The Sirisena government’s campaign to step up political and economic ties with the West and particularly with Sri Lanka’s Indian neighbour does not come without a price, writes Neville de Silva.
In the latter part of February, President Maithripala Sirisena made a three-day visit to Germany, the first Sri Lankan head of state to do so in 15 years. It was a significant facet in the Sri Lankan National Unity Government’s diplomatic drive to rebuild relations with the international community since coming to power last year.
The new government saw it as particularly important to revive contacts with Western nations after the country’s increasing isolation following the confrontationist approach of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration during the last seven or eight years of its rule.
The Rajapaksa government’s human rights record and the way it ended the near three-decade war with the minority Tamil separatist insurgents had antagonised the US, Canada, the UK and the majority of the European Union, which had substantial Tamil refugee populations who were urging their adoptive countries to pressure Sri Lanka to negotiate an end to the conflict.
The move to renew friendly relations with the West was crucial for two reasons. Sri Lanka needed diplomatic support to soften the growing calls from the West to haul the country before the UN Human Rights Council over alleged violations of international human rights laws and abuse of human rights by its armed forces in the last months of the Tamil conflict.
Equally, the new government was looking for Western assistance and foreign investment to ward off economic problems at home, particularly its faltering balance of payments.
The traffic was not just one way. Just as Sri Lanka’s leaders headed out west and east, Asian and Western leaders were visiting Sri Lanka. One reason was to wean the new government away from undue diplomatic and economic reliance on China, which had become the major benefactor of the Rajapaksa government.
But it was not merely relations with the West that needed rebuilding. Bilateral ties with India were at best desultory and at worst frosty, particularly because of the hardline politics in Tamil Nadu state, where rival parties were engaged in a game of upmanship, using Sri Lanka’s Tamil conflict as a political football to pressure the central government.
While today relations with the West are on an upward trajectory, ties with neighbouring India have quickly reached a level of cordiality and friendship not seen since the days when Sirima Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi were in power in Colombo and New Delhi respectively in the early 1970s.
Good neighbourly relations were key in light of India’s own interest in seeing reconciliation between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamils moving forward once the bloody conflict ended in May 2009.
In the year since Sirisena came to power, visits between Colombo and New Delhi have been unprecedented. Sirisena made New Delhi his first trip after he won the presidency in January last year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed with a visit to Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made India his first port of call after the August parliamentary election last year when his party the United National Party and Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom party formed the National Unity Government.
Last month the Indian external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was in Colombo for a meeting of the Joint Commission between the two countries. This was her third visit to Colombo since January 2015, during which she helped activate the Joint Commission that had remained dormant for three years.
However, although at the government-to-government level the picture looks bright-Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera referred to his Indian counterpart as ‘my dear friend’-at the people-to-people level things are not as cosy.
Even though the two governments have tried to paper over contentious issues, they continue to surface on both sides of the narrow Palk Strait that divides the two neighbouring states. The fact is that these problems will not go away unless serious attempts are made to deal with them head-on. Among them is the issue of poaching by Indian fishermen who cross to Sri Lankan waters and use highly damaging fishing methods which are denuding the waters and causing immense damage to the sea on the Sri Lanka side of the maritime boundary.
In its February 21 issue, Sri Lanka’s most widely read weekend English language newspaper, the Sunday Times, highlighted the latest problem in a first-hand report headlined ‘Rape of Lanka’s seas worsens’.
‘Indian fishermen [are] now resorting to deadlier “pair trawling”, damaging even SLN craft,’ wrote Anthony David, a deputy editor who had just visited the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary.
As the Sri Lankan government looks the other way, poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters in the Palk Strait has taken a serious turn with the use of ‘pair trawling’, where two steel-hull boats scrape the sea bottom.
Navy Commander Ravindra Wijegunaratne confirmed that the new method now in operation destroyed marine resources more rapidly. Earlier, the Indian fishermen had been using nets drawn only by a single trawler and that too within Sri Lankan territorial waters.
Earlier, the Sunday Times wrote about how a large number of Tamil Nadu fishing boats was on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) carrying out bottom trawling. This was during a visit to the frontal areas in the sea with a Navy patrol.
Navy patrols are under strict orders not to fire at Tamil Nadu fishing boats. However, they have been rounding up some of the poachers and seizing their boats. A Navy official said more than 80 boats were now in Navy custody and more than 1,200 fishermen had been arrested during the past two years. They have been released at various stages on the orders of the Colombo government.
Navy officials say that in addition to the severe damage caused to Sri Lankan marine resources, at least one of the Indian fishing craft had rammed a patrol boat. The Indian fishermen also manoeuvre their boats to entangle patrol craft in their nets, the Sunday Times said.
Indian fishermen and some of their associations in Tamil Nadu have accused the Sri Lanka Navy of shooting at them or harassing them, with several being arrested by the Navy and handed over to the local police.
Their counterparts on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL in turn accuse Indian fishermen of poaching in Sri Lankan waters, using methods that are causing serious damage to marine life.
On February 17 Tamilnet, a Tamil news website, reported that fisher families from over 40 coastal villages in Mannaar in northwestern Sri Lanka had staged a major protest demanding immediate action against Indian fishermen for poaching and causing serious damage to their fishing nets, resulting in their wives and daughters having to seek other jobs to earn a livelihood.
Quite often there are news reports of Indian fishermen being produced in Sri Lankan courts and being eventually released and sent back.
Politicians on both sides have been embroiled in this on-going problem, with accusations that the respective governments are sweeping the problem under the carpet, if not sinking it in troubled waters.
Meanwhile the Indian news agency PTI reported plans by Indian fishermen from eight coastal districts in Tamil Nadu to ‘lay siege’ to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission at Chennai on February 29, demanding the release of 29 fishermen from the state, who are lodged in prisons in Sri Lanka. They have also demanded the release of 78 fishing boats.
This decision was taken by the fishermen’s panchayat leaders of Nagapattinam, Karaikal, Tiruvarur, Thanjavur, Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts almost to the day when the people of Mannaar were demonstrating over the inaction of the Sri Lankan government to protect their interests and that of the island nation.
‘Seventy-eight fishing boats have been seized by Sri Lankan naval personnel in 2015 and have not been released yet. The boats are valued at between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 30 lakh each, depending on their size,’ the report said.
Fishermen’s associations have been organising a series of agitations since January 26, demanding immediate action by the Union Government, said Rajendran, a panchayat leader.
On January 29, they resorted to road and rail blockade at Karaikal. They also laid siege to the port in that city. However, it did not yield any positive result and so a decision was taken by fishermen to ‘lay siege’ to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission at Chennai on February 29, Rajendran told PTI.
‘If that agitation also fails to get back the fishermen and boats, we will intensify our agitation statewide,’ he added.
Writing in the Colombo Telegraph, commentator Rajiwa Jayaweera was critical of the attempt of the two governments to relegate this issue to the backburner.
He said that news of the recently held India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission ‘trickling into the public domain appears to be grim and very unfavourable to Sri Lanka. The single most important bilateral issue between Si Lanka and India, namely poaching by Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan territorial waters, has supposedly received a one-line mention in the minutes of the meeting’, which had ‘supposedly been prepared in Delhi and sent to Colombo for comments, rather than being prepared by the host nation and sent to the visitors for comments. The minutes, covering a gamut of issues consisting of around four dozen paragraphs, supposedly devotes one sentence to the poaching issue. It is understood that words such as “Bottom Trawling”, “Poaching” and “illegal fishing”, necessary to describe this important issue, have been scrupulously avoided in the minutes prepared in Delhi. If this be the case, it can only be assumed the Sri Lankan delegation led by our foreign minister has once again failed to impress upon the Indians the importance of this particular issue from a Sri Lankan perspective,’ Jayaweera wrote.
‘The need for close and friendly relations with India, without acting in a manner detrimental to their security, cannot be disputed and is essential for Sri Lanka’s own survival. However, the need to conduct relations with mutual respect without capitulating to Indian suzerainty cannot be overemphasized,’ he concluded.
In fact the only reference to the fishing dispute contained in the statement issued after the Joint Commission meeting was a terse one-liner: ‘Both sides agreed to find a permanent solution to the fishermen issue.’
The Sri Lankan fisheries minister was invited to visit India in this connection and the invitation has been accepted.
If the fisheries dispute is causing much concern between Sri Lanka’s Tamil fishing community in the north and Indian Tamil fishermen in the south, there is a much more fundamental issue that has led to an intense political debate between the government and the opposition and among professionals in Sri Lanka.
This is the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) set to replace an earlier Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), which was a sequel to the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) agreed to in 2000.
In December last year Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament that his government will not sign the CEPA with India but is looking to enter into a pact on economic and technology collaboration with New Delhi.
In fact the Joint Commission makes reference to this in its statement: ‘Discussions took stock of the preparations underway on both sides to begin negotiations on the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement. Preliminary discussions were held during the 4th Commerce Secretary level talks in New Delhi on 21 December 2015.’
Among the fears expressed by a section of the political opposition and some professional bodies is that Sri Lanka could be swarmed by Indian businesses and professionals, depriving the local people of jobs and threatening indigenous enterprises.
In a strongly worded statement the Joint Opposition in parliament, which supports former president Rajapaksa, last month called on the business community, professionals and the public to oppose the ‘foreignisation’ of the Sri Lankan economy.
Arguing that the government has not revealed the provisions of the new agreement, the Joint Opposition demanded that the draft agreement be tabled in parliament. It said that CEPA had agreements on trade in goods, an agreement on trade in services and an agreement on investment. The opposition said that while ECTA had the same components, it has no specific provisions relating to any of these areas and the specifics are to be worked out only after the agreement is signed.
‘An economic and technical pact with India will make sense if Sri Lanka can obtain from India some technical or economic input which Sri Lanka cannot provide for itself, such as for example in the automotive, chemical or pharmaceutical industries. However the present government seems to be intent on handing over to the Indians what can easily be done by locals,’ the opposition charged.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva, an economist by training, refuted charges that the ECTA would lead to Sri Lanka being flooded by Indian nationals.
‘Indian interior designers can’t just come to Sri Lanka and start businesses, doctors can’t just come here and open up dispensaries. There is no such clause in the proposed agreement,’ he Silva told a news conference.
He noted that there are differences between the two countries, as India had a comparatively large economy compared to Sri Lanka, and therefore the agreement will look at developing important sectors such as technology services among others, via ECTA.
De Silva noted that in the event there was a dearth of, say, dockyard workers or ship repair workers, then the ECTA can be used to resolve this issue. ‘Other than that, it is not like we are opening the gates and welcoming them with open arms and asking them to come work here,’ he added.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe called opponents of the pact with India ‘traitors’.
‘Those who are against this are traitors because they want us not to find employment for the youth,’ he said during a recent visit to southern Hambantota, the heart of Mahinda Rajapaksa country where the Chinese have built a new port and an international airport which is hardly in use.
Wickremesinghe said investment by the Chinese in Sri Lanka would be useless without having a vast market like India.
‘We need to tap into bigger markets to create employment. My government has the mandate to create jobs,’ he said, adding that he had a sufficient majority in parliament to push through the agreement.
That might well be so. But out in the open there are those spoiling for a confrontation. Already in recent weeks doctors’ unions and several employees’ organisations have taken to the streets in opposition to a pact with India.
As though Sri Lanka does not have enough problems as the new government tries to steady the ship and keep the economy afloat, more protests against the pact are likely to erupt in the coming days.
The pro-Rajapaksa opposition needs a weapon that could rouse nationalist sentiments to beat the government with as state investigators close in on the cronies of the previous government with charges of corruption and fraud.
So let the battle begin.