Sri Lanka FM Ali Sabry says New Delhi’s sensitivities will be kept in mind

Speaking exclusively with our diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Colombo, FM Sabry said, “everyone who will be entitled will be known in advance, we will have a known procedure in place so that no one is surprised, so therefore it is important we also have the freedom of navigation in the Indian ocean.”

In the backdrop of the visit of Chinese spy ship, Sri Lankan foreign minister Ali Sabry has said that Indian “Indian sensitivities will be kept in mind” so that it doesn’t lead to any “unpleasantries” for both the countries. Remember Chinese spy ship or as Beijing has been terming it research vessel research vessel Yuan Wang 5 had visited the Sri Lankan port of hambantota raising concern for New Delhi. Speaking exclusively with our diplomatic correspondent Sidhant Sibal from Colombo, FM Sabry said, “everyone who will be entitled will be known in advance, we will have a known procedure in place so that no one is surprised, so therefore it is important we also have the freedom of navigation in the Indian ocean.”

The foreign minister lauded New Delhi’s role amid the economic crisis his country has been facing pointing to “significant improvement” in the situation. India provided assistance worth 3.8 billion dollars to Sri Lanka to tide over unprecedented economic crisis. FM said,” Indian support is very critical to us. India has played a great role in supporting the neighbor in the most difficult time of its history.”

He also highlighted how the ongoing Russian Ukraine conflict has “disproportionately impacted” his country and said that Colombo is in talks with Moscow to get discounted Russian energy. He warned, “moment Russian oil goes out of the market, there will be scarcity and that will probably shoot up the prices and will create economic upheaval in terms of recession or something of that sort.”. He also spoke about ties with China, implementation of 13th amendment and Tamil issue, IMF bailout…

WION: How has the current economic situation been? Has an improvement seen?

Ali Sabry: Sri Lanka had gone through tremendous difficulty during the course of the year, but if you compare with what you saw in March, May and July there is significant improvement on the ground. Tourist have started to come back, a little bit of stability in foreign currency because of that we have managed to get our fuel, cooking gas and other supplies to some sort of normality, but we are not out of the woods. Some turning point has taken place for goods.

WION: Government has said that there were radical extremists behind the demonstrations. Have you identified who they were and whether they were getting support from abroad

Ali Sabry: Actually, it you look at the March and May protests, we got lot of support from the public because we understand if we have long queues for 4-5 days, there was no cooking gas, the sky rocketing prices, shortage of food, shortage of fertilizers, had reason for people to come out and we were very-very apologetic about it, towards that and we have done so publicly. Since then, constitutional process has taken place, new president has come has in, elected president has given up and gone, a new cabinet has been put in place. Still there is protests ongoing, then they are not public supported, public-spirited campaign. I would not say extremist but people with hidden agenda, political agenda to destabilize the country for political motives. We have identified them, we all know that, nothing new about them. Opposition just wants to scuttle the progress of the country so that if Sri Lanka recovers , they know they have to wait for a long period of time to get elections. They want to see destabilization take place on the ground so every time tourist are resuming, these protests take place. Some of them have been done by some elements who have not actually believed in democracy. This time they are using public anger to advance the ends

WION: How has the talks been with the IMF and has India played a role in facilitating the talks. I believe this is the 17th bailout you are trying to secure.

Ali Sabry: I started the negotiations with them, and they have studied, and staff level agreement has been reached, prior action before the EFF , extended fund facility, we have agreed on. We have agreed and implemented some of those things. EEF facility is for 2.9 billion, and the moment IMF gets involved, confidence in the system, ADB world Bank all come on the table, and we probably will be able to return to money market, so that is why it is so important. India, had been actually provided us with lifeline during the most crucial time of our history, in terms of economy is concerned and those credit lines kept us going for long period of time. I remember, when I was in Washington, your Finance minister Sitharaman led your group and supported us in our discussion with IMF and they have continued to do so. So it is important and Indian support is very critical to us. India has played a great role in supporting the neighbor in the most difficult time of its history.

WION: Why didn’t China offer financial assistance, as India did, during the recent crisis?

Ali Sabry: Chinese also supported us just before the particular period of time, they also provided us some financial facilities and credit line, also they did provide us some soft arrangement to bolster our reserves at the central bank, apart from that some humanitarian assistance also. We hope China will step up in providing us debt restructuring assurances, along with India so that we can go to the, IMF and resolve the matter once and for all and get back to recovery path. So, it’s important for all creditors and all investors that Sri Lanka recovers and recovers fast. The longer the debt gets suspended, the longer it takes to recover. It is bad for all the creditor and investors; everybody understands that including China.

WION: Has China offered to restructure…

Ali Sabry: We are in still discussions for that, they have been cooperative and part of the common plat form where we share information, recently in Washington. They are also took part on the virtual platform. So China, India, Paris club, Japan all of them being cooperative with us, so we are in the final stage of trying to get the debt restructuring and assurances. We are hopeful all countries and all our friends will not let us down.

WION: Have you asked for more Indian support.

Ali Sabry: Not really, right now our economy has stabilized to some extend and we should be able to manage our self. Right now, we have reached out to India and rest of the world, its not for aid or any more loans but basically investments. We are working with Indians and Indian companies and govt to work together in various areas for mutual interests, so that investment comes into the country and it will be beneficial for both Indians and Sri Lankans.

WION: How do you see India, Sri Lanka ties evolving. Both have close relationship, biggest has been civilizational connect

Ali Sabry: Very Very important for us, the most important relationship as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. For sure we share a civilization, our social, cultural, financial, economic ties are very very high and integrated. So it’s important we understand India is growing, and biggest power in the region and hopefully will be the 3rd biggest economy by early 2030 or so. With that improvement, everybody in the region will also benefit. We need to understand how best we can cultivate this; we need to work towards it. There will be ups and downs, misunderstandings, but we are certain, given our long history of sharing a civilization, that Sri Lanka and Indian relationship will go strength to strength.

WION: Ambassador Milinda has said that a security threat to India is a security threat to Sri Lanka. Do you agree?

Ali Sabry: Basically, security together is very important for us, Indian security is also very important for us, no 2 words about it. We have understood that. we will not be willingly, or unwilling be part of for any threat to Indian security because any threat to India’s security is threat to the region, and that region includes Sri Lanka and not good for Sri Lanka. We understand that we will work towards achieving peace and harmony in the region, no escalation of any sort of tension but peaceful relationship, enhanced economic activities which will benefit everybody in the region.

WION: All good relations have a set of irritants, and recently we saw the visit of a Chinese spy ship or a research ship that it seems has put a kink in ties

Ali Sabry: I don’t think any kink or so but basically some concerns were expressed, and we were able to discuss those things and follow up. On our part we have made it very clear to everybody in the world that we don’t want to contribute to escalation of tension between anyone. We are a very peaceful country, we would continue to do so and going forward, there will be no surprises. Everyone who will be entitled will be known in advance, we will have a known procedure in place so that no one is surprised, so therefore it is important we also have the freedom of navigation in the Indian ocean. In the meantime, there should not be any security threat to any of our neighbor

WION: Will future such visits, visit of Chinese spy ships or as they say research ship be allowed taking care of Indian sensitivities

Ali Sabry: I don’t want to speculate, but Indian sensitivities will be kept in mind, we will continue to work with India and understand Indian sentiments so that we don’t create any unpleasantries for both India, Sri Lanka and to the region.

WION: How do you see ties with China…

Ali Sabry: Our relationship with Beijing is very strong for long period of time, they have been close friend. This year we have celebrated 70 years of economic ties with them with Rubber, Rice pact, we exported rubber to them and imported rice. So our is a strong relationship and basically it has been a commercial relationship, economic relationship where they have come and invested heavily in Sri Lanka during a difficult period of time for us and during the 26 years of the conflict, during the last few years, Chinese supported us with supply of arms to get rid of threat from one of the most ruthless terrorist organization, the LTTE in order to bring back peace to our country. In that context that we have had very good relationship with them, sri lanka always follow the dynamic, neutral foreign policy where we would want everyone to be a friend of Sri Lanka and enemy to none. That is our foreign policy, that is our relationship, so given this dynamism, we would continue the same thing but taking India’s sensitivities and security concerns because that is very important for us.

WION: Do you think the current economic crisis is due to China, its policy of debt crisis

Ali Sabry: No, I don’t agree with that, that is a western phrase. We don’t agree with that. Chinese never came and forcefully gave us money to us. Actually, we have gone and sort fund and they have respected that invested in our country. They are that biggest investor in our country, we don’t agree with that phrase. Having taken the money we have put in proper use or who so ever we can get return is issue for Sri Lankans, therefore we don’t associate with that kind of phrase, actually Chinese have been good friend for us and they have been biggest investor in the country post conflict in Sri Lanka

WION: How has the Russia-Ukraine conflict impacted your country, and do you plan to buy Russian energy, do you worry about sanctions

Ali Sabry: We have been disproportionately impacted by the Russian conflict so we pray and urge everybody to quickly, diplomatically and by dialogue resolve this. We have been impacted big time in terms of petroleum prices, the crude oil prices, the prices of coal and prices of grains and escalating prices of fertilizers. These are lifeline to our people, 30% of Sri Lankans involved in agriculture. We have been disproportionately impacted when prices go up in the market and with our depreciating rupee, the prices have gone 4-5 times of some of those things. It has been really -really difficult for Sri Lankans, and on top of that Russia, Ukraine have been our first 10 countries in terms of tourist coming to Sri Lanka and in export destination of our products like tea so that is huge problem of us, that has really impacted us and other countries and economies have slowed. We disproportionately impacted by this conflict and no 2 words about it. Yes, if there is a way to deal with Russian oil, why not, we want to. The kind of price escalation, it is unaffordable for us. As our President once put it, when the elephants fight, it’s the grass which gets trampled, small countries like us get disproportionately trampled by this issue which is taking place in the world. So therefore, at the discounted prices without violating international norms, laws we would want to work with Russians, because Russia we have good relations for a long period of time, Russian discounted prices also is not a problem for other countries because no one wants Russian oil out of the market. Moment Russian oil goes out of the market, there will be scarcity and that will probably shoot up the prices and will create economic upheaval in terms of recession or something of that sort. I don’t think anyone will like that.

WION: Have you spoken to Russians for it or engaged India on that given India gets discounted Russian oil

Ali Sabry: we have had several rounds of discussions, we are pursuing that option, keeping that option open either directly or through India

WION: Option on energy via India or with Russia…

Ali Sabry: with basically Moscow

WION: Are you looking at an election in the country…

Ali Sabry: Not really, in terms of our constitution you can’t have Presidential elections before 4 and half years of term is finished. So the term is only comes to an end in 2024 November, until such time you cannot have a new election so the president has to continue, even if the siting President resigns, you need to go through the Parliament and elect someone for the term which is exactly what happened in Sri Lanka in July this year. As far as Parliamentary election is concerned, 2 and half years you cannot dissolve the Parliament and it came to an end in March but yet the Parliamentarians need to vote for that, so therefore, simple majority must vote for that, there has to be a no confidence motion. So, it is for the members of the Parliament to do so, or otherwise no possibility because certain term being given, President for 5 years and Parliament for 5 year and that period should take place in terms of the constitution.

WION: Any plans to implement the 13th amendment and also India expressed concerns over situation of Tamil minorities at UNHRC

Ali Sabry: right now actually we all want provincial council elections, it cannot be held now because of the a particular bill that was brought in to parliament in 2018 by then govt for which the TNA and Tamil parties also voted in terms of that particular voting a new delimitation has to take place of the provinces and it has not taken place and there is some legal impediment on that. It is their own doing unfortunately, and they did it that time to prevent elections and as a result of that but naturally 13th amendment should be implemented and those powers which was with them should be given to them, power should be devolved to the people in the area, the people of the areas should deal with the activity whom they elected. So yes 13th amendment should be implemented and govt is keen on implementing that. yes, India had taken up at various forums including the UNHRC. (wionews)