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Won’t allow anything harmful for India’s security: Sri Lankan foreign minister

Mar 04, 2023 10:18 PM IST

Sri Lankan foreign minister MUM Ali Sabry says the island nation’s financial condition is now in a much better position when compared with last year

Sri Lanka won’t allow any country to make the island nation a hub for anything that is harmful to India’s national security interests, Sri Lankan foreign minister MUM Ali Sabry said against the backdrop of bilateral ties taking a hit after a Chinese surveillance vessel visited Hambantota port last year.

Sri Lankan foreign minister MUM Ali Sabry. (File Photo)
Sri Lankan foreign minister MUM Ali Sabry. (File Photo)

Lauding India’s role in helping Sri Lanka cope with an unprecedented economic crisis, Sabry spoke during an interview about his government’s plans to work more closely with New Delhi to bolster economic recovery, including a proposal for settling payments in national currencies.

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Sabry also spoke about the Sri Lankan government’s efforts for devolution of powers to the Tamil minority. Edited excerpts of the interview:

Q. If you were to do a quick summation of where Sri Lanka stands now, especially with the economic problems and the rebuilding of the economy?

A. Compared with last year, March, May and July, we are in a much better position. No one can deny that, but we are not out of the woods. There are three stages of recovery – stabilisation, recovery and growth. I think we have done the stabilisation part quite well. Hopefully we can recover from there onwards. If you look at year on year, tourism is up. Exports have stabilised and our import cut worked to prevent the out-of-control balance of payment crisis. Sri Lankans in other countries have started sending their money through normal channels. For the first time during the last couple of months, we have a balance of payment in terms of foreign currencies, and the rupee had come down...to a better rate during the last seven-eight months. Things are looking good, but we are not out of the woods. Reforms are actually going to be very unpopular. People are resisting, but I think we need to communicate with them to tell them these are painful medicines which are required.

Q. Would that be one of the foremost challenges – getting the message of reforms across?

A. Yes, right now that is the biggest challenge we have. Everybody knows some of these deep-rooted economic reforms are very unpopular. People are used to the welfare system, populist policies. If you do it all of a sudden, take your foot off the accelerator and say this is the reality, you have to go back and ponder, it’s going to be difficult. That’s the single most difficult task right now. That is where we need everybody’s support.

Q. Since India has provided assurances to the IMF for the debt restructuring in Sri Lanka, how hopeful are you about moving forward on this issue?

A. Debt restructuring is a very complicated process. We have hired the world’s best, [financial advisory firm] Lazard, to help us as the financial advisors and [law firm] Clifford Chance to help us on the side of the legal structure. We are talking to all. There are three stages – the private creditors, the multilaterals and the bilaterals. [In the case of] multilaterals, we have to continue to pay them. We have been doing that despite the problems we have had. The private creditors we have suspended, we are negotiating with them, probably with a haircut, we will have to come some sort of [understanding].

But the problem had been the bilaterals. We are extremely grateful to India when there was almost a stalemate, India came forward and gave the assurances which opened the door for the others. Then, the Paris Club had always been saying they’re on board. They will support and immediately after India, within two weeks, they also came back. China has given some sort of a letter to Sri Lanka, with a copy to IMF, saying they will cooperate for Sri Lanka’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) application with the IMF, but that’s not compatible with what IMF wants. That is where the problem is. But negotiations are going on. We are directly talking to all the main partners.

India is very supportive, our executive director in IMF is from India. So everyone is very supportive and hopefully we will clinch some sort of a solution by this month because everything that Sri Lanka wanted to do, the prior action, we have done. It’s now the turn of the IMF to come out and make good on their promises and to deliver. We have done everything possible, despite it being very, very challenging and very, very unpopular.

Q. The Sri Lankan high commissioner has often talked about India’s role in the next stage of economic recovery, including greater cooperation in tourism, energy and travel linkages, connectivity. How do you plan to take this forward?

A. As a matter of policy, Sri Lanka understands the enormous potential for both countries because India is taking giant strides and we all can see that. Therefore, there is a huge opportunity for both sides to collaborate. We have been friends and neighbours and we share our civilisation together. Therefore, there’s nothing to prevent us from working together and comes from massive opportunities. We want to integrate and probably allow Indian currency to be a tradeable currency in Sri Lanka, so that more Indians could come and use it, and Sri Lankans could use it without depending on third currencies.

Q. Would it be an arrangement for settlements in national currencies?

A. You did [something similar] with Singapore and we probably want to do that.

We understand India’s potential with 300 million to 400 million Indians travelling all around. So around the corner, come and use your own currency.

Renewable energy is a great area. We are very interested in collaborating because of the kind of potential Sri Lanka has in wind and solar power. Once we generate it, Indians have the capital, the appetite and the excellent know-how with technology. We have the resources, we have the so-called raw materials, the wind and the sun. You use it and collaborate in a win-win situation, where we use the amount [of power] we want in Sri Lanka. This will reduce the cost of energy, it will spur an export-oriented economy in Sri Lanka and then the balance [power] could be exported to India. So that’s an area we are very keen to collaborate in.

Q. Are you also looking at the further development of the Trincomalee oil farm?

A. Of course, yes. We are discussing with India collaboration on the Trincomalee oil farm and identifying areas of collaboration. We could [develop it] as an energy hub and for storage, maybe a refinery. There’s a lot of potential there. Once Sri Lanka and India collaborate and link up and build people-to-people contacts, I’m sure that’s going to be a very good opportunity for both.

Q. Bilateral relations took a hit last year over the visit of a Chinese vessel to Hambantota port and some portrayed the Indian foreign minister’s recent visit to Sri Lanka as a step to reset the relationship. Has that storm blown over?

A. I think sometimes people blow some of those things out of proportion. When you work with two countries and even in a family, you will have differences of opinion, not actually disputes. This will occur. We managed to talk through and we have made it very clear we will not allow any country to make Sri Lanka a hub or a region to do anything which will be harmful for India’s national security. Concerns would be all over, but legitimate concerns we will always take into consideration. Because it’s very, very important for us. The Indian relationship is one of the most, if not the most important relationship, in our foreign policy because of the size of the economy, the neighbourhood, the kind of things we share with each other. Therefore, it’s very important for us.

But in the meantime, I am happy that a very thorough professional diplomat like [external affairs minister] S Jaishankar understands the nuances of the international world and globalisation. You have got to work with everybody. If you look at it, India and China are the biggest trading partners with all these issues. We want to work with everyone, but in the meantime, we will not allow, knowingly or unknowingly, India’s legitimate security or other interests to be undermined by anyone under the guise of anything else.

It’s a difficult job. I’m sure issues will come up but I’m also equally confident we’ll sit and negotiate and resolve those things for the greater benefit of both parties.

Q. There is a feeling in the neighbourhood because of the fraught relationship between India and China, that some of the smaller countries are being made to pick a side or to make choices. Your reaction to that?

A. I mean not necessarily at the decision-making level, but down the line some of the public opinions, busy bodies or people who do not naturally understand the complexities of diplomacy and how it works – they narrate that they have been bullied, they have been pushed. It’s not the case. The case is that in a complex situation, how do you balance things and work with everybody? What we want is absolute peace. Peace is foremost and fundamental for regional growth and we understand as a government that it is regions which develop – the European Union, the ASEAN countries, the North American countries, the Gulf countries.

India’s rising is great for the entire region. We see a huge opportunity here. Once you manufacture and cater some products, there has to be a buyer outside. It’s like the vaccine thing – until everyone is safe, no one is safe. So that’s the strategy we have. We understand geopolitical nuances. But in the meantime, it’s important we cut a very fine balance on that. We also must be smart enough to understand what is commerce, what is political interest political interest, what is security threat. That’s what diplomacy is all about. They will probably want to put their fingers in, but it cannot undermine somebody else’s [interests], particularly your neighbour’s and a neighbour who had been with us through thick and thin.

Q. India has often raised the issue of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people and you have spoken of handling these issues through a “Sri Lankan mechanism”. Where do we stand on this issue?

A. It’s a very difficult question. But if you look at it over a period of time, things have improved a lot. The Tamils have become a part of the game, collaboration has taken place. Deep-rooted suspicions, over a period of time, have been managed to ease out and people-to-people contacts have become very strong. Yet there is a group of extremists in all communities. If you look at what the Tamils in the north and east, which I visit often, and the Tamils in Colombo want – the general people want peace, opportunities, education and economic growth.

But it differs from what the Tamil politicians want. And it further differs from what the diaspora, who are hell-bent on a separate state and all sorts of nonsense, want. This problem is there. There’s a total disconnect from what we hear. As for the Tamil voices in Western capitals, they are in a salubrious environment. They don’t want to forego that. They have refused to move on from 2009. Everybody else has moved on.

This is a challenge we have, every time they do something there. They are empowering the extremists back in Sri Lanka. When they [push] anti-Sri Lankan ideologies and talk about creating a Tamil Eelam and separate state and trans-national Tamil Eelam government and all those things, they send shockwaves in Sri Lanka. So it’s not helping, but excuses are not acceptable.

Tamils need to feel they are also part of our country, a dignified environment needs to be built for them and we have done a lot of work. If you come and see the roads, infrastructure, facilities and all those things, but what we really need is the creation of business opportunities, universities, technical training, professional training, so that you uplift that community. So this is not happening. All lip service is given from the Western capitals by...some part of the diaspora, they have got into a comfort zone. They are going after the politicians. They are deciding on the fate of those politicians. Politicians are depending on them and they are totally disconnected from ground realities in Sri Lanka. Instead of that, we are inviting them, please come, go to the north and east, see what is happening. But they won’t create opportunities for them, build universities for them with vocational training, or help them to come up.

Q. The Indian side has referred to implementing the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and having elections as part of efforts to empower the Tamils. Do you have a roadmap for how to handle this?

A. I think three things should happen. Power has to be shared, that’s important. People in the periphery should be able to run their affairs without the Centre looking at all. Power has to be devolved. The 13th amendment is part of the law. We need to look at. It is little bit of a fear factor within the south, [with people] saying that if you give land, power and the police power, whether it will be a cornerstone for secession. But I don’t agree with it.

You need to win that perception because you can’t ignore the south. We need to win the south and the north to do it. The people in the west, the Tamil diaspora comes and says something [like] we will stand for Eelam. We want a separate state. We want the Tamil homeland. It helps the extremists in the south.

This is why it’s important [and] we need to go for devolution. It’s important for us. Number two, we must...remove the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it with something much more...And thirdly, we must economically empower them, and there has to be some accountability mechanism for which we have come out with a truth-seeking mechanism. We have a few institutions like the Office of Missing Persons, Office of Reparations, which are tracing the people who lost their loved ones. There’s a huge difference between the ordinary Tamils and the LTTE. Some of them are trying to legitimise the LTTE, forgetting the horrors which it created for all the people in this world and this country and even in your country. So you can’t equate Tamil grievances and LTTE.

So a three-pronged approach on that - devolution of power must take place, accountability on a Sri Lankan model within the contours of the Sri Lankan Constitution should take place. And some executive actions like releasing their lands and putting extra effort because those that’s an area we neglected for 20-30 years during the war. An additional effort needs to be made to develop that area.

Q. Virtually everybody in the region was stunned by the devastation caused by the Easter attacks. Would you say you are now at a place where you feel confident to be able to handle something like that and would you be looking at further cooperation with India on such issues?

A. Of course. On counter-terrorism, we are collaborating with India and the region. In the Colombo Security Conclave as well as with the West. I think comparatively having learned lessons from the past, we have a much better intelligence setup, intelligence collaboration and more of an active National Security Council, which has over time worked on these things. You cannot always rule it out, but comparatively, we are much more confident that kind of a coordinated effort may not take place.

But we need to be vigilant all the time. What they say is terrorists need to succeed only once, whereas law enforcement needs to be successful all the time. We have to be open minded all the time and that cannot be done alone for a small country like Sri Lanka. So Indian support, collaboration with the region, transfer of knowledge and intelligence with the West is very important and we are doing it.

Q. Nobody talks about Saarc any more as a platform for regional cooperation. You have other models such as the Colombo Security Conclave and BIMSTEC. Do you think there’s a need to ramp up these efforts to build greater connectivity since South Asia is one of the least integrated regions?

A. Which is true. Unfortunately, what has happened is most of us have become prisoners of the past. You must always learn from the past but you must plan for the future and live in the present. We have failed to do that unfortunately, but if you look at Europe, World War 1 and World War 2, it all started from there. They were fighting with each other and 20 years down the line, they managed to come together, form a union and have the same currency. Greater integration is good for everyone. I hope that South Asia will one day become better integrated and [have] prosperity for all. Rather than using your money on combating each other or planning for defence, you can put that money for the development of human indexes so that it will eventually help each other.

But I’m sure if India’s taking giant strides, with the way the economy is developing and with the way it is empowering everybody across the board, it will probably be the forerunner in taking others along. That’s how it happens all over the world... no country is capable of doing that other than India.

Q. Virtually no one wanted the last two jobs you’ve had as the finance minister and then the foreign minister. It’s also been said you were reluctant to take them on.

A. I’m a lawyer by profession, and I came in to actually reform the legal sector. I was very, very happy. I did lot of work there as the justice minister and then things changed and there was a time when the need of the hour was somebody needed to take over the finance ministry. There were no takers and it was offered to me by the former president. I gave it to the others – that anyone come, take it, we will support. That no one was taking it. But I thought at that point in time, however difficult it’s going to be, I need to take it and I’m glad. Looking back, I can always be very proud of having the courage at that time, which I can’t even imagine, that I had that. I took that and I took some decisions and laid the foundation for the recovery and we have managed to avert a greater crisis than those that happened in Venezuela, Greece, Lebanon, and we have managed to pull it back, of course with support of so many countries, particularly India, which provided us a lifeline on that. But we managed to do that and looking back I’m happy. And now I can be also happy contributing to rebuilding our relationship, which had suffered and IMF coming in and getting the Paris Club, India and China to come together and working with us. It’s a very difficult job but somebody has to do it.

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