Sri Lanka’s New President Makes India His 1st Visit Abroad

By Katy Daigle 16 February 2015

NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka’s new leader is underlining India’s importance as a regional ally by making it his first official foreign destination as president, following years of uneasy relations with New Delhi and international pressure to speed up post-civil war reconciliation efforts at home.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s four-day visit, beginning with his arrival Sunday evening, has been welcomed by Indian officials, who are planning a ceremony and banquet for him Monday and top-tier meetings befitting the countries’ “unique” historical and cultural ties, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

Relations between India and Sri Lanka had become tense in recent years, as China grew cozier with the island nation, long considered by India as being within its traditional sphere of influence.

Last year, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years as he courted Colombo’s support for a maritime trade route. Sri Lanka also irked New Delhi by allowing two Chinese submarines to dock along its coastline, and by brokering deals for billions in Chinese loans and infrastructure projects.

Sirisena has said his government will review the loans and projects approved under his powerful predecessor and one-time ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he defeated in a stunning election upset last month. While campaigning for the election, Sirisena had criticized the Chinese projects as debt traps, but he has since announced plans to visit China after his India trip.

“We will be making a new beginning with India,” government minister and spokesman Lakshman Kiriella told reporters in Sri Lanka on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Sirisena will be looking this week to boost bilateral trade with India, now standing at around US$1 billion. He is to visit a Buddhist temple complex in the eastern state of Bihar before traveling to the southern Indian city of Tirupati later Tuesday and returning to his country Wednesday.

He and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also likely to focus talks on Sri Lanka’s efforts to establish reconciliation in the wake of its long civil war, which Sirisena has named a priority for his government.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority complain that little has been done to restore trust and national unity since the 25-year civil war ended with the routing of ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, despite pledges to devolve power to Tamil-populated provinces.

India, with its own sizeable Tamil population, has also voiced concerns about the slow pace of reconciliation efforts, and has urged Sri Lanka to heed international demands for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes.

“This is an important issue. We will discuss issues relating to the reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka,” Akbarrudin, the foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.

Rajapaksa had been widely popular in the Sinhalese-majority nation for ending the war, but became increasingly unpopular abroad as he refused international calls for an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations during the war, saying a government inquiry would be sufficient.

Many had expected that Sirisena would agree to an independent probe, but his government has said it wants time to set up its own judicial mechanism.

Thousands of civilians are suspected to have died in the final months of the war when government forces crushed the Tamil Rebels’ quarter-century fight for an ethnic homeland.

On Saturday, Sirisena urged the Tamil diaspora to be patient, noting that progress has been made through the release of private lands held by the military, but saying “there is a need for necessary time to achieve” full reconciliation and unity within society.

Amnesty International praised Sirisena for taking “important steps” in restoring an independent judiciary and other institutions in the country, while also urging efforts toward ending discrimination, protecting free speech and conducting a speedy and thorough investigation into the rights abuse allegations.

“It is important that the international community supports Sri Lanka through these initiatives, beginning with India, which is one of its closest and most important partners,” the rights group said Sunday.