The Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) process may be in a comatose state but Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena has said that it is an important regional grouping, just like Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
With his country limping back to normalcy after the April 21 terror strikes in Colombo and other places, Sri Lanka’s president also said that some of the most powerful countries in the world have suffered such attacks and that all democratic countries of the world need to unite to tackle terrorism.
Sirisena sought to play down the communal tensions in the island nation in the aftermath of the attacks saying, “The safety and security of all Sri Lankan citizens is assured by my government.” He further said that the safety of the various ethnic groups in Sri Lanka—the Sinhalese, Tamils, Malays, Christians and Muslims—is guaranteed by his government. And that none belonging to any ethnicity were in peril.
The Sri Lankan leader’s remarks came during a media interaction with journalists in New Delhi on Friday. President Sirisena was in the Capital as one of the seven Bimstec countries’ leaders invited to witness the swearing-in of the PM Narendra Modi-led government. Sirisena also confirmed that PM Modi will be visiting his country on June 9, as first reported by SNI.
The observation on the importance of both Bimstec and Saarc came close on the heels of Nepal’s PM K.P. Sharma Oli telling an Indian TV channel that the Saarc process needs to be revived. Nepal is the current chair of Saarc and has, more than once, emphasised the importance of this regional grouping. Mr Oli too was here to attend the swearing-in of the Modi government.
Asked if the grouping should be revived—the Saarc process ground to a halt after India sought to isolate Pakistan and led a boycott of the 2016 Summit following the Uri terror strike—Sri Lanka’s president did not give a direct response. However, Sirisena noted that both Saarc and Bimstec are “important regional organisations” and that it was “the responsibility of members to strengthen both these organisations.” He also said that “anything done with a positive mindset will have positive outcomes.”
In the context of these two regional groupings, the Sri Lankan leader further noted that, “it is very important for countries to cooperate with each other in terms of regional significance.” This also helps trade and economic ties between them.
Regarding the recent terror strikes that rocked the island nation, Sirisena thanked India, the U.S. and the UK as being among some of the powerful nations that came to his country’s assistance after the attacks. He also confirmed that his country’s security chiefs had received a “clear report from Indian intelligence agencies” regarding the possibility of the Easter Sunday terror attacks. He said while his country’s defence secretary and the inspector general of police exchanged correspondence on this matter, he was not informed about the threat.
“Had the defence chiefs informed me, I would not have left the country (he was touring Singapore when the attacks happened) and I would’ve taken steps to prevent it,” he stated. Blaming the defence chiefs for the security lapse, the Sri Lankan president said, “disciplinary action will be taken against those responsible for the lapses.”
Asked if differences between him and Sri Lanka’s PM Ranil Wickremesinghe contributed to the intelligence information provided by India slipping through the authorities’ fingers, Sirisena said: “Not at all. They (defence chiefs) have been negligent in their duties, that’s all.”
He also maintained that the situation in his country is now under control and all those connected with the strikes have been apprehended. Without naming the Islamic State (IS), Sri Lanka’s president said that there was information that those behind the terror attacks had travelled abroad and been trained by an international organisation.