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Transcript of Media Briefing on PM's upcoming visit to Sri Lanka

May 12, 2017

Official Spokesperson, Shri Gopal Baglay: Namashkar Mitron! Aapka sabka ek baar fir se swagat hai. Videsh Mantri Ji ne aapko Buddha Pournima ki shumbhkaamnaayein di hain, main bhi unki shubhkaamnaaon mein apni shubhkaamnaayein milakar, khaastaur par un logon ke liye jo iske baad aaye hain, aap sab ko Buddha Pournima ki bahut bahut shubhkaamnaayein.

We have with us today Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda. He is here to brief you on the forthcoming visit of our Prime Minister to Sri Lanka. Without further ado I would request Shri Panda to make his statement.

Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda:
Good afternoon friends. Prime Minister will be visiting Sri Lanka tomorrow, it will be a two day visit from May 11 to 12 to participate as the Chief Guest at the 14th International Vesak Day celebrations. He is visiting at the invitation of the President Sirisena of Sri Lanka.

Vesak as you know is what we refer to in India as Buddha Pournima, is considered a triple blessed day. It’s a full moon day commemorating the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautam Buddha. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1999. Sri Lanka had played a very important role in this effort and India has also supported this Sri Lankan initiative.

This is the first time that Sri Lanka is hosting the International Vesak Day and the theme of the event is "Buddhist Teachings for Social Justice and Sustainable World Peace.” Various religious and political leaders from various countries especially those with Buddhists traditions have been invited and they will be in Sri Lanka for this celebrations.
As you know the relationship between our two countries is over 2500 years old and in Sri Lanka, India has a very special place as Sri Lankans see India as the land of Buddha. They look at India as the land from where Buddhism came to Sri Lanka. Even in various Sri Lankan folklores you have references to Ashoka and how his son and daughter Mahendra and Sanghamitra visited Sri Lanka and brought in Buddhism and that is why this is a very important link between our two countries.

Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka is for the Vesak Day celebrations assumes significance because this is a reflection of our shared Buddhist heritage which is panning over centuries and also reflects the importance that we attach to this relationship. We are keen that the International Vesak Day that Sri Lanka is hosting for the first time is a grand success.

Vesak is traditionally celebrated by the lighting of lamps and decorative lanterns as well as illuminating homes and various public places. Prime Minister is also likely to participate in a lamp lighting ceremony at the well-known Ganga-Ramaiyya Temple in Colombo.

This will be Prime Minister’s second visit to Sri Lanka after the landmark visit in March 2015. If you’d recall in March 2015 when he visited Sri Lanka, apart from Colombo he also visited Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Talaimanar. In Anuradhapura he had paid respects to the Holy Shri Mahabodhi Tree.On this occasion, apart from participating in the International Vesak Day celebrations in Colombo, Prime Minister will also be visiting Kandy where he will pay respects at the Dalada Maligawa, the temple of Tooth Relic. He will also seek the blessings of the Chief.

Thereafter he is likely to unveil a plaque commemorating the foundation laying of the Faculty of Kandyan Dance. This is to be constructed in the Sri Lankan Buddhist academy in Palikeli with Government of India’s grant assistance.Prime Minister will also be travelling to upcountry Sri Lanka. It will be the first time that an Indian Prime Minister will be visiting the hill country region of Sri Lanka, which is the area which hosts many tea plantations. There Prime Minister will be inaugurating a 150 bed multi-specialty hospital in a place called Dickoya.

The Dickoya hospital complex is a multispecialty hospital which also has residences of doctors and staff which is also being built with Government of India’s assistance of INR 50 crores.

This project is part of our overall development assistance project which since 2005 has been up to USD 2.6 billion, which has been our commitment out of which USD 450 million are grants.

Most inhabitants in this area of upcountry region are Indian origin Tamils. They are the descendants of the plantations workers who were brought into Sri Lanka and these people have very strong family bonds with India, especially with Tamil Nadu. And they are waiting with a lot of expectations to receive our Prime Minister in their region.

Apart from this, India will also participate at several local events associated with the Vesak Day celebrations. Celebrity and artist Sudarshan Patnayak is already there in Sri Lanka and he will be making world’s longest sand Buddha stature at the special Vesak zone, which is near the parliament zone in Sri Lanka.India is also participating in the International Buddhist Film Festival which is being organized on the sidelines. Apart from this something very interesting i.e. thousands of handcrafted candles made from paraffin wax produced at the world’s oldest operating refinery in Digboi has been gifted to Buddhists temples all over Sri Lanka. This is something which is commented very positively in Sri Lanka in the media.

I would also like to add that given the nature of the visit that Prime Minister is going as the Chief Guest for the International Vesak Day celebrations, so we do not envisage any formal meetings or any signing of documents during this visit. However since Prime Minister is visiting and he would naturally be interacting with the Sri Lankan leaders on the sidelines of various Vesak Day celebrations.As you all know that tour relations in recent years have seen renewed momentum, in fact I would describe it as qualitative transformation in our ties with Sri Lanka in recent years and this has been further perpetuated by a number of exchange of high level visits that has happened. Apart from Prime Minister’s visit in March 2015, there have been several visits by Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister.

Recently only two weeks ago Prime Minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe was here in Delhi and that was a working visit but during which we signed a very important Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in economic projects. Last week our Prime Minister had a video conference with the President Sirisena of Sri Lanka following the launch of the SAARC satellite.

Both countries are working together to strengthen and diversify the relationship and we are very optimistic as we hope that there will be progress in several areas particularly in economic cooperation and as we also look forward to signing the ETCA (Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement) which is in an advanced stage.

Our approach to Sri Lanka is part of our overall neighborhood first policy and we feel that our destinies are somehow intertwined so that is the importance that we attach to this relationship and we hope Prime Minister’s visit will be able to provide further momentum to this.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Gopal Baglay: Thank you very much Sanjay. That was a very comprehensive and succinct view of the forthcoming visit of the Prime Minister. The floor is now open for few questions.

Question: Fishermen issue is a long pending issue between Sri Lanka and India. During the PM’s visit the fishermen issues will be discussed?

Question: India has been discussing the development of Trincomalee port project with Sri Lanka, any forward movement on that?

Question: More than 136 boats have been seized by Sri Lankan naval forces and some of the fishermen are still in the custody of the Sri Lankan government. What is the kind of plan of action during the PM’s visit because every time when we talk to the counterpart we have been getting assurances, but so far nothing has happened on the releasing of the boats?

Question: Sri Lankan Prime Minister has expressed confidence that ETCA is going to be signed very soon even at the end of the last year, now you are saying that talks are at an advanced stage. There was also a report which said that we are actually waiting to see what kind economic cooperation agreement Sri Lanka is going to sign with China before we sign ours. So what is the actual situation and position?

Question: There has been no forward movement for the devolution of Tamils, what is happening there because it is just stuck there for last so many years?

Official Spokesperson, Shri Gopal Baglay: I would like to remind that this briefing is about the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister as the Jt. Secretary said, it is in the context of the invitation to the Prime minister on International Vesak Day. So I thought just to remind it.

Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda: I would first like to talk about the fishermen issues in fact that is one of the areas of our major concern and there has been lot of discussions and you are right that we have still not reached our goals.

I would like to tell you about the actions which have been taken, we are looking at getting into the root cause of this problem and our basic intention is to ensure that we find a permanent solution to the fishermen issues. With this in mind, External Affairs Minister herself has taken an initiative and in November 2016 the Foreign Ministers and the Fisheries Minister of the two countries met on November 02 in Delhi and then it was decided that we will have a joint working group which will look at all issues and see how to explore the possibility of finding a permanent solutions of the issue.

It was decided that the Joint Working Group will meet every three months and it was also decided that there will be a ministerial meeting which will be held every six months to review the progress of the Joint Working Group. The first meeting of the JWG was held on 31 December 2016 and immediately two days after i.e. on 02 January we had a ministerial meeting in Colombo. The second JWG meeting was held recently in Colombo on 07 April 2017.

What I wanted to mention here is that the problem which the Sri Lankan side has mentioned and we don’t deny, has been the issue of bottom trawling by our fishermen, that is a practice which has been going on. So now our efforts are to win our fishermen from bottom trawling and to assist them in going for deep sea fishing using long liners.

There is a package which Government of India is giving and also an equal amount will be put in by the Government of Tamil Nadu which will be about 1500 crores, which will be earmarked for this purpose and during this period we will also simultaneously providing training to our fishermen in deep sea fishing and help them with their capacity building.

Apart from this there are several other initiatives which have been taken I would say that this is something which cannot happen overnight. We need to work towards a permanent solution and that is what we are doing. Now so far as the arrests of the fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy when they cross the IMBL is concerned, we always take this up with Sri Lankan side and as of date there are only five fishermen in their custody who were apprehended only less than a month ago and all others have been released.

In so far as the boats are concerned, the Sri Lankan side have been telling us that they have difficulty in releasing the boats because they look at it as having a deterrent effect but our contention is that if we asking our fishermen to go for deep sea fishing using long liners we would seek your understanding and release the boats as confidence building measures.

We have been assured by the Sri Lankan side this issue will receive their positive consideration and we hope that the boats will be released in phases.As for your question whether our Prime Minister will be raising this issue during the visit, I think I made it very clear that the current visit is in a different context i.e. the International Vesak Day celebrations and we do not any envisage any formal talks but of course he will be interacting with the leaders and so that will review the relationship in its entirety. So nothing is really specifically earmarked for discussion during this current visit.

There was a question on the Trincomalee port whether there was any forward movement, it’s a little premature at this stage to be talking about it. In fact there is a study which is going on and the discussions have not yet commenced so we are waiting for the study which has been entrusted to be completed and then we will see the way forward. So it is a little premature at this stage to be talking about Trincomalee port.

Regarding the ETCA, the negotiations have started and four rounds have been completed. When the negotiations started our stand had been that we will move at a pace that the Sri Lankans are comfortable with and that is precisely what has happened. We have made headways and we are hopeful that we will be able to get to finalize this agreement by the end of this year.

As far the question of devolution, this is something which we have been working very closely with the Sri Lankans and the UNHRC resolution has given another two years to Sri Lanka. We have been supportive of it and we have expressed the hope that within the next two years whatever commitment are being made towards devolution by the amendment of the constitution and also for the other issues concerning the Tamils should reach their logical conclusion.

Question: Do you have updates on the railway projects and also on the housing one?

Question: I don’t know whether you are aware that initially the Vesak Day organizers had invited some other Buddhist leaders in India and then they got a second letter saying please do not come because the Chinese do not recognize your organization and are not keen that you participate in this.

Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda: I am hearing about this for the first time but I would really like to know a little bit more about it if you could.

I just thought to add, since this doesn’t pertains to the Government of India and obviously we do not have role in the process but still I am curious to find a little more about it.

Question: I am also asking a question that might be for the first time for you, we have send our team to Tamil Nadu for looking into the fishermen problem recently and they are telling that Sri Lankan navy is coming on their boats and there are Chinese soldiers sitting on those navy boats with guns. So have you heard any such thing which is happening between India and Sri Lanka at international borders?

Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda:
I have no information on this and so far our own agency inputs have never suggested this, so this is something new.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Gopal Baglay: First of all let me remind that this briefing is on record, if you had any doubts and secondly as the Jt. Secretary very clearly said that the matter is regularly taken up between the Government of Indian and the Government of Sri Lanka and also there is a fishermen forum to discuss this, Joint Working Group has met, so all aspects of the situation are continuously under discussion between the two governments.

Question: So far India has always looked at its relationship with the Sri Lanka through the prism of the Sri Lankan Tamils, at least in the past three decades but the very fact that the PM is visiting the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy and this Buddhist outreach, so is it a sort of paradigm shift, are they looking beyond the Tamils and reaching out to the Sinhala majority as well, is it a conscious move in this direction?

Jt. Secretary (Indian Ocean Region) Shri Sanjay Panda: First of all I want to mention that out relationship with Sri Lanka, as I mentioned, is 2500 years old and there is much more to it that you refer to as the only prism through which we look at Sri Lanka and which is not correct.

Secondly there is no paradigm shift in our Sri Lanka policy and we look at Sri Lanka as a sovereign country which is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and that is what we envision Sri Lanka. Sri Lankans have a stable polity with multi-ethnic and multi-cultural core. Our Sri Lanka policy is looks at it overall and not confined to what you are suggesting.

Official Spokesperson, Shri Gopal Baglay: Thank you very much Sanjay, especially for taking out time on the eve of a very important visit which you are at the helm, at our level in this ministry. So thank you once again. With that we conclude this briefing.

Thank you all.

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