Addressing Tamil concerns, implementing 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka’s interest: Jaishankar

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It is in “Sri Lanka’s own interest” that the expectations of the Tamil people, for equality, justice, peace and dignity within a united Sri Lanka are fulfilled, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in Colombo on Wednesday.

“That applies equally to commitments made by the Sri Lankan government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment,” he said, addressing a joint press conference with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Mr. Jaishankar earlier called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and held bilateral discussions with his counterpart, as part of his three-day visit that began on Tuesday. “The progress and prosperity of Sri Lanka will surely be advanced as a consequence [of addressing Tamils’ expectations],” Mr. Jaishankar said, in an apparent reference to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision and policy framework titled ‘Vistas of prosperity and splendour’.

Consistent with New Delhi’s messaging on Sri Lanka’s Tamil question since the Rajapaksas came to power, Mr. Jaishankar’s emphasis on Tamil concerns appeared a response to growing calls in Sri Lanka, including from senior Ministers in the ruling Rajapaksa administration and members of the influential Buddhist clergy, for the abolition of the provincial council system and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Their campaign, while the government mulls holding elections to its nine provincial councils, effectively threatens the only legislative guarantee of a measure of power devolution, that followed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.

In his statement Mr. Gunawardena said President Rajapaksa had “firmly stated” his commitment to the well-being, progress and opportunities “to all our citizens — Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim”. Thanking India for extending “tremendous support” to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy made “a very positive impact” on Sri Lanka’s health sector and the economy during this critical period.

‘Vaccine diplomacy’

Meanwhile, a statement from the office of President Rajapaksa said, “India was ready to give priority to Sri Lanka” when it began supplying vaccines to other countries. “I carry back with me Sri Lanka’s interest in accessing vaccines from India,” Mr. Jaishankar said, even as Sri Lanka prepares to finalise an agreement to secure COVID-19 vaccines through the UN-backed COVAX programme.

While the Foreign Ministers’ statements made no reference to the contentious East Container Terminal (ECT) project at the Colombo Port, which New Delhi is keen to develop along with Colombo, President Rajapaksa’s statement said the ECT, an LNG (liquefied natural gas) power plant, construction of houses and roads, development of agriculture and research, communication technology, and development of alternative energy sources, had been identified as areas for development cooperation. However, around the same time that Mr. Jaishankar met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday morning, his older brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told Parliament that the government had not decided to handover the management of the ECT to “any foreign company”.

All statements were silent on New Delhi’s response to Colombo’s pending requests for a loan moratorium and a special currency swap facility of $1 billion.

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