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India- Pakistan- Sri Lanka: Recent developments

What is the issue?

  • Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan recently made a visit to Sri Lanka.
  • In this context, here is a look at the outcomes of the visit and the implications for India.

How has Pak-Sri Lanka ties been?

  • Trade – Pakistan is Sri Lanka’s second largest trading partner in South Asia after India.
  • Sri Lanka and Pakistan have a free trade agreement dating back to 2005.
    • Pakistan’s top exports to Sri Lanka are textiles and cement.
    • Sri Lanka’s top exports to Pakistan are tea, rubber, and readymade garments.
  • There were commerce secretary-level talks ahead of Prime Minister Khan’s recent visit.
  • As part of it, the two countries decided to reactivate a Joint Working Group to resolve pending technical issues on trade.
  • Culture – Over the last decade, Pakistan has tried to work on a cultural connect with Sri Lanka.
  • On this note, it had highlighted its ancient Buddhist connections and sites.
  • Defence – Defence ties are a strong pillar of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan bilateral relationship.
  • After pulling back the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in 1990, India provided no active defence support to the Sri Lankan military.
    • There was however intelligence sharing during the war against the LTTE.
  • On the other hand, Sri Lanka turned to Pakistan for arms and ammunition in the last stages of the war.
  • It also sought training for its fighter pilots.
  • President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary at the time, visited Pakistan in 2008.
  • He requested for emergency assistance with military supplies.
  • Sri Lankan military officers go to Pakistani military academies for training.
  • Recently, Sri Lanka also participated in Pakistan’s multi-nation naval exercise, Aman-21.

What are the key outcomes of the recent visit?

  • Khan’s visit yielded a clutch of MoUs and agreements between the two sides.
  • The headline outcome was a $50 million credit line in the defence and security sector.
  • Pakistan will set up a centre for the study of Asian cultures and civilisation at Peradeniya University in Kandy.
  • A sports institute in Colombo was named after Imran Khan, highlighting the cricket connection between the two countries.

What makes the visit significant?

  • India – The visit signalled that despite India’s best efforts at “isolating” Pakistan, Islamabad has friends in the neighbourhood.
  • UNHRC – For Colombo, the visit held much value, given its challenging times on the international stage.
  • At the recent session of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka faced another resolution on human rights violations and war crimes.
  • The resolution is against Sri Lanka for withdrawing from resolution 30/1 of September 2015.
  • Under the 2015 resolution, it committed to carry out war crimes investigations.
  • Muslims – The Islamic world is dissatisfied with Sri Lanka’s tight rules for disposal of bodies of Muslims who have died of Covid-19.
    • Burials are not allowed; all bodies must be cremated.
  • The rule created a storm in Sri Lanka.
  • Community leaders feel that the rules were in keeping with the perceived persecution of Muslims by the state.
  • Muslims make up about 11% of Sri Lanka’s population.
  • They have had tense relations with the Sinhala Buddhist majority for much of the last decade.
  • Tensions spiked especially after the Easter 2019 suicide bombings by a group claimed to be members of ISIS.
  • Given these, the visit by a head of government of an Islamic country is good for Sri Lanka.

What happened with Khan’s address to the Parliament?

  • Khan’s planned address to the Sri Lankan Parliament was cancelled.
  • This was probably because of the concern that he would raise the Kashmir issue.
  • And Colombo did not want to anger New Delhi in this.
  • Notably, India is already concerned about –
    • Sri Lanka’s abrupt withdrawal from a tripartite agreement (along with Japan) for the development of the East Container Terminal at Colombo port
    • the award of a contract to a Chinese company to set up a hybrid renewable energy in an island off Jaffna

What does the visit mean to India-Sri Lanka ties?

  • Over the years, Sri Lanka has learnt to balance its ties with India and Pakistan.
  • Khan’s invitation to Sri Lanka to take advantage of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to enhance trade ties did not elicit any reaction from Sri Lanka.
  • Delhi’s overflight permission to Khan’s plane to Colombo was seen as a sign of the new military thaw at the LoC.
  • But it is possible that permission would have been given even without the imminent India-Pakistan agreement on the ceasefire.
  • Periodically, the Indian security establishment has voiced concerns about Pakistan’s role in the radicalisation of Muslims, especially in Eastern Sri Lanka.
  • Funds have allegedly poured in here from some West Asian countries for new mosques.
  • Despite all these, India has not perceived Pakistan as a serious rival in Colombo so far.
  • Now, there is some caution about a convergence of interests between Sri Lanka, China, and Pakistan in the Indian Ocean region and in defence co-operation.

Sri Lanka at the UN Rights Council

Sri Lanka is facing another UNHRC resolution for its war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

UNHRC report on Sri Lanka

  • The report warned that Sri Lanka’s failure to address human rights violations and war crimes committed in the past had put the country on a “dangerous path”.
  • It rose that this could lead to a “recurrence” of policies and practices that gave rise to the earlier situation.
  • It flagged the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, a reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws.
  • The shrinking space for independent media and civil society and human rights organisations are also themes in the report.

The Resolution 30/1

  • The resolution 30/1 launched in 2015 deals with promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.
  • It extended an opportunity to make good on its promises for justice and offered extensive support to accomplish that objective.

Sri Lanka’s intention

  • It is more than Sri Lanka has failed to – and doesn’t intend to — take the necessary, decisive, and sustainable steps necessary to achieve domestic justice and reconciliation.
  • Sri Lanka has officially sought India’s help to muster support against the resolution, which it has described as “unwanted interference by powerful countries”.

Where India comes in

  • The UNHRC is scheduled to hold an “interactive” session on Sri Lanka where the report was to be discussed, and member countries were to make statements. India is expected to make a statement too.
  • Country-specific resolutions against Sri Lanka have regularly come up at the UNHRC in the last decade.
  • New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 and abstained in 2014. It was spared the dilemma in 2015 when Sri Lanka joined resolution 30/1.
  • With elections coming up in Tamil Nadu, and PM declaring on a recent visit that he was the first Indian leader to visit Jaffna, Sri Lanka has begun reading the tea leaves.
  • Whichever way it goes, the resolution is likely to resonate in India-Sri Lanka Relations and for India internally, in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.



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