Breaking a 28-year-long hiatus, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday embarked on an important visit to Sri Lanka with the message that India favoured a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity for Tamils in its “new journey” of peace and reconciliation.
The first prime minister to visit the island after Rajiv Gandhi’s trip in 1987 after which the bilateral relationship had undergone several twists and turns while cash-rich China made its push, Modi met President Maithripala Sirisena and expressed his “admiration” for his efforts to build an inclusive future for Sri Lanka.
However, he made it clear that “unity and integrity” of Sri Lanka that fought a three decades of war for a separate Tamil Eelam with LTTE “are paramount” for India.
“It is rooted in our interest. It stems from our own fundamental beliefs in this principle,” he declared in his address to Sri Lankan Parliament.
The two leaders met at delegation level after which four agreements that included easing of visa regulations were signed.
Reflecting their desire to give a push to their economic ties, the two countries also took steps to simplify trade and reduce non-tariff barriers on both sides under an agreement on customs cooperation.
At a joint press meet later, the Prime Minister himself referred to the significance of the visit, saying it “helps us understand each other better, finds solution to mutual concerns and move our relationship forward.”
On his part, President Sirisena said, “We have seen the weakening of links between the two countries at different times of rule (in both countries). This is the reason why it took 28 years for an Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka.”
Voicing India’s support to efforts to build a future that accommodates the aspirations of all societies including Tamils for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Lanka, the Prime Minister said, “We believe that early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it would contribute to this process.”
Modi, who had discussed the fishermen’s issue - a major irritant in bilateral ties - with Sirisena, said this complex question involves livelihood and humanitarian concerns on both sides.
“This complex issue involves livelihood and humanitarian concerns on both sides. We should handle it from this perspective. At the same time, we need to find a long term solution to this issue,” he said in remarks that assumes significance following Premier Ranil Wikcremasinghe’s controversial statement last week that intruding Indian fishermen would be shot by Sri Lankan Navy.
India has already conveyed its displeasure over the remarks when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Colombo last week. Modi suggested that fishermen’s associations of India and Sri Lanka should meet at the earliest to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. It can then be taken forward by both governments.
In his address to Parliament, Modi said, “Sri Lanka has lived through decades of tragic violence and conflict. You have successfully defeated terrorism and brought the conflict to an end.
“You now stand at a moment of historic opportunity to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society.”
Noting that recent elections in Sri Lanka have reflected the collective voice of the nation the hope for change, reconciliation and unity, he said the steps that the government has taken in recent times were bold and admirable.
“They represent a new beginning. I am confident of a future of Sri Lanka, defined by unity and integrity; peace and harmony; and, opportunity and dignity for everyone. I believe in Sri Lanka’s ability to achieve it,” Modi said to thumping of desk from MPs.
Modi, who was received at the airport by Wikcremasinghe on his arrival to this island nation before dawn on the third and final leg of his three-nation tour, said he was conscious of the significance of his visit, noting that it is the first standalone bilateral visit to Lanka by an Indian Premier.
Sirisena in his remarks said Sri Lankan government and its people are so fortunate that the Indian Prime Minister came to visit the country, calling it a “blessing”.
Modi also announced a fresh line of credit and an enhanced currency swap agreement besides offering Indian assistance to develop Trincomalee town as a petroleum hub.
“People are at the heart of our relations. We have taken a number of decisions to encourage people to people contacts, improve connectivity, and increase tourism,” Modi said.
The Prime Minister said India will extend the facility of ‘Tourist Visa on Arrival - Electronic Travel Authorisation’ scheme to Sri Lankan citizens from the Sinhala and Tamil New Year on April 14 this year.
He also announced that Air India will soon start direct flights between New Delhi and Colombo.
Modi said India will cooperate in developing a Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka and a Buddhist Circuit in India. It will also organise a ‘Festival of India in Sri Lanka’ this year.
“Sri Lanka is where Buddhism has truly flourished. We will be organising an exhibition showcasing our Buddhist heritage as part of the festival,” he said.
Modi said a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in youth affairs is an important long term investment in bilateral ties.
Coinciding with Modi’s visit, Lanka IOC, an Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) subsidiary and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation agreed to jointly develop the Upper Tank Farm of the China Bay Installation in Trincomalee on mutually agreed terms.
“A Joint Task Force will be constituted soon to work out the modalities. India stands ready to help Trincomalee become a regional petroleum hub,” Modi said.
The Prime Minister also said the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka have agreed to enter into a Currency Swap Agreement of USD 1.5 billion to help keep the Sri Lankan rupee stable.
The currency swap agreement to help keep the Lankan rupee stable earlier involved USD 400 million.
Announcing a fresh Line of Credit of up to USD 318 million for the Railways sector, Modi said this will be used to procure rolling stock, and to restore and upgrade existing rail track.
India will also establish a Rabindranath Tagore auditorium at Ruhuna University in Mantara.
In his address to Parliament, Modi said that the Indian Ocean is critical to the security and prosperity of the twocountries. The two nations can be more successful in achieving these goals if they work together; build a climate of trust and confidence; and remain sensitive to each other’s interest.
“We deeply value our security cooperation with Sri Lanka. We should expand the maritime security cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives to include others in the Indian Ocean area,” he said.
“I often say that the course of the 21st century would be determined by the currents of the Indian Ocean. Shaping its direction is a responsibility for the countries in the region,” the Prime Minister said.
He said India and Sri Lanka were at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean and their partnership will be vital for building a peaceful, secure, stable and prosperous maritime neighbourhood.
Modi will tomorrow visit Talaimannar to flag off the train to Madhu Road which is part of the old India Lanka rail link.
After the Modi-Sirisena talks, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said there was some discussions at the summit talks on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries and it was felt that it needd to be speed up.
“It is a complicated exercise. There are whole set of issues,” he said.
New Delhi has, over the past decade, been pushing for a CEPA with Sri Lanka, a pact that the previous Rajapaksa government deemed redundant.
India and Sri Lanka have been grappling with sealing the CEPA for several years.
Sri Lankan services sector has expressed apprehensions over the advantage it handed to the Indian counterparts.
Jaishankar also said there was exchange of views on resumption of ferry services linking the ports of Colombo and Tuticorin and Talaimannar and Rameshwaram.