India offers Sri Lanka $450mn line of credit
Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Friday assured Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India will remain a “top priority” and no “third force” will hamper bilateral cooperation, people familiar with their discussions said, even as New Delhi announced fresh aid worth $450 million for Colombo.
Rajapaksa’s decision to visit New Delhi just 10 days after becoming president is significant in view of the intense competition between India and China in the Indian Ocean region. India had dispatched external affairs minister S Jaishankar to Sri Lanka within a day of Rajapaksa assuming office to invite him for a visit.
Following his talks with Rajapaksa, Modi announced that India will give Sri Lanka a $400-million line of credit to boost infrastructure and development, and offered another $50 million to fight terrorism and enhance intelligence gathering. The security aid is significant in view of the April 21 suicide attacks in Sri Lanka by Islamic State-linked terrorists that killed 258 people.
The people cited above said Rajapaksa gave an assurance that India “will remain his top priority” and he wouldn’t allow any “third force” to come in the way of bilateral cooperation. The two leaders held one-on-one talks that lasted an hour and were followed by delegation-level talks, and the people described the discussions as “free and frank”.
There was a “meeting of minds” between the two sides on the issue of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, especially relations between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. While sharing the priorities of his government, Rajapaksa told the Indian side he would be the president of “all Sri Lankans, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or voting choices”, said a person who declined to be named.
In this regard, Rajapaksa said he wants India’s cooperation for the economic development of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern regions, which have a sizeable Tamil population, the people said.
The Sri Lankan leader appreciated India’s offer to cooperate in counter-terrorism and expressed interest in training and intelligence-sharing, they added.
In his media statement after the meeting, Modi said: “A stable, secure and prosperous Sri Lanka is not just in India’s interest but also in the interest of the entire Indian Ocean region.”
He added, “The security and development of our two countries are inseparable. Therefore, it is natural we should be aware of each other’s safety and sensibilities.”
Modi, who visited Sri Lanka after the Indian elections to express support for the fight against terrorists, said New Delhi expected action from the world community against other forms of terrorism, including cross-border terror. He said he had detailed discussions with Rajapaksa on strengthening mutual cooperation against terror.
Noting that the two leaders had “extremely cordial and reassuring” discussions on several issues, Rajapaksa said: “Among these, cooperation in regard to the security of our two countries took priority. India has always assisted Sri Lanka to enhance our capabilities in intelligence and counter-terrorism and we look forward to continued support in this regard.”
Thanking India for offering $50 million to enhance the capabilities of Sri Lanka’s intelligence agencies, he added, “Since our recent experience in April this year, we have had to rethink our national security strategies and assistance from India in this regard would be most appreciated.”
Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa said, will continue to work closely with India to ensure the Indian Ocean remains a zone of peace.
On the issue of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, Modi said Rajapaksa had spoken about “his inclusive political outlook on ethnic harmony”. He added, “I am confident the government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation to fulfil the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect.”
Modi also raised the issue of Indian fishermen, mainly from Tamil Nadu, detained by Sri Lanka for crossing the maritime boundary. He said, “We agreed we will continue with a constructive and humane approach in this matter.”
The people cited above said Rajapaksa “went the extra mile” on this issue. Rajapaksa also announced he would release all Indian fishing boats in Sri Lanka’s custody.
Modi said the two sides had agreed to speed up the use of a previously announced $100 million line of credit for solar projects in Sri Lanka. There was also good progress in building 14,000 houses for Tamils of Indian origin in the up-country region, and the two sides discussed 20 community development projects and other people-centric projects being implemented with Indian grants.
Rajapaksa, 70, won the November 16 election with a promise of bolstering the economy and security, but he and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, have had a rocky relationship with New Delhi in recent years. During his two terms as president, Mahinda was perceived as being close to China and Colombo secured almost $7 billion in loans from Beijing. In 2015, Mahinda had alleged India’s spy agency was behind his defeat in the presidential election.
The people cited above said India’s decision to proactively reach out to President Rajapaksa was based on New Delhi’s recent decision to work closely with the leaders chosen by people of neighbouring countries, irrespective of past differences.