We are just concluding a week of twin events with great significance for Sri Lanka. The first was the very successful visit by President Maithripala Sirisena to the UK for the annual Commonwealth Day celebrations, and the other is the current official visit to Sri Lanka of Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.
President Sirisena's visit to the UK as the current Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth was an important step in bringing Sri Lanka back with good grace to the community of nations; after the policies of the previous government that broke many bridges of understanding that Sri Lanka had with the world, and pushed the country into growing isolation in international relations.
The discussions President Sirisena had with British leaders is also seen as a new opening for better relations with the European Union, in the context of the increasingly strained links with the EU in recent years.
It must be recalled that this is the first visit to the UK by a Sri Lankan leader after the country was elected Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth in November 2103. The political developments in the country, and the situation with regard to foreign relations and especially with the UK since then, were such that President Rajapaksa did not attend Commomnweath Day last year, which had the theme "Team Commonwealth", and also kept away from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow the same year.
One will recall here that prior to accepting the key office in the Commonwealth, he did visit the UK, very much against the advise of Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in the UK at the time, to address the Oxford University Students' Union, but had to face humiliation for him and country, when the lecture was cancelled by the Students' Union, and pro-LTTE demonstrators had a big show of their own in London.
In marked contrast, President Sirisena was warmly received in London and participated in all the events related to Commonwealth Day; had meetings with British leaders, both Prime Minister and Conservative Leader David Cameron and Opposition and Labour Pary leader Ed Miliband; and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II who is the Head of the Commonwealth.
There was no lack of opposition to President Sirisena in London, as seen by the demonstration by pro-LTTE and separatist Tamils, who had gathered near Westminster Abbey where the formal interfaith observance was held to open the Commonwealth Day events. What must be noted is that the demonstration had only about 300 persons from the British Tamil Forum (BTF), while larger Tamil organizations kept away. Interestingly, President Sirisena even waved back to the demonstrators protesting against his presence, in keeping with his own belief in democracy. These demonstrators were also heard shouting protests against Mr. A. Sumanthiran, of the TNA, who had issued a statement calling on the organizers, particularly the BTF, to respect the votes of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and call off this protest.
At his meeting with President Sirisena at Downing Street Prime Minister David Cameron, congratulated the President for the bold steps taken to lessen the tension among ethnic communities in Sri Lanka, and also expedite he reconciliation process, and other action taken to improve democracy and ethnic relations in the country.
President Sirisena told Cameron that the final report of the Presidential Commission on Missing Persons and aspects of accountability, which is a domestic inquiry, would be released by July this year, and that the Sri Lankan Juduciary could be moved by those who had any disagreements or other issues with the findings of the Commission, emphasizing on the independence of the judiciary here.
The meeting between President Sirisena was historic because this was the first time a Sri Lankan leader had been officially received at the British Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street.
He told both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, at separate meetings, that though more than five years had lapsed since ending of separatist terrorism in Sri Lanka, certain issues did remain to be resoled, and the new government was fully committed to strengthening peace, reconciliation and inter-communal harmony. He made it clear that there would be no room for international investigations into the related developments in this country.
Not surprisingly, David Caremon had in an Op-Ed piece in the Daily Mirror UK the previous day (March 10) had said: "I will encourage President Sirisena to seize this window of opportunity. The Sri Lankan government must keep up the pace on reform. Building trust by demilitarizing the North, handing more land back from the military to local communities and releasing detainees held without charge.
"And I will urge President Sirisena to deliver on his commitments to tackle the challenges that are holding Sri Lanka back. Strengthening respect for human rights, eradicating corruption, improving political accountability and ensuring the freedom of the press. These are all essential elements of a democratic, fair and functioning state. If President Sirisena can achieve his ambitious programme of reform, then I truly believe he can help to heal the deep wounds of war and rebuild this beautiful country.
"I will never forget the faces of those I met in Jaffna over a year ago. Their stories of unbearable suffering and loss will stay with me forever and continue to drive me in pushing for change. What I saw and heard also underlined why I went there in the first place: to shine a light on the lack of progress and to help bring about international pressure for reform."
This litany of hardship of the Tamils that Cameron recalled is not surprising when considering the fact that that the UK is now at the beginning of a general election campaign that will lead to polls in May this year. While accepting the new changes towards a better and stronger democracy taking place in Sri Lanka, both Cameron and Miliband have to keep in mind the Tamil voters in many electorates in the UK, with the possibility of swing voters among the Tamil expatriates there. It is, therefore, necessary to use every opportunity, including the visit of President Sirisena for the Commonwealth Day events, to carry on their election propaganda through highlighting the "plight of the Tamils" as they see it. Yet, they must also have been surprised by the poor show of the Tamil demonstrators in London last Tuesday.
Modi makes history
The visit of Indian Prime Minster Shri Narendra Modi, that is now on, is of much historical importance being the first State visit of an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in 28 years. Close neighbours as we are, conditions have prevented the State visit of an Indian leader to this country all these years, although all Sri Lankan leaders have taken our message of friendship to India on many occasions in his period.
The last State visit by an Indian leader was that of Ptrime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, at the height of tensions over the Indo-Lanka Accord under President JR Jayawardene. That was when a member of the Guard of Honor to the visiting Indian leader, displayed the majority feelings of protest at the Indian policy on Sri Lanka at the time, by attacking the visiting dignitary with a rifle butt, causing him slight injury. Not very long after that, while the ethnic conflict here was still raging, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE when campaigning for re-election in Tamil Nadu. These two instances also show the tensions that did prevail between Sri Lanka and India for many years, although there was an official aura of friendship and cordiality expressed on both sides.
The current visit of Prime Minister Modi follows the invitation extended by President Maithripala Sitrisena during his own first official visit abroad, to India, last month. From the time of his landslide victory in the parliamentary poll last year, leading the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP), Prime Minister Modi has shown a keen interest in strengthening relations with the countries of the South Asian region. He did invite the leaders of all SAARC countries for his swearing in, which was a remarkable first in foreign relations, having included Pakistan too. He has since visited other SAARC member countries, and has had telephone conversations with Sri Lankan leaders on important issues.
Many are the interpretations given by the Indian media and observers of "Modi strategies" to the current visit to Sri Lanka. One key aspect referred to is that of building India's friendship and strength in this region to counter that of China. There is also the aspect of Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean region, which is gaining increasing importance, which cannot be disassociated with the new links between India and the United States.
A report by "Bloomberg Business" on March 10, 15, said: "Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins a tour of three Indian Ocean countries today as he seeks to prevent China from establishing a military foothold in a region his nation has dominated for decades.
"Modi will visit Seychelles and Mauritius before ending the trip in Sri Lanka, the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 28 years, and where a January election produced a new government vowing to reduce dependence on China. During the stops, he’ll look to expand military as well as economic ties -- something that India had avoided until recently.
“India attaches paramount importance to strengthening relations with this region, which is vital for India’s security and progress,” Modi said in a statement today prior to his departure to Seychelles.
"India is starting to bulk up its naval forces to assert control in waters that carry most of the world’s oil trade, underscoring its growing discomfort after a Chinese submarine docked twice at a Chinese-built port in Sri Lanka last year. The visits fueled doubts that China’s strategy of building ports in the Indian Ocean was purely economic."
Sri Lankan ties
Apart from this aspect, which is now a matter of increased international interest, Sri Lanka is keen to strengthen ties with India for to build on the new opportunities for economic development through Indian investment and the sharing of benefits from the new economic and technological rise in India, as rapidly rising economy in the Asian region, and possibly a world economic power very soon.
Sri Lanka is also keen to further strengthen the very long historical and cultural ties that have existed between the two countries that has been the mainstay of relations between them through the centuries. This is shown by the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the Maha Bodhi Society, Colombo, for the presentation of the Anagarika Dharmapala Commemorative Coin; to the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura; and the unveiling of the plaque of the Jaffna Cultural Centre.
It is also significant that Mr. Modi will visit Jaffna, which is a major departure from the pogrammme for a state visit by an Indian leader. The relations between Sri Lanka and India, especially in the work of reconstruction after the defeat of LTTE terrorism, will also be seen by Mr. Modi's launch of the Mannar - Talaimanner Train Service, and visiting the site where India has assisted in building houses for the resettled people at Ilavalai in the North.
Apart from the official meeting with President Sirisena yesterday (Friday 13), Mr. Modi's Address to Parliament is of special significance in the building of stronger relations between India and Sri Lanka. He would obtain a better and personal understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka today, even in this brief visit, with his meetings with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as the TNA leadership in Jaffna.
I think it is apt to conclude this with Mr. Modi's own comment on Facebook on March 10. "I embark on my first visit to Sri Lanka with great joy and confidence and this visit will make India’s relations with Sri Lanka even stronger, in the larger interest of people between the two countries. Robust ties with Sri Lanka, signifies the importance India attaches to the South Asian neighbourhood.
"My visit comes after President Sirisena’s visit to India during which substantial ground was covered on taking our ties forward. I am eagerly looking forward to meeting President Sirisena once again.
"Our ties with Sri Lanka have stood the test of time. We have a shared history, heritage and values. And yes, both our Nations share a love for cricket!
"India is committed in its support for Sri Lanka’s development and am sure together we are going to script a golden chapter in the history of India-Sri Lanka relations."