Seeking reconciliation with Tamils
With Ranil Vickremesinghe as his Prime Minister, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has become much freer now to pursue his policy of reconciliation with the ethnic Tamils. He assured a US delegation led by the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs that he would give priority to probe the alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed against Tamil civilians during the protracted civil war, through an ‘independent domestic mechanism’. Earlier, on the sixth anniversary of the Sri Lankan army’s victory over the LTTE, he reiterated his commitment to establish the truth of what had happened during those days.
It may be recalled, that the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) prepared an elaborate inquiry report on the human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army on Tamil civilians. Sirisena’s predecessor Rajapaksa was dead against the report being tabled on an international forum. However, the report is now scheduled to be released this month (September) on the recommendation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sirisena’s unambiguous statement, that he is committed to <g data-gr-id="52">finding</g> out what actually happened and brought the culprits to book, not only marks a departure from the policy of his predecessor but also shows his sincerity to take on the path of reconciliation. It also confirms the prevalent doubt that the exact number of Tamils who were killed or just ‘disappeared’ in questionable circumstances’ is yet to be established. Moreover, questions of whether LTTE tigers were killed in cold blood after they had surrendered remain.
By redressing the grievances of ethnic Tamils, Colombo will also go a long way to assuaging the hurt feelings of the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and contribute immensely to forging better and closer Indo-Sri Lanka relations. The 25-year long civil war had taken its toll on the Sri Lankan economy.
For example, the island nation had to borrow $1,81,449 worth of defence loans from international financial institutions in 2007. Next <g data-gr-id="49">year</g> the country allocated $1.5 billion for defence. The total war cost was estimated at over $200 billion. One effect of the war was a sharp drop in tourism.
On assuming office, Sirisena made three promises: to decentralize power and strengthen democracy; to seek reconciliation with the Tamils, and to reduce his country’s dependence on China. Sirisena has spelled out his foreign policy: to foster closer ties with all the neighbouring countries. This lays the ground for increasing economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.
India has already agreed to participate in several projects in Sri Lanka. One is the agreement between the Lanka IOC and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, for jointly developing the Upper Tank Farm of the China Bay installation at Trincomalee. As a corollary to this, the two countries have also decided to set up a Task Force for working out the modalities to enable India to develop Trincomalee into a regional petroleum hub. Then there is Indian participation in the Sampur Coal Power Project. Once completed, it will go a long way to meet Sri Lanka’s rising energy needs. It is also proposed to set up a Joint Task Force on ocean economy.
Unlike India, hydel power accounts for nearly half of the total power generation in Sri Lanka, the other half coming from the thermal sector. At present, the power demand in the country is estimated to grow by 5.2 percent annually. Harnessing ocean energy to generate power, therefore, assumes importance. A big challenge is to reduce energy imports by developing indigenous sources of supply. In 2013, the country’s oil imports amounted to $4.3 billion and accounted for one-fourth of the total import bill. In the face of fluctuating oil price and rising domestic demand, energy security and self-sufficiency is of great importance. It is in this field that there is scope for fruitful India-Sri Lanka cooperation.
During his visit to Colombo in March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered Sri Lanka a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and assured it of facilitating the entry of Sri Lankan goods in the Indian market. This is very important from the Sri Lankan point of view because Sri Lanka has a rising adverse balance of trade with India. In 2013-14, Sri Lanka’s imports from India amounted to $5.2 billion but its exports to India were a meagre $678 million. If the trade imbalance does not turn for the better for Sri Lanka within a reasonable time, it may, over time, become an irritant in Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.