Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been in and out of power since the 1990s. In 2015, he teamed up with Maithripala Sirisena and Chandrika Kumaratunge to oust President Mahinda Rajapaksa from power. Since then however, Wickramasinghe and the President have had a rocky relationship, disappointing many supporters in Sri Lanka. Our Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale caught up with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in Hanoi, where he was to attend the 3rd Indian Ocean Conference recently. Excerpts:
Q: We are meeting at Hanoi on the eve of the third Indian Ocean Conference. You’ve attended the previous two conferences too. What is your view on the importance of Indian Ocean and the new Indo-Pacific structure that is sought to be evolved now?
A: The strategic centre of geo-politics in the next few decades will certainly be the Indian Ocean, by around 2050. Therefore, Indian Ocean is important. Firstly, because of its population and economic growth, I think a fair number of wealthy nations by 2050 will be within this region. Take South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and that’s a lot. Secondly, the volumes travelling through the Indian Ocean, east to west, will be far more and crucial. The fuel supplies to the whole of East Asia and to India will all go through this ocean, so it is becoming the centre. The Indo-Pacific is really extending the concept or the concerns of USA and others to cover the whole Indian Ocean. Actually these are all terminologies. The first South East Asia command was in Sri Lanka. It went all the way up to China, to Chongqing, at the Burma front and India. And then downwards to Indonesia, what’s called the Indo-Pacific under the South East Asia command and the Pacific was under the Americans. Subsequently, it has been the Indian Ocean littoral nations that have been there. We are Asian so we have a common identity, but I think the distinct nature of the Indian Ocean and the geo-politics of this ocean must function as it is and you can’t use the Pacific issues to cover the Indian Ocean issues. But together we can all work for a stable order and to ensure freedom of navigation.
Q: So, in that context, Sri Lanka is so well located and poised. How do you see Sri Lanka’s role in this evolving new center of gravity in world politics?
A: Well, we are a small nation but we are at the centre of the Indian Ocean. So navigation through Indian Ocean is critical to our economy. And we would like to ensure that the freedom of navigation is maintained in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, for us we thought we should try and get all the littoral states plus all the other stakeholders to come in and play this role. It is not the Indian Ocean itself, but I think we’ll also look at the choke points and work on it. As far as to get everyone down and to start talking and see where the consensus is and where you haven’t gotten a consensus and keep working at it. Our aim is to ensure that somehow the freedom of navigation is upheld in the Indian Ocean. As long as it’s done, we prosper.
Q: Right. So the Indian Ocean conference in that sense is a new initiative. It’s been three years now that I’ve seen you talking in all the three conferences, in fact hosted it last year in Colombo, for which I was also there. So, in that sense how important is this conference?
A: It’s continuing and it’s the first time that we are coming into South East Asia, into Vietnam, which is on one end of it, but that is also essential. In the old days the commerce passed through Vietnam and I think Mae Sot was the furthest Hindu kingdom that was there.
Q: That’s right. Let me come to your own domestic issues. The Hambantota Port has always been under some kind of constant scrutiny in the world media and otherwise. So what is the current status of that Port right now?
A: Hambantota harbour is a public-private partnership, the public part being the Sri Lanka port authority and the private part being China Merchant. As you know the story, this was built at that time and we were having difficulties without closing it up, unless some of us came. We firstly asked for two other Chinese firms but whoever offered, Chinese or non-Chinese, it was going to be for commercial shipping purpose. Security was going to be asked and that operate within it. So now they have come in, they have paid their stake and they are putting in some additional money to develop the port. The joint venture has a 70-year lease but the government can at any time terminate it, if the government thinks it has to be done. The security is in the hands of the Navy and the Southern command we shifted from Galle to Hambantota, Galle has limitations, only a large frigate could come in. The police will be there, the customs will be there and immigration will be there. We are starting a large industrial estate zone there of about 15000 acres. We will give it out to developers who want to start special economic zones like in Bangladesh. And of course with your own Indian authorities, we are discussing another public-private partnership for the Hambantota airport, the Mattala airport. But nothing will be allowed to be used for military purposes, but commercially yes. We also told the Chinese, the Japanese and others that there was an understanding between India and us that Indian territory will not be used for anything harmful to our security. Similarly, Sri Lankan territory will not be used for anything harmful to Indian security. So we are functioning within that framework.
Q: Similarly, the Colombo port project had also raised some controversies. Initially, before you were elected to power, you had said that you will review it. So after the review you have allowed…
A: The port city project we found, that it had been given out on a free-hold basis and work had commenced, that they had filled up half of it. So we decide to make it into a lease hold and with certain powers with the Government of Sri Lanka. So it will be like a property development project. And as far as we’re concerned, we let it go ahead because we anyway couldn’t have a half complete land filled. Once we bring the financial city commission and the urban development authority, they will have the regulatory powers over the land there. But of course the China Harbour and its developers will be selling about 60 to 70 per cent of the land there. The remainder is in the name of the Government of Sri Lanka. That again is not a free-hold, they can only give a lease.
Q: And also there is no military dimension to it?
A: No military dimension to it, yes.
Q: How are you dealing with the debt trap that Sri Lanka is under with China. How are you dealing with that?
A: It’s an overall debt issue that we are involved in. With China, the port city is the investment and Hambantota has sort of sorted itself out with the payment, Mattalla will also be resolved with the joint venture we are planning. There are Chinese loans on other projects, but more than that, now we have the International Sovereign bonds and that’s the biggest issue that we have here. So we have to find ways to stabilise so that our revenue is sufficient to certainly meet the debt servicing and to repay those installments but that loan is not enough. We now have to earn sufficient foreign exchange for our balance of payments and send our revenues up. We feel by about 2025 we should start that process of easing out the loan payments.
Q: Right. So in that context, sir, before you came to power with the previous government, India had this objection legally that you are allowing China free run. Now that you’ve done all this, how do you see the India-Sri Lanka relations under your government?
A: It is really improving. And we would like to see, India is getting involved in more projects here. We are getting India and Japan involved into LNG plants (liquefied natural gas plants). We are also discussing the Trincomalee development and the oil tanks with the Mattala airport. We are also working on the Palaly airport where India will help us to extend the runway. In fact, I am speaking to your minister about getting a flight in from South India to Palaly.
Q: That will be interesting. What about the Kankesanthurai harbour project?
A: That project is also going on. The Indian Government has agreed on that. I would like Palaly airport to become an international airport.
Q: Oh, you want flights from Palaly going international?
A: Yes I think we should get it from the region. We can initially do with India with what is there, because the IAF (Indian Air Force) used that during the IPKF days. Then we had to extend the runway where we can take 320s. So then not only India but even Malaysia and Singaporean airlines can also come there.
Q: You’ve laid special emphasis on development of the North under your government.
A: Yes we have and India is helping us with the Mannar-Trincomalee highway and the highway system there. Even houses for re-housing.
Q: Yes, the other day you inaugurated something there, some project.
A: Yes. I did one in the hill country, that is the villages for the people who work in the plantations, having them outside. In the future, as they are getting educated, it’s unlikely that they will continue to work in the plantations. That will be another problem for us but that’s a different subject.
Q: The other thing is regarding the fishermen’s issue with India and Tamil Nadu.
A: That is gradually getting sorted out. I think your government is also helping them to go into deep sea fishing, which is good. So I think that should sort itself out and maybe with more and more South Indian fishermen doing deep sea fishing, our people will also go there. Seas around Sri Lanka and India we are allowing foreign trawlers to come and take the catch and that’s something that should not happen.
Q: And how do you see BIMSTEC’s future?
A: BIMSTEC has to become more vigorous I feel and work along with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members there, especially Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Q: It hasn’t really taken off so far.
A: It should do more yes.
Q: Let me turn to a little bit of your domestic politics sir. It’s been three and a half years since the new government came in, with a lot of hope. When you look back, or see now, there is a lot of uncertainty in the minds of the people because of the January results of the local body elections. Have you overcome that setback?
A: Well, that came at the most difficult time for us. We had a shortage of fertilisers, the prices were up and supply was disrupted because we had about five cultivation seasons in the drought. The tea area was affected by floods. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong and if we would have postponed the elections, it would have been worse for us. But it also showed that we are a democratic nation and that we are willing to go through that. I told the country that we took tough decisions because the country needed it, not that we were suicidal, but that it had to be done and they would understand it, and that we are gradually picking up. There was a protest vote against us but I don’t think the former President and his group can capitalise on it as a positive vote when it comes to a game-changing election.
Q: That will anyway be next year right.
A: Yes, it’ll be next year. Basically the relationship between the communities has improved except for one unfortunate incident at Digana. Well, democracy is in place. Every media has been criticising me every day but no one has been taken away, no one is missing, no one complaining. The democratic system and the RTI (Right to information) Act is on. We have stabilised the economy. Now we have move forward. But India and all of us now are facing the present global economic situation and the strengthening of the dollar. But education and health indicators have gone up, we’ve spent a lot of money despite all our problems. Now we are coming with the rural infrastructure programme and the enterprise for small and medium. We are also coming up with incentives for investors. So let’s see. In five years we’ve done the correct thing.
Q: So you can build on that as you go along. And you mentioned very significantly the relationship between different communities. So, is the reconciliation well on track with the northern Tamils?
A: It’s back but the issue now is going to be the constitution, we can enact the constitution now. A draft has been given by panel of experts but I think we will have to decide in the next few weeks how we go forward.
Q: Right, and what about provincial elections?
A: That’s the next one. We are discussing what the system of election should be because people and all parties were unhappy with the report given by the delimitation committee. So that is the next round. I am trying to conclude that quickly, one way or another, the necessary laws are passed. Personally, I think it’s better to have the election early and finish it off, giving us the time to focus on national issues.
Q: Ok, which will give more powers to provinces or something of that sort?
A: It will protect the power of the provinces where the centre can’t just come and take it away. And there are some areas where they have agreed to increase the powers as well.
Q: I see. One final question, though you might not want to answer it. I read your media and they say that relations between you and the President are not very good and that somehow you are pulling in different directions. Is that true?
A: Relations between the President and me are good but it’s the first time that two major rival parties have worked together, not only in Sri Lanka but anywhere else. If BJP and Congress had worked together, would it have lasted?
A: That’s the answer to the question.
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