Sri Lanka, India seek to repair bilateral ties

Sri Lanka's new Foreign Minister, Mr Mangala Samaraweera, met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi here yesterday as the South Asian neighbours look to recasting ties that had been strained under the previous government in Colombo.

Mr Samaraweera's three-day visit for meetings with India's leadership is his first abroad since he was appointed last week, reflecting the priority of the government under new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena.

Yesterday, the Foreign Minister extended his country's invitation for Mr Modi to visit Colombo.

Bilateral relations suffered under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had courted Beijing and strengthened defence and economic cooperation with the Chinese.

India, which is sensitive to China's growing influence in the region, lodged a protest in October last year after a Chinese nuclear submarine docked at Colombo. A second Chinese submarine followed suit in November.

With a new government in Colombo, India and Sri Lanka will start talks on repatriating more than 100,000 Tamil refugees who fled to India during Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009.

Countries including India felt that Mr Rajapaksa, who had helmed the campaign to defeat Tamil Tiger guerillas, did not do enough to address allegations that his troops killed some 40,000 civilians during the final stages of the war.

Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh was among the leaders who boycotted the Commonwealth summit hosted by Colombo in 2013 over the issue.

While it remains to be seen how the new government will address the issue of human rights abuses, it has indicated it will follow a more balanced policy.

Mr Modi told Mr Samaraweera that "even a few steps can clearly indicate one's direction" and expressed admiration for the initial steps taken by the new leadership for "political reconciliation, inclusiveness and participation", the Indian Prime Minister's office said.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told India's NDTV: "President Rajapaksa's regime tried to play China against India and India against China and... came a cropper."

The Sri Lankan government also said it was reviewing a series of infrastructure projects initiated by Mr Rajapaksa, including the development of a port near Colombo to be undertaken by the Chinese.

"We are looking into all foreign contracts and local ones, and where there is corruption, we will certainly ensure we take action, whether it be Chinese or any other country," said Mr Wickremesinghe in the same interview.

In a related development, New Delhi and Colombo denied media reports that an official with India's spy agency, who was based in Colombo, was expelled for working to ensure Mr Rajapaksa's defeat.

Denying this, the Indian side said all transfers out of Colombo were routine ones.

As the neighbours reach out to each other, analysts said initial indications are that bilateral ties are being repaired.

"There were irritations, but we can now look forward to a smoother relationship with some of the issues addressed," said South Asia expert S.D. Muni.

"India was not happy about the defence cooperation between China and Sri Lanka, which bought a lot of Chinese weapons for the war against the Tamil Tigers, and later on, the growing Chinese economic presence in Sri Lanka.

"But now, a new chapter is starting."

This article was first published on January 20, 2015.
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