Indo-Sri Lanka ties: India’s military and maritime interests central to new Sri Lanka Governments policies

Published: November 21, 2019 4:34:07 PM

Due to Sri Lanka's proximity to Southern India, Dravidian influence on Sri Lankan politics and trade has been active since the third century BC. Trade relations existed, very probably from an early time.

sri lanka, india sri lanka relations, india lanka ties, india sri lanka ties, lanka tiesThe ninety-nine years lease of the Hambanthota Port to the Chinese has been a sore point with the Indian Government.

By Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd)

India and Sri Lanka have had good relations from the mythological times of the Ramayana. Due to Sri Lanka’s proximity to Southern India, Dravidian influence on Sri Lankan politics and trade has been active since the third century BC. Trade relations existed, very probably from an early time. In its recorded history, Sri Lanka has seen groups of Southern Indians enter the island as traders, mercenaries and occasionally as invaders, but their significance to the wider demographics of the island was only peripheral. There are deep racial and cultural links between the two countries. India and Sri Lanka share a maritime border. India is the only neighbour of Sri Lanka, separated by the Palk Strait; both nations occupy a strategic position in South Asia and have sought to build a common security umbrella in the Indian Ocean.

Despite many commonalities, there have been differences too, depending on the regime in the respective countries. The Sinhala dominated political parties and their relationship with the resident Tamil population let to the notorious Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam or LTTE. The Sri Lankan Army (SLA) has fought a bitter civil war and managed to wipe out the LTTE in May 2009 when Prabhakaran was killed bringing an end to the bitter fighting.

The 2019 Sri Lankan presidential election was the 8th presidential election, which was held on November 16, 2019. The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena ‘s term of office will end on January 9, 2020. This was the first Presidential election in Sri Lanka where no sitting president, prime minister or opposition leader was contesting for President. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won this election.

Having got 53% of the nearly 84% of the votes polled, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gained the presidency of Sri Lanka (SL), in the vote count. His closest rival, Sajith Premadasa ended up with 10% fewer votes & lost his bid to emulate his father who was assassinated by the LTTE on May 01, 1993. Mahinda Rajapaksa had famously tilted aggressively towards China during his presidency between 2005 to 2015.

Gotabaya had been a career army officer. Commissioned into the SL Army’s Signal Corps in 1971, he opted to transfer to the infantry in 1974. Having done his YOs course in Pakistan he completed the Defence Service’s Staff College course from Wellington, Ooty, India in 1983.

Gotobaya saw active service in the early stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War with the elite Gajaba Regiment, taking part in several major offensives such as the Vadamarachchi Operation, Operation Strike Hard and Operation Thrividha Balaya, as well as counter-insurgency operations during the 1987–1989 JVP insurrection. He took early retirement from the army and moved into the field of information technology, before immigrating to the United States in 1998. He returned to Sri Lanka in 2005, to assist his brother Mahinda in his presidential campaign and was appointed Defence Secretary in his brother’s administration.

The ninety-nine years lease of the Hambanthota Port to the Chinese has been a sore point with the Indian Government. The Chinese presence in Sri Lanka along major sea lines of communication (SLOCs) has its own ramifications. The Chinese dominate the SLOCs along the line of Djibouti – Gwadar – Hambanthota – Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands – Japan; through which trade worth of $ 5 Trillion dollars transits, annually and growing each year. The Chinese have developed the South China Sea islands as formidable naval bases; asserting its will. There have been numerous face-offs between the Chinese and the US naval forces.

The Chinese Navy has been active in establishing itself as a Blue Water Navy and has a presence in the Indian Ocean. And to counter this development, India has been conducting joint training with the US, Australian and Japanese navies.

Gotobaya Rajapaksa stated in his election manifesto that this lease will be reviewed. The President-Elect is visiting New Delhi end of this month on November 29, a clear indication of the importance it gives to its Northern neighbour.

India must utilise this opportunity to secure its Southern Flank by ensuring that India’s military and maritime interests are central to the new Sri Lanka Governments policies. It must extend all support to the development of the Pearl Island. Terrorism is affecting both the countries and the two nations must join hands to counter this menace. The dignity of the minorities must be protected and the development work in the Northern and Eastern provinces must be supported.

Spin doctor rumours are rife in Colombo that the brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda are set to tango together in Colombo; the elder brother as Prime Minister and younger as the President; what will happen; only time will tell.

Sri Lanka Defence Forces are major importers of military hardware which New Delhi can ably address with the growth of the domestic arms industries who need foreign markets to grow. India must nurture the new government in Sri Lanka by treating it as an equal partner and take care not to step on the toes of its neighbour.

(The author is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.)

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