Sri Lanka’s new president seeks warmer ties with India

Sri Lanka's new president will make his first state visit to India this week as he seeks to move his country nearer to its traditional ally India.

Sri Lanka's newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena greeted the crowds after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo on January 9, 2015. Ishara S Kodikara/AFP Photo
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NEW DELHI // Sri Lanka’s new president will arrive in New Delhi on Sunday, marking the beginning of his efforts to pivot his country away from China and towards its traditional ally, India.

The four-day trip will be Maithripala Sirisena’s first state visit since a surprise victory over the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the January 8 presidential election.

During his campaign, Mr Sirisena had criticised the pronounced tilt of Mr Rajapaksa’s government towards China.

In his manifesto, Mr Sirisena promised “equal relations” with Sri Lanka’s neighbours, and described his proposed policy towards India as “neither anti-Indian nor dependent”.

Since the end of the civil war, China has financed nearly US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) in infrastructure and energy investments in Sri Lanka — projects that include the port of Hambantota, a new motorway, and scores of hotels, office complexes and apartment buildings.

Sri Lanka’s monetary debt to China is so large that Mr Sirisena warned during his campaign that his country could “become a colony, and we would become slaves” to China if Mr Rajapaksa’s policies continued. India remains Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, with $4bn in bilateral trade.

But Sri Lankan economist Saman Kelegama noted, in an Asian Development Bank working paper published last year, that “a number of impediments” still prevent a 1999 free-trade agreement from reaching its full potential. Mr Kelegama cited a lack of market access in India for Sri Lankan products as key among these impediments.

Mr Sirisena will spend Monday in official talks with prime minister Narendra Modi. The talks will be accompanied by discussions between national delegations, according to a statement from India’s ministry of external affairs.

On Tuesday, Mr Sirisena will visit the town of Bodh Gaya in Bihar, an important pilgrimage site for Sri Lanka’s Buddhists, because the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment here. Mr Sirisena will also visit the Hindu temple at Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, before returning home on Wednesday.

Both religious locations are traditionally on the itineraries of Sri Lankan leaders in India.

Ahead of the state visit, Sri Lanka has rolled out a brace of measures designed to ease existing tensions between Colombo and New Delhi.

Last Wednesday, the Sri Lankan government ordered the release of 84 Indian fishing boats, which had been held after straying into Sri Lankan waters over the last several years.

The issue of Indian fishermen working in Sri Lankan waters has long been a thorny one. Sri Lankan authorities have arrested and detained dozens of such fishermen in the past. Fishing rights are likely to feature into talks between Mr Modi and Mr Sirisena, according to Peer Mohamed, a Chennai-based political analyst.

Last October, Sri Lanka sentenced five Indian fishermen to death, accusing them of drug smuggling. They were transferred to an Indian jail in late November after Mr Modi personally intervened.

Sri Lanka also announced last Thursday that thousands of acres of land in the north and east of the country, which is currently held by the defence forces, will be released back to Tamil civilians.

Much of this land will be used to resettle families who remain displaced since Mr Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war by defeating Tamil insurgents, who had wanted an independent state.

“Under this project, each family will receive 20 perches [roughly 0.125 acres] of land and financial assistance to build a house,” D M Swaminathan, Sri Lanka’s minister for resettlement, said.

Under Mr Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s treatment of its Tamil minority has been a bone of contention in its relations with India, which has a large Tamil population of its own.

“Sirisena won the elections because he got all those Tamil votes that Rajapaksa did not,” said Mr Mohamed. “And I think these Tamil votes accrued to him, in part, because he promised to reorient his country towards India.”

Nearly 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by army shelling in the final few months of the war, according to UN estimates. Thousands remain displaced.

Nearly 100,000 Tamil refugees live in India, and their repatriation will be on the agenda during Mr Sirisena’s visit as well.

When Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera visited New Delhi in mid-January, India called for “political reconciliation” between the Sri Lankan state and its Tamil minority.

Mr Sirisena has already moved in this direction. Soon after Mr Samaraweera’s visit, the government appointed a new governor to the Tamil-majority Northern Province — a diplomat, who replaced a retired army officer.

Mr Sirisena’s government has also promised to implement the constitution’s 13th amendment, neglected under Mr Rajapaksa, which promises to devolve more powers to the country’s provinces.

The new president is also lobbying to delay the March release of a UN report on war crimes, arguing that his government should first be given a chance to institute a new domestic probe.

“He needs India’s support in this matter,” Mr Mohamed said. “That could be among the reasons he is courting India so strongly at this moment.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae