SOP Update – Mandatory Indian Approval for Chinese Ships Docking in Sri Lanka?

A section of the international media without hesitation categorized all Chinese research vessels as spy ships. They opportunely turned a blind eye to regular visits undertaken by Indian and Japanese vessels to Sri Lankan ports as well as vessels of Western powers. A state of the art French intelligence gathering vessel was here last June.

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FREMM DA Lorraine during sea trials. She is the second Air Defense FREMM of the French Navy and final FREMM frigate built by Naval Group. [ Photo: French Navy]

One-time Foreign Secretary Kshenuka Senewiratne and Admiral Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne (Rtd.) on Dec 04, 2023 assumed duties at the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi and Islamabad, respectively.

It would be pertinent to mention that Wijegunaratne previously served as the First Secretary/Defence Advisor of Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi from 2001 – 2005, at a time the relations between the Asian neighbours had been severely undermined by the conflict in the North East of Sri Lanka, and now with New Delhi continuing to press Colombo on full implementation of the 13th Amendment which was forced on Sri Lanka virtually at the point of a gun in 1987.

During that period New Delhi struggled to address the Sri Lanka issue amidst high profile Norwegian peace initiatives that failed to facilitate a negotiated settlement.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by its haughty deliberate policy routinely violated the much touted Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Sri Lankan government at every turn as it flexed its muscles. The assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar by an LTTE sniper at his home in Colombo 07 in the second week of August 2005 made war inevitable but President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s government despite she being such a big boast about her self-proclaimed achievements, often shooting her mouth without engaging the brain, lacked the guts to meet the challenge. The government didn’t at least order a token airstrike on an identified LTTE target in the North.

During this period Professor Senake Bandaranaike and Mangala Moonasinghe, respectively, functioned as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi whereas Lakshman Kadirgamar and Tyronne Fernando, respectively, served as the Foreign Minister.

Even after the abortive bid to assassinate the then Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka in late April 2006 and the crisis over the closure of the Mavilaru sluice gates in June/July of the same year, the Rajapaksa government, too, refrained from declaring war, probably because as he was already painted as a hard core warmonger, especially by the Western media even before he assumed power in an unlikely polls victory brought about by the LTTE ordering the usually overwhelmingly UNP leaning Tamils to boycott the 2005 presidential election.

Eelam War IV actually started in the second week of Aug 2006 after the LTTE launched simultaneous attacks in the North and East. Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) at last quite rightly found fault with the LTTE for the resumption of all-out hostilities.

In spite of reservations, New Delhi backed Sri Lanka’s military response. That facilitated Sri Lanka’s relentless war against the LTTE, an organization responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,500 Indian soldiers (July 1987-March 1990) and assassination of ex-Premier Rajiv Gandhi (May 1991). The war was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009 by our war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka after personally taking charge of prosecuting the war into his own hands. He began by outplaying the LTTE’s own tactics by sending special forces teams to play havoc behind enemy lines in the form of eight-man and four-man hit teams that also gave exact ranges for the artillery to take out enemy positions, while the bulk of the fighting formations advanced on several fronts taking orders directly from him in Colombo for he knew the battlefield terrain like the back of his hands. And with the full backing of the Rajapaksa government, there was no one to sabotage him from within as happened in so many previous operations. The rest is history.

Fifteen years after the eradication of separatist terrorism, Sri Lanka is yet to reach a consensus with the Tamil community. Post-war reconciliation efforts haven’t yielded the anticipated results. The betrayal by the succeeding Yahapalana government’s co-sponsorship of an accountability resolution at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in early Oct 2015 caused further destabilization.

That Yahapalana decision quite evidently caused resentment among the vast majority of people. The political leadership directed the Foreign Ministry to go ahead with the accountability resolution regardless of serious concerns expressed by the then Sri Lanka Permanent Representative in Geneva Ravinatha Aryasinha (current Director at Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute).

Although terrorism no longer poses a threat here, no country is safe from isolated terror attacks. The post-April 2019 Easter Sunday carnage developments proved consequences of such a disastrous security failure. The collapse of the national economy due to short-sighted policies of the Yahapalana leadership (2015-2019) and the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration (Nov 2019-July 2022) automatically increased external influence and interventions.

Thought for an alternative future

Let us hope all is not lost. What if all the parties to the continuing mess here open their eyes and end petty bickering at the periphery on mainly parochial lines, which if continued will only worsen the cancer, but instead why not everyone share the pie at the centre at least in the form of 30 percent of the ministerial positions going to minorities, 10 percent or more going to those of mixed parentage, depending on demographics, and the balance 60 percent going to the majority. To be more democratic instead of continuing with the colossal Provincial Council system which are a proven white elephant and we have learn to do without them, let us also think in terms of the abandoned District Development Councils.

The Delhi challenge or Challenge in Delhi

One-time Foreign Secretary Kshenuka Senewiratne faces a daunting task in New Delhi. Having served as the Foreign Secretary at the onset of the Yahapalana administration, Senewiratne served the Presidential Secretariat before President Ranil Wickremesinghe named her Milinda Moragoda’s successor.

The former minister played a significant role in strengthening relations with New Delhi during his two-year tenure dominated by swift Indian assistance amidst economic turmoil here and growing concerns over Sri Lanka’s relationship with China. During Moragoda’s time, Delhi repeatedly pressed Sri Lanka over Chinese ship visits. Senewiratne, too, is going to be confronted with the same issue as China certainly intends to test Sri Lanka’s commitment to their longstanding relationship, while Delhi increasingly tries to condemn Colombo to being a vassal state of India using everything at its disposal. Sri Lanka should in no way threaten India’s security concerns and if ever India needs any assistance from us we should reciprocate to the best of our ability, however we need to protect over two millennia existence as a free nation despite periodic invasions from across the Palk Strait throughout our history. We must never allow the big brother politics to overwhelm us. We certainly will have our affinities to the sub-continent as we do have many roots there, but that does not give Delhi the right to dictate terms to us at every turn, especially now in economic terms, which if not kept in check will definitely lead to India smothering us.

We must state it is very wise of the present government now to approve the setting up of a USD 4.5 billion oil refinery at Hambantota by China. Let us also invite even Israel, Russia, or anyone else to invest here, just as much as we have allowed Beijing and New Delhi in a big way. Simply said big brothers India and the US are getting too intimidatingly close for our comfort.

India’s response to the overall situation or the developments taking place here cannot be examined without taking into consideration Delhi being a member of the US led alliance formed against China. In a way, the China issue has taken precedence over post-war reconciliation though the latter still remained a priority. Delhi cannot obviously continue to insist on its long standing policy pertaining to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. But for the last several years this small country has functioned very well without the Provincial Councils with neither of the two minorities nor the majority feeling their absence.

India will certainly again underscore the responsibility on the part of Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment at the next given opportunity in Geneva, but it is now time to say enough is enough not only to New Delhi, but more so to inept UN that bullies countries like us, but mostly plays deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to the US or Israel. Sri Lanka is certainly in such a desperate situation economically with dependence on the international community rapidly growing in the wake of the declaration of bankruptcy in April 2022.

One of the major casualties in the ongoing crisis is Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. The circumstances are so challenging and volatile as demonstrated during the dispute over Chinese ship visits. In the wake of US and Indian pressure meant to force Sri Lanka to cancel ship visits or at least delay them, Foreign and Defence Ministries took contradictory stand on Chinese research ship Shi Yan 6 arrival in Colombo late August this year.

During Foreign Minister Ali Sabry’s visit to New York last Sept, the foreign media quoted him as having disclosed the existence of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) pertaining to foreign vessels and aircraft operating in Sri Lankan territory and the government consulted many friends including India in this regard.

Asian News International (ANI) widely considered to be the biggest television news agency in India quoted President’s Counsel Sabry as having said: “That’s a conversation going on for some period of time. India has expressed its concerns over a long time, but we have come out with the SOP. When we were making it, we consulted many of our friends, including India. So, as long as it complies with the SOP, we have no problem. But if it doesn’t comply with the SOP, we have a problem.”

The bottom line is that Chinese ship visits are subjected to sort of Indian approval. Sri Lanka also explained its position in this regard to the US. A section of the international media without hesitation categorized all Chinese research vessels as spy ships. They opportunely turned a blind eye to regular visits undertaken by Indian and Japanese vessels to Sri Lankan ports as well as vessels of Western powers. A state of the art French intelligence gathering vessel was here last June. No one found fault with Sri Lanka for welcoming the high tech French vessel. The media largely didn’t bother even to report it.

SAGAR doctrine

India repeatedly reminds Sri Lanka that the bankrupt country is a beneficiary of her SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the region) doctrine. SAGAR describes India’s vision and geopolitical structure for maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

The high profile project announced in March 2015 is in line with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that involved the US, Japan, Australia and India.

Sri Lanka has been accommodated in the SAGAR project and obviously is a beneficiary. Two days after Kshenuka Senewiratne assumed duties in New Delhi, a keel laying ceremony of 4000T dock for Sri Lanka Navy was held at M/s Dempo Shipbuilding and Engineering Pvt. Ltd. (DSEPL), Goa. It was being built by M/s Goa Shipyard Ltd. India entered into an agreement in this regard on March 15, 2022 in Colombo, 15 days before protests erupted outside President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, demanding that he step down over the deterioration of the economy.

This is the latest project undertaken in terms of SAGAR and India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. The Floating Dock capable of docking vessels up to 115 meters in length is a gift.

India recently expanded India-Sri Lanka bilateral annual Exercise MITRA SHAKTI for the benefit of the Sri Lanka Air Force. The recently concluded MITRA SHAKTI-IX saw participation of the two Air Forces in addition to the two Armies, making it the first bi-service edition.

The Indian HC declared that based on the success of MITRA SHAKTI–VIII, the exercise was upgraded from a Combined Arms concept to bi-service level. “This demonstrates the ever-enhancing Defence co-operation between the two countries to fight common threats effectively, including terrorism,” Eldos Mathew Punnoose, head of Press, Information & Development Cooperation stated. MITRA SHAKTI, too, in line with India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and SAGAR.

Over the years, India has stepped up military assistance in a way that increased and consolidated Sri Lanka’s dependence on the giant neighbour.

On February 28, this year the then Deputy Indian High Commissioner Vinod K Jacob declared on board INS Sukanya at the Colombo port that India offered approximately 1500 training slots every year to the Sri Lankan military. The training project according to Jacob was financed through an annual allocation of USD 7 million. Jacob said so addressing a group of Indian Navy-trained Sri Lanka Defence Forces personnel on board INS Sukanya. Jacob emphasized that training is the strongest and most enduring pillar of bilateral Defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.

Bankrupt Sri Lanka seems to be happy to accept anything and everything regardless of consequences. An examination of Indian investments since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 and after Narendra Modi became the Premier in May 2014 showed the rapid growth of their influence here.

A moment of shame

Napoleon Bonaparte is widely credited with the quote: “An Army marches on its stomach.” With that, he acknowledged that food is one of the most essential elements to keep an Army fighting fit. This obvious basic truth has been shamefully lost on authorities here.

A recent disclosure at the Committee on Public Finance underscored the crisis the country is experiencing. The Committee, chaired by Dr. Harsha de Silva, was told that the Army couldn’t provide a balanced diet to troops due to the continuing economic crisis.

A statement dated Dec 07, 2023 issued by Parliament quoted senior Army representatives who appeared before the parliamentary watchdog as having said that they faced a daunting challenge of providing a 3,400 calorie diet as required to ensure fitness. They were also quoted as having acknowledged that the failure on their part to meet such basic requirements eroded morale of troops and weakened fitness.

Sri Lanka should be ashamed of failing to provide for a war-winning Army. The Parliament owed an explanation and public apology. Actually, Dr. de Silva’s Committee should officially inform President Ranil Wickremesinghe who is also the Defence Minister, in addition to being the Commander-in-Chief of armed forces. State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon should brief Parliament of the shocking disclosure made at the Public Finance Committee. The parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee (SOC) on National Security should look into this matter.

Dr. de Silva didn’t mince his words when he declared that if the military couldn’t be provided with proper meals Sri Lanka was nothing but a failed state. The former State Minister and economist also questioned whether meals provided for troops were worth the amount of money the government spent for that purpose. The lawmaker said so after his Committee approved the payments amounting to Rs 16.5 bn for various suppliers of food to the Army.

Against the backdrop of a sharp drop in the quality of food, the Committee was also told that since 2021, the strength of the Army had been reduced by nearly 30,000.

The Parliament should look into the issue at hand without delay. It would be pertinent to ask Army headquarters actually when it stopped providing a 3,400 calorie diet to troops. The public has a right to know whether this situation was brought to the notice of the government before the Army told the parliamentary watchdog of the crisis.

The State Defence Minister is on record as having said that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government intended to reduce the strength of the Army to 135,000 by end of next year and 100,000 by 2030. The Army should be able to ascertain whether the deterioration of standards contributed to the increased number of desertions. Unless remedial measures are taken immediately, the situation can take a turn for the worse with further desertions for obvious reasons.

At the time the LTTE was brought down to its knees in May 2009, the Army boasted of 205,000 officers and men. However, over the years, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government gradually decreased the Army strength as troops were appropriately re-deployed. Perhaps the strength dropped by approximately 35,000 and a little more by the time President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted in July 2022. Subsequently, State Minister Tennakoon on behalf of the government declared intention to reduce the strength to 100,000 by 2030. The desertions during a war happen in any Army, but apparently it again picked up here during Gotabaya Rajapaksa time and has continued unabated as authorities turn a blind eye to the situation. The Army, too, should equally be held accountable for this pathetic situation.

Reappraisal of priorities needed

Recently State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya said that President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as the Finance Minister directed that out of the new Rs 10,000 allowance granted to 1.3 mn public servants Rs 5,000 would be paid beginning January 2024, although the payment was previously scheduled to commence in April. President Wickremesinghe also directed that pensioners also be paid the promised Rs 2,500 beginning January.

Against the backdrop of President Wickremesinghe’s directives to advance the payments assured to public servants and pensioners, the government should explain why the guardians of the nation are not provided with suitable meals. The Public Finance Committee should also inquire into the quality of meals provided to SLN and SLAF as the recent meeting chaired by Dr. de Silva appeared to have not dealt with the situation in those two services.

Corruption at every level has taken a heavy toll on the national economy. The recent Supreme Court ruling on the ruination of the economy found fault with the executive, some members of legislature as well as those who received appointments from the executive.

The failure on the part of the Army to provide proper meals can be quite easily blamed on the political leadership. Proceedings based on findings made by the Auditor General at parliamentary watchdog committees almost on a weekly basis reveal waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement. Unfortunately, Prof. Ranjith Bandara, Chairman of one of the committees is himself under fire for trying to protect the corrupt Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), a charge vehemently denied by the SLPP lawmaker. Prof. Bandara has been embroiled in a simmering and continuing controversy over his relationship with an extremely rich institution accused of squandering millions of Rupees over the years.

The government must take tangible measures to meet requirements of the armed forces and police. The failure on the part of the political leadership to identify the needs of the armed forces and police can be quite deadly. The disclosure at the Public Finance Committee should prompt the government to review the overall situation and take whatever measures necessary to provide the basic necessities required by the armed forces.

Shamindra Ferdinando

Shamindra Ferdinando is a Deputy Editor of a Colombo-based daily newspaper, The Island.

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