Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday gently nudged Sri Lanka to reach out to its Tamil minority and branded the the vanquished Tamil Tigers terrorists as he outlined his determination to build a stronger economic relationship with Colombo.
In a carefully worded speech delivered in parliament, Modi emphasized that Colombo, which crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, needed to respect all diversities — for its own good. Sri Lanka, he said to loud thumping of desks by the MPs, had successfully defeated terrorism and ended a long-running conflict that claimed thousands of lives since 1983.
“You now stand at a moment of historic opportunity to win the hearts and heal the wounds across all sections of society,” he said, speaking in English to an audience of mostly Sinhalese politicians. Modi – the first Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka after 1987 – referred to the presidential election of January which ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa and catapulted Maithripala Sirisena to power.
The election reflected the “collective voice of the nation – the hope for change, reconciliation and unity”, he said. “I am confident of a future of Sri Lanka, defined by unity and integrity; peace and harmony; and opportunity and dignity for everyone.
“I believe in Sri Lanka’s ability to achieve it… The path ahead is a choice that Sri Lanka has to make. “But I can assure you this: For India, the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka are paramount,” Modi said. At the same time, the Indian leader suggested that Sri Lanka should grant autonomy to provinces, including the Tamil majority north which he visits Saturday.
Modi said all countries in South Asia have to deal with the “issues of identities and inclusion, of rights and claims, of dignity and opportunity for different sections of our societies”. He said such issues have sometimes had tragic consequences. “Each of us has sought to address these complex issues in our own ways. However, we choose to reconcile them.
“To me something is obvious: Diversity can be a source of strength for nations,” he said. The dragging conflict in Sri Lanka has badly hurt ethnic harmony in the country. Recent moves by some Tamil politicians to rake up the language of separatism has hardened feelings in Sinhalese areas.
The Indian leader said a country became stronger when the aspirations of all its sections were accommodated. Modi’s speech was aimed at reaching out Sri Lanka, separated from India by a narrow strip of sea, and came after he held talks Sri Lanka’s new leadership after arriving here on the final leg of his three-nation tour.
Modi, who flew in from Mauritius, attended several functions, including delegation level talks with President Sirisena, and visited the Mahabodhi Society and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. Modi said the dragging row between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen was a “complex issue” and needed a long-term solution.
On the India-brokered 13th constitutional amendment on devolution of powers to provinces, he said its “early and full implementation and going beyond it” would help the process of building a united Sri Lanka. Modi announced a slew of measures to boost bilateral ties, including in the energy sector and providing visa on arrival for tourists from April 14 — the Tamil and Sinhalese New Year.
He said a Joint Task Force on Ocean Economy would be set up to tap the vast oceans. He announced Air India’s direct flights between New Delhi and Colombo, and cooperation in developing a Ramayana Trail in Sri Lanka and a Buddhist circuit in India.
A fresh Line of Credit of $318 million was announced for Sri Lankan railways. Modi said the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka had agreed to enter into a Currency Swap Agreement of $1.5 billion, to help keep the Sri Lankan rupee stable.
In his address to parliament, Modi said Sri Lanka had the potential to be India’s strongest economic partner. He pushed for an ambitious Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and said India can be a natural source of investment.
“India and Sri Lanka are too close to look away from each other. Nor can we be insulated from one another,” he said.
Modi also visited the Mahabodhi Society Ccolombo and met with Buddhist monks. He went to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) memorial to honour the Indian soldiers who died fighting the Tamil Tigers in 1987-90.
On Saturday, Modi will visit Jaffna, where India has undertaken infrastructure development projects including building of 50,000 homes in the former conflict zone. (IANS)