Visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday glorified in the teachings of the Buddha and Buddhist based links between the two countries in a backdrop of grumblings in the island over his visit, seen overall as a move to further India’s economic interests in the country. Modi was the Chief Guest at the UN-backed International Vesak Day Celebrations marking the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha.
Meanwhile in the backdrop of professionals and trade unions of Sri Lanka submitting a detailed letter to the Indian Premier through the Indian High Commission in Colombo stating that the current Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ISFTA) that has been already signed between India and Sri Lanka, has been ‘almost of no use to Sri Lankan exporters,’ Modi had insisted in his interactions with Lankan President and Prime Minister that no harm will come to Sri Lanka through the envisaged Indian projects.
Despite an obvious hostility by Lankan professionals to the planned projects with India, Modi urged cooperation in the field of connectivity, trade, industry, Information Technology, energy and sharing of knowledge. He pointed out that the foundation for cooperation is quite strong given the fact that India’s development cooperation with Sri Lanka is already worth US$ 2.6 billion.
“As professionals, we cannot agree on your Government influencing the Sri Lankan Government to enter into a new Free Trade Agreement (ETCA) to include Services in addition to Trade, without taking any tangible steps to solve the existing serious issues with the prevailing ISFTA,” the letter sent to the Indian Prime Minister by the Professionals’ National Front read.
“We also wish to draw your attention to the understanding reached on the oil tank farm in Trincomalee in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed during the recent visit of our Prime Minister to your country. Currently, there is a case filed in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka requesting to declare that the occupation of the oil tank farm by Indian Oil Company (IOC) as illegal. In such a context we cannot agree with your Government forcing Sri Lanka to hand over the oil tanks to a joint venture between Sri Lanka Petroleum Corporation and Indian Oil Company (IOC) and to hand over the whole land where the oil tank farm is established including all access roads to the Indian Oil Company (IOC). We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to this,” the communiqué by the trade unions said.
In his meeting with the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesimghe, Modi had discussed cooperation in development activities including improving “connectivity” between the two countries, rekindling phobia in some quarters on road connectivity which is a highly controversial issue in Sri Lanka as Lankans fear that it might lead to Indian intrusion.
Officials however said that connectivity that was discussed was about establishing a Buddhist Pilgrimage Circuit and flight connectivity. The Indian Prime Minister had announced that he has decided to provide a direct Air India flight between Colombo and Varanasi.
The Indian Prime Minister had also assured in his discussion with the Sri Lankan President that the projects that India intends to execute in Sri Lanka would be for Sri Lanka’s benefit as per his motto – cooperation with all for the progress of all.
Touching on security, the Indian Prime Minister had stated that the security of India and Sri Lanka is “indivisible” and therefore India and Sri Lanka must join hands to ensure security in the Indian Ocean Region.
Meanwhile the Indian Prime Minister also met with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for talks. The meeting with the former president was on Rajapaksa’s request, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaks known for his recent statements of vowing to topple the government in 2017, seemed to have dispensed with his anti India sentiments as apparent by his half hour meeting with Modi in Colombo late Thursday night.
In what was described by sources as a ‘very friendly and cordial discussion,’ Rajapaksa and Modi had avoided politics and spoken about forging ‘close economic relations’ between the two countries. Significantly, contrary to general expectations, Rajapaksa had not expressed any concerns about the recent economic agreements with India which have led to protests in the country. Instead the former Sri Lankan President had dwelt on the deficiencies in the economic policy of the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government and regretted that the projects that his government had launched were now stagnant. Modi had reportedly asked Rajapaksa who is known to be close to the Chinese on the state of the stalled Chinese Hambantota port lease to which Rajapaksa had replied that the agreement was not satisfactory and the Chinese are biding their time. The meeting with Rakapaksa had concluded with the former president promising to visit India for talks.