India is expected to announce increased development assistance to Sri Lanka during the first visit of its new President Maithripala Sirisena in a measure to strengthen ties with his month-old government. Sirisena arrived in New Delhi on Sunday on his first foreign visit since taking office on 9 January. During his four-day visit, he will hold talks with the top leadership—President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.
He was to be welcomed ceremonially at the presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, and Mukherjee was scheduled to host a banquet for him on Monday. The visit is seen as offering an opportunity to both sides to rescript bilateral ties after a period of frosty relations due to former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s perceived tilt toward India’s strategic and economic rival China.
“There are symbolic as well as substantive dimensions to this visit,” said C.U. Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank. As far as the political dimension goes, from India’s point of view, Sirisena’s moves to re-integrate the Tamil minority into his country’s political mainstream and India’s concerns vis-a-vis Sri Lanka’s closeness to China were the key elements to address, he said.
“Sri Lanka is also the most viable candidate to take forward India’s ideas on regionalism,” said Bhaskar, referring to India seeking closer integration with South Asian countries under Prime Minister Modi. “Sri Lanka has a fairly vibrant economic potential and stands to benefit if engaging with India,” he said.
Former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka was of the view that the Sirisena visit was aimed at “restoring the excellence that existed in the India-Sri Lanka relationship during Rajapaksa’s first term in office”, between 2005-2010. Setting the stage for the visit, Sri Lanka last week released 87 Indian trawlers in its custody and India reciprocated by releasing 22 Lankan fishing boats. The first signs of a turnaround in ties came when Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera arrived in New Delhi on 17 January, less than a week after being appointed to his post.
A person familiar with preparations for the visit said India could announce an increase in development assistance to Sri Lanka. India is engaged in a number of development cooperation projects in the island nation, including a $270 million project to build 50,000 houses for Tamils displaced by 30 years of civil war, which ended in 2009. “A first visit is always an opportunity to set directions. President Sirisena will be welcomed warmly in Delhi. We expect substantive talks; we expect outcomes in terms of agreements, in terms of frameworks and in terms of announcements,” external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.
India had been wary of Sri Lanka’s growing closeness to China with investments flowing from that country into the island nation, which has traditionally been closer to India. Analysts say one reason for Sri Lanka’s growing closeness to China was that Beijing was prepared to ignore allegations of grave human rights abuses committed by Sri Lankan forces in the war to end the Tamil insurgency in 2009. Jayatilleka, the former Sri Lankan diplomat, noted that Sirisena, who belongs to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and is seen as from the “old school of thought”, was likely to look towards Asia for economic and political partnerships, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and foreign minister Samaraweera—both from the United National Party—were likely to look towards the West for the same.
It is significant that Sirisena’s first visits are to India in February and China in March while those of Samaraweera were to India in January and Washington via London in February, he said. Rajapaksa’s reluctance to bring Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils into the political mainstream after the end of the civil war was also a reason for the undercurrent of tension between India and Sri Lanka. On his part, Sirisena has reached out to the Tamils—appointing some to key positions including that of chief justice of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court. “We desire a peaceful, stable Sri Lanka in which all Sri Lankans live in harmony and in peace. This is not new; we have reiterated it previously and have indicated this in our previous conversations with the Sri Lankan government. Now, if your question is that ‘would this issue figure in the talks, my answer to that is, yes’. This is an important issue. We will discuss issues relating to reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka,” external affairs ministry spokesman Akbaruddin said.