourhood First” policy and SAGAR doctrine, India prioritised its relations with Sri Lanka. “The security and development of our two countries are inseparable. Therefore, it is natural that we should be aware of each other’s safety and sensibilities,” he said.
“A stable, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka is not only in India’s interest but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean Region,” he said.
Calling the discussions “extremely cordial and reassuring”, Gotabaya said “cooperation in regard to security of our two countries took priority”.
India, he said, has always assisted Sri Lanka to “enhance our capabilities in intelligence and counter-terrorism and we look forward to continued support in this regard” and “we thank the offering of $50 million to enhance the capabilities of the intelligence agencies.”
Referring to the Easter Sunday attacks, Gotabaya said, “Since our recent experience in April this year, we have had to rethink our national security strategies. And any assistance from India in this regard would be most appreciated. In this regard, Prime Minister’s assurances are most encouraging.”
Modi said India has always opposed terrorism in all its forms and also expected action from the international community against other forms of terrorism, including “cross-border terrorism”.
He brought up the issue of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, but Gotabaya did not mention this in his public statement. However, sources said there was a “meeting of mind” on the national reconciliation issue, where the Sri Lanka President is learnt to have outlined his “priorities”. “He went an extra mile on the issue of fishermen and release of boats,” sources said.
The Prime Minister said, “We also openly exchanged views on reconciliation in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa told me about his inclusive political outlook on ethnic harmony. I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th amendment. India will become a trusted partner for development throughout Sri Lanka including North and East.”
Gotabaya, on his part, said, “We discussed the fishermen’s issue. And we will take steps to release the boats (which) belong to India, (which is) in our custody,” he said — one fisherman and 50 boats, sources said, are to be released by Sri Lanka.
“As India emerges to be among the world’s growing economies, I discussed with the Prime Minister, how Sri Lanka could benefit out of certain economic sectors where India is in a strong position. I thank the Prime Minister for his positive responses to many of the initiatives I proposed to enhance Sri Lanka’s economy,” he said.
Modi said they have decided to strengthen the multi-faceted partnership and cooperation between the two countries. As he announced a new $400-million Line of Credit to boost infrastructure and development in Sri Lanka, he also recalled the Indian Housing Project of 46,000 houses for the internally displaced in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.
“There is good progress in the construction of 14,000 houses for Tamils of Indian origin in the up-country region. I am also pleased that we have agreed to use the previously announced $100-million credit line for solar projects in Sri Lanka early. There was a good discussion between the President and me on 20 community development projects and other people-centric projects issued by India in Sri Lanka on the basis of grants in education and infrastructure,” he said.