Security of our societies indivisible

The most significant event in the week was the 14th international Vesak celebrations that would come to a culmination today with Nepali President Bidya Devi Bhandari gracing the closing ceremony in Kandy.

The highlight of the celebrations was the visit of Indian Premier Narendra Modi who spoke of national unity, the importance of language and religion as cultural links and underscored the economic linkages between Sri Lanka and India in his address to the estate workers of Tamil origin in Norwood in the Hatton region. He spoke of the tears and sweat of their forefathers who came to then Ceylon two hundred years ago and toiled hard to make Sri Lanka tea a much acclaimed product the world over.

Prime Minister Modi was quick to give an undertaking that India would support them in their hard trek to achieve social justice through economic emancipation while paying a tribute to the late Saumyamoorthy Thondaman who is considered a legendary political hero who fought for their rights.

“India’s rapid growth can bring dividends for the entire region, especially, Sri Lanka. In infrastructure and connectivity, transport and energy, we are poised to scale up our cooperation. Our development partnership stretches across nearly every sector of human activity such as agriculture, education, health, resettlement, transport, power, culture, water, shelter, sports, and human resources.”

”Today, India’s development cooperation with Sri Lanka amounts to USD 2.6 billion. In addition, its only aim is to support Sri Lanka in realizing a peaceful, prosperous, and secure future for its people. The economic and social well being of the people of Sri Lanka is linked with that of 1.25 billion Indians. Whether it is on land or in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the security of our societies is indivisible. My conversations with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have only reinforced our will to join hands in achieving our common goals. As you make important choices for the harmony and progress of your society, you will find in India a friend and partner that will support your nation-building endeavours,” Premier Modi said.

Resilience and buoyancy

“Sri Lanka takes pride in being among the most important nerve centres of Buddhist teachings and learning. Centuries later, Anagarika Dharmapala undertook a similar journey, but this time, from Sri Lanka to India to revive the spirit of Buddha in the land of its origin. In some way, you took us back to our own roots. The world also owes a debt of gratitude to Sri Lanka for preserving some of the most important elements of Buddhist heritage. Vesak is an occasion for us to celebrate this unbroken shared heritage of Buddhism. A heritage that connects our societies across generations and through centuries.”

Interestingly, the Norwood meeting was organised by the Minister of Hill Country, New Villages, Infrastructure, and Community Development, Palani Digambaran, against whom the Ceylon Workers' Congress, the political party formed by the late S Thondaman, had made representation to police alleging that Digambaran was attempting to lock the CWC out of the meeting. Indian media quoted CWC Central Provincial Council member Kanapathy Kanagaraj saying “The Indian High Commission in Colombo invited the CWC to attend a public meeting at the Norwood grounds with Premier Modi. Minister Digambaram prevented us from entering to inspect the site yesterday.”

All what Prime Minister Modi said in Sri Lanka bears political significance and was appreciative of the resilience and buoyancy showed by the unity government to face tough economic and social targets.

India’s help may be forthcoming but Sri Lanka would be compelled to watch with caution the brewing political struggle between India and China. It would be more than reasonable to conclude that Chinese influence over the Indian Ocean nation states are gradually growing by the day with increased Chinese presence in the region.

Prime Minister Modi was in Colombo for approximately a day, but the weight carried by his presence was politically gripping at a time China was indulging in a relentless pursuit to make their presence felt in the Indian Ocean as a super power.

India may not want Sri Lanka to drift towards China the economic powerhouse of the region to achieve their targets. Hence, now it is up to Sri Lanka to realize the geopolitical priorities and strike a balance between the two giants without making the country a political hot spot in the region.

India’s sole aim may be to mitigate the Chinese influence in the region and to achieve the objective that India has collaborated with Japan with the backing of the United States, to build an alliance balance of power On Thursday, 11 May, one day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit the Sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a visit to the temple to see his friend and confidante, Nilanga Dela Bandara, the current Diyawadana Nilame.

While walking back to his car, former President Rajapaksa used the occasion to provide the melange of media persons at the entrance a quick take on his views regarding Prime Minister Modi´s visit. “ I am not against the visit,” Rajapaksa said, but “ I am fully against what´s going to happen after the visit,” he said. His comments came just ten days after former Minister Wimal Weerawansa, now on bail for offenses that involve the misuse of public property, cried hoarse urging the public to raise black flags on the day Sri Lanka was celebrating its most significant religious holiday, to protest against the visit of the Indian Premier. Weerawansa made this reprehensible request at the Joint Opposition May Day rally, an event that the former President also participated.

Live-video blogging

While Rajapaksa was speaking to the media on the stairway leading to the office of Diyawadana Nilame Dela Bandara, the former mayor of Dehiwala – Mount Lavinia, Danasiri Amaratunga, who has recently been accompanying Rajapaksa in his many outings, was live-video blogging the unfolding event via Facebook. In his haste to join Rajapaksa – he shared the backseat of the latter's limousine, Amaratunga forgot that the camera was still alive and was uploading a video of his trouser to Facebook along with audio.

“Sir, are you going to the Modi event tomorrow,” he asked the former President, getting into the car.

“Yes, of course,” Rajapaksa replied – while instructing his driver to make sure the tyres of the car has enough air for the journey next day. That was the dichotomy of the Rajapaksa regime – the public face, the need for detail (air for the tyres) and privately, a much different ideology and pursuit as opposed to what was presented to the public.

As such, for keen political observers, the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the India House did not come as a major surprise, even though no such meeting was slated, in the original slate of events. When Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu met with a band of selected journalists on Monday, he did not indicate any other political meeting other than the meeting with Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, who met the Indian PM, a few minutes before his departure from the Bandaranaike International Air Port.

According to Indian diplomatic sources, the meeting with Prime Minister Modi was arranged at the behest of Rajapaksa. It is interesting to note as to how this meeting came about. While political analysts are of the view that it would be difficult to arrange something similar to that in a hurry with the very strict adherences followed by the Indian bureaucracy, they recalled an unscheduled visit by former Foreign Minister G.L Peiris to Delhi recently but others dismissed the idea that Peiris was in a position to fix a meeting between the two political leaders. However some others were talking of a think tank that has direct links with former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The think tank was set to advise Prime Minister Modi on regional security issues.

The Chief national security adviser to PM Modi, Ajit Doval was also in town. Doval had been in Sri Lanka during the time of the 2015 presidential election too and had met with President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Rajapaksa during 2015 presidential elections. Doval was in town in time of the arrival of PM Modi.

Although there were no conclusive evidence as to how they arranged the meeting Indian High Commissioner has evidently met with former president Rajapaksa at least a week before Modi’s visit to Colombo. India HC was smart enough to keep under wraps the meeting between PM Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa until the last moment. The other participants at the discussion included former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, High Commissioner Sandhu, India´s Foreign Secretary Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.


 Sri-Lanka/India framework agreement

Sri Lanka and India signed a framework agreement in the last week of April in Delhi through which the two countries identified a number of priority projects for development. These include:

• A regasified Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fired 500 megawatt capacity LNG Power Plant; An LNG Terminal / Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Kerawalapitiya/Colombo; a piped gas distribution system; retail outlets for supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector; and conversion of liquid fuel-based power plants to R-LNG fired power plants in Sri Lanka.

• A 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) Solar Power Plant in Sampur.

• Upper Tank Farm in Trincomalee to be jointly developed by India (Lanka IOC PLC) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon Petroleum corporation or CPC).

• The land of the Lower Tank Farm, which is also in possession of Lanka IOC PLC, pursuant to the 2003 Agreement, to be leased to Lanka IOC directly.

• A Port, Petroleum Refinery and other industries in Trincomalee.

• Industrial Zones/Special Economic Zones in identified locations in Sri Lanka.

• Mannar-Jaffna and Mannar-Trincomalee Highways and Dambulla-Trincomalee Expressway under Indian investments.

• The railway sector development including new projects of track upgradation and purchase of rolling stock,

• A Container Terminal in Colombo Port as a Joint Venture, which includes Indian investments considering that majority of transshipment in Colombo Port is related to India.

• Agricultural sector and livestock development through techno-economic cooperation, water management, and promotion of agro-based industries.

In the aftermath of the signing of the Indo-Lanka framework agreement, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay was quoted in Indian media as stating:

“The (Modi) government is internally focused on ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’ (development for all) and externally too in the neighborhood, our vision to promote connectivity and development takes ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ to our external environment, and naturally to the neighborhood first."

Sources indicate that the two framework agreements are the culmination of over two years of work on a strategy announced through the UNP´s election manifesto to create an “investment corridor” linking Sri Lanka´s nearest neighbor and one of its biggest trading partners with the regional strategy of China´s one-belt, one-road initiative.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe elaborated his vision of the investment corridor during his visit to New Zealand in October last year, speaking on the theme of “Sri Lanka and its place in the world.”

Stating that with its two billion population, South Asia is a considerable market with growing significance, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe outlined the reasons for creating the North-South link, an investment corridor through Sri Lanka.

“Sri Lanka’s situation in the nautical corridor between the East and West is of import not only from a geostrategic perspective, but also from maritime economic and security perspectives. On the one hand, the Indian Ocean is a vast source of maritime economic resources, on the other;it is a maritime trading corridor through which nearly two thirds of the world’s oil is transported.

“In our perspective, the Indian Ocean remains a key to Asian prosperity. An Indian Ocean order, which envisages at its core an ocean free of conflict despite competing economic interests - with lanes of communication, ease and safety of passage, freedom of navigation, secure and sustainable use of resources for the economic advancement of States in an equitable manner is imperative. To fully tap this potential, Sri Lanka will engage in initiatives with regional players who have major economic stakes in the Indian Ocean,” Prime Minister said.

The after dinner meeting was full of pleasantries though serious issues were not on the table.

“You look tired, may be after an exhausting day” former President Rajapaksa quipped. Modi replied with “all the weariness vanished after seeing you.”

Analysts attach strong significance to the episode since Mahinda Rajapaksa openly and blatantly blamed the Indian RAW for his defeat at the Presidential Elections 2015, not once, but several times. Later, Rajapaksa softened his stance and told an Indian journalist that India played a significant role in helping Sri Lanka to defeat the ruthless terrorist outfit, the LTTE.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prof. Maithree Wickremesinghe left for China yesterday to take part in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ summit in Beijing. The high-level round table discussion of the summit will be attended by leaders of about 30 countries. The forum will pay special attention to the collective dividends the countries can gain through the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative of Chinese President Xi Jingping.

The delegation headed by the Prime Minister includes, Special Assignments Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage Minister Rauf Hakeem, Law and Order and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayaka and Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama.

The Prime Minister, as an experienced political leader would no doubt handle matters in China with much political acumen and finesse to achieve maximum benefit out of the available opportunity without harming the status quo.

While Premier Wickremesinghe is expected to take up some of the crucial economic development projects with China this week, Finance Minister Ravi Karananayake has just returned from Japan, having very fruitful talks with the President of Asian Development Bank (ADB), Takehiko Nakao who has committed to double ADB's financial support for Sri Lanka from this year. ADB president is also planning to visit Sri Lanka in August/September to inspect some of the ADB funded projects in the country and continue discussions with the Sri Lankan authorities.

During the 50th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of ADB in Yokohama, Japan, early this month, Nakao has discussed with Karunanayake how the Bank is planning to support Sri Lanka over the next few years by way of funding the island’s transport, agricultural and water sector projects. The Bank, which is focusing on massive infrastructure development projects in the Asia Pacific region, will support Sri Lanka to get world-class infrastructure facilities over the next few years. Together with the government, the ADB is building a strong pipeline of development projects. ADB has also committed to provide over US$ 2 billion in loans and equity in 2016 through 2018 compared with $ 1.5 billion in the preceding three years.

Counting on ADB financial support, Karunanayake says, the country’s foreign reserve will reach the USD 10 billion level by December 2017, which he describes as a ‘good achievement’.

SOE transaction

According to Karunanayake, foreign reserves at hand is USD 5.4 billion; he is also expecting about USD 1.5 billion through international sovereign bonds (ISB), USD 1 billion through syndicated loans and another USD 1 billion to come through the Hambantota deal with China.

Besides these reserves, the government plans to raise funds by floating state owned enterprises (SOEs) in about three months. A highly placed government source revealed the first two SOEs to be floated are the Grand Oriental Hotel and Waters Edge.

Explaining the reason for the delay in finalizing the SOE transaction, he said the balance sheet restructuring process took some time. The next two SOEs to be floated will be Hilton and Hyatt, he added.

Though there wasn't much serious political fallout over the Indian Prime Minister’s visit in the domestic front, there had been quite a few other rumblings. The Geetha Kumarasinghe appeal against the order of the Court of Appeal unseating her from Parliament had a few longstanding bearings on the country’s political landscape. When the appeal came up for hearing the respondents objected to any kind of consideration by the Supreme Court since ample time was not granted for the respondents to study the papers. Senior Counsel Weliamuna said it was rather unusual for the Court to take up the case in such a short period. He said the case was politically sensitive and hence not to make any interim order.

The state had similar sentiments to express but the Court stayed the operation of the Court of Appeal order until Monday. Geetha Kumarasinghe continued to sit in Parliament despite the Court of Appeal ruling which Weliamuna suggested to Court was tantamount to contempt.

If the appeal by Kumarasinghe fails there are people waiting in the wings to challenge the election of the entire UPFA list for the Galle district, which is to the advantage of the UNP. A similar situation could arise in the Matara district too. 

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