Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s Visit Strengthens Bilateral Ties

The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe paid an official visit to India. During the visit, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and India’s National Security Advisor. Various facets of India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations were discussed at length. Strengthening cooperation pertaining to security and terrorism was also discussed. India and Sri Lanka are active members of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). A Trilateral Maritime Cooperation Agreement between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives is also in place.

In recent years, political engagement between both the governments’ have strengthened due to India’s support to reconciliation efforts of Sri Lanka at multilateral fora and due to India’s cautious approach towards internal political developments in Sri Lanka. To implement the UN 2015 resolution on reconciliation, Sri Lanka has initiated measures such as the establishment of Office of Missing Persons. These measures are likely to help in addressing some of the concerns of war affected Sri Lankan Tamil population.

India and Sri Lanka also have showed keen interest in resolving bilateral issues such as the fishermens’ issue and repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from India in an amicable way after the war. The Joint Working Group on Fisheries (JWG) involving officials from both sides has been encouraging fishermen to stop illegal fishing and use of bottom trawlers. Due to sustained efforts of both the countries more than 350 Tamil Nadu fishermen were released from Sri Lankan custody in 2017. India has allotted Rs. 200 crore to support fishermen under the “Assistance for Deep Sea Fishing” Scheme.

India has emerged as an important trade and development partner for Sri Lanka in recent years. India is the largest trading partner for Sri Lanka in 2017 and the value of trade surpassed to US$ 5 billion. To enhance economic cooperation both the countries are negotiating an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). After the war India provided significant development assistance to Sri Lanka to rebuild the war effected regions with a total commitment of US$ 2.6 billion. India’s assistance has been used for building more than 50,000 houses in north and central part of Sri Lanka apart from building schools, hospitals and improving connectivity. India’s assistance is slowly expanding to the south of the country. India provided emergency ambulance services with a grant of US$ 7.56 million and India is partnering with Sri Lanka to construct 1200 houses under the ‘Model Village Programme’ all across Sri Lanka. India was the largest source of Tourist arrivals in 2017 for Sri Lanka. India is the third largest source of FDI for Sri Lanka, with cumulative investments of US$ 1 billion.

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s visit took place amidst internal political developments in Sri Lanka, which may impact on the functioning of national unity government formed in 2015 and on India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations. The difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and the President of Sri Lanka on matters pertaining to foreign investments, implementation of reconciliation measures based on UN resolution of 2015 have surfaced recently. However, India’s proposed investments in Trincomalee Oil Farm, Colombo Port Terminal, Sampur Power Project and development of Matala and Palaly Airports are still to take-off. Growing domestic opposition to foreign investments in the country led by the Sri Lankan opposition and difference of opinion within the unity government are reasons for the delay.

The forthcoming provincial council elections are important to determine the future of Unity government. The former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is active in Sinhala dominated constituencies and will play a major role before the next Presidential elections in 2020. In the February 2018 local government elections, the SLPP won in majority of the local bodies.

Amidst the internal developments, the visit of Sri Lankan Prime Minister is positive in terms of assuring India of strengthening bilateral relations based on mutual trust and cooperation.

Script:  Dr. M. Samatha, Strategic Analyst On Sri Lanka