Sri Lanka not a strategic threat to India - Foreign Secretary | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka not a strategic threat to India - Foreign Secretary

23 January, 2022

The President has clearly said that he will never allow another country to use Sri Lanka as a strategic threat to India, either on Sri Lankan soil or waters, said Foreign Ministry Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

He shot down criticism that Sri Lanka is leaning towards China in overcoming the forex challenges and said Sri Lanka received support from India as well. “We are missing choices. The international community should give us more choices of projects and investments,” the Foreign Secretary said.

He said the top foreign policy directive is to maintain neutrality, and not get caught in power games. “We take no sides. We are a friend to all and support good causes internationally. We need to understand the dynamics in the Indian Ocean and not antagonise anyone. Our main focus area, spearheaded by the Foreign Minister, is constructive engagement with all,” he said.

Following are excerpts of the interview.

Q: What are the key achievements of the Foreign Ministry within the last two years?

A The number one achievement is that the Foreign Ministry was able to translate the vision of the Government – the President’s Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour – into action. We were able to create a 20-point foreign policy directive for 2020 and beyond. This is the first time in history that the Foreign Ministry has written down foreign policy guidelines. We are using these directives in the functions of our ministry and missions.

We are a non-aligned country but maintaining neutrality as well. There is a geopolitical power play taking place in the Indian Ocean. So, neutrality is the hallmark of our foreign policy.

During the Covid pandemic, the Foreign Ministry played a key role in getting almost all the vaccines to the country, and we have a success story there. We have vaccinated about 92 percent of our targeted population and we are now giving the booster dose. So, all this is due to the tireless efforts of the Foreign Ministry and missions abroad, which coordinated with the companies producing vaccines and airlines to bring them here. This is challenging work because we have never done this at such a scale before.

When Covid broke out, a large number of Sri Lankans were stranded in many countries. The Foreign Ministry undertook to repatriate them starting from Wuhan, China. We continue to coordinate to bring people to Sri Lanka, which is a mammoth task due to stringent procedures. We even supported those who could not afford tickets and looked after a large number of stranded Sri Lankans who lost jobs. So, managing the Covid crisis is another huge achievement.

Our ministry is also saving money for the Government. In 2020 alone, the Foreign Ministry saved Rs. 1.6 billion from the allocated budget. This has never been achieved in history as we always needed supplementary budgets. One reason is that our traveling became less due to Covid which saved about Rs. 600 million. But we could save mainly due to financial controls. We cut down where necessary and were careful of acquiring. In 2021, the figure will be even more.

We have done away with cross postings where staff is transferred to another country directly from the previous posting. The President and Foreign Minister have given directives to bring them back to the country for them to get in touch with the Sri Lankan situation at least for another year before leaving. Any appointment is only for three years. We have zero tolerance for extensions and do not allow officers to serve in the same region.

We started evaluating our missions. This is a continuous process. Certain missions were shut down, temporarily, and their functions are handled by another mission. Afghan and Nigerian missions were closed due to security threats. We will soon be appointing an Honorary Consul in Cyprus. We shut down the Consulate General Office of Frankfurt because work could be carried out from Berlin. Frankfurt cost about Rs. 2 billion per annum. Out of 67 missions, we now have 64.

Q: What is the role of the Foreign Ministry in addressing the forex challenges?

One of the main functions of the Foreign Ministry now is economic diplomacy. Promoting trade is different to canvassing foreign direct investment. We need to find new markets for our products. We have a great variety in our export basket, not only tea, rubber and coconut. We need to focus on pepper, cinnamon, spices, traditional art and craft and so on.

Sri Lanka is now considered a ‘safe destination to travel’. One major reason is our successful vaccination drive. We now see tourist numbers increasing with about 50,000 tourists per month and aim for about 200,000 tourists to be back on track on our foreign exchange earning mission. So, foreign missions have a key role in promoting Sri Lanka as a safe and interesting tourist destination. We coordinate with SriLankan Airlines to create additional direct flights. Sri Lanka is not just sea, sand, and beach but also offer wellness, Theravada Buddhism, biodiversity, marine diversity, and so on. We offer the Sri Lankan experience, not just products.

Q: Sri Lanka is at a crucial time and need support from China, India and the West to face economic challenges. How would Sri Lanka manage these relations without antagonising any of them?

A Sri Lanka, throughout history, has maintained balanced relations and we have benefited from them. We have made certain bold decisions at critical times, for example, recognising or establishing diplomatic relations with China, signing the Rubber-Rice Pact, and settling the international maritime boundary line between India and Sri Lanka and getting Katchateevu to our side.

Our Foreign Minister, using his expertise, is doing a great job in maintaining relations with the West, the East, and elsewhere. Our top foreign policy directive is to maintain neutrality, and not get caught in the power game. We take no sides. We are a friend to all and support good causes internationally. Other countries have a great interest in the geostrategic location of Sri Lanka. We need to understand the dynamics in the Indian Ocean and not antagonise anyone.

Our main focus area, spearheaded by the Foreign Minister, is constructive engagement with all. We meet counterparts regularly. We already had visits from the EU, Chinese Foreign Minister, the Hungarian Foreign Minister and UK’s Minister for South Asia, the United Nations and the Commonwealth Lord Tariq Ahmad. Soon, the Speaker of the Korean Parliament and Foreign Minister of Turkey will be here.

We don’t want to be a strategic security threat to India given its size and importance. The President has been very clear, that he will never allow another country to use Sri Lanka to be a threat to India, either on Sri Lankan soil or waters. This is our neighbourhood. If the immediate neighborhood is not stabilised, we will have problems.

Q: Analysts say that Sri Lanka leans more towards China for support on forex challenges and criticise the dependency. Your views?

A We engage not only with China. India has given us another credit line to buy fuel for US$ 500 million. Even Bangladesh has offered us a currency swap. We request our friends to support us. This is an unprecedented time resulting from the pandemic. The tourism income around US$ 4.5 billion per annum, involving about three million people directly and indirectly, came to a standstill. This is a huge impact to a small economy like Sri Lanka. But now tourism is picking up.

But we need to move away from dependency on our friends, too. A good sign is that our export income is going up, and gradually the remittance from foreign employment is rising. We need to build our reserves. For the past 73 years, there had been something wrong with our economic policy. This had been a cumulating issue. We need to increase products, attract businesses, reduce red tape, and so on.

The Port City is a good example. It has special laws to ease business. We need to target even small investments and create more industries based on new trends, add value by being creative and innovative.

So, there’s no truth that we are leaning more towards China. We are missing choices. The international community should give more choices on projects and investments.

Q: Regarding Priyantha Kumara’s death in Pakistan, what is the latest situation on seeking justice for his family?

The Sialkot business community has deposited US$ 100,000 into Priyantha’s wife’s account. The first monthly pay of US$ 2,000 by the company was also deposited. They have pledged continued payment for 10 years. There are other donations for the family as well. The Islamabad Chamber gave 1 million Pakistan rupees to the family.

It was a very sad and unfortunate incident. But it doesn’t mean that Pakistan is responsible. It was a small group of people who abused religion and carried out this dastardly act. Pakistan’s Prime Minister has taken this to heart and immediately ordered a thorough investigation. The Court is hearing this case on a daily basis. Already 85 people have been arrested in Pakistan.

We hope that justice will be served to the perpetrators of this dastardly crime. Our Foreign Minister has taken this up as a personal task to ensure that justice is served and financial compensation is reaching the family. No amount of money can replace a life, but of course, the future of the two young children needs to be taken care of.

Q: With regard to the ‘Sri Lanka accountability project’ by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, what are your expectations of the report and how would you respond?

A Our stance is that we respect human rights and we have not carried out large scale human rights violations in this country, despite fighting terrorism for nearly three decades. Sri Lanka was fighting the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world as declared by the FBI in 2008. If there are issues or violations, Sri Lanka is addressing them through local mechanisms. Although the LTTE is militarily defeated in Sri Lankan soil, the organisation is active abroad. Their weapons are no longer suicide bombs and artillery but instead, lobbying, litigation and campaigning. Their objective remains the same – a separate state called Eelam. Since there is a sizable Diaspora carrying forward the ideology of the LTTE, they are able to influence decision makers who support them to get votes.

We feel that human rights are being abused and misused by certain countries and groups. We respect the principles, the UN Charter and UN organs. But, we cannot agree to an external mechanism to try Sri Lankans. The Human Rights Commissioner says that we have 120,000 pieces of evidence. What are these evidences? Is it natural justice to accuse someone without telling what the evidence is?

We are addressing domestically the issues of accountability, missing person, release of land held by the Security Forces, reconciliation efforts, and detainees held under the PTA, while enhancing law and order.

The Presidential pardon was given to 16 LTTE convicts. The President also appointed another committee to study and make recommendations on releasing others. Another group of 13 detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) were released, thereafter. These are substantial outcomes; tangible, measurable and verified on the ground using domestic mechanisms such as the Commission of inquiry appointed to address the issues of accountability and reconciliation, Office of Missing Persons, Office of Reparation, Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, Sustainable Development Council, Human Rights Commission, and so on. They work tirelessly to address these residual issues. We are also amending the PTA to suit modern day requirements.

Q: This is a significant year for bilateral relations, especially with China, Australia and India celebrating 65, 75 and 80 years of diplomatic relations. What are the highlights of the celebrations this year?

A Not only these countries, Russia and Sri Lanka celebrate 65 years, Japan and Netherlands both celebrate 70 years with us and Korea 45. There are quite a lot of celebrations this year and we have a series of events depending on the bilateral understanding. Issuance of commemorative stamps, sporting events, high level visits, cultural events, and so on will take place. When the Chinese Foreign Minister was here, we launched a Presidential Cup for sailing as a part of the anniversary celebrations, for example. We are proud to have achieved this many milestones with many countries and will continue strengthening relations with all in our region and beyond.