We will not jeopardize the security of India - President | Daily News

We will not jeopardize the security of India - President

President Ranil Wickremesinghe
President Ranil Wickremesinghe

President Ranil Wickremesinghe said that in an interview with StratNews Global Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale “We told India that Sri Lanka will not do anything to jeopardize the security of India”.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is the economic condition now in Sri Lanka, and what is Sri Lanka looking at as far as the solution to the problem is concerned?

A: We’ve had discussions with the IMF. We have come to a Staff Level Agreement. But now we have to deal with our creditors. We didn’t have to do that earlier, we didn’t have this serious crisis. But now we have to deal with our creditors. We are unable to service our debts. Once we have a final, come to a conclusion with the creditors then we will go back to the IMF board. So, if you are looking at what is the phase we are in, okay we are implementing the prior actions that are required under the Staff-Level Agreement and we have started the discussions with the bilateral creditors. Once that’s over I think we have to do with the private creditors. I’m discussing with the Japanese Government about their role. We have already started some talks with India, but at a lower level. We are just starting the talks with China. We’ll have to go to a higher level, but we have to now see whether we do it before the party conference or after. Since we are just starting the talks it may have to be just after the conference. But we will first talk with Japan then we will have a discussion with India.

Q: How has India’s aid helped Sri Lanka? Because from January to now it amounts to around 4 billion dollars?

A: It has helped because we were able to get much needed foreign goods. But that alone is not enough. So we are thankful to India. Bangladesh also gave 200 million. For them that is a big amount. So we are thankful to these two countries. When I took over I started talking with the IMF and our Central Bank on how much we can find from here, and we have been able to generate the minimum required amount of foreign exchange. But that won’t do, we have to go ahead.

Q: But you have managed to stabilize the situation in the country considerably with all this chaos and anger. Now it seems to have subsided. How did you manage to do that?

A: That basically came out of shortages. First was the issue of Agriculture. The whole Agriculture economy had collapsed. Then there was the shortage of foreign exchange and fuel. In the first set of demonstrations we can see that it was really backed by the middle class in and around Colombo.

Q: One of the mysteries during this period was China did not step in for bilateral aid. Why is that? Because it has been a big friend of Sri Lanka in the past?

A: The mystery is also why we went and signed the agreement with China when we did not have three months of foreign exchange reserves. When we signed that agreement, then we got ourselves stuck in three months foreign exchange rule. My view is that we should not have done that. We should have gone straight to them. Then there was the outstanding issue of the fertilizer ship, which was rejected here. That played a role in China’s attitude. The Government did not agree to let a third party inspect it. If they agreed it would have been over. That was another factor that influenced China’s standing.

Q: Do you think they will come back to offer you some more bilateral loans?

A: What we want at the moment is agreement between the three creditors as to how they are going to give us debt relief. That is the main issue.

Q: Let’s talk about geo-political issues such as the problem of the Chinese ship docking in Hambantota. India of course had its objections. How do you handle that? Do you think it could have been handled differently?

A: First of all, Hambantota is not a military harbour. We have not been giving it out for military purposes. This ship had been approved earlier, at the very end of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure. It had come in as a research ship. That is how it had been okayed. We are inquiring into how this happened so fast. If we were to change that decision, we needed some basis. If that had been forthcoming we could have studied it and taken a decision. But that was not available and we could not get into an argument which we were going to lose. We did delay it coming in here. But by that time the ship was virtually in our waters. It was a difficult decision. But it was in keeping with our policy. Once we give permission, there must be a reason for us to withdraw permission. So we could not find the reasons, so we asked your Government also. Then they had virtually come in. But what they said is that they are not going to do anything harmful to India. But that was in our waters. If they had the equipment and they wanted to spy on India they could have done it. But we are confident that nothing like that took place. So this is what had happened. We had given permission and now we are looking at re-classifying civilian ships – non-military ships. The problem is that any non-military ship can be used for military purposes. We are looking at working out a new system.

Q: Did you have a very frank dialogue with India at that time?

A: Yes, we did.

Q: Were they finally understanding about it?

A: I don’t think they were happy, but they accepted the situation.

Q: Are there any new protocols you are looking at? You said you would reclassify the ships. India says there should be some red lines and there should be some assurance.

A: So we are looking at reclassification. So we need to work that out. It is not easy. What we have told India is that we will not do anything to jeopardize the security of India. And so far Sri Lanka had not done that. And we are very careful.

Q: I have heard you speaking at the National Defense College. I think you used a very interesting term – ‘Don’t use Hambantota as a punching bag’. Is it being used as a punching bag?

A: We are getting hammered for Hambantota directly and indirectly! Before all this in 2003, I agreed with Prime Minister Vajpayee, that they should come and develop Trincomalee. Under the letters of exchange in the 87 agreement, we have to first talk to India about the oil tanks. So I spoke to Prime Minister Vajpayee and he said that yes, they are interested and said that we will work something out. Then I said why don’t we look at the Trincomalee Port itself? But then we went out of power and nothing happened. So even in 2015 that was the idea. We are the ones who asked for a power station. But President Rajapaksa had allowed it to be moved to Sampur from where we had originally selected. So this has been going on and we were developing Trincomalee. It is a question of when and how. If at all I have given this to India. We are looking at how to develop Trincomalee and then we will talk with India. Hambantota is important and will service the whole of the Bay of Bengal.

Q: That brings me to the Geopolitics of the Indo Pacific and Indian Ocean. You have said there is the Indo Pacific and the Indian Ocean and the two oceans were joined by ASEAN countries. So how do you see this contest in the Indo Pacific?

A: The ASEAN countries said Indo Pacific is two different areas unlike the earlier one. Geo politics are different. In the case of Indo Pacific the Hub and Spoke system worked. In addition to the Hub and Spoke system you must remember that China and the US worked together for a long time. That is the system that worked there. In the Indian Ocean there was no Hub and Spoke system. But we had understanding amongst ourselves and some of us regarded India as a net security provider. So we were able to manage without tension. My idea was to develop the freedom of navigation to reduce tension there. In the pacific the tension takes place in the ocean between Japan, Taiwan and up to Vietnam. In the Indian Ocean there is not much tension that way. Tension is in the Himalayas where the three nuclear powers meet. And then in the Horn of Africa where there is a struggle going on. It is completely different to the Pacific. So our view is treating this separately. We are not the same, but we have worked together from time immemorial. China has been coming to the Indian Ocean and ships from Arabia and India have been going to China. So the influence of both has spread. That is how we have Indo China. When we talk about the Indo Pacific, accept the reality that there are two different systems.

Q: Sri Lanka being at a very strategic location geographically, how do you see yourself in the coming years, not just in terms of geopolitics, but also in terms of connectivity and trade? What is Sri Lanka’s role here?

A: Sri Lanka has a big role to play in connectivity. If you look at it strategically, the two channels 8 and 9 are important for us as much as it is important to India, because all the shipping must go through that. But we also have separate access to Trincomalee into the Bay of Bengal. But we can be a logistics point as there is no logistic centre in the Indian Ocean. Between Dubai and Singapore there is a vacuum. That is itself useful, because it can service part of the Bay of Bengal and also India. That is why we feel that logistics is the key. And we will develop from there.

Q: You have also spoken about upgrading the existing FTA. Making it a comprehensive economic partnership with India. In that respect, where are you now?

A: We have restarted it and are looking at the domestic end here. We will finalize it and then we will talk to India.

Q: You have said the ‘ease of doing business’ has to be introduced to Sri Lanka. Do you have a special emphasis on that right now?

A: We want to have a business ministry and maybe attach it to one of the commercial ministries. It has to be ‘ease of doing business’ which we have not had so far.

Q: Renewable energy and connectivity with India is one of your focus areas. Can you comment?

A: We have started now. There is an agreement on renewable energy with an Australian company. We are going ahead. It is not only renewable energy but I think it is also the question of green hydrogen. We have the potential. On both sides of the Palk Strait there is the potential for wind energy.

Q: One of the important factors in the Sri Lankan economy would be tourism. Many Indians come to Sri Lanka. How are you going to boost it further?

A: We have to do it. I told the Tourism Board that they must ensure at least three or four million tourists come here. Not in hundreds of thousands, but count it in millions!

Q: One of the factors in the chaos was the high price of energy. That happened because of the Russia/Ukraine war? What is the effect going to be on Asia?

A: One issue was also that we were subsidizing energy. That was one of the big reasons for the crisis that took place. Because subsidizing energy meant the Electricity Board couldn’t function since they were not paying their bills to the petroleum corporation. That was not servicing the banks. I think where energy is concerned, we will see prices go up again. Maybe from December to April. That is basically the impact of the Ukrainian war.

Q: How do you see the war developing? Is it creating a world disorder?

A: Militarily, there is a fight going on in Ukraine. At one time it favoured Russia and now it is favouring Ukraine. It has created disorder in the oil markets and food markets. Now that is a problem. I personally think that both sides and the West need to come to some agreement. It is the rest of us who are also feeling the pressure.

Q: Can India play a role in resolving the issue?

A: I think India can play a role.

Q: Taking India/Sri Lanka partnership to the next level, what do you propose? During the past 7 or 8 months there was a close bonding. How can you assure India that you will continue to be with India? And look at your own interest as well as India’s interests?

A: It has to be at different levels. The Indian Ocean is developing separately and also how we interact with each other. Secondly is China’s Belt and the Road Initiative. We consider the Belt and the Road Initiative as commercial. If it has defense or military implications, we won’t be there. China is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean. For India, it is a question of how fast you are growing. That is an internal issue. Our interest in China is commercial and economics. We can’t go to war with anyone. We want freedom of navigation. That is where we are. We have got to work the relationship out. India is working its relationship out with the US while having a relationship with Russia.

Q: One of the thorny issues about the India/Sri Lanka relationship is the fishermen issue. There have been various proposals about the joint fishing zone or looking at some new innovative methods. Would you encourage that?

A: I don’t think the Northern fishermen will accept it. They want their fishing zones to be theirs. When I was Prime Minister it was agreed that given two to three years the Indian fishermen will be persuaded to go for deep sea trawling. Now that has not taken place here. It is not a question of the Sri Lankan Coastguard. Some of these people will take matters into their own hands. In 2002 or 2003, the LTTE came and caught them and even shot some of them. We don’t want that to happen. If Sri Lankan fishermen feel that the Indian fishermen are coming further and further into the area, there will be a natural pushback. We of course have been having talks for a long time. We have to come to some agreement. Because this is the livelihood of the Northern fishermen.

Q: What is your vision for the Development of the Northern Areas?

A: We are getting a plan together, especially the development of Trincomalee and the coming in of renewable energy. So that has a lot of scope for the Northern economy.

Q: So in the West you will have the renewable energy projects and in the East you will have the port project?

A: It will also depend on how Tamil Nadu develops. All your industrialization is in the North of Tamil Nadu. Are you going to push down? If you want to overtake Maharashtra, you have to come down. Then again, we can be the ports for Southern Tamil Nadu. What you need is a good ferry service. It is a win-win situation if Tamil Nadu pushes down.

Q: India insists on the13 Amendment being implemented. Then internally you face the issue of the President’s powers being diluted. What are your views?

A: As for the 13th Amendment, we have been talking with the Tamil parties and we can come to some arrangement. On the President’s powers being diluted, for me the most important issue outside the 13th Amendment is the electoral system. All the corruption comes out of that. Unless you tackle the election system first, you will not have a good Government. You have this preference system in which you are fighting your own candidates. The cost of the election is about four times what it is. You are dependent on others to help you. We need the PR system. The question is, do we want a list system without a preference or whether we have the dual system. I think we have to sort that out. There is a question about the quality of the candidates, the people who are selected to Parliament. This is the core issue. We are ducking that because all the parties are coalitions and the smaller parties want one system and the larger parties want another. But the country does not want it. This is the main issue. I think once you address that, then with a new Parliament selected accordingly, we can decide on the Presidential System also.

Q: About the Presidential System, you are talking about the Indian insistence on Northern Areas development?

A: Northern Area development is something new which I have taken on once I became President. That will go ahead. We will need India’s help and other help.

Q: What are the Tamil Parties views on the current situation? Are they helping you, cooperating with you?

A: Well some of the members cooperate and others don’t.

Q: Are you faced with some kind of resistance in Parliament because it is quite chaotic like any other democratic country?

A: If Parliament does not want to pass it, if it is something that the people want, I will tell the people – look they are not doing it.

Q: You were also tough on the protesters when they subsided and you said action must be taken against those who have taken the law into their hands. Has that been a concern for civil society?

A: The country has accepted it. I came in because a large number of people wanted Law and Order maintained. Are you going to wait until they take over Lok Sabha? So the country wanted it. There were some activists who joined these violent groups. They thought the Government was going to fall. They were trying to see what role they had played. Some religious dignitaries and political parties tried to take a free ride and the whole thing collapsed. I was asked to send my letter of resignation, otherwise they would burn down the house. Then they wanted to take over Parliament. Then the Army acted. I told the Army to preserve Parliament. There was no other way. They were going to prevent the election of a President. Can you justify that? Most people understood this. Now there is an inquiry into some of these incidents.

Q: You are an avid reader. You are interested in geo politics and the international situation. How do you see the world in five years?

A: There is a big question mark over the next five years. I don’t think the big challenges are going to come in the next five years. Unless we force it upon ourselves. Like what happened in Ukraine. Now another big challenge is holding the Commonwealth together. Can Britain and the others hold it together or will it disappear? That will create another vacuum. At least a value system was being transferred by the Commonwealth. So it is an uncertain situation. If you look at China, the Chinese military won’t be in a position to take on the US military, or be a threat for at least another 15 years. So are you trying to accelerate it and cause a conflict? Like what happened in Ukraine- miscalculations on both sides. That has led to the present situation. No one can get out of it. It has become a trap.

There are new politicians appealing to different segments of the electorate, who will also find it difficult to hold it, the disappearance of traditional parties, replacement with new parties of different interest.

Q: Does the region need a BMISTEC? Can it work as a counter balance?

A: BMISTEC has been slow

Q: Would you like it to get accelerated?

A: I don’t see that happening. We have to have the administrative infrastructure and economic infrastructure which we have not got for trade integration. If you have an agreement with India and Bangladesh, then the whole from India up to Japan we are covered. So we have to deal with that. What is going to happen in the Indian Ocean is a big question mark.

Q: Does the Security of the Indian Ocean worry you?

A: If there are no tensions we can manage it. I can’t see a major issue coming up. Even the number of warships, Chinese or otherwise. It is the future threats that are worrying everyone.

Q: Any message to India and the Indian people?

A: Two words. Thank You!

(Transcribed by ISHARA JAYAWARDANE)


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