Modi visit could see discussion on regional counter-terrorism mechanism: Sri Lankan envoy

Modi visit could see discussion on regional counter-terrorism mechanism: Sri Lankan envoy

“India has shown that it is ready to help us with intelligence, with defence as well as with counter terrorism cooperation.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel from the Maldives to Sri Lanka on Sunday, on his first visit abroad in his second tenure. Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India Austin Fernando says though the visit is brief on time, the messaging is multi-pronged.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making a short visit to Sri Lanka on Sunday, just a few hours. What do you hope from the visit?

The visit is about how the Indian government conceptually frames its policy towards Sri Lanka and other countries in the region as “Neighbourhood first”. Secondly, all eyes have been on Sri Lanka since the disaster that befell us on April 21 (Easter day IS terror attacks), and it is significant that he will be the first foreign dignitary to visit us since them. India gave us intelligence inputs before the attacks, and I think we feel particularly bound together due to this. India has shown that it is ready to help us with intelligence, with defence as well as with counter terrorism cooperation. Remember terror attacks in Sri Lanka have an impact on Maldives, India or any other country in the region. PM Modi’s concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) may also be discussed during his visit as it pertains to this issue too.

Are you suggesting there may be a regional anti-terror mechanism on the cards?

I’m saying that while SAGAR is normally taken to refer to coastal security and maritime initiatives, we may also look at the security aspect with regard to terror groups linking up in the region. Maldives also suffers due to this worry.

Is the PM likely to visit any of the sites of the attacks?

I understand the PM may also wish to visit some of the sites of the Easter attacks, but I am not sure if there will be enough time. This would send several important messages, including the fact that India stands in solidarity with Sri Lanka in fighting terrorism. Churches were amongst the targets, and if PM Modi visits one of these, he will be giving a message of pluralism. In addition, he will be sending out a message to businessmen, investors and tourists from India that Sri Lanka is safe for travel. This is something we need, as remember apart from our close trade ties, Indian tourists account for 20% of the total arrivals to Sri Lanka.

How badly has tourism been affected since the attacks?

It has definitely been affected. Last year, we had 4,25,000 Indian tourists coming and we expected 5,50,000 this year, but I don’t know if that figure will be reached now. This affects the Indian industry too, as several Indian airlines and hotel chains operate from Sri Lanka. If Mr. Modi takes back this message of safety to all Indians, that would help us immensely. We are also hoping for the Sri Lankan Tourism minister to visit India soon to reinforce this message. We want to promote a “Ramayana Trail” that would attract pilgrims from India as well as holiday goers.

On the issue of counter terror cooperation, President Sirisena had said during his visit to Delhi that he had not been informed of the intelligence inputs on IS before the attacks in April. Was there a communication failure between Delhi and Colombo as well, which prevented the information being followed seriously?

We have several enquiries ordered by the parliament, the President and courts underway in Sri Lanka on this issue, so I would rather not comment. I would say, we were given the intelligence on the attacks by India, and there was a breakdown somewhere along the chain. Therefore, going forward, we should look at how to improve the chain of communication at both ends. In this India’s example with the National Security Council structure would be worth studying. So we might explore consultative cooperation with India, as well as technological cooperation, in which India, USA, UK are quite ahead, apart from the existing intelligence cooperation. As Sri Lankans, we have to manage our own security, no other country can tell us what to do, but such cooperation can help us.

Specifically, how are India and Sri Lanka cooperating on the post-attacks investigation, especially given reports that the attackers may have travelled to India before, and possibly even after the bombings?

I don’t have this information, as it is managed at a government-to-government level directly, not through the High Commission.

Many of the joint development projects planned in an MoU signed in April 2017 have not made much progress. Will these be prioritised during the PM’s visit?

As I said earlier, I’m not sure how much time there will be on this visit. I would not agree that there has been no progress on the projects, but I do agree they could have progressed faster. In some of the projects planned, like the Mattala project (for airport), they came across a legal barrier. In the case of petroleum tank farms in Trincomalee, there were some meetings, but they also wanted a working group to oversee it, which hasn’t happened yet. Let’s see if the leaders would discuss these.

Will we see more trilateral projects with India and a third country in Sri Lanka, like the Colombo terminal that India and Japan have signed an MoU on to discuss?

I think this is a positive way forward, given the good relationship Sri Lanka has with both countries as well as their own ties.

Your email address will not be published.