Foreign policy quagmire



Chinese scientific survey and research vessel HAI YANG 24 HAO at the Colombo harbour

During the question-and-answer session, Dr. Dushni Weerakoon questioned the sustainability of Sri Lanka’s non-aligned foreign policy, as it weakened the country’s position in trade negotiations. The expert assertion was certainly not restricted to trade negotiations. Having signed ACSA (Access and Cross Servicing-Agreement) with the US, in August 2017, it would be ridiculous to still talk of non-aligned policy. The fact remains the US also sought o finalize SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) in addition to MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) Compact. Sri Lanka first signed ACSA in early 2007 during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first term. In the wake of ACSA, the US provided crucial intelligence that helped the Navy to hunt down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas and accelerate their collapse.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A scientific survey and research vessel, manned by the Chinese Navy, arrived at the Colombo port on 10 August. HAI YANG 24 HAO was here for a replenishment assignment. Commanded by Commander Jin Xin, the 129 m long vessel, crewed by 138 officers and men, departed Colombo on 12 August. The visit didn’t create controversy the way when Chinese surveillance vessel Yuan Wang 5 visited Hambantota in August last year close on the heels of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster.

HAI YANG 24 HAO was the first Chinese Navy vessel here since President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s two-day visit to New Delhi, the first since Parliament elected him in July last year to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term won at the November 2019 presidential election. The next presidential poll is a year away.

The growing Indian concerns over what they call Chinese ‘activity’ here is a huge challenge that has to be dealt with at the highest level. But bankrupt Sri Lanka dependent on the new Extended Fund Facility (EFF) secured with the support of India and the US faced the daunting task of convincing India that Colombo’s relationship with China didn’t pose any threat to their interests. As regards Chinese naval visits, the US, too, has expressed concerns on behalf of its Quad partner. Quad consists of the US, Australia, Japan and India.

Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies recently launched ‘LKI Foreign Policy Forum’ , a fresh initiative for a free and frank discussion on foreign policy matters, as well as related issues. The inaugural session at the LKI Lighthouse Auditorium, on 09 August, featured former Foreign Secretary H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, Executive Director Institute of Policy Studies, Director International Relations, KDU Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Executive Director Policy Studies Dr. Dushni Weerakoon and Executive Director, National Peace Council Dr. Jehan Perera. None of them need any introduction. They dealt with the topic ‘the changing global dynamics: implications for Sri Lanka.’ The Chinese vessel arrived in Colombo the following day.

The launch of ‘LKI Foreign Policy Forum coincided with the 18th death anniversary of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, which fell on 12 August 2023. The LTTE assassinated Kadirgamar at his Buller’s Road residence. LK was 73 years old at the time he was felled by a sniper. How an LTTE sniper fired several gunshots at LK from the window of a bathroom located on the top floor of a house on Buller’s Lane is still a mystery. The person who resided in that house, the late Lakshman Thalayasingham, denied any knowledge of LTTE operatives being there when the law enforcement authorities rushed in soon after the assassination. Those responsible for LK’s security never explained how the surrounding houses of the man, high on the LTTE’s hit list, were never properly checked.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, career diplomat recently appointed Executive Director of LKI, moderated the inaugural programme which attracted a section of the Colombo-based diplomatic community. At the onset of the discussion, the one-time Foreign Secretary, who served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Washington (Dec. 2020-Sept. 2021) before retirement, briefly explained the current global and regional status, taking into consideration the ongoing war in Ukraine where Russia is battling US-backed forces. The UK and Germany, among other NATO allies, have thrown their full weight behind American-led efforts to bring the Russians to their knees, using the Ukrainian forces as the battering ram.

Russian Ambassador in Colombo Levan S. Dzhagaryan, who took up the post here four months after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, was seated on the front row of the audience.

The conflict in Ukraine has sharply divided the world, with Japan campaigning against Russia. Japan has taken up the issue at hand with Sri Lanka, though it knows Colombo is not in a position to take sides. Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa who was here in the last week of July, took up Russian actions with Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, on 29 July. Their discussions also covered the situation in East Africa.

Pushing Sri Lanka to back their ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP), Yoshimasa, towards the end of his discussion with Sabry, emphasized the importance of what is called the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) meant to facilitate grain exports from Ukraine, through the Black Sea, to various parts of the world.

Yoshimasa blamed Russian termination of the initiative, alleging that move ran counter to the international community’s efforts in addressing food insecurity.

Contrary to Western expectations and that of Japan and Australia, India has quite clearly indicated that it wouldn’t back resolutions moved against Russia at the UN. Sri Lanka abstained at the UN vote on Russia. China and Pakistan, too, abstained. But the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government is under heavy pressure to back the Western position. Foreign media reports suggest that the US forced Pakistan to remove their PM Imran Khan over the latter’s refusal to condemn Russia.. Therefore, MP Wimal Weerawansa’s accusations, regarding US and Indian involvement in the change of government here, last year, shouldn’t be dismissed as mere rhetoric.

The writer is of the view that whatever the domestic politics here, and external pressure, Sri Lanka shouldn’t back a UN resolution against Russia. Perhaps LKI, in consultation with all relevant parties, should thoroughly examine this issue, also taking into consideration Asia’s position, in general, and advise the government, accordingly, as an independent think tank, especially against unfair moves by India to smother our independence and sovereignty that we have jealously guarded throughout history, without being a threat to it.

We wonder how those who are still blindly pursuing an Eelam dream and have done every possible thing to wreck this country in the pursuit of that, now feel with India clearly calling the shots everywhere.

Indo-Lanka relations

From left: Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, Dr. Harinda Vidanage, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, Dr. Jehan Perera and Ambassador H.M.G.S. Palihakkara

During the brief question and answer session, civil society activist Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), called for closer alignment with India. The former board member of the LKI explained why bankrupt Sri Lanka should align herself with India as it struggled to navigate through the developing crisis. Reference was also made to continuing Indian and Chinese roles here and how flagship Chinese project, the Port City, could attract Indian investments. The academic reminded what could have happened if not for India’s swift intervention to meet Sri Lanka’s basic needs, in 2022. Against the backdrop of continuing economic-political-social crisis in Sri Lanka, the Modi administration, seeking a third consecutive term, has paid considerable attention to the developments here. Obviously, their primary objective is to enhance India’s influence here and outdo the Chinese who secured the Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease, and also sustained the flagship Port City project.

The entry of Chinese oil giant Sinopec recently to the Sri Lanka market underscored how they sustained their operations, regardless of the change of government in July 2022. In fact, China appeared to have subtly exploited the crisis, and the political setup here, to secure the best possible terms for their entry as the third player in the retail oil market. Until their entry, the CPC and Lanka IOC shared the market, with the latter gradually expanding its influence at Trincomalee where the strategically located British built oil tank farm is situated. Similarly, the Chinese consolidated the strategic Hambantota Port with subsequent investments.

Sri Lanka needs to take both Chinese and Indian investments here into consideration as the Asian giants sought to further enhance and consolidate their position here. During Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as the President, the then CEB Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando caused quite a controversy when he explained how President Gotabaya intervened on behalf of the Adani Group. The declaration, though subsequently denied, cannot be simply dismissed as the close relationship between controversial tycoon Gautam Adani and Indian Premier Narendra Modi, now seeking a third consecutive term, is well established. Gautam Adani had an opportunity to meet President Wickremesinghe during the latter’s two-day July visit to New Delhi where an assurance was given that Adani renewable power projects at Mannar and Pooneryn would be completed in January 2025.

During Wickremesinghe’s visit, an agreement was reached on cooperation on further renewable energy projects and development of Trincomalee as an energy hub. A permit clearing the joint venture between the Ceylon Electricity Board and India’s NTPC for a solar park in the eastern town of Sampur, in the Trincomalee district, too, was also issued in line with overall understanding.

Since the end of the war in May 2009 India has gradually stepped up interest in Sri Lanka. India wants Sri Lanka to fully implement the 13th Amendment to its Constitution. New Delhi has the US backing for the project that some concerned here say would lead to a federal state.

In the wake of Narendra Modi’s election, as Premier, in May 2014, India steadily increased investments here during his two terms and further expansion is likely in his third term. Indian parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2024.

Following President Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi where he had one-on-one with Premier Modi, the two countries announced an agreement on development of ports and logistics infrastructure in Colombo, Kankesthurai (KKS) and Trincomalee and launch ferry services between Nagapattinam in India and KKS, Rameswaram and Talaimannar and other mutually agreed places, welcoming resumption of flights between Chennai and Palaly, agreed to explore the possibility of expanding air connectivity to Colombo (BIA or Ratmalana) as well as Trincomalee and Batticaloa, development of infrastructure at Palaly.

In addition, enhanced cooperation on the development of the renewable energy sector here, establishment of a high capacity power grid interconnection between India and Sri Lanka to enable bidirectional electricity trade between Sri Lanka and other regional countries, including the BBIN countries, implementation of understanding reached on Sampur Solar power project and LNG infrastructure, development of Trincomalee oil tank farms in line with overall project focused on the eastern port city. As part of this project launch construction of a multi-product petroleum pipeline from South India to Sri Lanka, exploration and production of hydrocarbons in Sri Lanka’s offshore basins with an aim to develop Sri Lanka’s upstream petroleum sector, divestment of state owned enterprises (Indian investments in those selected sectors), fresh discussion on Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA), designation of INR as currency for trade settlements between the two countries and the agreement to operationalise UPI based digital payments, use of India’s Digital Public Infrastructure to meet Sri Lanka’s requirements and, finally, establishment of land connectivity between the two countries.

Let me reproduce the relevant section as released in a joint communique, titled ‘Promoting Connectivity,

Catalyzing Prosperity: India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision’ issued following talks between Premier Modi and President Wickremesinghe. “To establish land connectivity between Sri Lanka and India for developing land access to the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo, propelling economic growth and prosperity in both Sri Lanka and India, and further consolidating millennia old relationship between the two countries. A feasibility study for such connectivity will be conducted at an early date.”

Those agreements have consolidated Indo-Lanka relationship, regardless of serious concerns in some sections that Sri Lanka’s independence is at stake. The powers that be must realize that Sri Lanka shouldn’t promote a particular relationship at its own expense as well as other powers interested in developing further ties.

There cannot be a better example than the cancellation of tenders awarded to China to execute hybrid renewable energy systems in Delft, Nagadeepa and Analativu, off the Jaffna coast. Having awarded the tenders in January 2021, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government cancelled those following Indian protests.

India never knew of those projects funded by the ADB until the CEB made the announcement in January 2021.

The Chinese project was going to be carried out with an ADB loan. India offered alternative arrangements to implement the same. In spite of the Rajapaksas making a desperate effort to save the Chinese project, India finally compelled the cancellation of the project about a year after the awarding of tenders. When Sri Lanka pointed out that the ADB funded project couldn’t be cancelled unilaterally, New Delhi is believed to have intervened with the ADB.

However, Premier Modi’s criticism of the late Premier Indira Gandhi over handing over of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974 is a grim reminder how fresh issues could be raised ahead of elections. India parliamentary polls are scueduled for next year.

Accountability issues and origins of

terrorism here

Now that there is no question about post-war Indo-Sri Lanka relationship, it would be pertinent to ask how Sri Lanka addressed accountability issues in line with overall measures meant for reconciliation. Of the four panelists, Dr. Jehan Perera emphasized the responsibility on the part of all concerned to ensure those responsible for human rights violations at all levels be dealt with regardless of their standing in society. The peace icon who had been engaged in the peace process over a period of time stressed that the country couldn’t move forward unless accountability issues were addressed, based on the 2015 Geneva Resolution, co-sponsored by the then Yahapalana government. While pressing Sri Lanka on accountability issues, Dr. Perera ironically and with no shame went out of his way to praise the human rights record of US-led powers, regardless of death and destruction caused all over the world in the name of democracy. The civil society activist also didn’t comment on the origins of terrorism here. Obviously, Dr. Perera forgot he was at the LK commemoration and the fact that the much respected leader was killed by an organization, established by India.

Those demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lanka should explain how they proposed to deal with India for (1) launching a terrorist campaign in the early ’80s. In addition to the losses caused to the Sri Lanka military, fighting among rival northern groups claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands (2) killings blamed on the Indian military during its deployment here, July 1987-March 1990 period (3) killing carried out by Tamil National Alliance, formed by India, in the wake of Sri Lanka’s request for complete withdrawal of its military and (4) Indian trained PLOTE raid on the Maldives in November 1988, if succeeded, could have caused regional instability.

They should also explain in what way the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), now represented in Parliament, could be dealt with. Having recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people in 2001, Trincomalee District MP R. Sampanthan’s outfit under any circumstances couldn’t absolve itself of the complicity for the catastrophic devastation caused by the LTTE, especially to innocent people everywhere. The Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government must realize that post-war reconciliation couldn’t be achieved through the South Africa-type Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) examining the Eelam War IV (Aug. 2006-May 2009).

The TNA collaborated with the LTTE to the hilt until the very end. Their relationship was built on 2004 ‘agreement’ that helped the TNA to secure 21 seats in the Northern and Eastern districts at the 2004 general election with the LTTE stuffing ballot boxes on their behalf. The blatant LTTE partnership with the TNA attracted the attention of the European Union Election Observation Mission. The EU mission, in its report, pointed out how the TNA won the lion’s share of the seats in the then temporarily merged North and East with direct LTTE support. Except The Island no other print media and electronic media bothered to report this. The Election Department did nothing.

The Parliament, too, conveniently turned a blind eye to the issue. In the following year, the LTTE set the stage for the final war by ordering the Tamil electorate to boycott the presidential poll. The TNA issued the ‘directive’ on behalf of the LTTE. Again, the Election Department and Parliament did nothing. How could a political party, represented in Parliament, ask the entire northern population to boycott the national election to facilitate the terrorist strategy?

Five years later, the same TNA backed war-winning Army Commander, retired General Sarath Fonseka, after having accused him and his Army of genocide, when he emerged as the common candidate at the presidential election. Fonseka lost badly by over 1.8 mn votes though he handsomely won all electorates in the Northern and Eastern provinces where his Army, over a period of three years, eradicated the LTTE completely.

LKI can certainly examine the entire gamut of issues, including the circumstances leading to the 2015 Geneva Resolution, co-sponsored by the Yahapalana administration. Sri Lanka backed the US led move, regardless of serious concerns expressed by the then Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, the incumbent Executive Director of LKI. The Island covered the Geneva issue extensively hence no need to repeat how the then government acted recklessly in that regard and the subsequent declaration made by TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran in Washington (2016) pertaining to a tripartite agreement involving the US, GoSL and TNA on hybrid war crimes mechanism.

A thorough examination of events and developments is necessary as accountability issues are used to influence the leadership on post-war reconciliation. Sri Lanka struggling with a mountain of debt, both local and foreign, seems to be easy prey for those interested parties


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