What's changed and what hasn't: Sri Lanka PM's India trip provides insights

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa prior to a meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi
Some things don’t change. Maybe they can’t. During the current ongoing India visit of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Lankan, especially the Tamil language, media noted that in his media statement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “confident that the Sri Lankan government will realise the expectations of equality, justice, peace and respect of the Tamil people within a united Sri Lanka”. But the Sri Lankan prime minister did not mention the Tamil question in his media statement at all. Instead, he spoke of bilateral cooperation in economic, educational and skills developme­nt, and defence and intelligence gathering.


Moreover, Rajapaksa said: “I requested PM Modi to consider further assistance to expand the housing project to all parts of the island. Doing so will provide significant benefits to many Sri Lankans living in rural parts of the country.” Only those looking for it would have found it — the emphasis is on housing for all, not just for those living in the Tamil areas of Jaffna, where India has built and handed over homes to thousands of displaced Tamils.


In other words, Sri Lanka continues to deny it has a problem with its minority Tamils. India continues to insist it does and advises Colombo to do something about it.


The context


Rajapaksa’s visit comes against the backdrop of some deft moves by the Sri Lanka government. The most recent controversy was to drop last week the singing of the national anthem in Tamil on Sri Lanka’s independence day. This is not the first time this has happened. But it was a message to both the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east and the government of India that the new government had a project for Sri Lanka and would continue with it. This was to force all people of the island nation to consider themselves Sri Lankan first. India took the hint and has not reacted to the national anthem move, treating it as an internal affair of the country.


But simultaneously, last month Rajapaksa inaugurated the China-built 269-hectare Colombo mega port city, declaring it a future financial hub. He pooh-poohed fears about Sri Lanka walking into a China debt trap. India wasn’t really expecting any movement on the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (meant to correct drawbacks in the FTA and to establish an agreement on trade in services and technological exchange, taking economic and trade relations to a new level). And it did not happen during this visit. In other words, the visit strengthened a view of Sri Lanka — that while Colombo was willing to discuss politics and security with India, China would be the preferred partner in economic development.


Rajapaksa was frank about what he expected from India. He said: “I would like to reiterate what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said during his State visit that since our recent experience in April last year, we have had to re-think our national security strategies and assistance from India in this regard would be much appreciated. I thanked PM Modi for visiting Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. That visit provided us with immense strength to come to terms with the tragedy. I also appreciate PM Modi’s offer of $400 million as a credit line to enhance the economy of Sri Lanka and another $50 million credit line for our efforts in combating terrorism. We discussed how to follow up on these offers that were made during President (Gotabaya) Rajapaksa’s visit in November.”


Going forward


General elections in the island are due in August but the Constitution allows the President to dissolve parliament in March and order snap polls. Mahinda Rajapaksa is interim PM and finance minister, having been President earlier. Because his popularity, especially in the Sinhalese-dominated south of the island, is at an all-ti­me high, the expectation is that his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), will sweep the 225-member Parliament, ma­k­ing it easier to push through legislation further diluting minority rights. The current cabinet has no Tamil or Muslim representation.


One thing is certain: Unlike the past, Sri Lanka will no longer be a soft state mollycoddling its minorities and ignoring threats from them. On the other hand, the new government’s handling of the majority Sinhala Buddhists will be the challenge: Will it ackn­owledge it came to power on the back of the support of this constituency, yielding political space to them? Or will it seek to gently but surely rein in a section of political opinion that is increasingly becoming more strident? Politics in Sri Lanka promises to become more complex than it has ever been before.


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