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India-Sri Lanka ties hit rough weather as Colombo seen swaying to Chinese tunes again

Adding to tensions is looming UNHRC probe regarding Lankan civil war, where Colombo has sought Delhi’s support. India is also waiting for Sri Lanka to implement 13th amendment of its constitution.

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New Delhi: India-Sri Lanka relations are headed for new turbulence as New Delhi is beginning to get “concerned” that Colombo is once again tilting towards Beijing, ThePrint has learnt.

Earlier this month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government in Sri Lanka scrapped its $500 million agreement with India and Japan to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) project, instead seeking investments from the two countries for the West Container Terminal of the Port of Colombo under a public-private-partnership model. 

Days earlier, Colombo handed over a $12 million energy project to a Chinese firm for the joint development of three renewable power plants in as many islands off the Jaffna peninsula, about 50 km away from the Tamil Nadu coast.

New Delhi has reportedly lodged a strong protest on the issue, making it clear to Colombo that the energy project poses a grave security threat to India, while also conveying that it will “not” let the ECT plan get “washed away just like that”, official sources said.

Adding to the tensions is a looming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) investigation into the Sri Lankan civil war, where Colombo has sought Delhi’s support in what is a politically sensitive issue for India.

India is also waiting for Sri Lanka to implement the 13th amendment of its constitution, which is aimed at facilitating the reconciliation of the Tamilian minority by giving them greater representation. 

This is a long-pending demand by India that was reiterated by Modi when the Rajapaksas returned to power in 2019.

The new strain in ties marks a shift since 2019, when the Modi government sought to reset the relationship with Sri Lanka after Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office as President. Even Rajapaksa had chosen India as his first destination abroad after taking charge as President and hailed Colombo’s ties with New Delhi as “multi-faceted” as compared to the “by and large economic and commercial relationship” it had with others.

According to sources, the protests by Sri Lankan trade unions opposed to giving the ECT project to India are “partly instigated” by the Chinese and partly by the fact that the present Sri Lankan government has not taken any steps to curb “anti-India sentiments” dating back to the civil war, which ended in 2009.

India, sources said, will “not give up” its demand to develop the ECT because it is an international agreement that also concerns Japan, and New Delhi believes it cannot be scrapped based on protests staged by trade unions there.

During his visit to Sri Lanka in January, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also pushed for the ECT project, which was stalled at the time.

Talking about the bilateral relationship, a former Indian diplomat said Sri Lanka doesn’t see India as a trusted friend and neighbour because of grievances dating back to the civil war. A former Sri Lankan diplomat, however, made light of the scrapping of the ECT agreement, saying Sri Lanka has always accorded priority to Indian security interests.

Also Read: India believes Sri Lanka can’t backtrack after promising to proceed with Colombo Port project

‘Deep-seated grievances’

A veteran diplomat, who has served as India’s High Commissioner to Colombo, said the “Rajapaksas reflect a deep-seated and accumulated sense of grievance against India for perceived wrongs against Sri Lanka dating back to the India-Sri Lanka Agreement and the role of the IPKF (Indian Peacekeeping Force) in the country”. 

India, the diplomat said, is seen as “being responsible for the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the ensuing civil war”. 

“In other words, at the subliminal, psychological level, India is not seen as a trusted friend and neighbour. The same psychology also results in a sense of entitlement vis-a-vis India — meaning that Sri Lanka can ask from India and is not obliged to reciprocate Indian generosity or goodwill,” the former diplomat said.

Trade unions and key bureaucrats in Sri Lanka, the former diplomat added, are “living exponents of this attitude of suspicion, mistrust and sheer spite and small-mindedness towards India”. 

“Appearances of bonhomie are very deceptive,” the former diplomat said. “Indian officials and politicians are also seen as interfering and seeking to curb Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to transact relations with whichever country it chooses to make deals with, especially China and Pakistan.” 

Furthermore, the former diplomat added, “there is a definitive inclination to root for big powers like China who are seen as far superior to India in technology development and economic wherewithal that Sri Lanka can ‘use’, and whose deep pockets are extremely attractive”. 

Sources in Colombo, however, said that while it has scrapped the ECT project, it has also offered India and Japan the West Container Terminal (WCT), which is linked to the Chinese terminal at the Colombo Port as well, thereby serving India’s strategic as well as economic interests.

At the UNHRC 

Sources in Colombo said Sri Lanka may “rethink” its ECT decision if India supports it at the March session of the UNHRC in Geneva (22 February-19 March), where the alleged war crimes committed by government forces and the LTTE during the concluding phase of the 26-year-long civil war are likely to be probed.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has reportedly written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking India’s support. 

In an interview to a local TV channel, Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage said he is hopeful of Delhi supporting Colombo in the interest of “regional solidarity”.

Sources in the Sri Lankan government said even if India is unable to oppose the UN resolution seeking a probe, if at all voting takes place at the ongoing UNHRC session, it is “hoping” Delhi will abstain from voting. 

The issue, however, will prove tricky for Delhi to manoeuvre in the run-up to the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, where the rights of Lankan Tamils has been an emotive issue. 

The Lanka civil war began in 1983 with a Tamil insurgency that sought a separate state. Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority predate Sri Lankan independence in 1948. They strengthened amid the discriminatory policies introduced by the Sinhalese-led government that subsequently took office in Lanka, with the country also witnessing anti-Tamil riots. 

Thousands are estimated to have been killed and displaced during the war. The bloodshed mostly happened towards the end of the war, when Mahinda Rajapaksa — Gotabaya’s elder brother, now Prime Minister — allegedly oversaw brutal war crimes against the Tamil minority. Gotabaya was the defence secretary at the time.

The former diplomat quoted above said “our relations with the Tamil minority are viewed with enduring suspicion” in Sri Lanka. 

“India is therefore short-changed on many fronts. This is a deep-seated malaise despite all the ties of history, culture, religion, ethnicity and geography that bind us with Sri Lanka,” the former envoy added.

Also Read: Sri Lanka’s economic past isn’t very bright. Scrapping deals with India won’t help its future

No move yet on 13th amendment  

When the Rajapaksa government came to power, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa chose India as his first port of call abroad and vowed to keep the Indian Ocean Region as a “zone of peace”.  

At the time, Modi had specifically urged Sri Lanka to “pursue the process of reconciliation to fulfil the aspirations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect”, and called for the “implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution”.

The 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution became part of local statute as a direct result of the Indian intervention in 1987, under the India-Sri Lanka Accord. It proposed the establishment of a provincial council system and devolution of power for nine provinces in Sri Lanka. However, successive governments in Sri Lanka have not implemented it. 

“The Chinese influence is growing there with the Rajapaksas coming back. But they are also aware of the Chinese debt they have to pay off,” said Jayadeva Ranade, a China expert and former Indian intelligence officer. “They are firmly under their grip and it’s difficult to shake that off. How India handles this, that the government has to decide.” 

Sumith Nakandala, Director at the Centre for Indo-Lanka Initiatives, Pathfinder Foundation, a Sri Lanka-based think tank, said “India’s concerns are understandable but the bilateral relations have never been on a linear equation, which is natural”. 

“There have been aberrations, domestic and regional compulsions on both sides. The compounding factor, one must understand, is the complexities of coalition politics in both countries. The Sri Lankan government has now offered the West Terminal to India and Japan and we will have to wait for the outcome of these discussions,” he added. “What is clear is that President Rajapaksa is determined that India has a definitive role to play in the socio-economic development in Sri Lanka, including infrastructure.” 

Nakandala, a former career diplomat who has served at the Sri Lankan High Commission in India, said India “is also aware of the role played by China in developing infrastructure in Sri Lanka and there should be a measured balance, creating a win-win situation to India, China, and Sri Lanka”. 

“It must also be kept in mind that no Sri Lankan government has undermined the strategic interests of India and will continue to give priority to Indian security interests. One definite way to address the situation is to deepen people-to-people contacts and relations, for a better understanding between the two countries.”

This report has been updated to correctly state the worth of the energy project assigned by Sri Lanka to a Chinese firm. It is $12 million, not $12 billion, and to correct the definition for Pathfinder Foundation. The error is regretted.

Also Read: India looks to bring ties with Sri Lanka back on track as Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes calling


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