Sirisena May Have Burnt His Boats With India
New Delhi could explore other potential allies
COLOMBO: Despite multiple press releases and a telephonic tete-e-tete with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which he stoutly denied that he had accused the Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing of plotting his assassination, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena may have burnt his boats vis-à-vis India.
Adding to the damage is Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera’s allegation that there are four RAW spies in the Sri Lankan cabinet.
According to Amaraweera, who is also a Vice President of Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the four minsters who told The Hindu correspondent Meera Srinivasan that the President had linked RAW to the alleged plot to assassinate him were themselves RAW agents.
Speaking at a public meeting in Beliatta in Hambantota district, Amaraweera said that the President, had in fact, said nothing critical of India at the cabinet meeting referred to in the news report.
“We have to find out who these four minsters are. When this is confirmed I will expose them. Leaking information about what transpires in the cabinet is forbidden, and we have the right to take action,” Amaraweera said.
With accusations of infiltration by RAW continuing, New Delhi is now likely to look for other allies in Sri Lanka such as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the opposition stalwart Mahinda Rajapaksa, both of whom are at odds with Sirisena.
For the record, the Indian Prime Minister appreciated Sirisena’s prompt denial, but he has made no secret of his displeasure at the way the Sri Lankan coalition government had been delaying the implementation of several India-funded projects.
Modi opened his mind on this matter at his meeting with Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in New Delhi on Saturday.
Modi saw Sirisena’s fulminations against the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) at the last cabinet meeting on Tuesday, as being part of a continuum of unfriendly actions on the part of President Sirisena.
In the past year or so, Sirisena had called off a number of Indo-Lankan projects which were accepted by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and were subjects of formal Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) between Sri Lanka and India.
The Indian-funded project to generate 500 MW of power in Sampur was called off by Sirisena at the eleventh hour. The Palaly airport in Jaffna was to be developed by India. But that too was called off by the President.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe wanted the East Container Terminal in Colombo port to be run in collaboration with an Indian company for geopolitical and economic reasons. China is running one of the terminals and 80% of Colombo port’s business is Indian transshipment.
But under Sirisena’s direction, the terms of deal with the bidders were changed to keep the Indians investors away.
In sharp contrast to Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghen has been personally committed to strengthening economic cooperation with India, even pushing for economic integration with the South Indian States.
When he was Prime Minister in the early 2000s, Wickremesinghe had given the 99 giant oil tanks in Trincomalee to India. He got the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to enter the oil business in Sri Lanka and started giving Indians visas on arrival.
If Wickremesinghe has not implemented his India-friendly agenda this time round, it is not because he has veered from the earlier agenda, but because Executive President Sirisena has been sabotaging it.
It is therefore not surprising that Indian Prime Minister Modi chose to use Wickremesinghe to convey to Sirisena his displeasure, anguish and annoyance at the way things are going in bilateral relations.
That Wickremesinghe was in agreement with Modi’s view was reflected in the press release issued by his office on Saturday. In contrast to the Indian official press release , the release from Wickremesinghe’s Office was forthright and blunt in bringing out Modi’s ire.
The PM’s statement revealed said that Modi had expressed concern that several of the projects that were earmarked to begin in 2017, had not got off the ground and that the Indian PM had requested that they be expedited.
The Indian Prime Minister said that he had been devoting the greatest amount of time to building relations between the two countries and regretted that this was not reciprocated by the Lankan government..
Wickremesinghe’s press release clearly reflected his agreement with Modi and indicated that he shared Modi’s anguish also. In fact, at last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, Wickremesinghe had stoutly defended his proposal to open the East Terminal in Colombo port to Indian investors. But he was shouted down by the President.
As per the landmark MoU signed in New Delhi in April 2017 (in the presence of Wickremesinghe and Modi), Sri Lanka and India had drawn up a tight schedule for the implementation of several projects covering a wide variety of economic areas.
It was agreed that by the end of May, the Lankan Government would issue a Letter of Intent to the Government of India or its representative, for a re-gasified Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)-fired 500 megawatt capacity power plant in Kerewelapitiya near Colombo.
For the LNG Terminal/Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in Kerawalapitiya, a Joint Venture was to have been formed involving entities from Sri Lanka, India and Japan, for which modalities had to be worked out by July end.
Sri Lanka was expected to issue a Letter of Intent for the FSRU and the LNG package to India by mid-May. A Joint Working Group (JWG) was to be constituted for the project which was to meet in the first half of May.
By August end, India pledged to submit a Detailed Project Report (DPR) to Sri Lanka on a piped gas distribution system and retail outlets for the supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector. The LNG project also envisaged a piped gas distribution system; and conversion of liquid fuel-based power plants to R-LNG fired plants.
As regards the 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) solar power plant in Sampur in the Eastern Province, Sri Lanka was expected to issue a Letter of Intent to India or its representative by the end of May.
As regards the refurbishing and use of the 84 giant oil tanks in the Upper Tank Farm in Trincomalee, it was agreed that this would be done jointly by the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). A Joint Venture (JV) was to be set up for this by the end of July.
Business development proposals for the JV were to have been prepared by the JV by September 2017.
India and Sri Lanka agreed to build a port, a petroleum refinery and other industries in Trincomalee, for which the governments of Sri Lanka and India were to set up a Joint Working Group by June end.
The two countries were to jointly set up Industrial Zones or Special Economic Zones in identified locations in Sri Lanka, the details of which were to be submitted by Sri Lanka to India at the beginning of May.
By June end, Sri Lanka was to submit to India a list of road projects to be considered for joint development. The two countries had already agreed to develop a Mannar-Jaffna and Mannar-Trincomalee highway; and to build a Dambulla-Trincomalee Expressway with Indian investment. As regards railways, Sri Lanka was to submit to India by June end. a list of railway projects for its consideration.
India and Sri Lanka were to build a Container Terminal at the Colombo Port as a JV, considering the fact that most of transshipment in Colombo Port related to India. Sri Lanka was to announce the award of the contract for the container terminal by May end.
The two countries decided to get their agriculture ministries to meet and bring out a Concept Paper for cooperation by June end. Projects envisaged included livestock development, water management and agro-based industries.
But none of these big ticket projects took off, allegedly because of a lack of commitment on the part of the Lankan government presided over by President Sirisena.
Writing in Colombo Telegraph, Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka has pointed out that the MoU signed by Sri Lanka and India in April 2017 was a proper bilateral “agreement” and not just an MoU. A typical MoU would just be a statement of intentions and is not legally binding on the two parties.
She pointed out that the MoU in question had used words like “Parties, Article, Agree, Mutually Agreed, and Shall” which are characteristic of the language used in enforceable Agreements.
While Jayatilleka’s case was that Sri Lanka should not have signed the MoUs without proper authorization from the country, a fallout of her argument is that, by signing the MoU, Sri Lanka had committed itself to the implementation of the projects as the MoU is actually a “bilateral agreement”.
India is not against re-assessment of its projects in Lanka. It had agreed to revise the 2003 agreement on the Trincomalee oil tanks to form a JV with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, giving up its legitimate claim to full ownership of 99 tanks for 35 years.
Modi had told Wickremesinghe’s about India’s flexible stand. But he wanted Colombo to discuss with New Delhi if it had any reservations about any agreement.
Since the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government has only an year and a half to go, and is already on the verge of collapse due to internal contradictions, it is highly unlikely that the big ticket Indo-Lanka projects will actually be taken up in right earnest.
But Modi’s tough talking is likely to signal to the successor government that India will not take prevarication and non-implementation of its projects lying down.