“Sri Lanka will never allow Hambantota for any military purposes”
“Sri Lanka strongly supports regional cooperation and integration and wishes to see SAARC member states working together for our common prosperity. In the recent past officials from the member countries have been meeting at SAARC Technical Committee meetings, consulting with each other towards achieving consensus on many areas. I do not wish to speculate whether a SAARC Summit will take place as there has not been an announcement,” said Sri Lankan High commissioner HE Chitranganee Wagiswara in an exclusive interview with Ravi Mishra. Excerpts:
Sri Lanka has handed over Hambantota port to China, which will take control for 99-years. It advances Beijing’s “String of Pearls” strategy. India takes it as a major security threat. Is Sri Lanka really serious about India’s concern?
Why do you say that the Hambantota Port is a major security threat? This is an assumption that you are making. Sri Lanka went through a conflict for nearly three decades which ended in 2009. We have to now focus on developing our country economically. Sri Lanka is rich in terms of human resources and natural resources. Yes, Hambantota project was negotiated by the previous government, and the present government cancelled the agreement and re-negotiated a new Agreement. The debt was turned into equity. The security of the port will be the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Navy. Therefore, one cannot say that there will be a security threat due to Chinese investment in the Hambantota port. Sri Lanka is sensitive to India’s concerns.
But it will be mostly used by China, so is it possible that China could manipulate it for military uses?
Construction of the port has been undertaken by the China Merchants Port Holding Company. I want to assure you that Hambantota will only be a commercial port. Sri Lanka will never allow it to be used for any military purposes.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently talked about foreign investments from India, Japan and others amid criticism over Sri Lanka’s dependence on China. What did he want to say? Don’t you think, it will be a threat to the region and China will gradually capture the whole Sri Lankan economy one day?
No, once again this is your assumption and your conclusion. Our interest is economic development. We welcome whoever comes to invest and setup projects. We will discuss and negotiate with foreign investors in order to conclude mutually beneficial projects. Sri Lanka focuses on
inclusive development. We are not tilted towards one way investments. It could be China, India, Japan or any other country. What we want is to develop our country. This is our main focus.
What are the main investment projects from India and China in Sri Lanka?
Of course both countries have invested in Sri Lanka. India has invested in hospitality sector, IT sector. Some of the major Indian companies that have invested are TATA, ITC, and Ambuja cement. China has invested mainly in the infrastructure development sector.
How is defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka?
Defence is one of the important spheres, where both countries are having excellent collaboration. Large numbers of Sri Lankan Military Personnel, from junior to senior ranks, are being trained in many Indian cities. This number is more than seven hundred at any given point of time. Both countries participate in many conferences, workshops, and defence talks organized in each other’s countries and share views and best practices. Defence Military Chiefs meet each other regularly. Recently, the Sri Lankan Navy purchased two Advanced Offshore Patrol Vessel (AOPV) from the Goa Shipyard. We also hold military exercises and goodwill visits time to time.
Recently there was a tussle between Buddhist and Muslim community in Sri Lanka. How did this incident arise?
Sri Lanka is a multi cultural, multi lingual and multi religious country. Buddhists are the majority. We have Hindus, Muslim, Christian and others. All these people live in Sri Lanka peacefully together. We have intermarriages. But at the same time there are fringe elements and fundamentalists or extremist group in every country. They try to create problems. There were some isolated clashes between these two communities, due to some minor spats that developed to a clash. But now there is calm and the situation is peaceful.
We also saw Buddhist and Muslims clashes in Myanmar. It is said that Rohingyas are being prosecuted in Myanmar.
That is an issue for the Myanmar government to sort out with the concerned community.
Sri Lanka is a tourist hub for Indians. What is the contribution of tourism to the Sri Lankan economy?
Tourism is a thrust industry and contributes in a large measure to Sri Lanka’s economy. In the year 2017 the tourism industry was the third largest foreign exchange earner to the country with a contribution of 4.9% to the GDP. Total tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka in 2017 were over 2 million. Sri Lanka receives the largest number of tourists from India. It received 3,84,628 tourists in 2017 which was about 18% of the total tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Navy often arrests Indian Fishermen and this has been going on for years. Is there any memorandum of Understanding between the both countries on this issue?
Why should the Sri Lankan Navy target Indian fishermen? It is a fact that some Indian fishermen come to our side for fishing purposes, and naturally our fishermen are not happy about it, because fishing is the only source of livelihood of the fishermen in the north. We often prevent Sri Lanka fishermen from entering the Indian side. India and Sri Lanka have established a Joint Working Group to discuss issues pertaining to the fisheries issues. Meetings are held regularly at the officials and Ministerial level.
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Narendra Modi had signed a civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement in 2015. Is there any development in this?
An Agreement was signed between both governments in 2015 on developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Agreement has provision to facilitate cooperation in the transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including mitigation and environmental protection. But as of date, there have not been any developments under this Agreement.
India is unlikely to attend 20th SAARC summit which is being hosted by Pakistan. Will Sri Lanka participate in the SAARC summit?
The SAARC Summit did not take place in 2016. Sri Lanka strongly supports regional cooperation and integration and wishes to see SAARC member states working together for our common prosperity. In the recent past officials from the member countries have been meeting at SAARC Technical Committee meetings consulting with each other towards achieving consensus on many areas. I do not wish to speculate as to whether a SAARC Summit will take place as there has not been an announcement.
India and Sri Lanka both share historical, traditional and cultural similarities. Can you briefly explain this?
India and Sri Lanka have a long history dating back many centuries. In the epic, Ramayana Sri Lanka features and the Ramayana trail has been developed in Sri Lanka. The Great Emperor Asoka sent his son to Sri Lanka with the message of Buddhism. Our links in terms of religions, language, and culture is a foundation which contributes to maitaining and building our relationship, whether it is trade, investment, education, agriculture, defence etc.