Lankan Foreign Minister Talks of Managing Ties with West, India and China
Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dr.Sarath Amunugama speaks to The Citizen
COLOMBO: Western democracies have been expressing serious concern over the sacking of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prorogation of parliament, and now the dissolution of parliament, saying that these measures are patently unconstitutional.
The US Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs had said in a tweet that the United States is “deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka Parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis.”
It said democracy needs to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity.
Mark Field, the British Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, tweeted his concern about the dissolution of parliament days before it was due to be reconvened.
‘As a friend of Sri Lanka, the UK calls on all parties to uphold the constitution and respect democratic institutions and processes,’ Field said.
Canada’s Foreign Policy twitter feed said that it is “deeply concerned” about the dissolution of parliament and referred to the risks to reconciliation work after Lanka’s civil war.
“This further political uncertainty is corrosive to Sri Lanka’s democratic future and its commitments on reconciliation and accountability,” it said.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne expressed both concern and disappointment in a statement, saying the move “undermines Sri Lanka’s long democratic tradition and poses a risk to its stability and prosperity.”
Reacting to these strong statements, the new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dr.Sarath Amunugama told The Citizen that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government will not adopt a confrontational approach to the Western nations, which have been critical of its recent political moves.
Speaking to this correspondent in a one to one interaction on Friday, Dr.Amunugama said that criticisms from the Western world have to be taken in the stride and its concerns addressed within the framework of Lanka’s law and constitution and not by assuming a confrontational posture
The new Foreign Minister said that apart from defending the constitutionality of its recent political actions, Sri Lanka should ground them in its long history as a democratic country having introduced universal franchise as early as 1931.
“In our dialogue with Western democracies we should lay stress on the fact that both the West and Sri Lanka share the old Jeffersonian democratic values,” he said.
Sri Lanka should understand the Western world’s political compulsions. For example in the UK, where Sri Lankan Tamils are an important part of the electorate in about 45 constituencies, MPs have to voice their concerns if they are to get their votes.
“In a country like the UK, where parliamentary constituencies are small, a candidate can lose an election by a few hundred votes,” the Foreign Minister, who holds a doctorate in Social Anthropology, pointed out.
Dr.Amunugama noted that Sri Lanka’s equation with the US is better with Donald Trump at the helm, as compared to the situation under President Barack Obama who tended to stress domestic human rights issues in his relations with Sri Lanka and other developing countries.
In contrast to Obama, Trump is a nationalist with an “USA First” approach. This suits developing countries like Sri Lanka which are concerned about external forces violating their sovereignty.
Trump had gone to the extent of withdrawing the US from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
“Sri Lanka should be friendly to the US and the EU,” Dr.Amunugama said, talking about a veiled threat of sanctions made by the EU Ambassador Tun-Lai Margue in an interaction with President Sirisena on October 29.
The US and EU are major markets for Sri Lankan goods.
Dr. Amunugama categorically denied that there has been any threat of economic sanctions from the US or EU. “There has been no threat whatsoever,” he said emphatically.
“Even if there is a decision to impose sanctions, they cannot be imposed at will,” he added.
The procedure for imposing sanctions is complicated.
Contradicting news reports that the US and EU could put their aid programs on hold due to the political crisis in Sri Lanka, Dr.Amunugama said that nothing of this kind had been mentioned in talks with these entities.
The US has not withdrawn the US$ 500 million pledged to Sri Lanka under the Millennium Challenge Fund for economic and social development projects, he said.
“Nothing has changed on the ground but the US State Department is watching developments in Sri Lanka,” the Minister said.
Even the EU Ambassador had not delivered a demarche in protest against recent political actions in the island.
Duty concessions to Sri Lanka under the EU’s GSP-Plus scheme are not easy to lift as there are 27 counts on which evaluation has to be made.
Western diplomats only expressed concern and wanted the government to arrest deterioration of the situation in the interest of democracy, stability, economic development and ethnic reconciliation.
In response, Lanka’s stand has been that it is working entirely within the framework of the country’s law and constitution.
On the possible impact of sanctions on Sri Lanka, Dr.Amunugama recalled that Sri Lankan entrepreneurs had managed to survive the withdrawal of GSP Plus concessions from 2010 to 2017 by sending their goods to the EU through other countries.
In fact, garment exports to the EU increased in the absence of GSP Plus concessions though the rate of growth of exports had come down while those of other competing countries had increased during that period.
Even the EU ban on Sri Lankan fish (due to the use of illegal and unauthorized methods of fishing) was beaten by routing fish exports through third countries.
Further on sanctions, the Lankan Foreign Minister, who had been a Finance Minister in an earlier regime, said that the US itself does not go for full sanctions.
He cited the Trump Administration’s granting of six months waiver to eight countries including India and China in the matter of sanctions on Iranian oil sales.
Relations with India and China
In an interview with India Today TV, Dr. Amunugma said that there are global attempts to pit India and Sri Lanka against each other.
He assured that Sri Lanka will not allow itself to be “dragged into the military and strategic interests of any country and that Sri Lanka will protect its sovereignty.”
Answering criticism that Sri Lanka has yielded to China’s strategic interests by allowing it to take a huge stake in the Hambantota port for 99 years, the Minister said: “Just because we take loans from China, it does not mean that we will subscribe to their strategic interests. No submarines can dock here.”
He then went on to emphasize that the Hambantota port is “completely a Sri Lankan operation” and that “ not a single ship can enter Hambantota unless it is guided by harbor guards who come under the Sri Lankan navy.”
Dr.Amunugama pointed out that good relations with India has been a cornerstone of Sri Lankan foreign policy no matter which party is in power.
“ There might be slight nuances but on the basic thrust and trajectory there cannot be any difference,” he said.
On the vexed issue of giving India the contract to build the Eastern Terminal in Colombo port, Amunugama stated India could build the West Terminal and not the East which Sri Lanka would develop on its own.
“The President had intimated to Prime Minister Modi himself that the West Terminal can certainly be developed by India. Sri Lanka is looking at developing the East Terminal on its own. Nobody should infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. We are grateful to India for respecting that,” Dr.Amunugama said.
The Minister criticized former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for signing an agreement on the East Terminal in India without approval of the Lankan parliament.
“Wickremesinghe had absolutely no business to go to India or any country and give assurances regarding this port. That is not how it works. It has to be passed by parliament. It was under discussion and not signed and sealed. We will have to heed the opinion of the workers and the trade unions that the developing East Terminal has to be a Sri Lankan operation.”
On the charge that Sri Lanka is getting into a debt trap by taking loans from China at high interest rates, Dr.Amunugama said: “ Sri Lanka needs infrastructural development and that is the mantra of development. For that we go to IMF, ADB etc. The global formula today is that developing countries must invest in development. The way out of the poverty trap is to have investment and infrastructure. It requires money. Sri Lankan infrastructure projects are not financed completely by China. Most are multi-lateral projects that involve consortiums. Japan is a bigger donor than China.”
“China was able to tap into so many countries at an early stage and at a faster pace. All other countries would have taken double the time, including India. They (Chinese) were quick on the draw."