As part of the World Is One Global Leadership series, WION’s senior international correspondent Padma Rao Sundarji speaks to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Mr Prime Minister, thank you for talking to WION for our new World is One Global Leaders series.Sri Lanka's current coalition government came to power in 2015 promising to improve relations with closest neighbour India. They had plunged into a deep freeze under the previous government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There have been a series of high-profile visits and symbolic gestures. but some core issues remain unresolved. Colombo's growing closeness to China, for instance, is seen as a "strategic threat". What is your government doing to reassure New Delhi?
We have always been friendly with China, but not at the expense of India. We are friendly with many countries but not at the expense of others. Our relationship with India is different from that with China. What you have to look at is our relationship vis-a-vis India and not get too worried about how we are doing with China, or the UK, or anyone else. As far as we are concerned, the Sri Lankan and Indian governments do understand what's happening and we are moving closely. So if there is some uneasiness, it is the Indian media that report from their point of view. There is nothing I can do about it. We have our good defence relationships, we have our economic relationships. we are looking at a number of projects. We are looking at how India can participate in Sri Lanka's effort to develop the Trincomalee harbour together with Japan. It's being planned out by (Singapore- based company) Surbana Jarong, which is also doing Amravati in India. We are both committed to seeing the success of the Bay of Bengal as an economic area - there's a lot of potential there in the next ten years. We are working with each other on an economic and technical cooperation agreement, one that will also lay the basis for a closer relationship between Sri Lanka and the economies of the five southern Indian states which should be at least worth 500 billion US dollars. And if we all work together, that can grow to nearly a trillion US dollars. On the security side, there is very close sharing of information. There are a lot of informal contacts between your ministers and our ministers, your officials and ours. I think this has been one of the good periods of the relationship between India and Sri Lanka.
Your bilateral relationship with Beijing is your sovereign prerogative, of course. And yet, that relationship is skewered heavily in favour of China. You owe China 8 billion US dollars, i.e. a 12th of your overall overseas debt of over 60 billion dollars. Surely China's not offering you a mere hand of friendship? Surely it's more like an iron fist in a velvet glove?
I don't know why you are so worried about China. No one has offered us an iron fist, with or without a velvet glove. The bulk of the Chinese loans have been on infrastructure projects. When we were in the opposition, we argued whether some of those projects were the best options. But you have to remember that after the global financial crisis of 2007, China was one of the major players to assist a large number of countries with infrastructure development. It also helped the Chinese themselves. They send their work force out, they even send foodstuff. So I don't think you should take Sri Lanka as an exception. Many countries received assistance from China. Now there is the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in place. In fact and if at all, it is Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) who really have a special friendship, not Sri Lanka and China. Some people feel that the BRICS are trying to dominate other developing economies.So there are various views. Sri Lanka doesn't cooperate with China or Brazil even on global economy. But yes, we have taken a large number of loans from China but also from others. To repay those commercial loans is a concern.Therefore, we are now inviting foreign investment to our country.
In your southeastern port of Hambantota, you have offered Chinese companies equity in exchange for some of that debt, even land for a FREE TRADE Zone.The nearby Mattala airport, too, is being run by Chinese companies. In Colombo, you delayed the Port City Project to assure India. After all, 80 per cent of transshipments from India transit Colombo. But the Project has been recommenced and is firmly in China's hands. Surely China's 'String of Pearls' is beginning to choke Sri Lanka?
Mattala airport is run by the Sri Lanka Airports Authority (SLAA). But we thought we would call for anyone interested in running the airport jointly with the SLAA. Sri Lanka has been the hub of the Indian Ocean and even from time immemorial, Chinese ships have come to Sri Lanka on the Silk Route. Hambantota port was built with Chinese assistance. There is also an agreement that our former President Mahinda Rajapaksa initialed with a Chinese company to further develop and run operations there. All our government has done is to say that we are unable to pay the debts of the Hambantota port and will therefore be unable to proceed with it. Or, that we will have to offer it to anyone who is willing to take it up. We discussed this with the Chinese and finally persuaded their government for a debt-to-equity transfer. Some Chinese companies applied. We took the best and have got the Chinese to agree to go up to 1.5 billion US dollars to pay for their share of the Joint Venture (JV). We have 20 per cent for the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). We could take that up to 40 per cent, even 45 per cent So if anyone else in Sri Lanka wants to invest in Hambantota, we will give them the freedom to do so. But it's a JV and the JV area of the land is leased out. It will come back to us when the lease is over.The military and security aspects of the Hambantota port are in the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy. Last week, your naval authorities and ours had a discussion on this matter. We have a large amount of land in Hambantota. And we have a port. But that port must have a load to carry. which means there must be industries.The land will be invested in and leased out to any industrial estate operator. The Chinese have indicated interest in taking some of the land themselves. But just outside that area, there is another very good block of land - closer to Galle than Hambantota It is fully developed. We want to work on that together with the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation.Then, there's more land in our north-western province. We are talking to Surbana Jarong on building an industrial estate there. Even Thais have come and looked at it. So Sri Lanka is like any other country! Industrial land is held by the government and any interested investor can lease it to run their industrial estate. We like it because that means bringing in investor to the country. Even India is discussing an industrial estate in Sri Lanka.
Is that an open invitation also to India to invest in Hambantota?
Well, Indian ships can come to Hambantota, there is no problem at all. And we are already working with india. As I told you, we are developing Trincomalee port and we'd like India to participate and take a project or two there. We would also like Japan to do so.
Chinese military submarines have docked in Sri Lanka and caused annoyance to India. Mr Wickremesinghe, can you put on record through this interview to WION an assurance for India, that there will be no element of Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka's sovereign territory, at least during the remaining two years of your tenure in office ?
RW: Chinese military submarines have been coming to Sri Lanka regularly. There is only one instance which became an issue. That was under former President Rajapaksa. Chinese submarines came here and the Indian government claimed - and I think - they were not informed. Actually, it was more troublesome for us because the Chinese submarines came just when Japan's prime minister was visiting Colombo! After we formed the government, we asked the Chinese why they sent them, considering they always followed protocol? They told us that they had indeed informed the government of Sri Lanka of the time. As far as China is concerned and just like any other country, their people will come to Sri Lanka and visit us at times agreed to by the Sri Lankan authorities and at times convenient to us. But there is no defence relationship with China.
But of course Sri Lanka had a defence relationship with China, towards the end of the 30-year long civil war against the separatist terror group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). China provided a lot of military equipment and helped Sri Lanka defeat the Tigers. So are you really saying that there will continue to be occasional visits by the Chinese, but that the Indian government will be kept informed?
Actually, New Delhi is aware that there will be visits by the Chinese and other countries and that normal practices will be followed in all cases.
In your address to a recent counter-terrorism conference, you said that the greatest "challenge" to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) comes from "non-state-actors". Whom do you mean in Sri Lanka's case?
We had non-state actors. we had the LTTE's 'Sea Tigers.' Even the latest Australian defence studies say that non-state actors are going to be the biggest issue. It's already happening off the waters of Somalia. And it can keep increasing because the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean are the most vital economic waterways of the world.
But the "Sea Tigers" are a thing of the past...
Sure, but pirates are now using new technology. Look at the attack on the Saudi ship off the coast of Yemen. It was completely new technology. It was probably an automated boat run by robotics. So the Sea Tigers may have disappeared, but the Somali pirates are there. Piracy is becoming much easier. And the most vulnerable in this region are the high seas.
Sri Lanka has 21.2 million Muslim citizens. After Hindus, they are your country's second largest minority. Your justice minister recently told your parliament that 31 "elite Muslims" from Sri Lanka have joined the Islamic State (IS). There is growing radicalization in the Maldives. And at least by the time Osama Bin Laden was located and killed in Pakistan, it should be clear to all that that country is the 'epicentre of terrorism". India, most of all, is a victim of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. But Pakistan, too, is Sri Lanka's close ally and supplied weapons to help you defeat the LTTE. You met Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif recently. Surely you expressed your concern over that country hosting globally banned Islamist terror groups like the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)?
I met Mr Sharif only for a very short time on the periphery of a conference in Davos. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the vast majority of our Muslims work together with other Sri Lankans. Yes, there were those who went to IS in Syria. Some have been killed. We have traced the others and are speaking to their families. we are speaking with their families. The latest message we are receiving from those men is that they are trapped and there is a lot of pressure on them as Iraqi, Syrian and other forces advance.
The Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 still seems relevant to New Delhi, at least on two counts. The first is on the promise of maximum autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils in - and a merger of - your Northern and Eastern Provinces. The 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution to bring that about was co-authored by India. But your own Tamils say that very little progress has been made to implement that amendment, even by your government. Millions of Sinhalese Sri Lankans in the southern part of your country are staunchly opposed to it. Is this 30-year-old amendment now itself outdated and in need an amendment?
Not really. We have a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. At the moment, there is a steering committee, we are discussing devolution. But may I tell you, every provincial council in Sri Lanka wants more power. At the moment, the division seems to be more between Colombo's parliament and all our provincial councils! It's not just a Tamil-vs Sinhalese issue, it's a centre-vs periphery issue. But we have to be realistic as to what can be given so we are discussing it. We are a democratic country.
But is New Delhi also being flexible about the 13th Amendment?
Yes, there has always been flexibility. We appreciate that.
The other aspect of the Accord relevant to India is the right an appendix grants New Delhi to develop Trincomalee port and a free trade zone there. But you say you have already awarded that development to the Singapore-based company, Surbana Jarong. Further, there is discord over 31 oil tanks that were leased out to the Indian Oil Corporation through another bilateral agreement signed in 2003. You were PM then yourself. Now, your government is asking for them to be returned.
You are all behind times. Trincomalee port is a Sri Lankan port. And in the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, we said we would not do anything prejudicial to the security of India. Surbana Jarong are the town planners in Trincomalee, just like in your Amravati. In fact, AP CM Chandrababu Naidu and I have remarked on how good that company is. So, we can engage whomsoever we want, to plan Trincomalee and we happen to have engaged one that is also planning out in Andhra Pradesh. As far as the Indian Free Trade Zone is concerned, yes. We have said we welcome India. And once India's areas are allocated and they are ready, we would like to have a free trade zone. And maybe India - or some other country - could operate hotels there. Right now, it's a zone in planning - where are the industries going to be located, where the tourism belt, how we are going to dispose of waste, etc. We are also asking the Japanese to be a part of it. Indian Oil Corporation is currently looking at the feasibility of a refinery to be run jointly with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). We should then be able to also refine petroleum to sell to India and others. Once that decision is taken, we'll know about the oil tanks. But I think remaining issues on the oil tanks have been settled between the two governments.
But Mr Wickremesinghe, you make it sound as though all were hunky-dory between India and Sri Lanka. The Free Trade Agreement, for one, is still stuck over a raft of issues. Primarily it is the fear in minds of Sri Lankans that India's millions will invade the island and take away all your jobs. And yet, that's exactly what seems to be happening through your relationship with China, the world's most populated country. Chinese already enjoy a sprawling presence all over your small island-nation. Sri Lankans working with Chinese companies say they are obliged to learn Chinese and even follow China's, not Sri Lanka's labor laws. Critics in your own country say there is a quasi-colonization of Sri Lanka by China underway. The irony is that China is not even culturally, linguistically, historically and religiously linked to Sri Lanka like India is.....
I don't think we have to bring China into all these things. There isn't a sprawling Chinese presence here either - there are more Indians. But certainly, Mode Four is not part of free trade agreements, either with India or with any other country. The usual negotiations are taking place with India. But also with China, Singapore. We just finished talks with the European Union (EU) and will enter the next round.
The opposition faction under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is appalled at your government becoming a co-signatory to a US-sponsored resolution for investigation into alleged human rights violations by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces during the final stages of the civil war. There is widespread confusion among ordinary Sri Lankans on whether the international community will continue to insist - and Colombo will be pushed to relent - over involving foreigners in that investigation. How could Colombo possibly have joined hands with countries, many of whom have themselves sheltered and nurtured the separatist LTTE for several decades?
Yes, we co-sponsored resolution 30-10215 and have gained a longer reprieve for two further years to sort out issues. In that resolution, there is provision for us to use expertise from abroad - legal opinion, judges, etc. - wherever we think it necessary. But like in India, foreign judges cannot sit on a bench in Sri Lanka. And on policy matters and like all South Asian countries including India, Sri Lanka will not join the International Criminal Court in Rome.
First, the encounter with an LTTE operative 'Gobi' and his men and the subsequent unearthing of caches of weapons in the Northern Province some years ago. And more recently, the plot to assassinate your moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, Mr M A Sumanthiran. Is the LTTE on the rise in Sri Lanka again? Or and like you often accused your predecessor government of doing, are these merely 'engineered' rumours to justify the continued presence of the armed forces in the former war zones even eight years after the war ended?
The LTTE has been wiped out. There may be some small groups being used by others. And the numbers of the army in the North are being reduced gradually.
Former LTTE rebel Karuna has founded a "Tamil Freedom Party" in Batticaloa, while another former Tiger has just started a 'Rehabilitated Liberation Tigers Party" in Trincomalee. After 30 years of a debilitating war against the separatist LTTE in which more than 120,000 people were killed, how can the election commission of sovereign and united Sri Lanka possibly register party names containing words like 'Tamil Freedom' and "Liberation Tigers' all over again?
That has been questioned by some people but finally it's up to the election commission. There are no words that are banned, as such. At one stage, the LTTE was a prohibited name though....
You have you have pointed out the strategic importance of Sri Lanka's location in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) But many countries like Japan, India and the United States conduct routine joint naval exercises here. One just concluded in Hambantota. But all three countries I mention have territorial and other disputes with China, which is sprawling in the IOR and whose One-Belt-One-Road initiative Sri Lanka is part of. From your long years of political experience, what do you see in the region in future? Cooperation ? Or confrontation?
I think there will be cooperation.
between all countries?
Between all countries.
Including India and China?
Yes! There is already cooperation between India and China.
Mr Prime Minister, a very last question. What is your personal equation with India's PM, Narendra Modi?
I have known him for a long time. In fact, I've kept in touch with him since his days as Chief Minister of Gujarat, when no one thought he would be the prime ministerial candidate. We continue that acquaintance and friendship.