Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris confirmed that the two sides discussed the possibility of developing the two oil tank farms in Trincomalee, an eastern port town of Second World War vintage. Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister, Basil Rajapaksha, one of the four members of the ruling quartet, recently told Shringla that elections to nine Provincial Councils (PC) would be held in the first quarter of 2022, which had been delayed by the predecessor administration.
In official statements and newspaper reports, it wasn’t noted that the two sides had discussed the ongoing food and forex crises in Sri Lanka. Shringla’s visit was reportedly flagged over the twin issues after Peiris met his Indian counterpart, S Jaishankar, at the UNGA just a few weeks prior.
Colombo had to meet all of its promises to New Delhi and the local constituencies and deliver on multiple fronts according to India’s statement. Although the LTTE conflict ended more than a decade ago, ethnic issues and unresolved ethnic conflicts remain the top concerns. The early PC elections are thus mentioned in India.
Due to its role in drafting Sri Lanka’s 13th Amendment (13-A) to its Constitution in 1987, India believes successive governments in Colombo have failed to meet the national commitment regardless of their political pretensions or ideologies. Even with the whole rejection of their efforts by the Tamil voters, the Rajapaksa government after the war continued to make halfhearted efforts.
Since late 2019, the Rajapaksas have been in power for at least five years. The president reportedly made an important observation to Secretary Shringla, highlighting the ‘urgent need to understand the strengths and weaknesses’ of 13-A. In contrast to other Cabinet colleagues, some of whom have taken prompted positions in support of scrapping 13-A, his decision is welcome. The internal security minister remarked that the negative clauses in 13-A will be scrapped but later modified his position to ‘clarify’ that the change would no longer apply. Further details were not provided.
As reported, Secretary Shringla suggested that all Tamils should stay united first to a delegation of Tamil National Alliance (TNA). In Jaffna, the capital of Tamil-majority Northern Province, also, dinner guests received the message. There are still more things that went wrong under the Gotabaya regime, according to some leaders who are not part of the TNA.
There is little recognition in the moderate sections of the Tamil community and polity without an aspiration to a ‘separate homeland’; even so, no other political party or leader in power could match that feat in foreseeable future. Tamil unity seems to be becoming more and more difficult to achieve with each passing day.
Another broad-spectrum issue that Secretary Shringla was likely to discuss with the Colombo leadership was continuing Indian concerns over Sri Lanka’s double standards; including those relating to Chinese-initiated projects versus those initiated by Sri Lanka. One of the most recently publicized issues involved a tri-nation project in Colombo’s Port called East Container Terminal (ECT), which was canceled in October by the Gotabaya regime. An MoU was signed by the previous Wickremesinghe-Sirisena administration but this occurred not long afterward.
Trinco oil tank farms fall into this category as well, since trade unions voiced objections to extending the 35-year lease with Indian Oil Corporation (IOC). A belated component of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 was the lease, which was meant to prevent ‘non-Indian’ powers from taking over Sri Lankan territory. Udaya Gammanpila, Petroleum Minister, has been directed to work out the details, but putting together a cost-effective plan for the joint development of the tank farms is complicated due to the age and limitations of the structures. The situation appears complicated.
The Indians have become highly enraged over the inequity of development funding, especially after adversarial China got a 99-year lease of the Hambantota construction and concession project under the former Rajapaksa regime (2005-15). Initially, China enjoyed a free hand in the Norochcholai coal-based power project and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government held back on a proposal to offer an Indian power project in Sampur, citing what was at worst excuses for delay.
Sampur, the first of the two projects to be dropped, was a sign of how global concerns over coal-fired power were increasing. This ended what had looked to be a classic bilateral controversy of the ECT type. There has been no discussion of an alternative oil-fired power project on another site since Tamil residents opposed the government’s original proposal as ‘destructive.’
Furthermore, no mention is made of the much-publicized pharma Special Economic Zone in the Trincomalee Belt, as agreed upon when then Chemicals Minister, Anand Sharma, visited Sri Lanka. A second concern for India is the lack of action by the old regime against the Rajapaksas, such as power-devolution and unilaterally performing the Mahinda government’s promise to cancel the Memorandum of Understanding on Colombo Port City.
It shows that irrespective of which Sinhala-Buddhist party or leader is in power in Colombo, issues of Indian concern, whether they pertain to the ethnic issue or bilateral relations, have not been treated with honor and honesty. With successive Sri Lankan governments shifting the goalposts repeatedly, India concluded Colombo was constantly changing the game, a sentiment, since concretized by the Western world through the UNHRC resolutions, at least on the smaller issue of accountability, if not on the larger ethnic question.
Sri Lanka’s President’s Media Division (PMD) reports that Gotabaya reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment not to let its territory be used in a way that threatens Indian security. As part of the statement, he described the nation’s relationship with China without providing further details. Understandably, the President reiterated China’s relationship with Sri Lanka was a content-driven commercial one.
Security issues are of mutual concern apart from the China angle. There is a significant threat now that are-Talibanised Afghanistan could inspire Islamic terror groups to operate in Afghanistan, including muddying the Indian Ocean waters shared by the two countries. In March, the Indian Coast Guard seized weapons and ammunition from ex-LTTE smugglers in mid-sea following the arrest of LTTE elements involved in large-scale drug smuggling.
China is undoubtedly a bogeyman in this case, which is now being pushed by Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups against India, especially through friendly political voices in southern Tamil Nadu. However, The voices are muted at the moment. Following the arrest of Terrorist Intelligence operative by the Tamil Nadu Police, there is a possibility of problems in the future, so the police have begun consultations.
In this context, both navies discussed the use of fishing vessels for drugs and contraband at the bi-annual meeting, which had been held at the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), but been moved to the Internet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A coincidence drew the two armies together for a 12-day counterterrorism exercise at Sri Lanka’s combat training school in northern Ampara the day Secretary Shringla met President Gotabaya.
In November last year, the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of the three nations signed an upgraded agreement on maritime and security matters, including the Maldives. In addition, there are continuing bilateral arrangements outside of this agreement. It is the political and bureaucratic leadership in Colombo, who have to instill and inject more mutual trust in these three services, which still lacks about China – which is why such operational understanding has existed so long among these three services. Secretary Shringla seemed to convey the same message in Colombo as he had in every Indian country with which he had interacted previously.