Modi arrives in Colombo on landmark trip, to steer Sri Lanka away from China

  • Agencies, Colombo
  • Updated: Mar 13, 2015 08:28 IST

Narendra Modi began the first official visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in nearly three decades on Friday, looking to reassert New Delhi's influence over Colombo after its drift towards China.

Modi reached the Sri Lankan capital Colombo early on Friday during which he is expected to hold talks with the country's top leadership only weeks after Sri Lanka's newly-elected leader Maithripala Sirisena made India his first port of call as president.

PM Modi was received by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe at the airport after he arrived in Colombo for a two-day visit at 5.25am following an overnight journey from Port Louis in Mauritius in a special Air India plane.

Sri Lanka is the final stop of his three-nation tour of Indian Ocean island nations that took him to Seychelles and Mauritius.

PM Modi, who is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Lanka in 28 years, will hold summit talks with Sirisena. He will also hold talks with Wickramasinghe.

"I see this visit as an opportunity to further strengthen our relationship in all its dimensions - political, strategic, economic, cultural, and
above all, people to people contacts," he had said in his pre-departure statement.

Modi will also address the Sri Lankan Parliament during his visit.

He will then travel north on Saturday for a landmark visit to the Jaffna peninsula, home to the island's Tamil minority and which bore the brunt of a 37-year separatist war in which India was intricately involved.

Taming Chinese influence

While observers don't expect major policy initiatives so soon after the neighbouring leaders' last meeting, it is nonetheless seen as an important signal of a desire to reset sometimes troubled ties.

Modi is expected to push for demilitarisation in the former war zone and more autonomy for minority Tamils who share close cultural and religious ties with those across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu.

Although Sri Lanka lies just across the water, Modi will be the first Indian prime minister to hold bilateral talks in Colombo since 1987 although several predecessors attended regional summits.When Rajiv Gandhi visited in 1987, the then premier was famously assaulted with a rifle butt by a Sri Lankan naval rating while inspecting a guard of honour.

Gandhi had gone to sign a bilateral pact which sought to end a guerrilla war by Tamil separatist rebels who had effectively enjoyed a safe haven in India since the mid 1980s.

The main rebel group, the Tamil Tigers, repudiated the peace accord and India ended up fighting the militants they had once trained and armed.

Around 1,140 Indian soldiers lost their lives during the 32-month deployment in Sri Lanka and Gandhi himself was assassinated in 1991 by a woman Tiger suicide bomber while campaigning in Tamil Nadu.

After the war ended in 2009, bilateral relations remained strained and Sirisena's predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa caused unease in New Delhi by forging close ties with Beijing.

India, which traditionally regarded Sri Lanka as within its sphere of influence, was furious last year when Rajapaksa allowed two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo.

Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka built up steady debts as Beijing funded a string of major construction projects.

Since his loss to Sirisena in a January election, the pendulum has swung back towards India with the new president making attempts to renegotiate the terms of some loans.

Sri Lanka's new rulers last month also ordered a suspension of China's biggest investment project, a $1.4 billion new city on reclaimed land just next to Colombo's main sea port.

Mangala Samaraweera, Sirisena's foreign minister, has said that while Colombo wants to retain good relations with China, "we will not go overboard like the Rajapaksa regime".

Charu Lata Hogg, a Sri Lanka expert at London's Chatham House think-tank, said there were signs of "a recalibration in its previous relationships with China in favour of improved ties with the West and India".

Modi is expected to finalise energy and construction deals, including funding for Sri Lanka's creaking railways.

In Jaffna

He will also lay the foundation stone for a cultural centre in battle-scarred Jaffna where he is expected to receive a rapturous reception.

He will be only the second foreign leader after British Premier David Cameron since independence to visit the region, where India is seen by locals as a crucial protector against the dominance of the ethnic Sinhalese majority.

Modi will also hand over homes built with the help of Indian assistance. Some 20,000 such homes were built in Jaffna described by India as "a flagship cooperation project currently in Sri Lanka".

Beijing was a key defender of Sri Lanka at international fora when Rajapaksa came under criticism over its rights record and allegations that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed at the end of the war.

Modi's predecessor, Manmohan Singh, pointedly shunned a Commonwealth summit hosted by Rajapaksa in 2013 over the treatment of Tamils.

He is also expected to meet leaders of the Tamil National Alliance and other political parties.

PM Modi is accompanied by national security advisor Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S Jaishankar.

(With AFP and PTI inputs)

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