An economist and politician Milinda Moragoda was a distinguished personality in Sri Lanka’s successive Governments for over three decades, and for the first time he has been appointed as the country’s envoy to India, which he contextually handled before. He will assume duties in New Delhi on 15 August or by the end of the month depending on flight availability. He will be in India, a country he is well-versed in terms of Indo-Lanka ties, the LTTE war, truce and the ceasefire.
He is also an influential figure in engaging in Sri Lanka-centric geopolitics and geoeconomics that had ruptured ties between Colombo and Delhi during the war and after China became Sri Lanka’s confidante over India, which has resulted in regional insecurity and imbalance in global trade affairs.
Although Moragoda’s appointment as a ‘Cabinet rank’ envoy to New Delhi surprised many, the appointment is apt and wisely selected by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, owing to the fact that Mororgoda’s ambassadorial approach all along in Indo-Sri Lanka affairs, being a peace negotiator, and bolstering economic growth have been commendable despite brickbats in his political career.
His name also appears in Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, where over 250,000 U.S. embassy cables were leaked en masse. In Sri Lanka’s case, the cables released date back to the mid-1980s. According to a write up by former diplomat Bernard Goonetilleke, “WikiLeaks and Milinda Moragoda,” nearly 150 refer to Moragoda’s influence in the ceasefire dialogue between the LTTE, the U.S. and Government officials. Those cables cover the dispatches by four successive U.S. Ambassadors and other U.S. diplomats from the early days of the peace process in 2002 until well after the eventual demise of the LTTE. In addition to the events they report on, the cables reveal ways in which the U.S.Government sought to neutralise the LTTE fighting apparatus.
The Wikileaks made reference to the first meeting then Minister Moragoda had with Anton Balasingham in London in July 2002, which heralded an uneasy but welcome truce.
His second encounter with Balasingham in Oslo came a month later where Moragoda succeeded in convincing his skeptical adversary that the time had come to negotiate. These are part of Sri Lankan war history and could be recalled only when people like Moragoda is in the limelight once again. His significantly accepted think-tank platform known as the Pathfinder Foundation also amplified Sri Lanka-centric geopolitics and how to mitigate tension in the region as Chinese footholds are strengthened in Sri Lanka.
As Moragoda proceeds to New Delhi, he is carrying along with him his roadmap focusing on boosting IndoLanka ties in the new era of diplomacy suitable for the current situation, while subtle disputes have emerged in the embedded geopolitics centered on Sri Lanka. This could suffocate the country in the hands of the Quad countries (Strategic Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) that have focused on maritime cooperation aimed at containing a ‘rising China’ and working against its predatory trade and economic policies in the South China Sea. Now the Quad has also shifted their focus to the Indo-Pacific Region, where Sri Lanka is located, as China’s foothold is growing faster than expected.
Moragoda’s roadmap titled “Integrated Country Strategy (ICS) for Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India 2021/2023 aims to assist the three Sri Lanka Diplomatic Missions in India (Chennai, Mumbai, and New Delhi) in approaching and achieving goals and objectives stipulated as ‘one country team’ in order to strengthen coordination to achieve Sri Lanka’s foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis India, and to deliver as one. His strategic framework and the Mission Goals and Objectives have factored in these two key aspects in Part I, which outlines seven goals, and several objectives under each goal. In Part II, the goals and objectives are further described and justified, and key tasks to achieve their implementation have also been proposed.
The framework of Moragoda brings out the positivity of India’s bilateral ties and future prospects through enhancing strong links. Morgagoda’s strategy precisely is to bridge the gap that had widened after renegading the government-to-government agreement to award India to develop the most strategically located East Container Terminal at the Port of Colombo. The huge protests also suggested that Sri Lankans still recall India’s “unfaithfulness” to Sri Lanka during the war and that remains fresh in their minds.
India’s call during human rights sessions in Geneva to implement the 13A and the devolution of power has been mostly criticised by Sri Lankans, citing that India is dictating terms to Sri Lanka. These were bitter experiences India has been struggling to deal with despite hoards of financial support and projects being implemented by India in Sri Lanka in the post conflict era.
Sri Lanka-centric Geopolitics
Besides that, India knows that Sri Lanka-centric geopolitics became hyped when they rejected the offer to develop the Hambantota Port, citing it was not feasible, while it interested the Chinese. It has also triggered tension with India as the Chinese have entered the northern region to do business and solar power projects for the GoSL that’s in close proximity to India.
India didn’t have a prominent person to hold a dialogue on all these setbacks and remained quiet and watchful over developments in Sri Lanka. The designate High Commissioner Moragoda recalls the intervention during the conflict in Sri Lanka. India lost about 1,300 soldiers, yet both countries have demonstrated the breadth and depth of the strategic partnership they have enjoyed.
He goes on to recall India’s commitment of billions of dollars in development assistance and grants to Sri Lanka, the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, and cooperation extended through training of Sri Lankan military personnel, undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships to Sri Lankan students. India is also among the top five foreign investors in Sri Lanka.
The Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship has been increasingly dominated by a transactional approach in recent years. Moragoda says, “it is a consequence of the changes in the geopolitical equilibrium in the region that have resulted in a growing trust deficit.” Although this development might, at times, be perceived as a setback, this transactional aspect can be channelled towards building confidence and utilised as a means to bridge the trust deficit.
If viewed in this way, this process could help reset this vital bilateral relationship and lay the foundation for an even stronger and more enduring partnership between the two countries, Moragoda’s strategy explains.
Given this backdrop, the overarching goal of diplomatic representations of Sri Lanka in India should be to contribute to the process of continuously maintaining the momentum of the existing partnership by creating multi-faceted platforms for strategic level dialogue and cooperation, with the ultimate objective being the elevation of the partnership to a special relationship; one marked by inter-dependence, mutual respect and affection.
While this overarching goal is being pursued, it is equally necessary to deepen people-to-people contacts between the two countries. It is these two key aspects that form the crux of this strategic framework, and, the mission goals and objectives that his plan outlines. One of the mission goals, according to Moragoda, is to elevate the existing close bilateral relationship to a strategic level through increased interactions at the political level.
High level political visits
Also, the plan is to strengthen the bilateral relationship through regular exchange of high level political visits between the two countries and enhance cooperation with India at the multilateral and regional level. Moragoda also outlines plans to expand Sri Lanka’s footprint at the State level and promote greater interactions between Sri Lanka and the States of the Indian Union, considered important, from the Sri Lankan perspective.
Enhance exchanges at the Provincial Council and Local Government level, following appropriate protocol. He also plans to convene the IndoSri Lanka Joint Commission as well as other bilateral joint committees on various sectors on a regular basis with a view to streamlining new areas of cooperation.
His ultimate focus is on bolstering foreign investments as well as earnings from exports. Under this plan, he tends to achieve significant export growth and increase foreign exchange earnings, with the ultimate objective of increasing productivity, employment generation, and international competitiveness to uplift the living standards of the people of Sri Lanka, with a view to achieving the macroeconomic targets set out for the period 2020- 2025, in the Government Policy framework document, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.
Moragoda also looks at increasing Indian investments in Sri Lanka and facilitating on going large-scale economic development and investment-driven projects and at the same time increasing exports from Sri Lanka and expanding its market share in India. The roadmap also touches based on expanding collaboration in the fields of strategic cooperation, defence and Indian Ocean security between Sri Lanka and India.
Work toward the development of mechanisms that enhance political level strategic cooperation in the fields of defence and security. Recognising the multi-faceted nature of Indo-Lanka defence cooperation, it should be further strengthened the Office of the Defence Advisor at the High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi. In terms of enhancing connectivity between Sri Lanka and India, he draws attention to facilitating the increase in air and sea connectivity between Sri Lanka and India and also in facilitating electrical grid and digital connectivity between the two countries.
The unresolved issue involving Tamil Nadu fishermen encroaching on Sri Lanka’s maritime border has also displeased both sides. Moragoda strategically conveys that he would engage with Indian authorities (Central Government, relevant State Governments and other stakeholders) to find a mechanism acceptable to all sides for the resolution of fisheriesrelated issues. He also opts to engage with Indian authorities in setting up a training centre for a marine disaster task force, as well as to promote joint research in fisheries as well as in other marine and mineral resources.
Under his second key programme, Moragoda states that there is a need to elevate the existing close bilateral relationship to a strategic level through increased interactions at the political level. The draft further explains that India and Sri Lanka have sought to collaborate on a series of major economic development projects in Sri Lanka, including the West Container Terminal at Colombo Port (a private joint venture between Adani Group and JKH) that was awarded to Adani Group recently with a 51 per cent stake. The Trincomalee Oil Tank Farm (a joint venture between CPC and IOC that had dragged over a period of time) is the other project aimed at working on along with cooperation to boost projects in the power sector as well.
Indian projects that fall under development cooperation and lines of credit, as well as financial cooperation. While these economic development projects are important for fostering relations, there is also a need to transcend this transactional approach, as Moragoda pointed out in his plan. In order to achieve this overarching goal, Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in India must foster political relations at all levels, through constant communication and by building trust.
This process has to be carried out at the Central Government level by the High Commission in New Delhi, and by the Deputy High Commission in Chennai and the Consulate-General in Mumbai at State level, under their respective consular jurisdictions under the supervision of the High Commissioner in New Delhi.
Tamil Nadu refugees
Another objective of Moragoda is to resolve the long-drawn issue of externally displaced persons in Tamil Nadu, which has given rise to complications in bilateral relations. If a comprehensive plan can be drawn up for their resettlement in Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner in New Delhi can endeavour to take the matter to the highest level of the Government and bureaucracy, to discuss their early return.
This comprehensive plan should include the assistance package the Government of Sri Lanka is providing to the returnees, which may include customs duty waivers, settling-in expenses, housing, economic rehabilitation activities etc. Settling the issue of externally displaced persons could prevent fringe elements from dominating the discourse concerning this emotive issue, and thereby help to create a positive image of Sri Lanka.
Voluntary repatriation of these externally displaced persons forms a vital part of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process. The comprehensive resettlement plan prepared by the GoSL should be formally conveyed to the Ministry of External Affairs of India and also to engage with the UNHCR and other stakeholders after a positive feedback from the Ministry of External Affairs of India. The draft also noted that the Sri Lankan Government engage with the political leadership of Tamil Nadu to encourage and facilitate a smooth return of the externally displaced persons to Sri Lanka.
Moragoda also describes the importance of building networks between think-tanks, scholars, archaeologists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, etc. of the two countries with a view to promoting goodwill between the peoples. This would enable the creation of groups which would promote positive images of each other’s countries.
The plan is also to focus on the 80th anniversary of the establishment of official relations between Sri Lanka and India, the centenary of the first visit of Gurudeva Rabindranath Tagore to Sri Lanka and the 75th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, by organising appropriate activities, The new envoy has outlined what he aims at in his tour of duty in New Delhi – one of the most coveted diplomatic postings.
Morgagoda should be able to exploit his transparent strategy with the government’s backing because Sri Lanka is of real geopolitical significance. It should be able to create a win-win situation for both Sri Lanka and India, which means the global powers that back India will be satisfied and let Sri Lanka free from tension.
It was first published on Ceylon Today