Trade and friendship

Print edition : January 16, 1999

THE signing of the free trade agreement between India and Sri Lanka was the focus of the four-day state visit of President Chandrika Kumaratunga to New Delhi. This is the first agreement of its kind signed by India with any country. Indian officials feel that the accord, which will come into effect from March 1. 1999, will have a "demonstrative" effect .

The Indian Government set great store by the President's visit because after Pokhran-II in May 1998 very few important foreign dignitaries have visited Delhi. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh announced a few days before Chandrika Kumaratunga's arrival that economic diplomacy and South Asian economic cooperation would be the priority areas for discussion. At least in the case of Sri Lanka the 'Gujral doctrine' continues under the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government as India is not insisting on reciprocity. (One of the key elements of the Gujral doctrine is that India "does not ask for reciprocity but gives all that it can in good faith and trust.")

Indian officials said that relations with Sri Lanka were very "relevant", especially as India shared "tremendous commonalities" with that country. They also asserted that there was no attempt to impose anything on India's neighbours. Before President Kumararatunga's arrival, senior officials of the External Affairs Ministry said that there was "total continuity" in Indian policy towards Sri Lanka.

Some political parties in the BJP-led ruling alliance were perceived by Colombo as being supportive of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but the Government went out of its way to emphasise that it was totally committed to the "territorial integrity and sovereignty" of Sri Lanka.

India also made it known that it was happy with the Sri Lankan Government's move towards devolution of power to the provinces; Indian officials felt that this would confer more rights on the Tamil people. Indian officials said after Kumaratunga's visit that the parameters remained unchanged in the context of the continuing ethnic conflict in the island. According to them, the question of India mediating in the conflict does not arise as Sri Lanka itself does not want it.

AFTER her return to Colombo, Kumaratunga told a Sri Lankan television channel that India did not want to interfere in Sri Lanka's internal affairs. India had intervened in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s owing to the ineptitude of the United National Party (UNP) Government of that time, she added. She also said that both the Indian Government and the Tamil Nadu Government had confidence in Sri Lanka's ability to reach a negotiated political settlement with the LTTE to resolve the conflict.

However, the Sri Lankan President recognised, while speaking to a group of mediapersons at Rashtrapati Bhavan on December 28, that the situation in Jaffna "is not improving as fast as we want". She said that this was mainly because of the closure of the land route to Jaffna. The Tigers, she said, were on a killing spree but the situation was under control. Operation "Sure Victory", the current military offensive of the Sri Lankan Army against the LTTE, will continue until the goal of reopening the supply routes to Jaffna is achieved, Kumaratunga said. India, she added, helped Sri Lanka in the rehabilitation and resettlement of people affected by the war.

The President said that many countries and groups had offered to act as "facilitators" to kick-start the talks between Colombo and the LTTE and added that her Government would take a decision on this at the appropriate time. "The LTTE must agree to certain conditions" before talks can begin, she said. Sri Lanka has not sought India's help in "facilitating" talks with the LTTE, Kumaratunga said.

Kumaratunga said that an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala people favoured the implementation of the devolution programme proposed by her Government. According to Kumara-tunga, a few individuals in the Opposition are opposed to this. The Opposition in Sri Lanka, she remarked, opposed everything her Government proposed."The present Opposition takes its role literally," said Kumaratunga. The Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremasinghe, had assured her of his support for the free trade agreement with India before she left for Delhi. However, since the historic agreement was signed on December 28, the UNP has started accusing the Government of compromising national interests.

The Sri Lankan President said that a way out of the current political impasse was to go in for a referendum on the devolution package. However, there are constitutional hurdles. According to her, the Constitution has made the working of representative democracy difficult. Despite her coalition enjoying a big majority in Parliament, the Government was unable to take important decisions because the UNP "manipulated" the Constitution to suit its own needs, she said. (The Constitution was drafted in the 1970s when the UNP was in power. The Government needs to have a two-thirds majority in Parliament to amend the Constitution to incorporate the devolution package.) Since Kumaratunga came to power, it has been her stated objective to revert to parliamentary democracy.

She said that one of her concrete achievements was "the restoration of good governance" and the laying of the foundation for a vibrant economy. At the same time, she justified the curbs imposed on the media as "we are a country at war". She said that the curbs would continue as sections of the media indulged in "calculated and mischievous" reporting, which had an adverse impact on the morale of the soldiers. However, curbs on the foreign media had been lifted, she added.

The President described the relations with India as "excellent". When asked about her country's stand on India's nuclear tests, she said that Sri Lanka had "expressed its concerns" to New Delhi. "It would have been better if the tests by India and Pakistan had not happened," said Kumaratunga. She added that both countries should desist from further tests as there was a need to dissipate the tensions in the region. "We expressed our opinions honestly," said the President. She stressed that the nuclear tests had not affected bilateral relations.

AN important event for the Sri Lankan President during her visit was the laying of the foundation stone, along with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for a Sri Lanka Pilgrims' Rest House, for use by Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims who came to India. India is a major tourist destination for Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans constituted the third largest segment of tourists who came to India in 1997. "Such visits and contacts between our peoples greatly help to cement age-old ties and establish new bonds of friendship in the context of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and our drive towards closer regional cooperation," said Kumaratunga, adding that India and Sri Lanka enjoyed an abiding friendship based on cultural and religious links.

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