Prime Minister’s triumphant visit to India
Posted on February 11th, 2020


The Prime Minister Mr. Mahinda Rajajapaksa has returned to the country after ending a very successful exultant 4 days official visit to India.  He has boldly and candidly spoken on the envisaged Indo-Sri Lankan relationship and ties with other countries, measures to be taken to rescue the Tamils in the North and East from racist political oppressions, rejection of myopic agreements made by the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and on the firm policy of non-bartering of Sri Lanka’s National assets and natural resources. and about the steps to be taken in respect of the Hambantota Harbour which has been leased to China by the Sirisrena/Wickremasinghe government without any foresight.

Almost all the Indian newspapers, the popular websites , weekly magazines and All India Radio gave extensive coverage to give publicity to all aspects of the Prime Minister’s visit.  He has held one to one official talks with the Indian Primne Minister Narendra Modi, President  Ram Nath Kovind, External Affairs Minister S.Jaishanker and several Indian Ministers. 

The Prime Minister has given two very fruitful interviews to two prominent and internationally reputed Indian journalists Suhasini Haider (SH) of the Indian newspaper the Hindu and Ms. Padma Rao Sundarji (PRS) of Hindustan Times.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during an interview with The Hindu in New Delhi on February 8, 2020.   |

SH says that in the outset Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) who  met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi,told The Hindu about his hopes for debt-restructuring, and also about projects now on the anvil, although his government will not carry forward the projects agreed to by the previous Sirisena/Wickremasinghe  Sri Lankan government.

Whem SH asked about non-announcement of any agreements after discussions at some length with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, MR has said that they did speak about several projects, some of which India is interested and it was a fruitful and successful meet, for both side., Mr. Rajapaksa who is also the Minister of Housing in the new government has said he housing project is something that is a priority area for Sri Lanka, and he has  asked for more funding from India for that. MR has explained about the new initiative taken by him to cover the whole country, every village for building houses, and has stated that Sri Lanka like to get some support for that. Apart from housing, he has said that there were several projects they discussed.

SH has pointed out that in April 2017, the previous Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed a MoU on economic cooperation for infrastructure projects, including energy and oil projects in Trincomalee that India has been keen on and has asked whether these matters were discussed?

In response MR has said that they didn’t discuss the Trinco projects, but did talk about the Eastern Terminal [in Colombo] which India and Japan are jointly investing in, and about the LNG terminal. Mr. Rajapaksa has asserted that whatever was signed [in 2017] was not even pursued by the last government and President Sirisena actually rejected all the projects PM Wickremesinghe had signed and hence the present government is not responsible for those projects. He has said that the Mattala airport project is also out. Mr. Rajapaksa has stated that his government has a firm policy on not allowing any national resources to be given to foreign control.

When SH stated that an additional $50 million from the Indian Line of Credit India offered during President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s Indian visit  have been earmarked for security cooperation, especially after the Easter Sunday bombings last year and asked what was decided about that fund. MR has responded saying that we have decided that we must have more intelligence sharing now, and increase the technical assistance from India, as well as training. On the Easter bombings, we have an ongoing investigation into the conspiracy, and a commission is looking into it. We hope that India will continue to help us on that. I n addition, we want to continue our earlier pre-2015 project for trilateral terror and security cooperation between Maldives-India- Sri Lanka. We might have the meeting for that as soon as possible, possibly in the Maldives and discuss how to take the trilateral idea forward.

Stating that defence secretary Mr. Kamal Gunaratne has also spoken of security and intelligence sharing with Pakistan, SH asked won’t the balance prove difficult, given India’s concerns about terror emanating from Pakistan, which has also held up the SAARC process, MR has responded saying that we are a friendly country and we have friendly ties with all countries in the region and we are friendly with China too. But the Indian relationship is much stronger and very important for us. I couldn’t discuss the SAARC process with PM Modi, as I know that India is not very interested in the summit, especially since the next meeting is due to be held in Pakistan. I do believe that we have already gone a considerable distance with building SAARC and that should be continued. Now there is also the BIMSTEC grouping.

When SH said that both PM Modi here and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, when he visited Colombo have made a point of their concerns for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, and the expectations India has from your government and asked how do you respond ,MR has said that wee have always understood these concerns and explained soon after the war ended in 2009, we had elections, and we allowed the North to select their own Chief Minister. We held those elections despite knowing we would lose them. But nothing moved after that. We are now expecting to hold our parliamentary elections this April, and after that the provincial council elections. We will appoint a team to go to Jaffna to discuss the way forward.

When SH said that the way forward on devolution of powers, as was promised in the 13th amendment MR has responded well, it all has to be discussed. We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for those 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.

President Gotabaya has prioritized development over devolution as the way forward. Is there a difference between your positions?

No, no. People need development. They have suffered for 30 years without it. So first we have to develop the area.

When SH said that there has been a controversy over the decision to drop the National Anthem in Tamil during Sri Lanka’s national day ceremony, and asked how you reassure Tamils if this is the signal sent out MR has explained it saying 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. He has emphasized that some political figures are raising this issue; but the general public is not interested in this issue.

Referring to the economy. SH has said that your biggest challenge this year will be servicing the domestic and foreign debt, which totals about $60 billion and has asked how do you plan to deal with this issue, MR  has responded that it is indeed a worry and that is something he discussed with the Indian government as well, and have asked if we could get a moratorium on all loan repayments for three years, until we can revive the economy. He has said that if the Indian government takes this step, then other governments might agree to do the same thing, including China. He has emphatically pointed out that the previous government took so many loans, they beggared the economy, and it is a mess. It all depends on the stand India takes, he has added.

This year alone, you have to pay about $5 billion to service the debt, the highest in Sri Lankan history. Will you be able to do that SH has asked.

MR has responded that we have to do it, and we will manage somehow. He has said that we don’t want to default on our debt no matter what happens.

Responding to a question asked by SH whether President Gotabaya when he goes to Beijing will raise the question of giving back Hambantota harbour to Sri Lanka,he has said that we are discussing it, but it is difficult, as the previous government had already completed the handover of control. He has said that he thinks China may agree to the request on some terms, and we will keep the negotiations going.

As regards the statement made by the  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to Colombo that China will ensure that there is no outside interference in Sri Lank and the query made by SH  whether it was an indication to the US, or to India or some other country, MR has said that he doesn’t know about it and she will have to ask him that (laughs). MR has stated that Sri Lanka didn’t take the statement too seriously, as no one has yet tried to interfere in our matters… other than during the last elections 2015. Then, all the countries got involved in the elections but now we would like to have good relations and work with all the countries.

Responding to a question as to Sri Lanka will move forward on the 19th amendment, that shifts power from the Presidency to the PM and parliament, MR has said that first of all, we have to get rid of the 19th amendment. Then we will think about how we will move forward and has revealed that the former Law Minister G.L. Peiris is already studying it, and we will take opinions on what to do. At the moment, neither the President nor the Parliament has clear powers. So we do have to decide on the division of power and the majority of voters in Sri Lanka voted for President Gotabaya, and that means people want him to have some control of the country’s development and governance, and we must respect that.

Given that the President is also your brother, could the tussle over the 19th amendment cause problems between you?

No, no, no. The way the present constitution is structured and the confusion with the 19th amendment, only two brothers like Gota and I can handle this (Laughs). Otherwise no President and PM will ever agree on this issue, he has pointed out,.

Finally, SH has asked what does it feel like to be back here as Prime Minister, after five years, when you visited, but were out of power?

Well, I am grateful to PM Modi for inviting me and receiving me both when I was out of power and now. I never felt the difference, in that sense. Whenever he is ready to visit Sri Lanka now, we are ready to welcome him Mr, Rajapaksa has said.

In his interview with Journalist and Author Ms. Padma Rao Sundarji for Hindustan Times, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that ‘India a relation for us, while other nations are friends’

The Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) has spoken to Padma Rao Sundarji(PRS) about Sri Lanka’s relationship with Pakistan, which India accuses of being involved in cross-border terrorism; proposed changes to Tamil provincial councils instead of giving them greater autonomy under the constitution’s 13th amendment; and the island nation’s strategic ties with China, which is its largest investor.

Suicide attacks by Islamist bombers who killed more than 200 people and injured hundreds in Colombo last year. But you’ve been discussing the same issue with Pakistan, which, for India, is the fountainhead of state-sponsored terror. Isn’t that a contradiction?

A: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 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 publicise it at the time. Why, without India’s help, I don’t think we would have won that war.

Q: From western investigators to Indian intelligence, many have warned that Pakistan has for years used its diplomatic presence in Colombo to radicalise Sri Lankan Muslims and to encircle India with hostile Islamist groups in neighbouring countries. Given this backdrop, can India take discussions with Sri Lanka on counterterrorism seriously?

A: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. Look, India and Pakistan — you have your own problems. But that is your internal matter. 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. The inspector general of police and the defence secretary of the time were taken into custody and released earlier this week.

Q: The Pakistan Navy chief was in Colombo this month, the Pakistan Air Force chief is currently on a visit — there is a constant stream of military visitors from Pakistan to Sri Lanka. Earlier this week, Sri Lankan media quoted its high commissioner as urging Sri Lanka to condemn India for lifting Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. Isn’t this an interference in your bilateral relationship with India?

A: Look, whatever the view of any country, we will not get involved in the internal matters of India. But remember this: I always say India is a relation. Others are friends.

Q: India wants Sri Lanka to implement the 13th amendment to your constitution, which led to the creation of Provincial Councils in the Tamil-dominated areas and urges maximum autonomy for them. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa suggested recently that the councils may be redundant. Will they be abolished?

A: No, on the contrary, 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.

Q: A Free Trade Agreement with India is stuck because Sri Lankans fear an onslaught of Indian goods on the small Sri Lankan markets. Did you discuss it with your counterparts?

A: No. Right now, we’re working on specific projects that will build up to, and give everyone the confidence to finally ink an FTA.

Q: China is your largest investor. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi says China is Sri Lanka’s strategic partner. Your brother, too, notes the strategic nature of your port of Hambantota, which was built by the Chinese and on which they have a 99-year-lease and massive equity. Please define this ‘strategic’ relationship?

A: 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.

Q:   But the Chinese foreign minister also said that China will ‘not allow outside influences to interfere’ in Sri Lanka. That is open to interpretation. How will you assuage India’s apprehension on this front?

Since India is not interfering in our domestic matters that statement is not meant for India which 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.

Q: The United States is pushing you to sign and renew a Millennium Compact Account (MCA) and a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The reworked terms of the latter may enable the US to put boots on the ground in your country. Are you going to sign them?

A: We have appointed a commission to look into both those agreements.

Q: Big power alliances are swarming all over the Indian Ocean. There’s the Quad on the one hand, and big powers such as China and Russia on the other. Will Sri Lanka join the Quad if asked?

A: That has not yet come up for discussion but we would have to talk it out among ourselves first and if we want to do it, we would have to first go to our cabinet. Whatever we do, Sri Lanka will assert its own interests first.

Q: Sri Lanka is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (BRI). But it is under fire from many countries around the world for its ‘debt-trap’ development. Do you share those concerns?

A: Sri Lanka has received a lot of benefits from being part of BRI. 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.

Indian weekly India Today” said that After Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa backed India’s decision bringing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by calling it an “internal” matter of India, the same was resonated by his minister Arumugan Thondaman Sri Lanka’s Minister of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure Development. Mr. Thondaman, is one of the two Tamil Ministers in the 15 member Sri Lanka cabinet, in an exclusive conversation with India Today TV said that the citizenship legislation is for minorities from “friendly” and “neighbourhood” nations but Sri Lankan Tamil refugees needn’t have been included in it since “they are a  family”.

Calling it an “internal” matter, Arumugan Thondaman said, “It is your internal matter and I am convinced that the relationship we have with India is different from others. It is like the stepmother or your own kid. We are your own kid. They are friendly but we are family.”

Justifying Modi government’s decision and backing it, he said, “India has to protect itself and we cannot comment on India’s policy formulation which is done for the best of India’s interests.”

“I am confident that Sri Lankan government will realise expectations of Tamil people for equality, justice, peace within united Sri Lanka I am confident the government will work towards reconciliation,” Modi had said during a joint press briefing in New Delhi on Saturday.

Interestingly, while the Sri Lankan minister assured speedy resettlement, he also blamed the past administration for going slow on the process to “tarnish” the image of the country internationally.

India Today said that the fishermen issue was also largely discussed by both the sides during bilateral talks on Saturday.

“Indian government fishermen indulge in bottom trawling which Sri Lankan has objected to.

To questions on the looming fear among Tamil and Muslim population of Sri Lanka with the return of the Rajapaksa government, minister Thondaman assured that nobody has anything to fear in his country and if you are a Sri Lankan, you don’t have to fear anything. I am a Sri Lankan and a minority and I have no fear,” said the confident minister.

This, despite the fact that there were reports of the national anthem not being allowed to be sung in Tamil on the occasion of the 72nd Independence Day of Sri Lanka. He rubbished the reports and said, “There was no such decision. These are rumours. How it has been for all these years it will continue to be so. Whatever has been happening from day one will continue.”

He also blamed critics for fanning controversy due to the lack of any credible criticism against Rajapaksa government. He said, “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country and we are co-living. There are many who sing in Tamil and nobody is asking them to stop it. Ask those who are creating a controversy because the Opposition has no other issue that they can criticise the current government on.”

He also said, “Under Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, things are falling in line.”

The two sides also spoke at length on the issue of counter-terrorism efforts. To a question on the dastardly attack on Easter Sunday in April last year, blaming the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration of inaction, the minister said, “The unfortunate incident of Easter attack was negligence. The then government neglected the intelligence given by India. Security was in place but information was neglected, so we paid for it. Now, things will change.”

The members of Prime Minister’s delegation comprised Ministers Douglas Devananda, Arunmugam Thondaman, MP Prasanna Ranaweera,  Secretary to the President Dr. P.B.Jayasundera, Secretary to the Prime Minister Mr. Gamini Senarath, Secretary to the Ministry of Finance Mr. S.R.Atygalle, Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mr. Ravinath Ariyasinghe and the former Minister Peof. G.L.Peiris,

The Prime Minister also visited several Buddhist and Hindu religious sites during this visit.

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