Sri Lanka Working Towards Cooperation In Indian Ocean Region

The political turbulence in Sri Lanka came to a halt after the reinstatement of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister by President Sirisena. A new cabinet was also formed. This may pave the way for constitutional stability till the next general elections in Sri Lanka. Mr. Wickremesinghe was sacked by President Sirisena on 26th October leading to the return of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister after he lost the Presidential Elections in 2015. However, the unity shown by the United National Party (UNP) and other opposition parties ensured that the verdict given by the people of Sri Lanka in 2015 parliamentary elections was sustained. The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka played an important role in ending the political deadlock orchestrated by Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa. After resigning, Mr. Rajapaksa has vowed to come back to power through future elections. His Sri Lankan People’s Party had won majority of seats in the local council elections. He also blamed the UNP of adhering to the diktats of the Tamil National Alliance to stay in power.

The political developments in Sri Lanka are a reminder that the country’s overall stability is uncertain given the political manoeuvrings which might continue till the next elections. This has also cast doubts about the future policy of Sri Lanka towards the Indian Ocean Region. The national unity government which came to power in 2015 led by Ranil Wikremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena had tried to balance the strategic equations.

Since 2015, Sri Lanka has tried to position itself as an important player in the Indian Ocean to emerge as a hub in the region. Colombo tried to seek recognition of its role in various platforms. This policy was envisaged in various economic policy statements of Mr. Wickremesinghe. The ‘Galle Dialogue’ and Platforms initiated by Sri Lanka such as, “the Indian Ocean: Defining Our Future”, a track 1.5 Dialogue held in Colombo in October 2018, brought together forty nations.  India had participated in the dialogue. Colombo had emphasized on “the need to maintain Freedom of Navigation and Freedom of Digital Connectivity for the region to grow and prosper and the need for a shared understanding in order to maintain peace and security”. Given the geographical position of Sri Lanka in the region, it would want to take advantage of its position, denied due to thirty years of ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka is looking for a larger Asian identity and Colombo has its own ‘quad’ comprising Japan, US and Australia for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. China remained as important investor in developing ports and other infrastructure.  The government of Sri Lanka also gave the Hambantota port on a 99 year lease to China. This demonstrates that Sri Lanka will try to balance its relations with major powers including China in the region. It would want to develop its own narrative regarding freedom of navigation and safety and security in the Indian Ocean. Increasing presence of major powers in the region, Sri Lanka believes, necessitates cooperation with India.

Apart from greater need to have a common understanding on the security of Indian Ocean; bilaterally, India and Sri Lanka recognise the fact that the maritime blindness led to thriving of organisations like Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the past. Therefore, both the countries should try to use the existing mechanisms and platforms such as, India-Maldives-Sri Lanka Trilateral, Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) mechanisms to arrive at common understanding in dealing with security threats in the Indian Ocean. Over the years India and Sri Lanka have made sustained efforts in enhancing and expanding development cooperation at all levels. Colombo has tried to assure India, regarding New Delhi concerns’ over the security of Indian Ocean.

In the future, Mr. Rajapaksa is expected to try to wrest power and in that scenario Sri Lanka would need to balance her own interests with India’s interests in the Indian Ocean Region.

Script: Dr. M Samatha, Strategic Analyst on Indian Ocean Region