'Relations with India excellent'

  • Ashok Tuteja and Debdeep Mukherjee | New Delhi

    June 19, 2017 | 05:22 AM
Chitranganee Wagiswara

Chitranganee Wagiswara (Photo: Facebook)

Chitranganee Wagiswara, a former foreign secretary of Sri Lanka,took over as the country's High Commissioner to India in 2016. She joined the Foreign Service in 1981 and since then has served her country in various capacities in both Lanka and abroad. In an interview to Ashok Tuteja and Debdeep Mukherjee, she speaks about Lanka's relations with India and various other issues.

Excerpts:

The Sri Lankan Prime Minister visited India in April when the twocountriessignedanagreement on cooperation in economic projects. What does it entail?

Well, the MOU was signed when our Prime Minister visited New Delhi just before PM Modi visited Sri Lanka. India and Lanka have always maintained good relations. Whatever issues we may have had in the past, at present I would say our relations are excellent. Since PM Modi was elected in 2014 and the Unity Government came in Lanka in 2015, the two countries have maintained very cordial relations. The MoU signed is aimed to further strengthen bilateral ties and covers energy, roads, highways, water, railways, health and other sectors.

Why the accord on Trincomalee oil storage facility could not be signed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Sri Lanka?

On Trincomalee, we are still discussing. There are certain issues which need to be sorted out through discussions. We know India is interested in Trincomalee region. A business plan is being drawn up by a Singapore-based company also. It is difficult to say by when an agreement would be signed.

There is an impression in India that China's influence is growing in Sri Lanka at the cost of India. Do you agree?

Well we went through a very difficult phase with three decades of conflict. Even during that time, we managed to maintain a 4-5 per cent growth. Now as the conflict is behind us, we have to look at developing the country. So we would like to work with India, China, Japan, Singapore, USA, ASEAN and EU. We look forward to signing FTAs with more countries. Of course, we have one with India. We are discussing an FTA with China. So, one cannot say that our ties are improving with one nation at the cost of another.

Could you tell us about the progress made by Sri Lanka in rehabilitating those displaced duetothewaragainsttheLTTE?

We don't have any camps now which were set up after the war. We call them welfare centres. There were around 11,000 LTTE cadres who surrendered and came to our side when the war was in its final stages. These cadres faced immense hardships and trauma. Many programmes are now in place for detainees. We are looking on compensation and reconciliation besides other relief programmes. Employment opportunities are being nurtured with some companies establishing factories. After a 30- year war, all issues cannot be sorted out overnight. We have initiated a mechanism to look into the alleged disappearances.

Do you think LTTE can raise its head again?

LTTE in Lanka is not an issue at all. Some people outside the country are trying to indulge in propaganda and whip up emotions but they are marginal in numbers. It has been seven years now… so such attempts won't succeed. Moreover, the international environment is against terrorism with what is happening in the West. No way, they (LTTE) could raise their heads.

There are still complaints of violation of human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Are they really true?

Not really, maybe a few are still being detained but the government is trying to do its best. It's a complicated issue as some people reported to have disappeared may have fled the country.The government is trying to find employment opportunities for the people. The main thing is that there is no war, no killing, no child is anymore taken to fight as soldier. Human rights issues like these were there in the North and stretched to the East but now people can move freely and get access to educational and employment opportunities.

Why have India and Lanka failed to find a permanent solution to the fishermen issue which is a regular source of tension?

Fisherman issue has been there for a long time. The problem is that Indian fishermen mainly from southern states often cross the Indian Maritime Border Line and enter our side to fish. Poaching and crawling are two major issues. Last November, we had ministerial level discussions. Fishermen associations from both sides also met. A joint working group was established. They again met for the second time in Lanka in April. So, more surveillance, establishment of hot lines and other measures have been taken. We are pleased that the Indian government is looking into this issue seriously and encouraging deep sea fishing by allotting extra funds as well. We are hopeful that with such measures, this issue will be resolved soon.

How do you look at the South Asian satellite launched by India recently? Do you think Pakistan should also join the project?

With respect to Pakistan joining, it's up to them but we have supported the satellite launch. We hope the programme would help in communication and other areas like weather forecast, disaster management and health issues for the entire region.

Why do you think SAARC has failed to make much progress as a regional grouping like ASEAN and other trade blocs and do you see the possibility of the SAARC Summit taking place anytime soon?

Well, it has been quite slow at the political level but there have been nearly 100 areas in which we have established linkages like trade, culture, student welfare, judges, legislatorsand journalists. We need to first look at soft areas where there is an understanding before moving on to political issues. Of course, how the new SAARC Secretary General, a Pakistani appointed a month back, acts has to be seen.

How do you propose to promote Lanka as an attractive tourist destination in India?

With new infrastructure in place, we need to work on this area. Definitely India sends the largest number of tourists to Sri Lanka with over 3 lakh every year. We need to focus on attracting more Indian tourists. Religious tourism is also on the rise. Sri Lankan Buddhist pilgrims are visiting Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and other holy places. Similarly we are looking to work on the Ramayana trail like places where Sita was kept. We need to publicise that as there is a huge interest in Ramayana in India.

How do you look at China's One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative? India boycotted the OBOR forum in China recently because of its objections over the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Lanka has been a part of the silk route for years. Traders, missionaries, colonisers and others have used that route moving east and west. The Arabs, Chinese, Japanese have all exchanged trade on this route. So why not? Lanka wants to project itself as a hub in the Indian Ocean, and work closely with India as well.