PM Modi holds virtual bilateral summit with Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa
India on Saturday asked Sri Lanka to fully implement constitutional provisions aimed at giving more powers to Tamil-inhabited areas of the island nation even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a grant of $15 million for promoting Buddhist ties between the two sides.
Sri Lanka’s peace and reconciliation process figured in the first virtual bilateral summit between Modi and his Sri Lankan counterpart Mahinda Rajapaksa, which also focused on maritime security, countering the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the development of the strategic Colombo East container terminal.
Modi called on Rajapaksa’s new government to work “towards realising the expectations of Tamils for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka by achieving reconciliation nurtured by implementation of the constitutional provisions”, according to a readout from the external affairs ministry.
He also emphasised that implementing the “13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution is essential for carrying forward the process of peace and reconciliation”, the readout said.
At a media briefing after the hour-long summit, joint secretary (Indian Ocean region) Amit Narang said India has always stood for peace and reconciliation, “including through the full implementation of the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution” and this point was highlighted by the Indian prime minister.
The 13th amendment, an outcome of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka peace accord, is aimed at devolving more powers to the Tamil minority. Rajapaksa and his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have shied away from committing to full implementation of the amendment. They have also hinted they won’t go against the wishes of the Sinhala majority while working on any resolution in Tamil-inhabited areas.
Modi announced a grant of $15 million for promoting Buddhist ties between the two sides. The grant will be used for construction and renovations of Buddhist monasteries, archaeological cooperation, reciprocal exhibitions of Lord Buddha’s relics, and supporting the Buddhist clergy.
India will facilitate the visit of a delegation of Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims in the first inaugural flight to the sacred city of Kushinagar, which now has an international airport.
The contentious issue of the development of the Colombo East container terminal under a trilateral agreement signed by Sri Lanka, Japan and India in 2019 also figured in the talks, with Modi expressing confidence that the Sri Lankan government will take “early and decisive steps” for the early implementation of infrastructure and connectivity projects in line with existing understandings.
Narang described the discussions on this issue as “positive and constructive”, and said: “Both sides remain committed to these ventures and are working towards ensuring their implementation for mutual benefit.”
Last month, workers at Colombo port stopped work to protest what they described as the privatisation of the container terminal. They also sought a written pledge from the Sri Lankan president that the facility wouldn’t be handed over to India. The agreement on the container terminal was signed by the previous government and the current administration has put it on hold.
This was Modi’s first virtual summit with the leader of a neighbouring country, and the Indian delegation included external affairs minister S Jaishankar, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, foreign secretary Harsh Shringla. This was the Sri Lankan premier’s first bilateral engagement with a foreign leader after the victory of his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party in parliamentary elections in August, and he was assisted by foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena, fisheries minister Douglas Devananda and other ministers and senior officials.
The two sides agreed to extend an MoU on high impact community development projects by India for five years from 2020, and to continue the Indian housing project. The two leaders instructed officials to fast-track the construction of 10,000 houses in Sri Lanka’s plantation sector.
While discussing the economic impact of the pandemic, Modi and Rajapaksa underlined the need for close coordination on trade and investment and deepening the integration of supply chains. Modi expressed hope that Sri Lanka’s temporary restrictions on imports of some products will be relaxed soon.
India recently provided a $400-million currency swap facility to Sri Lanka’s Central Bank to tackle Covid-19-related disruptions, and an additional request for a bilateral currency swap of around $1 billion and the deferring of debt repayments were being discussed, Narang said. The Indian side also proposed a bilateral air travel bubble, he said, adding: “We feel that early resumption of travel will assist in their economic recovery.”
The two leaders also discussed security and defence cooperation and agreed to further strengthen cooperation on personnel exchanges and training, maritime security cooperation and India’s support to Sri Lanka in defence and security. The recent coordination by the armed forces of both sides in controlling the fire on the merchant vessel MT New Diamond, which was carrying a crude oil cargo of 270,000 MT, was acknowledged as an example of practical collaboration.