From wanting India to scale up its counter-terrorism assistance to the island nation, to assuaging Delhi’s concerns over China’s presence in his country, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner Austin Fernando weighed his words carefully in an exclusive interview to SNI.
Elaborating on what he meant by scaling up counter-terrorism assistance, High Commissioner Fernando said: “What we expect from India is an upgraded version of assistance for anti-terror measures.”
In his view, India with the information, technology and intelligence resources at its command “can play a lead role in combating terror” in the region, underscoring that terrorism is a global phenomenon, a multilateral problem that needs to be treated with great urgency.
India, of course, can no longer claim unwavering influence over Sri Lanka with China having made deep inroads into the country through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which India has shunned on grounds of sovereignty.
There are also concerns about what is described as China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’, with Beijing having become Colombo’s biggest financier. Sri Lanka is perceived to have fallen victim to this when it opted for a loan from China’s EXIM Bank to build the Hambantota port.
Asked if Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka were at India’s expense, the soft-spoken Fernando said: “No. You’re giving a political twist to the issue. We have received Chinese assistance for highways, airport and the development of Hambantota port,” adding, “We have received various (Chinese) investments but don’t forget, we have Indian investments too in our railways, water and sanitation, education and housing.”
As for Hambantota, which was leased to a Chinese company for 99 years because Sri Lanka was unable to repay the loan it took for the port’s construction, Fernando said, “India, the U.S. and some other countries in the region have been concerned about its development. Sometimes, we hear wrong information being spread about the project—that the Chinese military will be there. This has been denied by the government. In fact, the port’s security is looked after by the Sri Lankan Navy.”
He cited projects that are or will be executed with Indian assistance. For instance, the East Container Terminal at Colombo port and the LNG terminal at Kerewalapitiya near Colombo, both being built by India and Japan in a unique partnership.
He also drew attention to the Mattala Rajapaksa international airport project in Hambantota, saying that negotiations between Sri Lanka and India to operate it are now in the final stages. Often referred to as the “world’s emptiest airport” owing to the lack of flights, the loss-making airport will now be run jointly by Sri Lanka and India. “We have things like this happening but this doesn’t get much publicity here in India,” Fernando remarked.
Asked if Sri Lanka is doing a fine balancing act then, Fernando said: “We’re a small country. The U.S. and China are big countries. So when we deal with these countries, there should be a non-aligned, friendly and accommodating kind of position. Non-aligned arrangements change a bit here and there but we have to have a non-aligned position.”
As for the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that his country is planning to sign with the U.S., Fernando said: “We have elections coming up and the issue has been politicised. It’s a draft agreement and we have to wait for the final document to be able to comment on it.”
There are fears in Sri Lanka that the proposed pact will allow the U.S. to set up a military base in the island nation and enable unrestricted movement of U.S. military personnel. But Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has dismissed the fears as unfounded.
As Sri Lanka deals with the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, it’s also tackling the growing sectarian divide. Asked about tensions between the Sinhala majority and the Muslim minority in his country, Fernando said: “It is not so. A few persons among the majority are having problems with a few among the Muslim minority. It is not a Sinhala versus Muslims problem.
He, however, conceded that there was increasing radicalisation in Sri Lanka adding that the law was after such people. Noting that radicalisation is happening the world over including in India, Bangladesh and even western democracies, he pointed out: “The problem is when such a thing happens, you can’t compensate for the heartburn it causes. Injuring somebody is easy, healing is very difficult.”