Wijesinha, on a trip to New Delhi ahead of a 16-19 January visit to Sri Lanka by Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna, was also critical of his government’s slow pace of reintegrating minority Tamils into the Sri Lankan political mainstream as he stressed the need to fasttrack the reconciliation process between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese after the end of the almost three-decade-old civil war on the island nation in May 2009.
“Efforts to present Sri Lanka as a bone of contention between India and China are largely self-serving… given the tendency of the West to function in terms of binary opposites,” Wijesinha said, with regard to China.
“This is also understandable given the manner in which they fought the Cold War but China has made it clear to Sri Lanka that the primacy of our relationship with India is understood. If rivalries on the lines of those that dogged all of us during the Cold War are to develop, they will be primarily economic in character and played out in Africa and similar fields for large-scale investment without any need for hostilities in South Asia,” Wijesinha said in a speech at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
The comments mirror those of Sri Lankan foreign minister G.L. Peiris and others against the backdrop of increasing Chinese investments in Sri Lanka seen as being within India’s sphere of influence.
Many experts and commentators have expressed concern over increased Chinese activity in India’s periphery—in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal besides the disputed part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan.
According to Wijesinha, Sri Lanka had first offered the contract to develop the Hambantota port—seen as the most prominent symbol of Chinese economic engagement in the country since the end of the civil war—to India. The first phase of the port in southern Sri Lanka, completed in 2010 by the China Harbour Engineering Co. Ltd at a cost of $360 million, includes a high-quality passenger terminal, cargo handling, warehousing, bunkering, provisioning, maintenance and repair, medical supplies and customs clearing facilities.
“India said it could not do this, so it was given to China,” Wijesinha said, adding that India was involved in the dredging and refurbishment of the Kankesanturai port in the northern part of Sri Lanka. “India is now moving on this very quickly, previously it was slow,” he said.
He warned that some Sri Lankan groups too could take advantage of perceived India-China rivalry if India and the West were seen to be working together to pressure Colombo on the reconciliation process.
Wijesinha admitted that the Sri Lankan authorities could move more quickly on the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)— set up by the Colombo government at the end of the civil war broadly along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 1990s. He sought the creation of a separate ministry tasked with fulfilling the recommendations of the report with a limited time span of about two years after which it should be declared redundant.
The LLRC recommendations include investigations into allegations of human rights violations during the last phases of the civil war, increased media freedom and a speedy redressal of the grievances of the Tamils that sparked the civil war decades ago.