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Relationship with India is our most important relationship, period: Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India

India News

Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, spoke to Nirupama Subramanian about his country’s economic crisis, relations with India and big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Excerpts:

How bad is the economic crisis in Sri Lanka?

We have two challenges before us. One is the foreign exchange challenge, which is showing at the moment. The other is the fiscal challenge, a legacy inherited since Independence because we have lived beyond our means. The pandemic has brought it to the top. [American business magnate and investor] Warren Buffett has this famous quotation: “When the tide goes down, you see who is swimming naked.” I think the pandemic has brought the tide down. It is a real challenge, India has stepped in to stabilise the situation a little bit, but we have to deal with the root causes.

How has India helped?

When [Sri Lankan Finance Minister] Basil Rajapaksa visited [in December 2021], we agreed on “four pillars of co-operation” for the short term. The first column was to do with emergency support for food and medicine, and that is a $1-billion credit line announced by [External Affairs Minister] Dr Jaishankar after his more recent virtual discussion with Mr Rajapaksa. The second was to help with our petroleum supply, where the idea was, on one side, a line of credit of $500 million announced [last Wednesday], and the other was also to collaborate with India on the Trincomalee tank farm and look at how we could work together for energy security and storage. That is the second pillar. The third was how India could support our [foreign exchange] reserves and that was in two stages — the first was India supported us by giving a deferral of two months on our dues to the Asian Clearing Union, and that was $500 million; and the other was a $400-million swap. The last pillar is investment, and I would add tourism to that…

India-Sri Lanka relations have been up and down over the last few years. Would you say that Sri Lanka has had to rethink its relationship with India due to its economic crisis?

I wouldn’t say ‘rethinking’. From the moment President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office, he has always been very focussed on the relationship with India. I think President Rajapaksa wants the two countries to come together, he wants the two economies to integrate more. I think the pandemic struck at a very awkward moment for him, it hit very soon after he took over. And there again, India came up with the vaccines…

How does Sri Lanka view the intense rivalry for influence in the Indian Ocean, with China on one side, and India on the other with the Quad?

Throughout our history, our biggest challenges and our biggest opportunities have come from the ocean… In the 1980s, when Sri Lanka was perceived to be close to the US, there were tensions with India and that had ramifications. China is a new player. We have learnt lessons from our history on how to manage this. Sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we learn from our mistakes, and sometimes we don’t…

Where does SAARC figure in Sri Lanka’s worldview?

Sri Lanka’s future in SAARC is as a good member, and we do what we can do to support the process. But there is a limit to what we can do there. We see the relationship with India to be the most important relationship in the region, it is our most important relationship, period. We will manage that in a way where we can hopefully work from the transactional, strategic to a special relationship and build trust…

One of the traditional areas of friction between India and Sri Lanka has been the Tamil issue, and recently, Tamil parliamentarians wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to ensure the implementation of the 13th Amendment. Do you foresee this becoming an issue between the two countries?

President Rajapaksa on Tuesday in his presidential address to Parliament referred to a committee of experts he has set up to develop the framework of the new Constitution, which he said he will place before the Cabinet and the Parliament for discussion. I think he should be given the opportunity. As somebody who has been involved in different facets of it, travelling to these areas in the north and the east, people are not interested in constitutions. They want livelihood, they want development. All political parties should also work on that paradigm…

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