Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa Speaks his Mind in Delhi
First visit to New Delhi as PM
COLOMBO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, on his first visit to New Delhi as Prime Minister, spoke his mind in his talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his officials without falling for the indulgence shown to him or getting intimidated by the prodding of the Big Brother on various issues.
Despite expectations from the Indians that he will fall in line on issues like India-aided development projects, attitudes to China and Pakistan and a devolution package for the Tamil minority, Mahinda as he is known, stated his government’s independent policies on these issues firmly but politely.
Unlike his predecessor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who signed MoUs in 2017 and made promises without meaning to implement them, Mahinda was forthright on which Indian-aided projects he would pursue which he would not, which areas are open to India and which are not.
Mahinda’s media statement issued at the end of the talks and his interviews to The Hindu and Hindustan Times (HT) clearly brought out his policies on various issues of concern to India, a regional power in perpetual conflict with two of its neighbors, China and Pakistan.
Mahinda is aware of India’s worry that Sri Lanka’s friendly relations with China and Pakistan would harm India’s security and status in the region. But he addressed these concerns in a manner that addressed New Delhi’s anxieties without abridging Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to pursue its national interests.
He clearly told HT that Sri Lanka would not like to get involved in India-Pakistan disputes. “Look, India and Pakistan -- you have your own problems. But that is your internal matter,” he said. Asked if it was right for Lanka to discuss controlling terrorism with Pakistan which is “the fountainhead of cross-border terrorism” Mahinda said: “We are against terrorism, wherever it comes from. So we discuss the subject with both India and Pakistan, and will continue to do so. And by the way, both Pakistan and India helped us to end the 30-year-long civil war against another kind of terrorism: that of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Pakistan gave us weapons and planes. India too helped, but didn’t want to publicize it at the time. Why, without India’s help, I don’t think we would have won that war.”
On Pakistan’s alleged bid to foster Islamic radicalism in Sri Lanka in order to use it against India, Mahinda said: “We don’t know about those charges, since we didn’t receive that information. But now, of course, we can see what’s going on and have to take action. Whether Islamist terrorism or another kind, we must have some form of cooperation with India. We must exchange views and information. Prior to the Easter suicide bomb attacks in Colombo last April, India shared warnings and intelligence, even on the morning of the attacks itself. But our previous government didn’t take them seriously. That is why those heinous attacks happened. We have appointed a commission now to look into that tragic lapse.”
Asked about the meaning of the visits of the Pakistan Navy and Air Force chiefs, and the Pakistan High Commissioner’s urging Sri Lanka to condemn India for taking off Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, Mahinda said: “We will not get involved in the internal matters of India. But remember this: I always say India is a relation. Others are friends.”
When The Hindu, raised the issue of the alleged “debt trap” vis-à-vis China, China’s geo-strategic designs being furthered by its hold on the Hambantota port and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s assurance that China will not allow any other country to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, Mahinda said: “Sri Lanka has received a lot of benefits from being part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. By the way, let me remind you - our external debt towards China is only 12% of our overall external debt, and we have not defaulted. We used whatever money we took from them to build infrastructure.”
However, he added that if India could declare three-year moratorium on repayment of its loans, other countries, including China, would follow suit and that would help ease matters.
“China helped us for the sake of development, that is all. Our war had shattered our country, we needed help to develop; they were ready, so why not? We took their money and developed that area. Hambantota is a valuable strategic asset because of its location, right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is sensitive geographical space. Unfortunately, the previous government literally gave it to China by swapping debt for equity and signing that lease. We would not have done the same and are trying to find a way out along with the Chinese now,” Mahinda told HT.
China’s Offer To Protect Lanka
On Wang Yi’s assurance that China will not allow outsiders to interfere in Sri Lanka’ internal affairs, Mahinda said: “Since India is not interfering in our domestic matters that statement is not meant for India. India has never interfered. In fact, even India has made similar statements, that you will always protect us. And I am absolutely sure you will. Look, that is China’s view; ultimately, we Sri Lankans have to decide on what is interference and what is not.”
Mahinda laughed it off when The Hindu asked the same question. “We didn’t take the statement too seriously, as no one has yet tried to interfere in our matters… other than during the last elections . Then, all the countries got involved in [the elections]. But now we would like to have good relations and work with all the countries,” he said.
Revising Hambantota Port Deal
On re-negotiating the Hambantota port deal with China as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wanted, Mahinda told The Hindu: “We are discussing it, but it is difficult, as the previous government had already completed the handover of control. I think China may agree to our request on some terms, and we will keep the negotiations going.”
In his media statement after talks with Narendra Modi, Mahinda said that Sri Lanka wants India to do more housing and community-related projects throughout the island. When The Hindu queried about India’s concern that many Indian project proposals are gathering dust in the shelves of the Lankan government, Mahinda said that the Trincomale oil tanks project was not discussed but the Eastern Terminal in Colombo port (which India and Japan are jointly investing in) and the LNG terminal were discussed.
However, the MoUs signed by the last government in 2017 and not implemented would not be taken up now, Mahinda clarified. “The Mattala airport project is also out. Our government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control,” he added.
In his media statement, Mahinda did not respond to Indian PM Modi’s assertion that he is “confident that the Sri Lankan government will realize the expectations of equality, justice, peace and respect of the Tamil people within a united Sri Lanka.”
But he told The Hindu that after the provincial elections, his government will appoint a team to go to Jaffna to discuss the way forward. “We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for the [Tamil] areas. So the best thing is to hold elections, and then ask for their representatives to come and discuss the future with us. At the moment the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) is not interested in talks. They are asking for things, which the majority community in Sri Lanka will not accept.”
To Hindustan Times he said: “ We are going to strengthen the system of provincial councils. But then, those councils must use what we give them for the development of the North and East regions. Up to now, that didn’t happen. We gave them money for development; instead of trying to help the people of those areas, they returned the money and we did all the development. Even the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is well-represented in our parliament was never interested in development. All they were talking about was devolution and creating a separate state for Tamils.”
National Anthem In Tamil
On the stop put to the Lankan national anthem being sung in Tamil also in the national function to mark Independence Day, Mahinda said in the Tamil areas it could be sung in Tamil.
“If you look around the world, the national anthem is sung primarily in one language. In India, you have so many languages, yet on your national days, you sing it one language. Our structure is the same. When I go to Jaffna, to a Tamil school, they sing the anthem in Tamil. We have no objection if people want to sing it in their way. Some political figures are raising this issue; the general public is not interested in this issue.”