Sri Lanka’s friendship with India and China is not a zero sum game, says High Commissioner Kariyavasam

Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Mr. Prasad Kariyawasam is busier than before. Some of the incidents which have occured involving Sri Lankan citizens specially in Tamil Nadu have created new tensions between Colombo and New Delhi. 

The relationship is robust but certainly this has introduced a new element of tension, which both governments surely do not want escalated. What are the issues and how both the governments are trying to solve these new issues is what I asked Mr. Prasad  Kariyavasam himself on Wednesday. Here’s the full transcript.

Nitin: Tell us we had this incident in Tamil Nadu yesterday where the Sri Lankan pilgrims were under pressure, they were attacked in couple of cases. What is your government’s view on that incident or even the incidents earlier?

Prasad Kariyavasam: First of all I want to clarify that there is no tension between Sri Lanka and India. Sri Lanka and India are old friends and we have historical relationship and these incidents, these sort of episodes happen on and off and we two are mature democracies and and our leaders are fully capable of handling these issues without any tension. What happened in Tamil Nadu is very unfortunate, regrettable specially because few fringe groups who are pro-LTTE obviously and who were supporting LTTE and who continue to support that ideology have resorted to violence. 
We thought we have eradicated violence from our part. I mean from Sr Lanka we have eradicated. They seem to be engaging in violence, our pilgrims were harrased, attacked and some were injured even and that’s something we are very concerned and I must say the indian government specially the central government was very very prompt in helping us and providing safety and security to our pilgrims, for them to taken back to Sri Lanka we had to bring special aircraft and do that. Law and order machinery in Tamil Nadu was also very helpful to us. But this sort of action by pro-LTTE groups is a major concern for us. I am sure its a concern for India as well.

Nitin- What has Indian government told you. How are they going to handle this? 

Kariyavasam: Well they are equally concerned like us and they have provided support for us. Provided security and took care of the pilgrims for there evacuation…quick evacuation.

Nitin: Have you analysed the developments in the past 3 or 4 months because it started of with… if I remember correctly with the protest agains two Sri Lankan Armed forces officials who were undergoing course here at the National Defence College, going to Tamil Nadu and protest against them and then demand from Tamil Nadu political parties that your defence officers should not be trained by India. Have you analysed why this has happened and what is your response to it?

Kariyavasam: Between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu the relationship is very deep and old. There are 80 flights between Colombo and Chennai per week, so that’s the level of people to people contact, the depth and the breadth of contact. So natural state of affairs between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu is very normal and people go up and down in large numbers; for business, for pleasure for, tourism, for pilgrimage, thats normal. But there are some elements who are bent on perhaps vitiating the atmosphere for different reasons. But I would not want to speculate who and why they do that, but at least the group that harmed the pilgrims, we are aware that they are pro- LTTE elements.

Nitin: This has always been a problem. Tamil Nadu domestic politics or domestic politics in India have always cast a shadow over the India- Sri Lanka relations. I know you have handled it in past for a number of years. You have seen through the worst days during war with LTTE. But I am again asking why has this re-surfaced. Is there anything that you have come across. Some reason, do you think there is something that has prompted them to do this…the groups, the fringe groups that you were talking about. Has any analysis has been done on that?

Kariyavasam: There could be that defeat of LTTE was perhaps difficult for them to accept and LTTE is still alive in some western countries. LTTE support groups and there could be a nexus between them and LTTE ideology may be still a platform to mobilise people and that could be one reason. There are other political parties who express concern about the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamils, which is not a bad thing because we are also similarly concerned about them because they are our citizens and we take care of them. 
But of course we would like them to discuss those matters with us and visit Sri Lanka. Come and see the ground situation themselves and observe things and talk to us and then talk about it. Unfortunately despite of invitations not many Tamil Nadu leaders have visited Sri Lanka. There are few Congress party Tamil MP’S who have visited. But we would like to have more of them. Visit Sri Lanka and see the situation, see how the northen province has grown. In fact today the northen province growth is 22% and all those were displaced and all those 300,000 people whom we rescued from the LTTE custody they are now all now being re-settled, except for just few thousand. Issue is livelihood issues, we want to provide them jobs and livelihood support. In fact if our Tamil Nadu friends are very serious about helping us they should allow Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen to fish in our waters without going and fishing in our waters. That sort of help you should give.

Nitin: That is another matter of tension. The Indian fishermen or the Tamil Nadu fishermen getting caught by Sri Lankan Navy is what constantly Tamil Nadu political parties keep saying. But from what you are saying; is there a conmmunication gap betweeen the Tamil Nadu political parties and the Indian government at the Centre as well as the Sri Lankan government in Colombo. You said you have invited them, they haven’t gone. Is it a misperception?

Kariyavasam: I cannot comment on the development in India with regard to the Indian political parties. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned we have always indicated to them that Tamil Nadu parliamentarians are welcome to visit Sri Lanka and CM has been invited as well. So we welcome them but not all of them have visited Sri Lanka. They can then see the good progress we have made on the ground. Instead some Tamil Nadu political leaders seem to be believing some propaganda material that emanate primarily in the western world by groups who were earlier alligned with the LTTE and believe those stories. So that is not a very good idea. Tamil Nadu…we have been friends for long long years…very deep connections.

Nitin: There is another point of friction, if I may call it…is the issue of Tamil Nadu fishermen constantly getting entangled with the Sri Lankan navy and getting caught. How are you going to solve that issue?

Kariyavasam: Easiest way is that no fishermen should cross international maritime boundary line. Large number of Tamil Nadu fishermen are crossing that in the season…large numbers crossing into Sr Lankan waters which are…that water is now being used by Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who were deprived of the fishing during the conflict period. Now they want to exercise their right to livelihood in our waters. But they have a competition from the Tamil Nadu fishermen. So they complain to our navy and navy try to ask them to get out of our waters. But navy is under strict instructions that they cannot haress them, thay cannot manhandle them, they cannot shoot at them. Shooting never happens now.So they follow those things and also some time Tamil Nadu fishermen use what we call bottom trolling and nylon nets. Now those are banned internationally and if you use them it damages the sensitive sea area in the Palk Bay. Fish generation gets halted. So that’s another issue so these issues must be addressed  by Tamil Tadu and I think if they are concerned about Sri Lankan and Tamil fishermen the best thing is not to let them come in our waters.

Nitin: When you answered the first question that I asked you you said there is no tension between New Delhi and Colombo…fair enough. But if you see the vote in the UN body where India went against the normal stand that India takes, supporting Sri Lanka. Since then what has been the growth trajectory between the India Sri Lanka relations. Have have they gone slow, have they halted. How do you assess that?

Kariyavasam: Between friends sometimes there are some episodes of disagreements. So we have agreed to disagree at that time, we were disappointed by that vote, but its a simple disagreement, its just that eopisode. We have moved on. Since then we have had 5 cabinet ministers from India visiting. Hon’ble Anand Sharma, Hon’ble Kumari Selja, We had Hon’ble Jai ram ramesh and then we had leader of opposition Sushma Swaraj leading a delegation of parliamentarians

Nitin: Even our NSA went there I think…
Kariyavasam: National Security Advisor went there. Similarly we have had our ministers coming here. Visits takes place at a frequent pace and more than that large number of tourist from India visits us. India is our biggest investor,our biggest trading partner and today India is in fact sponsoring Sri Lanka Premiere League. Its called Mahindra Premiere League. All franchises of all teams are owned by Indian companies, so that is the level of connection we have. So Sri Lanka -India everything is normal. Even with regard to Tamil Nadu situation we like to think its an abberation of the normal situations and we hope mature polity in Tamil Nadu will put things on even keel.

Nitin: I hope so but there is this travel advisory you had to issue. I guess over travelling to Tamil Nadu or not travelling to Tamil Nadu for Srilankan citizens so long as the situation doesn’t normalize. When do you think you will review that advisory or withdraw that advisory?

Karivayasam: We would like to withdraw as soon as possible but we will have to observe the situation. So lets see how it goes. We were compelled to issue that advisory because we never expected a pilgrim group, a Christian Tamil group who were mostly the Tamils to be attacked. That actually disturbed us so we had to take some response as a responsible state

Nitin: Moving away from there, there is also the issue of India-Sri Lanka defence cooperation that the Tamil Nadu political parties are insisting that they should halt. Training Sri Lankan defence forces or defence forces officials. There has been a long India Sri Lanka defence cooperation…agreement if i can call that. Is it going to go forward. The training will continue, you think? Or you are going to review the training of the officers and Is there any progress with the defence cooperation proposal?

Kariyavasam: Sri Lanka and India has now set up annual defence dialogue so that will continue and our defence cooperation with India is long standing, deep and broad, those things will continue. Of course with regard to where they should be trained and how they should be trained is the matter that Indian government authorities will decide.

Nitin- But you will continue? There is no review over that?

Kariyavasam: From Sri Lanka’s side yes. Everything as far as we are concerned is agreed already and where our where they will be trained is the matter that Indian authorities will decide according to their own requirements and reasons

Nitin: I agree when you say long standing, deep agreement or deep rooted relationship between India and Sri Lanka exists. But the public perception in India is somehow India is losing ground to China. You are HighCcommissioner in India, do you get this feeling when you talk to people around here in India.

Kariyavasam: People ask me questions about China but believe me most of what appears in papers are speculative and incorrect. Recently there was a news report of a land

Nitin- Plot of land…

Kariyavasam: Plot of land being given to Chinese company over Indian High commission. That was not accurate. That was a private transaction, that’s not government’s. The circumstances of that was totally misrepresented, convoluted to give a different meaning. So you know… India is the largest investor in Sri Lanka and lot of prime land is now being taken over by indian companies. ITC has got prime land just next to Taj Hotel and there are other projects where India is fully involved. Northern railway which is 800 million dollar project- is handled by Indian NTPC…sorry IRCON recently. Very soon NTPC and and CEB intend to have joint venture to have 500 MW coal power plant in Sampoor. Things are going normally. With regard to China, China of course is our friend but that friendship and India’s friendship is not a zero sum game.

Nitin: They can co exist in Sri Lanka…

Kariyavasam: Exactly… but India is in our relation like our President said and China is our friend. There is a room for all in Sri Lanka. We only want to be hub in our region that can fecilitate better trade, better relationship and more exposure of all businesses. That is our objective. Sri Lanka wants to remain a very active hub for the region and for that India has the first call on anything, if they are willing to take it.

Nitin: That’s an important statement you have made. I think everyone in the decision making apparatus knows this but for the general public this is a new thing that you are saying India has the first call on anything they want to take.

Now, President of Sri Lanka is likely to come to India we are told this month sometime. Is it going to be a state visit or is coming for pilgrimage

Kariyavasam: He is expected to be here. It will be a official visit and also there is invitation to go to Sanchi from chief minister of Madhya Pradesh to inagurate university on Buddhist  studies to lay the foundation stone. President is expected to come for that.

Nitin: So this visit will take forward the deep rooted relationship you feel?

Kariyavasam: Sanchi is also a very important place as from Sanchi King Asoka sent his son and daughter from 2302 years ago to Sri Lanka. So Sanchi has a big meaning for us. So it shows Sri Lanka’s relationship with india is much broader, Tamil Naduis just one element. We have relationship with almost all states of india…deep ones. We look at India trough all states not only through Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is important-closest–but all other states are equally important. Our relationship with india is multi-layered.