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President Gotabaya Is Very Keen To Honour ECT Project At Colombo Port With India: Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Admiral Colombage
In our Foriegn Affairs series, we are focusing on Sri Lanka and country holds a key strategic location. And to talk about that, BW Businessworld’s Manish Kumar Jha speaks with the Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka, Admiral Jayanath Colombage. Foreign Secretary holds enormous experience as a veteran of naval commander and this puts him firmly when looked at broadly from the security & defence. Since November last year, he has also been Foreign Affairs Advisor to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He speaks on ‘India First’ Policy; Indo Pacific & QUAD in the Indian Ocean Region; Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR); Zero Loan policy of Sri Lanka; Hambantota port; East Container Terminal (ECT) Project at the Colombo Port; Indian Ocean maritime strategy and Tamil reconciliation.
Photo Credit :
Foreign Secretary, I begin by asking you geopolitics has changed dramatically, post Covid19 and taken a new dimensional shift. I see a shift of power towards Asia. How Sri Lanka will play its role and be true to its foreign policy of neutrality and of strategic autonomy?
So Manish, thank you very much for having me in your program. Thank you very much for giving a good introduction to me and some of the things I keep forgetting about but I have done in the past. Of course! my linkage to India is great. I have done three training courses in India. And I have been linked with almost all the top level think tanks in Delhi and Goa. But of course then Covid19 came and we could not really interact as much as we would like to. But you mentioned this geostrategic competition after the Covid19 and of course its stake in place even before Covid 19. So this is an occurrence in Sri Lanka practically on a day-to-day basis. We do see this geostrategic competition unfolding in front of our own eyes practically on a day to day basis.
We also see that a few like to use the words “the spheres of influence” of many countries coinciding in this small tiny island in the Indian Ocean, whether it is the Indians, the Chinese, the Japanese, Australians, Americans, Russians, EU, UK. All these spheres of influence, Sri Lanka is part of because of the geographical location. Now when you talk about the geographical location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, there are key factors you have to remember, one is the centrality of this small island in the Indian Ocean, the second point is the close proximity to the busiest shipping lane across the Indian Ocean.
We all know that the Indian Ocean is fast becoming the lifeline of the world. Because they say 72% of energy, 50% of containers, 35% of bulk cargo all carried across the Indian Ocean routes.
And a very important aspect of this is Sri Lanka is geographically close to India. Now India is the biggest country, biggest military power, biggest population, 7,500 kms of coastline and in 2018, it was the fastest growing economy in the world and tipped to be the number 3 economy by 2030. So these are the factors in fact influencing the defence and trade relations of Sri Lanka. Now in that game, that geostrategic game, how do we survive is a question that we keep asking on a day to day basis. And now this geopolitical and geostrategic competition is not really taking place under the carpet, it is now being played in the open. So this is why Sri Lanka has reiterated that we wish to remain neutral in this game. Of course technically we are a non aligned country. But Manish you know the non-aligned movement was created way back after the end of World War II. That was for a different purpose although it is still there. We want to remain neutral because we don’t want to be caught up in this power game. We don’t want to hedge one power against the other. We don’t want to choose one power against the other. We don’t want to bandwagon one power against the other. That’s not good for a small country like Sri Lanka. And it is our way, we need to maintain power over our own strategic autonomy. We want to maintain relations with every country and at the same time benefit economically to develop the people of Sri Lanka. Now in this game, we do understand India's strategic security concerns and we need to pay greater attention to that because we have no intention of and we can’t afford to ignore the strategic and security concern of India. So this is a very, very difficult game.
Although the small country, we have wavered from time to time. We tilt towards one particular country and then after another 5-10 years, we tilt towards another country and every time we did that we didn’t succeed. Now, I think the realization has set in that we need to remain neutral, maintain good relations and be mindful of India’s strategic security concerns. So these are the factors in fact shaping Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and defence policy and that is actually the survival of our country.
I recall one of your interactions where you said “it is not about this government, my government, my being Foreign Secretary for 5 or 10 years. The neutrality of Sri Lanka and the strategic autonomy, should remain forever." But how is it possible in the geopolitical situation and change of the government in Sri Lanka? It has been a flip flop and shift of policies from one government to another.
You know Manish, we are a democratic country and we love democracy, we don’t want to have anything else. We have never had an authoritarian rule, we never had a military dictatorship, so we are quite happy with the democratic system. But then there is the other side to this democratic system Manish, because it is short term, and we are divided and we don’t want to take risk, why? Because we have short cycles of 5 years, right?
So every government which comes to power, first they have to sail through the initial 5 years, right? So that is why, in the Sri Lankan context, we have not seen long-term visions, long-term development strategies. Unfortunately we have not seen that. We initially see something for 5 years and then of course it depends on the same government staying in power whether or not it may continue or not. And then generally, the opposition in Sri Lanka is always opposing, so their job is basically to oppose and very unfortunately as you mentioned every time a government changes, our policies change, because the people change, people who handle these matters change which is not good for a country like Sri Lanka in its sustainability.
So that is why I have been saying that we need a long term vision for this country, not limiting it to the 5 year democratic cycle. Democracy sustains but still there are certain aspects we need to understand which are not favouring the development of the country.
You see we gained independence almost at the same time like India, 1948. Now nearly 72 years have gone by, but where are we today after 72 years. Have we done justice to our people? And the obvious answer is no, right? It is desirable that we do more. So getting caught in this cycle is a very vicious cycle. We need long term strategic look, we need long term vision. And if you look 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, then I think every time a government changes we will not change our policy.
You have been emphatic on ‘India Frist’ foreign policy. In fact, after taking oath as foreign secretary, you said President Gotabay’s foreign policy will be Indian First in the region. Was there a missing link in the Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relation and that led you to announce. How will it unfold in the bilateral relations in the defence and security in the region?
You see I was basically echoing the thinking of the President and the government. You see our President, when he visited India after assuming office, he spoke the same thing. And now the Prime Minister, when he visited India he spoke the same thing. And our President gave an interview to Nitin Gokhale, he spoke the same thing. We do have to understand India’s strategic security concerns - No. 1. And we should never be a threat to India’s general security and strategic security - No. 2. Sri Lanka is very close to India. We are separated by a narrow strip of ocean called the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. Our closest point is 12 nautical miles. That's a very short distance. And if you talk in military terms, if you talk on naval terms, practically within half an hour, you can cross to the other side by water from one country to the other side, crossing the international maritime boundary line is half an hour. And if you take an aircraft, it is less than two minutes.
That means Sri Lanka is pretty much within the Indian maritime security umbrella. Now that is why when Ambassador Shivshankar Menon, when he wrote the book Choices, he said Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier which is parked 14 nautical miles across the Palk Strait. We don’t want to be that aircraft carrier, we don’t want anyone to use our country to be a threat to India. Vice versa, we don’t want India to use Sri Lanka as well. But then India’s concerns we have to understand.
We are here to understand because if you look at India and Sri Lanka, we have so many things in common, culture, religion, food, dress, we have many things in common, right? So there is no reason why we should say, we don’t care about India’s security concern--no, we have to be mindful. And you know, in the past, in history, every time, we did not take notice of that, there have been problems.
There has been an impact on the bilateral relations between the two countries. Now the mistrust in such a situation is detrimental to our development, it is detrimental to our bilateral relations. So therefore, the President, the Prime Minister and the government is very keenly understanding the importance of India’s strategic security concerns.
Now India is as I mentioned, a big country, a big military power, 7500 kms of coastline, and a nuclear power. So you have your own security concerns. So we have no right to be a concern to you on that aspect. So therefore we have to be very mindful of that fact. And we should never ever allow another country to use our territory or our territorial waters to be a threat against India. So that is what I meant. I was basically, reemphasizing what the President, the Prime Minister and the government is thinking at this moment.
How does Sri Lanka look at the concepts of Indo Pacific and Quad? You said Sri Lanka is at the crossroad of both Indo-Pacific as well as (the Chinese) Belt and Road Initiative. And you also mentioned recently that if it is inclusive multi-polar world, you are very happy. As a democratic nation, how do you see the difference between BRI & Indo Pacific while it is be noted that many projects under BRI led to severe debt problem in many partner countries? You know the Quad held high level operational maritime exercises. Two top-notch warfare assets --Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and Strike Carrier Group from the USA - USS Nimitz-- came together including Japan and Australia.
Well, well Manish, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, Indo-Pacific is too big for us, because even the Indian Ocean is too big for us because we are a small country. But that is not the case with India because India is a big power and your ambitions are not necessarily restricted to the Indian Ocean and they extend to the entire world, so to say, so we have no issue with that.
But I would really like to see an Indian Ocean strategy coming up. I mean a strategy designed, developed, agreed by the Indian Ocean littorals mainly through the IORA - Indian Ocean Rim Association, because I feel, as long as we don’t have our own narrative, as long as we don’t take control of our own destiny I think we are not doing justice by our people.
So I mean - of course Indo-Pacific strategy is there, I am saying, in that also India should lead. I mean IORA we have, IONS we have. But why can’t the Indian Ocean have our own strategy? This is the question I would like to ask everyone. Now, we have Indo-Pacific strategy, we have a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, we have Belt and Road Initiative, we have Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, we have Bay of Bengal initiative, we have Millennium Cooperation Pact, we have so many strategies coming from outside to the Indian Ocean, right? Now you mentioned about the Quad. I mean anyone is free to have an alliance. There’s nothing to prevent big powers from getting together. But then why do we need Quad in the Indian Ocean, right? Top players, India, Japan, America and Australia, is it purely to counter China? Is Quad and Malabar one and the same? You mentioned the big exercise, I say India has the right to do any military exercise with any country, that’s not an issue. And so countries can get together but what is the ultimate objective of this, right? Now, I remember hearing these words, especially from Indian strategists, “it should be an I-Quad, an inclusive Quad”. So, what I would wish to see is inclusivity in the Indian Ocean, not exclusivity. Because what will happen, we all know that as of now,
the Indian Ocean is the most militarized ocean in the world. At any given time there about 120 warships belonging to about 20 nations are in the Indian Ocean. And we don’t really know how many nuclear submarines are there, we don’t know how many submarines carrying nuclear warheads are there, right? We don’t know, but we are really militarized.
And this small country in 1971 proposed that the Indian Ocean should be one of peace and everyone agreed at that time because it was ratified by the United Nations. There were three things we didn’t want - 1. Nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean, 2. Militarization of the Indian Ocean, i.e. to have bases, 3. Using these bases to fight against the others, which was in 1971. Now fast track 49 years, we can’t have the same, nowhere because the Indian Ocean, I mean India and Pakistan are both nuclear nations and your neighbour China is also a nuclear nation, so we cannot have denuclearization. And demilitarization is not possible, right? Bases, whoever is having, they are going to have it, so in this sense, at least how we prevent further militarisation of the Indian Ocean is something that we should really look at. So in that sense, other than the four major powers or the pillar countries in the Quad, have this fear.
Their fear: is the Quad going to lead to a maritime Cold War in the Indian Ocean? Will the Quad lead to another arms race or unnecessary arms race also I will argue, in the Indian Ocean.
Because, Manish, one thing we have to understand, we are not rich countries. We are all developing countries. We have a certain level of poverty in our societies. We need roads, clinics, we need ports, airports, but if we are not, I mean rather than spending money on that, if we get on with an unnecessary arms race and spend that much money on that, I think we are not doing justice to our people. Now, most of the countries are at least 70 years after gaining independence, right? Have we really, really done justice to our people. This is a question we must ask. Have we really done justice to the people, to uplift them from where they are? And when I look around in Sri Lanka, I think we have not done justice.
So, my thinking is Quad is mainly a great thing but will it lead to another unnecessary arms race in the Indian Ocean is a question we have. Now that is why I say we need to have our Indian Ocean strategy.
Now, let me do a very brief comparison. Now you asked this from me, Indo-Pacific and the Belt and Road Initiative. Now, if you ask Sri Lanka and I think I am sharing the views of many countries in the region, how do you prepare the Indo-Pacific strategy, for a free and open, rules-based maritime order. Don’t we all want that? We want it 100%, right? But then let us shift quickly to the Belt and Road Initiative. Let’s not get into politics. Belt and Road Initiative as they proclaim is an infrastructure, development related, maritime trade oriented network. Now we want that, right? So we want the good of both. We want the good of both without getting bandwagoning with anyone. So this is a predicament.
BRI- the terms and conditions have caused trouble for the partner countries, including Sri Lanka. While Indo-Pacific is led by democratic countries coming to counter such engagement with transparency. You talk about infrastructural development. I understand the Indo-Pacific to have similar intentions, similar motives, of infrastructural development in the region. It is of course about market as well, no doubt about this, but don’t you see the inherent differences in these two concepts?
No, I mean as I said I don’t want to get into the politics of it because these are perceptions, these are arguments and counter-arguments. But let me reiterate one small fact. Now Asia Development Bank released a report and they say from 2020 to 2030 this region needs USD 16 trillion for infrastructure development. Now, Manish, you tell me where this money can come, not only to Sri Lanka, to all the countries, right? Can these democratic countries provide that kind of money to develop the infrastructure of other countries, right? Now that is an issue of capacities and capabilities. There is a gap, right? Now can India provide everything to the whole region, you can’t. You have to develop your own country. You have to look after your people. You have to develop ports, you have ports. You do support greatly to other countries, but you cannot take the burden of the entire region. You have to develop ‘India First’, nothing wrong in that - ‘India First’, right? So then of course now you have that ‘neighborhood first’ policy.
Now I actually like one concept of India,that is SAGAR - Security and Growth for All in the Region. Now, we need that. We need security and growth, because what is the purpose of having security if there is no growth.
For whose benefit? For whose sake? What is the point if we have a very beautiful Indo-Pacific region, free and open Indo-Pacific region, rules-based. But if we are not becoming a part of the global supply chain and if we are not benefiting from maritime trade, what is the use? So we need to balance the two, right? We need to balance the two, rather than work together, that’s our vision actually. To all the major players - I will quote Joe Biden in his victory speech. He said something very beautifully, it really caught my eyes. He said “we can be opponents, but we don’t have to be enemies”, right? But then as long as the major powers are fighting for influence in this region smaller countries like Sri Lsnka will continue to suffer, right? So what we need is not big powers to fight, but support us. Now we don’t want loans.
You mentioned that some projects coming through loans may not be in favourable terms, Manish I have to say one thing, we should be educated enough, experienced enough countries to smell a rat. If there is something foul, we should be bright enough rather than blaming somebody. This cry is coming, nothing is free in this word. You get something, you have to give something. So you have to be smart enough. Any recipient country should be smart enough not to be caught in a trap, right? So that is what we want. We want a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, free and open Indian Ocean, but free trade and more trade. We want to benefit from that, we want to benefit from the location we are sitting, on top of the global shipping network.
Now, we don't see unfortunately, Manish, that much investment coming from everywhere, right? Now take the case of Sri Lanka, in 2009, the war ended. Who actually came to support us – India- one big country, one big supporter, building railway tracks, clearing harbors, clearing millions of mines, building 50,000 houses, India came forward. Japan, they were and they continue to support. Who else came really? Only China. Now imagine Manish that was 2009. Now today we are living in 2020, 11 years past, do we have any other offer - not much? I mean I always say India did a great thing. But I am saying, big money, big investment, we did not have, we did not have many choices. Now, if we did not take what China offered, we would be still the same as 2009. So this is the reality on the ground. We need to be people-centric.
Economy plays a major role in foreign policies A growth led environment in Sri Lanka is equally better for India. Sri Lanka debt crisis is well debated as the overwhelming ‘loan culture’. Knowing the tight fiscal situation in Sri Lanka, what is the way out for economic development for Sri Lanka?
Yeah Manish, you know that’s a question we all need to find answers. Now Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP ratio is as high as 86%. That means if we earned from the dollars, we have to pay USD 86 back to some other loan. So as high as 86% it is changing and it is a very high figure for a developing country, right? Money that can be used to develop hospitals, roads, water, sanitation, we have to pay in the pans we have taken. Now we have this policy, we take loans. We take loans to pay other loans. We take loans to develop the country and we say that is development. But that’s not real development, right? Gradually, we stand into a huge mess, right?
And we have to pay the loans, we have to pay the interest and we are not making money out of it, right? So right now, that is why this government has a policy, zero loans. No more loans for Sri Lanka. That’s a very strong policy, right? But what can we do with the loans we have already taken, we have to honour them, we have to repay them and that’s why we have a questioned India for a debt moratorium and we have requested the World Bank, IMF, ADB, bilateral lenders like China to give us a moratorium for debt repayment.
Because we need breathing space and Covid19 has made matters worse. You know our income, of course, maintains some high level but then tourism is gone, near zero. So we are going to have a problem. And we don’t want to add to that problem and allow it to be carried to the next government whenever they come to power, or pass it onto the people who are not even born yet.
So very consciously the government has said no more loans. And please don’t come with a loan. You can come with a FDI joint venture, build-operate-transfer, but no loans. If we are valuable, we are the strategic value of the location is there, come, with investment, but no loans.
Because I think as of the end of last year, we had to pay back USD 57 billion. Now, many people are saying China has trapped us with the debt, but if you really look at the total amount of loans we have taken from China it is less than 9% of our external debt. So it is not China alone, it is us. We are to be blamed for getting into that mess, or this us. So there is no point blaming someone. That is why I said we should be clever enough not fall in the trap, even in the name of development. Now, Manish also, allow me to say, you know, I don’t think we can hide things.
People talk about Hambantota port. We have taken a loan to build the port and then with the change of government in 2015, what happened? They stopped the work of the port. They stopped bunkering, right? And then what happened, they negatively branded it as the biggest swimming pool in the world, right? Now that is not the way to promote your own port, when I say your own port I mean the country’s port. Instead of doing that they should have finished with the balance portion of the work, brought cranes, brought ships and started making money. So this is the problem that we are caught in the democratic cycle.
So you repeatedly said democracy is doing this and that, well, there are other sides to the democratic cycle as well, right? So what we need is the ability but we need plans, we need infrastructural development, we need Foreign Direct Investment, no more loans.
Sri Lanka has asked India for a further cash-swap arrangement of $ 1 billion and PM Mahinda also mentioned about the pending request for a three-year moratorium on the $ 900-m debt owed to India. What is status and expectation from India?
Well I don’t know exactly but I - we are hopeful that India will be, as always they have done to support. India has never been like demanding us to repay or demanding things. They have been a really good neighbour. You understand your small neighbour and you don’t really force upon the neighbour. So India, I mean, I am sure India has their own way of doing things. You can’t just expect the moment we ask, “oh yes, we will give you a moratorium”, we can’t expect that. So you have your own issues to handle, you have your own bureaucracy mechanism. So maybe finally it will come through.
But India will definitely help Sri Lanka. You see even during the Covid19, India sent, I think, at least 2 plane loads of essentials, medicines to Sri Lanka, free, totally free, right? So India has been there to support us during the Covid19 pandemic.
If you look at the number of tourists coming to Sri Lanka, top is the Indian tourist. So we want that to happen again. We want Indian tourists to come. We have many things in common. We have the religious circuits, you know you can crisscross and - so things will happen. The moment the Covid19 is over and I think India will be a strength to the Sri Lanka.
I think India has strong leader and also in Sri Lanka. I think they do understand each other very well and their chemistry is perfect and also I have to be honest and say that we like to see a strong central government in Delhi.
We don’t like to see a government which is dependent on the regional political parties, so we are quite happy, the mandate the BJP has got. And I think we have been very comfortable with the BJP leadership.
And India after Modi Ji came to power, they came out with the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. And then Sri Lanka is part of the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. And then you came out with the ‘SAGAR’. Sri Lanka is a part of ‘SAGAR’ - Security and Growth for All in the Region. You came with the ‘Act East’ policy, Sri Lanka is part of Act East policy as well because the East starts from Sri Lanka.
So these policies are meant to enhance the power but of course when you say ‘Neighbourhood First’ now, you say ‘Neighbourhood minus 1 First’ you know. You know what I mean, well that’s not our problem, and Pakistan is also a country which has supported Sri Lanka.
So in that sense we don’t want to take any sides between what is happening. It is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan to be solved. We wish that you know, it is going on for 6-7 decades now, 7 decades plus, solution will be found mutually and that would really benefit because you know Manish, it’s difficult in this world to rise individually as a country, but it is easier to rise as a region. Now I mean we can argue whether European Union is a success or not, but they rose together. But we can argue the ASEAN is a success. 10 different countries with 10 different philosophies with 10 different issues, but they are working together for a common issue. But look at South Asia, such a small gathering, so many commonalities but we are not together unfortunately, we at least must rise as a region as [envisioned in] SAGAR.
Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage, I’ll bring you back to the economic aspect of the relationship. You have been very vocal of the ‘India First’ policies but there seems a pause as no final decision is taken on the East Container Terminal (ECT) Project at the Colombo Port initiated in 2019. Is Sri Lanka firm on ECT Project? What is your take on delays?
Well I think, the solution, I mean the decision will be made very shortly, and the President is very keen to honour the MOUs signed between the two countries in 2017 regarding the ECT.
And Manish, I have to tell you we have wasted 5 long years, not utilising the East Container Terminal of Sri Lanka. It is 600 metres of built and huge area unused for the last 5 years because of what you are saying indecision. So it has already cost us millions and millions of dollars. Now the government is very determined to move ahead and to honour the commitments previous governments made. So usually a new government would say that since it was done in the past we are not going to honour but no, this President has said I will honour that commitment because it relates to India, right?
Now, we all know the port of Colombo has risen to the 18 best connected container ports in the world this year. And through the port about 38% of containers we handle are from India. So I mean that’s a large number. That’s a huge, proportionately huge chunk of containers are from India. So naturally, India should be given to operate the East Container Terminal and we have agreed. But actually Manish, I have to tell you, you know if the decisions are made based on economics, things are different. But when the decisions were made in order to strategically off balance, that’s where it goes from. Now India is a democratic country, Sri Lanka is a democratic country, people have their own voice. People have their own perception. And the opposition is always inciting opposition from the people. So people in the port are not willing to go ahead with the project, but then they are not the decision makers. Of course they don’t really bother about it or they may not really understand the geostrategic implications. They may think oh, this is our port, we have an extra-nationalistic feeling that may not work. But you see, my point is you know we have to make this happen. We have to use this port, a 600m berth already built. It’s a matter of bringing a crane and getting ship work, you know. It is nearing capacity on the other container jetties. So indecision has cost 5 long very valuable years to Sri Lanka. We don’t have the luxury of waiting any longer. So we have to make our commitment, right? We have to fulfill our commitment. And true to the word, India should make it happen.
Why not India and Sri Lanka look for regional partnership in maritime and develop maritime trading block? You have mentioned ocean led initiative especially for economic purposes? Can you shed some light?
You know I mean Manish, as of now I think our Navy to Navy interaction, Navy to Coast Guard or the Coast Guard to Coast Guard interactions have been of a very high level. They do work together, they do train together, and they operate together. I mean one good example is the recent catching fire of the very large crude carrier MT Diamond. The moment she was on fire, the Sri Lankan Navy being closest rushed to the location, but within hours the Indian Navy, the Indian Coast Guard, Indian military aircraft were on the scene, dousing the fire. And they did it for about a week or so, brought the fire completely under control and made the ship to sail, right? So that relationship is I think excellent, between the two countries’ militaries and there are high-level discussions, we see something like which is pretty much great. And also we have a maritime domain awareness concept between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Now the last time, National Security Advisors of these three countries met was 2014, believe it or not.
We haven’t even had a National Security Level, National Security Advisor level meeting for the last 5 years. Now we are determined to make that happen again. We are planning to make the NSAs meet and discuss trilateral cooperation but expanding our NDA concept maybe towards Mauritius and Seychelles on that side and Bangladesh on the Bay of Bengal so that a larger area of the Indian Ocean will be under the NDA umbrella that we have created a long time back. There again we have wasted so much of time, imagine the last meeting was in New Delhi in 2014. So we are reviving it very soon, and you will come to hear about it and come out with this collaborative and cooperative mechanism for the Indian Ocean.
You spoke about the EU success model and India as you said cannot do everything alone. If it has a partner like Sri Lanka, that would be very viable and sustainable. I was speaking to Admiral Ravindra, who is the former Chief of Defence Staff, and during the discussion it came up, why not India and Sri Lanka can build up something like a Corvette together. Do you think such defence collaboration and defence production is possible with India? Also recently, Bangladesh signed such collaboration of ship building production with India. What is your take on such things?
It is very possible and desirable to have embarked on joint ventures. This is the last two ships, the last two advanced OPVs that Sri Lanka acquired were acquired in Goa shipyard.
So, the last two advanced OPVs built for Sri Lanka were built in the Goa shipyard, so we already have defence collaboration. But yes as you said we can build the next one in Sri Lanka that would be very desirable if we can do it. Because we need to keep on engaging together, right, for common good, for common understanding, for common defence. We have to work together as a region. Yes, very much open to that idea.
Foreign Minister, as we come towards the end of our discussion, there remains a pertinent question. Could you shed light on resuming post-civil war reconciliation process with minority ethnic Tamils that appears to have stalled. Would Government intend to give Tamils a level of autonomy as stipulated in a peace agreement between the two countries?
Yeah Manish! We have to understand reconciliation cannot be enforced, reconciliation has to evolve through the society. Now we cannot forget that 11 years ago, we had a terrible conflict in this country. A terrible war in this country. Maybe 100,000 people died and our country’s progress was retarded maybe by 6 decades and infrastructure including ports, railway stations, airports, buildings were all destroyed by terrorists, by terrorism.
Now India also felt the punch. Now I mean look at the 2008 Mumbai attack, it was not very good to the Indian security apparatus. You are suffering from terrorism. So there cannot be a good terrorist and a bad terrorist. And once you are a terrorist, you are always a terrorist that is what we believe in. Now we have suffered immensely because of terrorism. And we don’t want to suffer anymore and we don’t want to promote terrorism in any form at least to see promotion of tourism in any part of the world. Because this indiscriminate use of violence for political and religious purposes is wrong. So we need to work together. Now of course our threat is different. We have religious fundamentalism or religious extremism in our country. We need to work together sharing information, sharing expertise, sharing the knowledge and mechanisms and working together and get rid of this menace. Your question was not that. Your question was about reconciliation. Now Manish, let me tell you a Sri Lankan - an average Sri Lankan, they want 5 things. They want jobs, they want a house, they want good education for their children, they want health facilities and they want security. Now security from being prosecuted because you belong to a different religion, from being persecuted because you belong to a different ethnicity. These are the 5 basic things a Tamil, a Sinhalese or a Muslim in this country have, want, right? These are the 5 basic things, right? If you really ask where reconciliation fits into that, it is much, much, much, much lower. So this reconciliation term is actually something that the politicians see especially during an election to win votes, right? And then you mentioned are we going to devolve power, right? Sri Lanka is I think maybe smaller than the smallest state in India. Or maybe the same size of Kerala maybe, right?
No, I mean the size wise, the size wise, the area wise, we are quite a small area, right? And devolving power is a very sensitive issue here. Now the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord is still in place. 13th Amendment, majority of the clauses are still in place. We have a Chief Minister, we have a Provincial Council, and we have Provincial Government. We have funds allocated to the provinces. All that is done. Only two things not done, that is, giving police power and land powers. Those two will never be given to the provinces, we can’t afford to do that, right?
But then let me ask you a question, did the 13th Amendment achieve its two key objectives 1 bringing peace to the country? No. This is talking about 1987, I don’t know whether you were born. In 1987 did we achieve peace through the 13th Amendment, the answer is no. Did we achieve the development of the two affected provinces of the provincial council, the answer is no, right? Categorically the answers to both these questions are no, negative. So we have given powers, what we need these to ensure that we meet the 5 basic requirements of all Sri Lankans.
Rather than focusing on glossy words like reconciliation and reconciliation cannot be achieved when someone is pointing a gun at you and saying because that can never be achieved. That kind of an approach is detrimental to the genuine reconciliation forces in the country.
Now take the case of the Geneva solution, right? The Geneva Solution said that you have violated human rights, you have done that, you reconcile and that is going against the reconciliation process because that is inside the nationalism of the majority people. Look, these people are trying to take their turns on us. So we are not going to do that. Let us evolve ourselves. Let us come out of the mistrust that we have in our country. Let’s treat each and every one as your own brother. It is possible in Sri Lanka because we have great religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, great four religions. So let us use the religion to reconcile, rewrite the social fabric or recreate the social fabric which is torn apart. But not by force, not through coercive action. It has to evolve from us, it has to evolve from within. Then it will be sustainable reconciliation but not through - by force.
( Unedited: Based on the interaction with BW's Manish Kumar Jha & Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary on 23 November 2020)