India shouldering Sri Lanka’s suffering in ‘style’

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The Sri Lankan Government is rushing to ‘refix’ the economy and the lost hopes of the status quo with the arrival of new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who has previously held the position six times. During Wickremesinghe’s 2015-2019 premiership, the international community were ‘happy’ with his balanced approach until former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa upset the apple cart by cancelling a key strategic port terminal development project; the East Container Terminal, that was assigned to the Indians and Japanese to collaborate  with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority by Wickremesinghe.

Prior to that, the Rajapaksas accused Wickremesinghe of leasing the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years, while Wickremesinghe claimed Rajapaksa had given the port to China for development but had no way of repaying the loan, so he had to ‘sell’ it to them. He also blamed the Chinese for bringing unproductive projects into the country, which the 2015 regime was unable to repay and that they are struggling with the Chinese debts among other debts.

The Canadian investor Greenlink Global Consulting Inc. came to develop the Hambantota Energy Project (HEP) concept and received exclusive rights to develop a 500-1000MW LNG infrastructure project during the Rajapaksas’ reign in 2012. The Rajapaksas chose to ignore it because they were heavily aligned with China.

When Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister in 2015, the Canadians approached him but he ignored them and handed over the development to China on a 99-year lease. Investors are still baffled as to why the two regimes turned down their offer of a USD 1.4 billion investment over 35 years of leasing. The public would not have been deprived of fuel and gas if the energy project had been completed today, the Canadian investors maintain.

New PM’s economy revival talks

Those complexities aside, the new Prime Minister Wickremesinghe held discussions with a consortium of envoys for financial assistance in a bid to recover the economy.

Yesterday (13) he met envoys of India Gopal Bagley, Japan’s Mizukoshi Hideaki, US’ Julie Chung and China’s Yi Xianliang for preliminary talks. The discussion with the Indian High Commissioner focused on measures being taken for economic recovery, with India promising to continue to assist Sri Lanka while the Japanese envoy also pledged their continued support towards stabilising the economy.  Prime Minister Wickremesinghe discussed the upcoming visit of the U.S’ treasury team with the US Ambassador. The meeting also broached on the subject of the 19th Amendment and the strengthening of the oversight committees in Parliament. The Chinese envoys expressed his willingness to continue to support Sri Lanka while also pledging to review existing assistance provided to the country. British High Commissioner Sarah Hulton is scheduled to brief London on the situation in Sri Lanka.

By India for Sri Lanka

The cumulative value of Chinese infrastructure investment to Sri Lanka amounted to USD 12.1 billion between 2006 and July 2019 and China had been in the centre in Sri Lankan politics and investments. But the Chinese projects were out of proportion and that soured Indian interest as Sri Lanka’s neighbour. 

Indian military experts have long suspected China of sowing unrest in small neighbouring countries to agitate India and exert pressure. According to news portals, first it was Afghanistan, then Sri Lanka, Nepal, and finally Bangladesh, and this is their strategy to create instability in our entire neighbouring countries.

However, the crisis-ridden country awoke with India about a year ago. Sri Lanka has been blowing hot and cold with India until recently. As the financial crisis soars, India’s unwavering support for Sri Lanka has left no room for others to enter its periphery.

India announced last week that it would send 65,000 metric tons of fertiliser for the Yala Season. India has basically ‘shouldered’ Sri Lanka’s crisis. India has been happily contributing, and no Indians have questioned their government’s transparency about the sources of funds given to Sri Lanka. When the Chinese raised a stink about fertiliser imports being halted, India offered nano fertiliser and China lost the race. India also took over China’s three hybrid energy projects and China did not fight back like the Indians did.

The next setback will come when Sri Lanka seeks a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which could stymie China’s future projects in the country. The IMF would not support loan-based projects that would trap Sri Lanka in debt. The IMF would essentially dictate terms, and China will have to remain silent unable to lend unless Sri Lanka could prove its ability to repay as per the IMF. As China moves forward with its Belt and Road Initiative, it may face challenges because Sri Lanka is a crucial part of their strategic plan.

Yohani diplomacy

India’s ‘revisit’ to Sri Lanka began on a bright note, perhaps to cheer everyone up. Enter rapper and YouTuber Yohani Diloka de Silva, and India ‘felt’ a strong need to support her. She was singing, but did not receive raving remarks despite being sensational. She told many people how, despite liking her, the local audience was not supportive enough of her music career. But she shot to fame when Amitabh Bachchan, India’s most respected veteran actor, tweeted Yohani’s song “Menike Mage Hithey.” With that tweet, she became a celebrity, and Indians flocked to meet her, resulting in mega encounters with Salman Khan, and the rest is history.

She has made India her second home and she has already recorded a song for a Hindi film, with more work on the way. Yohani has been hijacked by the Indians, just like actress Jacqueline Fernandez, who has settled in Mumbai to pursue her dreams. The Indian entertainment and music industries are powerful, and her success would reflect well on India rather than Sri Lanka. Although it is still a ‘mystery’ how a tweet from Amitabh Bachchan could accomplish all of this, India’s approach to Sri Lanka through this young singer to ‘resolve’ its bitter ties with Sri Lanka is ‘working’ to a greater extent.

Tamil Nadu all out to help

Then came the Tamil Nadu factor and the visit of K. Annamalai who is the BJP’s Tamil Nadu president. He met the Tamil politicians and shaped up the issue of the fishermen citing that they are fishermen and nothing more. He also said that Tamil Nadu is embracing all the boat people fleeing from Sri Lanka lately as economic refugees and that they are not prisoned or harassed. All on humanitarian grounds they are treating them well, he pointed out. He said similarly that Indian fishermen should be treated as traditionally they also fished around Kachchatheevu and had been supportive of the Tamils of the North and East during the war ‘on humanitarian grounds’. He pointed out that the Indian fishermen boats are confiscated and heavy fines are imposed in Sri Lanka and over 40 days fishermen are detained in Sri Lanka.  Annamalai told the Tamil Press in Jaffna, “I’ve been a cop for ten years, and we can make ‘open-and-shut’ choices and follow hard and fast rules, but that doesn’t help the fishermen’s problem. The Tamil Nadu fishermen have been slapped with huge penalties and had their boats confiscated in Sri Lanka, despite the fact that they are fathers and have children. We must act in a humane manner”.

He also made sure that Tamil Nadu sends all its relief goods to Sri Lankans and not to a particular community in Sri Lanka. Today, the Tamil Nadu Government led by M.K. Stalin is collecting loads of goodies to send to
Sri Lanka.

India caught by ‘rumours’ – struggling to explain

But when the violence struck last week many have pointed out fingers at India. Sri Lankans have been quietly noticing the interest India showing on Sri Lanka during this crisis time and the Indian High Commission received several backlash over some rumours spread on social media.

There were social media comments which alleged that India is sending troops to Sri Lanka over the 9 May unrest. The Indian Embassy noted that they categorically deny speculative reports in sections of media and social media about India sending troops. These reports and such views are also not in keeping with the position of the Government of India.  The Spokesperson of Ministry of External Affairs of India clearly stated that India is fully supportive of Sri Lanka’s democracy, stability and economic recovery.

There was another rumour that India is helping former Prime Minister flee to India or to another destination from there. On this again, the Indian High Commission released a statement, “The High Commission has recently noticed rumours circulating in sections of media and social media those certain political persons and their families have fled to India.  These are fake and blatantly false reports, devoid of any truth or substance. The High Commission strongly denies them”.

Then came another story about India not issuing visas. On this the Indian High Commisson said, “High Commission categorically denies that it or the Indian Consulates General or the Assistant High Commission of India in Sri Lanka have stopped issuing visas. In the past few days, there were operational difficulties due to the inability of our Visa Wing staff, most of whom are Sri Lankan nationals, to attend office. We are striving to return our functioning to the normal levels soon. We remain committed to facilitating ease of travel for Sri Lankans to India. Sri Lankans are welcome in India just as Indians are in Sri Lanka”.

Then again there was a news that India send a high-powered water cannon to Sri Lanka to be used on the protesters over which India said, “We have seen reports that a water cannon vehicle was imported by Government of Sri Lanka under a credit line  extended by Government of India. These reports are factually incorrect. No water cannon vehicles have been supplied by India under any of the credit lines extended by India to Sri Lanka. Credit line of USD 1 billion to Sri Lanka is intended to help the people of Sri Lanka with availability of food, medicines and other essential items required by the people of Sri Lanka in the current situation. Such incorrect reports don’t make any constructive contribution to the cooperation and efforts undertaken to address the ongoing challenges faced by the people of Sri Lanka”.

Following the 9 May riots, India issued a statement that “As a close neighbour of Sri Lanka, with historical ties, India is fully supportive of its (Sri Lanka’s) democracy, stability and economic recovery. In keeping with our Neighbourhood First policy, India has extended this year alone support worth over USD 3.5 billion to the people of Sri Lanka for helping them overcome their current difficulties. In addition, the people of India have provided assistance for mitigating the shortages of essential items such as food, medicine etc. India will always be guided by the best interests of the people of Sri Lanka expressed through democratic processes.”

But many political observers say these are these are unusual statements from India because they’re essentially denying rumours but they’re not denying anything that has been said officially.  

Twitter comments land India in hot water

There are odd tweets such as Bharat ‘supported’ Ranil Wickremesinghe is all set to take oath as PM of Sri Lanka but the tweet by Rajya Sabha MP and BJP leader Dr Subramanian Swamy and close friend of the Rajapaksas in a tweet on 11 May said In 1987 Sri Lanka’s President Jayawardane signed a pact for Indian troops to bring normalcy in the North. “We succeeded and held local elections too. But in Colombo, Premadasa took office and promptly starting financing and providing arms to the LTTE. Betrayed we withdrew IPKF”.

On Twitter, he also said that the Indian Government should send the Indian army to restore ‘constitutional sanity’ and that India “cannot allow another Libya in its neighbourhood.”

Sri Lankans have no idea how the political upheaval began with Mahinda Rajapaksa being deposed before Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whom the Sri Lankans had been after since the GotaGoGama protests. The President cornered the people from all sides and gave no choice to make a next move although the agitation will continue until he steps down.

Perhaps geopolitics and countries after Sri Lanka will learn more about who is behind the move, why SLPP politicians were forced to flee and their homes were set on fire, how the President is safe and sound, and how Ranil Wickremesinghe rose to power from nowhere. The Rajapaksas have previously blamed the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), India’s foreign intelligence agency, but who was behind the scenes this time? Sri Lanka will come to know sooner or later.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan