Seeking India’s “proactive” support at the UN Human Rights Council, where a resolution on Sri Lanka will be soon put to vote, the Secretary to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “India cannot abandon us”.
“If the world is one family, as your Foreign Minister has said, then we are immediate family, isn’t it,” Admiral Jayanath Colombage (retired) said, citing External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s reference to ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ in his recent address to the Council.
The Foreign Secretary, a former Navy Commander, spoke to The Hindu on Sri Lanka’s prospects at the ongoing session in Geneva, Indo-Lanka relations, Colombo’s broader foreign policy choices, and strategy for reconciliation from “within”, and regional cooperation.
Sri Lanka, Mr. Colombage said, would be “very uncomfortable” if countries in the region did not extend support in Geneva. He expressed hope that India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh — who are among members of the current Council — will back Sri Lanka, since the countries had similarities, “are battling COVID-19 and facing allegations of human rights violations”.
“Our President’s [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] first letter requesting support was to the Indian Prime Minister, and his first meeting here was with the Indian High Commissioner. Because we are very conscious of South Asian solidarity,” he said, adding: “Sri Lanka is in dire need of support from our friendly neighbours. And we are not asking anything extraordinary, we are asking something based on your neighbourhood first policy, based on Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).” His appeal comes at a time when Indo-Lanka bilateral ties have come under strain, following a series of decisions taken by Colombo on development projects involving India and China.
On whether Sri Lanka would consider India’s possible abstention at the Council as support, the Foreign Secretary said he hoped for “proactive” and “constructive” commitment, rather than abstention, which is “neither here, nor there.”
All the same, seeming prepared for adoption of the likely hostile resolution, he said: “It’s difficult for a country from the Global South to win the vote… because of the Council’s double standards and hypocrisy,” he said, pointing to rights abuse and police brutality in the developed world.
Punitive measures such as economic sanctions following the resolution would hurt the people more than the government, Mr. Colombage said, arguing that reconciliation mechanisms must be evolved within the country. “We can’t do anything just because someone points a gun at our head and says, okay reconcile. It will never happen.” Asked how the government might address the evident trust deficit within the country — the minorities have repeatedly expressed scepticism on domestic programmes that are yet to deliver — he said communities torn apart in a 30-year war would take time to reconcile.
It remains to be seen how India might vote on the Sri Lanka resolution that draws from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s damning report on Sri Lanka’s “alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations”, which Colombo has categorically rejected. With the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government co-sponsoring the 2015 resolution, a vote was not required.
At the Interactive Dialogue on Sri Lanka at the Council last week, India reiterated Mr. Jaishankar’s message in Colombo in January, and called upon Sri Lanka to take necessary steps for addressing Tamils’ “legitimate aspirations”, including through the process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution.
But the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary indicated a preference for a clean break from existing laws. It is “high time” Sri Lanka had a new, “people-centric” Constitution, he said, underscoring the need to “move on”. “It is going to be challenging to abolish provincial councils, rather we should empower them to deliver,” he said, amid persisting calls from some in the Rajapaksa government and its support base for their abolition.
All the same, the Foreign Secretary does not see the existing 13th Amendment as a solution. The 13th Amendment came about with the aim of ending the violence and developing war-affected areas, he said, of Sri Lanka’s only legislative guarantee so far on power devolution to the provinces, including those with a Tamil majority.
“Let us look back and see whether any of those two main objectives were achieved because of the 13th amendment. The answer is no. The war dragged on until 2009, and much more killing took place after 1987. And then, development could not take place through the Provincial Council system,” Mr. Colombage said, even as Tamil parties continue demanding full implementation of the 13th Amendment since the civil war ended in 2009.
Despite Tamil parties seeking greater power devolution within an “undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka”, as senior Tamil leader R. Sampanthan unfailingly states, Mr. Colombage views their demands as leaning towards separatism, “although they do not use the Tamil Eelam word.”
“When you say that you want a federal state, you want more devolution of powers, you want police powers, you want land powers, right? So that means you are asking for almost a separate state,” he said, referring to powers that the 13th Amendment envisaged, but the Centre is yet to part with.
“I personally feel that India also should not really harp on the same thing that prevailed in 1987, because the dynamics have changed. India is concerned about the Tamils living in Sri Lanka, rightfully so, because there is a sizeable Tamil population in India, nothing wrong in it.”
Irrespective of India’s vote in Geneva, going forward, the two countries will have to navigate a broader terrain mired in controversies, especially after Colombo cleared a Chinese energy project in the northern islands; pulled out of a 2019 deal with India and Japan to joint develop a Colombo Port Terminal, and sought the Trincomalee oil tank farms leased out to an Indian Oil Corporation subsidiary.
“I don’t think relations are strained,” said the Foreign Secretary, emphasising that in strategic security matters, Sri Lanka still accorded India “top priority”.
“India is a big power and a mature country to let an incident or two change a relationship built over centuries… they are not that petty,” he said, adding that although President Rajapaksa was keen to see the East Container Terminal (ECT) project through with Indian investment, but “people’s power won,” he said, citing resistance from trade unions and the clergy.
President Rajapaksa, despite his pledge to safeguard national assets, was willing to make a “compromise”, Mr. Colombage noted, in offering the neighbouring West Container Terminal (WCT) for development, on the same terms — 85% stakes to the Indian investor — as the Colombo International Container Terminals Ltd, where China’s state-run China Merchants Port Holdings Company has 85% stake. The ECT has a partially completed deep berth and a shallow berth at the adjacent terminal, making it commercially more viable then the WCT that needs to be built from scratch, with greater investment. “The offer has been made at different levels, but New Delhi, would quite naturally expect more than an oral commitment”.
On “another controversial aspect”, the Trincomalee Oil Tank farms, that a Cabinet Minister recently said would be “reacquired” from an Indian Oil Corporation subsidiary which holds a 35-year lease since 2003, the Foreign Secretary asked India to take a “pragmatic view”. Since over 80 of those World War-era oil storage facilities had not been refurbished in 18 years, it was “a waste” that they remained unused, he remarked. “During the drop in oil prices in the world, there was this idea that we can refurbish these tanks, use them to store oil, so that we can make money… these are national, strategic assets, right? We must go beyond the lines of the  agreement and see how best we can make use of these tanks even now.”
India has also voiced concern recently, over a Chinese firm being chosen to install renewable energy systems in three islands off Jaffna Peninsula, barely 50 kms off Tamil Nadu’s coast. As an alternative to the Asian Development Bank-funded project, India also offered a $12 million grant. Terming it a “very generous offer”, Mr. Colombage said it was not good for Sri Lanka’s international image to pull out of a project backed by the ADB and finalised through a tendering process. “So, we are in a bit of an issue, and I have a feeling that people will continue to suffer [without adequate power supply] because of this tug of war.”
Flagging Sri Lanka’s foreign policy “dilemma”, he observed that a developing country should be able to make decisions based on economics, based on needs, but unfortunately, a country like Sri Lanka “is not free” to make that decision. “Before we make even an economic decision, we have to think of the strategic consideration of the powers in the Indian Ocean Region,” he said, of being “sandwiched”.
“Now, where should we draw the line? Should we say, okay, north of this line is to country A, and south of this country could be country ABCD? Is that what we want?” he asked, alluding to India and China. While India has been involved in large-scale development projects in the north and east building, for instance, 50,000 houses for war-affected people, China has dominated mega development in the south, in projects including expressways, the Hambantota Port and Colombo Port City. Over time, though, India launched several projects in the south too, while China’s projects began travelling northward.
Sri Lanka, a “small country” spanning some 65,000 sq. km, was seeing how best it can maintain neutrality, he said, while staying away from “the major power game”, maintaining friendly relations for economic purposes with all the countries, and keeping India’s strategic security concerns in mind. “That will determine our foreign policy, and we are determined to balance these factors.”
On Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s recent visit to Colombo, he said it should not be seen as Sri Lanka attempting “to join a bloc” or country, against others. “It is a bilateral visit. We would be very happy to welcome the Indian Prime Minister or any other Prime Minister who would like to come.”