Indian PM Modi inaugurates railway line in Sri Lanka rebuilt by India
Dr. Abdul Ruff
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is in Sri Lanka on a two day official visit said today that the future of any country is influenced by the state of its neighbors. As he sought to woo smaller Indian Ocean states away from increasing Chinese influence, PM Modi, in his address to SL Parliament hours after his arrival in Colombo, said India’s neighbors should be the first beneficiaries of Indian economic progress.
“The future I dream for India is also a future that I want for our neighbors….The world sees India as the new frontier of economic opportunity. But, our neighbors should have the first claim on India”, he said, “I will be happy if India serves as a catalyst in the progress of our neighbors.”
Modi visited the war-scarred Tamil heartland in the north on Saturday to inaugurate a railway line rebuilt by India. Modi said India has committed $1.6 billion in development assistance for Sri Lanka, promising to continue the development partnership.
Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years, reciprocating the trip to India last month by Sri Lanka’s new president. However Modi since his election last May has emphasized rally his SAARC neighbors. Modi held bilateral talks with Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena, who seems to have made a departure from policies favoring Beijing and toward ethnic reconciliation with his country’s Tamil minority, a sensitive issue in India-Sri Lanka relations. “We have seen the relationship between our countries weakened during the time of some regimes. As a result, it took 28 years for this visit of an Indian prime minister to Sri Lanka,” Sirisena said after the morning meeting with Modi. He said he considered Modi’s visit now was a blessing.
Modi in his speech to Parliament also invited Sri Lanka to have more regular state visits and work together to build trust and remain sensitive to each other’s interest. ” It helps us understand each other better find solutions to mutual concerns and move our relationship forward.”
In 1987, India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Sri Lanka to sign a peace accord in an effort to end the Tamil uprising, which was then in its early years. Sri Lankan Tamils have linguistic and family connections with the sizable Tamil population in India. It was a tumultuous period in relations as India was accused of training and arming the rebels, and then tried to mediate by sending a peacekeeping force, a mission that failed as the Indians were viewed with suspicion by both sides in the civil war.
During his visit, Gandhi narrowly escaped serious injury when a Sri Lankan sailor hit him with his rifle butt during a guard of honor inspection. Four years later, in 1991, Gandhi was assassinated during an election rally in Tamil Nadu. Since then, India had distanced itself from the Sri Lankan conflict, which China used to get closer to the island nation by supplying weapons and later securing a large presence through developing highways, a port and an airport.
Sri Lanka’s new government has recently suspended the Chinese-funded $1.5 billion Colombo Port City project, citing environmental issues and alleged corruption. It was inaugurated in September during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who included Sri Lanka in a new maritime “Silk Road” linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf with China.
Although divided by a strait just 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide, Sri Lanka and India kept distance over the past three decades. Their relations have been marred by the failed Indian peacekeeping attempt at the onset of Sri Lanka’s civil war and more recently, Beijing’s foray into India’s neighborhood.
Modi visited Sri Lanka’s former civil war zone, in a sign of solidarity with minority Tamils who are calling for regional autonomy to end a decades-old ethnic conflict. Modi visited Sri Lanka’s former civil war zone on Saturday, in a sign of solidarity with minority Tamils who are calling for regional autonomy to end a decades-old ethnic conflict.
Modi commissioned a section of railway track built with Indian aid in Talaimannar and ceremonially began the construction work of a cultural center to be built in the town of Jaffna with Indian assistance. Jaffna is the cultural heartland of the Tamils and was the stage of many battles during Sri Lanka’s quarter century civil war. The war ended in 2009 when government forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting to create a separate state for Tamils in the country’s north and east. Since the war’s end, India has been calling on Sri Lanka to share power with the Tamils in order to promote reconciliation.
India has a strong interest in the issue because southern India is home to 60 million Tamils. India’s government, however, has been reluctant to become directly involved in Sri Lankan politics since a disastrous military intervention during the civil war left more than 1,000 Indian troops dead. The military intervention followed an agreement between India and Sri Lanka that led to an amendment of Sri Lanka’s constitution and established provincial councils in an effort to end Tamil militancy.
During his talks Friday with Sri Lankan leaders, Modi said the full implementation of the particular amendment “and going beyond it would contribute to” building and promoting equality, justice, peace and dignity in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s former government promised to allow a greater degree of autonomy for the Tamil-majority regions, but later backtracked, saying it would take back the land and police powers given to the provincial councils. At the time, Indian leaders expressed dismay at the move. The current Sri Lankan government, which came to power in January, has promised to work toward ethnic reconciliation.
Modi visited Seychelles and Mauritius before Sri Lanka on his tour of Indian Ocean states. China in recent years heavily funded infrastructure development projects in these countries, making India apprehensive because it perceives the region to be its traditional territory of influence. He avoided visiting the Maldives, which has a pro-China administration and where a supposedly pro-India opposition leader is being tried for terrorism.
Sri Lanka is the last leg of Modi’s tour of the region, during which he has sought to woo smaller Indian Ocean states away from increasing Chinese influence.