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Colombo will not abandon Beijing, say experts

Even as India recognizes the transformative potential of the Sri Lanka elections, and waits to warmly welcome the new foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera on Sunday, experts have warned that India must not expect that Colombo will ‘abandon China’.

world Updated: Jan 15, 2015 23:11 IST
Prashant Jha

Even as India recognizes the transformative potential of the Sri Lanka elections, and waits to warmly welcome the new foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera on Sunday, experts have injected a note of realism. They have warned that India must not expect that Colombo will ‘abandon China’, and advised that the new government be given breathing space to work out the ‘national question’.

Delhi was unhappy with the previous president, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s efforts to woo Beijing, and there is hope this will change. JNU professor emeritus S D Muni, who has been awarded Sri Lanka’s highest award for non-nationals, said “Colombo cannot and will not abandon China. Beijing has a lot of economic promise and if everyone is engaged with them, Colombo too will do so.” Sri Lanka also owes large debts to China.

What will change is that the new regime will be more cautious. “Projects that evoke sensitivities within Sri Lanka, in the neighbourhood and outside will be vetted more carefully. The Maritime Silk Road will be played down; government will go slow or redefine Colombo Sea Port.” The larger onus was on India, Muni said, to devise ways to cope with China in South Asia.

Delhi’s strategic community is heartened by President Maithripala Sirisena’s outreach to Tamils with moves such as replacing a former military general with a civilian as governor in the Northern Province. Alok Prasad, former ambassador to Sri Lanka, said that movement on the 13th amendment; reducing army presence in the north; an internal, honest, credible enquiry into what happened in the final days of the war are other steps which could be taken.

But Sirisena also has to take along his Sinhala base. Major General (retd) Ashok Mehta, who served in the IPKF mission, said India should ‘play it cool, leave it for the time being, and remind the government of Rajapaksa’s promise of demoblisation, demilitarization, democratisation and devolution’. Prasad agreed, “If we get too involved, it will be the kiss of death. We are in touch with all parties and shades of political opinion, and can encourage them quietly.”

C Raja Mohan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation felt India should work with international human rights organisations to give Colombo some time and space. “Perhaps the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva should note the positives and suspend the debate on the annual resolution on Sri Lanka this March, and let the country debate this internally.”