India-Lanka relations set to improve
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a stranger to New Delhi and his three-day visit to India this week is seen as the turning of a new leaf. Since expectations were not too high on either side, the visit went off well with talks conducted in a cordial atmosphere. The fact that he chose India for his maiden visit after he took over speaks volumes. Ranil is known for his pro- India sentiments. There were several issues- some contentious and some not so contentious- including the fishermen issue, economic and trade, security, the ethnic Tamil problem, the implementation of the 13th amendment plus the UNHRC resolution and security and China which were on the table.
While the Modi government is keen on security cooperation, Indian Ocean and defence ties, the prominent issue during the talks was the reconciliation of the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.
This continues to influence the Sri Lanka policy not only owing to Tamil Nadu politics but also in the interest of national security. Although Prime Minister Modi has come with his majority, he cannot ignore the sentiments of Tamil Nadu where his party is trying to find a foothold. Chief Minister Jayalalitha is his good friend. Also, Modi has been talking about “neighbors first’ and cooperative federalism and Team India.
Ranil has assured Modi during the talks about the plans for reconciliation and rehabilitation of the Tamil minority. This is a complex subject although the Wickremesinghe government has made efforts to break the impasse in resuming the dialogue process with the Tamils who had supported the Wickremesinghe coalition in the recent Parliamentary elections as well as the January Presidential elections. Wickremesinghe is confident that the political situation in Sri Lanka is favorable for forging an enduring political solution to the Tamil question. He said after the talks “we are looking at how power sharing takes place within the constitution.” But it may be difficult for his government to grant land and police powers as envisaged in the 13 A of the Constitution to the provincial councils. The Tamil National Alliance has demanded that it should be a federal solution. There have been a lot of administrative barriers, which have to be removed. The real issue in the North and the East now is re-settlement of people who got evicted from their land — in Jaffna and the East. These are complex problems, which the new government is grappling with.
The second issue discussed was what happens after the UNHRC report on the Eelam war genocide. The report damns the Rajapakse government in which the current President <g data-gr-id="56">Srisena</g> was a minister. Ranil is reported to have told after the talks “we were relaxed about the findings.” The question here is whether the enquiry should be domestic as suggested by the US or international war crimes tribunal as demanded by the TNA and the Tamil Nadu parties like the DMK. India has always supported domestic inquiries in preference to international ones.
Interestingly, the visit has also demonstrated a shift in foreign policy focus from a conventional peace and cultural cooperation towards economic diplomacy as the two sides concentrated on expanding the trade and economic ties. However, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was not discussed during the visit. During his Colombo visit in March, Prime Minister Modi had revived the idea of CEPA between India and Sri Lanka, which had almost come through in 2008. For the Wickremesinghe government, it is probably a no-go area in Sri Lankan politics. So it is possible to work out a similar arrangement and call it by a different name.
The third complex subject that came up during the talks was the fishermen issue that continues to haunt both the countries. Despite several efforts, they have not been able to find a solution. As expected, Wickremesinghe pushed the Sri Lankan concerns especially of Tamil fishermen in the northern Sri Lanka, and about the relentless poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.
The Northern Sri Lankan Tamils are perplexed why Tamil Nadu politicians who support them otherwise, do not care about the Sri Lankan fishermen. The Sri Lankan fishermen were barred from fishing in the northern waters by the security forces during the conflict. Now they are aghast to find that their brethren across the Palk Straits are plundering the marine life on the Sri Lankan side. Powerful Tamil Nadu politicians own most of the trawlers. Although Wickremesinghe had warned Indian fishermen, his government has not been harsh in its treatment of them. He even got 16 fishermen released just before his visit to New Delhi. After the talks Modi said the fishermen associations on both sides should continue their talks for its resolution pointing out that the issue should be looked at with humanitarian concerns.
Wickremesinghe’s three-day visit has further cemented the Indo – Sri Lankan ties that had taken off after Modi’s visit to the island nation in March this year. Wickremesinghe has to tread carefully at home as it also depends on how he performs in the coming year. His approach at home is to try and include everyone in a big tent. The danger is that he may be spending too much time in keeping the tent intact with the result he may not be able to get many things done. In any case, New Delhi is keen to support the present regime that is a good sign for him.
(The views expressed are personal)