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Politics behind ECT

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The Indian government is not happy with the developments as the Cabinet decision means arbitrary exclusion of India’s involvement in the ECT management

India’s next move sometimes could be seen in the Northern and Eastern Provinces or in Geneva, unless Sri Lankan authorities handle the issue in a sensible manner


The controversy over the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port seems to be far from over, despite the agitation by port-worker-trade unions having subsided. Trade unions resumed work, ending their work to rule campaign on Monday after the Cabinet heeded to their demands that the government’s decision to hand over 49 per cent of the ECT management rights to an Indian company be scrapped. According to Monday’s Cabinet decision the ECT would be managed totally by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).

However, the Indian government is not happy with the developments as the Cabinet decision means arbitrary exclusion of India’s involvement in the ECT management. In an apparent blunt rejection of the Cabinet decision, the Indian High Commission in Colombo has stated that it, “Reiterates the expectation of the Indian Government for the expeditious implementation of the trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) signed in May 2019 among the Governments of India, Japan and Sri Lanka for the development of ECT with the participation from these three countries”.

It said the “Commitment of the Sri Lankan Government in this regard has been conveyed several times in the recent past, including at leadership level. The Sri Lankan Cabinet also took a decision three months ago to implement the project with foreign investors. All sides should continue to abide by the existing understandings and commitment”.

Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Tuesday after Sri Lanka’s decision to pull out of its agreement to grant rights to the ECT to India.

The latest announcement by the government reminds us of a similar but more serious statement by President Premadas in 1989 during a public rally over the withdrawal of Indian troops then stationed in Sri Lanka, creating a diplomatic deadlock between the two countries. Mr. Premadasa unilaterally announced at a Buddhist temple ceremony near the Parliament complex in Battaramulla that he had decided to request India to try to complete the withdrawal of the 50,000-strong IPKF by the end of July that year.

India might accept the offer that came out of the blue from the Sri Lankan side to hand over 85 per cent of stakes of the entity that would manage the deep water West Container Terminal (WCT) of the Colombo port to compensate the loss of the ECT by India, but the manner in which the government announced its decision without any prior discussion with India would have offended it.

Although all stakeholders – local and foreign – describe the projects and plans involving the Colombo harbour as those aimed at developing the site, they are in fact obsessed with their own political interests.

The agitations began when the government last month announced that it would offer ECT to India’s Adani Group and Japan to jointly run it with the SLPA. The Opposition called it a sellout while the leaders of the ruling coalition described it as a joint investment. However, the agitation gained momentum with the support of the port workers’ trade unions, irrespective of party affiliations and some nationalist and leftist politicians in the government joining the bandwagon. 

Their statements were interesting. They said they joined the agitation not only to protect the ECT, but also to protect the President and the government. Since they were saying this when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government were about to hand over the ECT to India’s Adani Group and Japan, the question remained from whom were they attempting to protect the government and the President. 

However, from a political and tactical perspective they were correct as they were attempting to prevent the credit from going to the JVP which kindled the trade union action. In case of the major industrial conflict erupting in the port, the government would have to take the side of the foreign investors, while the trade unions and the JVP appearing to be protecting national interests. Thwarting such a situation in fact amounts to defending the President and the government.

They argue that handing over ECT was inimical to national interests, including national security, but at the same time they justify the same policy with regard to the WCT, simply because it is mentioned in the President’s election manifesto, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”. Also as if the JVP’s motive in respect of the ECT runs counter to theirs, they question why the southern rebels did not protest against the handing over of the Hambantota Harbour to China. 

They were correct when they questioned why the groups now agitating against the move to hand over the ECT to India meekly acquiesced when the previous government signed the MoC in May 2019 for the same purpose. However, SLPA’s former Chairman Priyath Bandu Wikrama in a televised discussion this week said that the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to hand over the management of any two terminals of the Colombo port to foreign private partners. If the agitations are based on oppositions to handing over national assets to foreigners or “patriotism” one cannot approve the agreement with the ADB as well.
The UNP and the SJB attempted to capitalize on the situation by questioning the SLPP’s opposition to their agreement with India and Japan in 2019. Despite there being contradictions in the SLPP stances, they were trying to implement the agreement signed by the UNP/SJB led government.

More than Indian transshipment operations which is said to be 65 percent of Colombo harbour’s total such operations the port is important to India to protect its geo-political interests. India is already planning to develop a transshipment port at Great Nicobar Island in the Bay of Bengal with an investment of Rs.10,000 crore ($1.33bn). The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the plan in August last year as he inaugurated the first undersea optical fiber project to provide high speed internet to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Media had then quoted Indian officials saying that New Delhi wants the port to be built as an alternative to other ports in the neighbourhood including those in Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Banda Aceh.

However, with China operating both the Hambantota Port and the CICT Terminal in Colombo Port it is justifiable that India feels that its southern flank is exposed. Chinese influence in the region is a headache to the US as well. It is in that light that we have to understand the statement by US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz during a virtual round-table discussion with a group of journalists that the involvement of an Indian company in the ECT was essential for Sri Lanka’s maritime future.

India’s next move is not clear. Although the WCT too might protect its geo-political interests, it might be concerned about the manner in which the Sri Lankan government dropped it from the ECT agreement. India’s next move sometimes could be seen in the Northern and Eastern Provinces or in Geneva, unless Sri Lankan authorities handle the issue in a sensible manner. 

On Tuesday, the Indian Deputy High Commissioner, Vinod K. Jacob, met two Tamil leaders from the Eastern Province, former Chief Minister and current MP, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan and former Deputy Minister Vinayagamurthi  Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman, and discussed 13A. He had reiterated that meaningful devolution is the way forward for achieving the aspirations of the Tamil people and stressed full implementation of the 13th amendment. Mr. Jacob also met SLMC leader, MP Rauff Hakeem on Wednesday to discuss, according to the media, economic, financial and development cooperation opportunities between India and Sri Lanka.

A resolution hostile to Sri Lanka is likely to be adopted at the UNHRC sessions next month by some Western nations backed by the US. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had already recommended, “targeted sanctions” against Sri Lankan authorities and also referring it to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged “war crimes”. India might use this also as an opportunity to tame the Sri Lankan leaders.

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