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Behind Sri Lanka’s Turmoil, An India-China Struggle For Investment, Influence

Colombo, Sri Lanka: 

Gleaming cranes stretch out on the waterfront in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo as Chinese companies construct a $1.5 billion new commercial district, including hotels, marinas and a motor racing track. They have already built a giant container terminal nearby and a huge port in the south.

Now India, the traditional power in the region, is muscling into port and other projects, pushing back hard against China.

The big fear for India is that Sri Lanka, just off its southern coast and on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, could become a Chinese military outpost.

But the battle is creating political turmoil in Sri Lanka. A bust-up between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over how far to accommodate Indian interests is a key reason the nation’s unity government has just fallen apart, government officials and foreign diplomats said.

Wickremesinghe, who was fired on Oct. 26 and replaced by veteran pro-China politician Mahinda Rajapaksa, told Reuters about arguments at a cabinet meeting chaired by the president last month over a proposal to grant development of a Colombo port project to a Japan-India joint venture.

“There are arguments in the cabinet, sometimes heated arguments,” he said.

Wickremesinghe did not name the president but said: “There was a paper put forth to not give it to India, Japan.”

He added that he insisted that the ultimate decision should respect a memorandum of understanding signed between India, Japan and Sri Lanka.

It was the first account of what transpired in the Oct 16 meeting and the government’s pushback against India.

Wickremesinghe declined to respond when asked if he believed the China-India struggle was behind his firing. But Rajitha Senaratne, a former government minister who attended, confirmed the president and the prime minister had argued at the meeting.

Two Sri Lankan officials, as well as a Western diplomat and an Indian government source, who were all briefed on the meeting, corroborated the minister’s account.

The president’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Sirisena told a public meeting on Monday his political rivals were trying to drive a wedge between him and the Indian government by painting him as anti-India.

The foreign ministry said the centre was committed to giving developmental assistance to Sri Lanka.

In a statement last week, the Chinese embassy in Colombo rejected allegations China was involved in a conspiracy to change Sri Lanka’s leadership, saying it does not believe in such interference.

Japan did not respond to a request for comment on the sacking of the government. But Wickremesinghe and an official from the Japan International Cooperation Agency said a $1.4 billion soft loan for a light railway project in Colombo was on hold.

Second terminal

India had been pushing Sri Lanka for the award of an estimated $1 billion contract for a second foreign-operated container terminal in Colombo. It has pointed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) Sri Lanka signed in April 2017.

Reuters has reviewed unpublished documents from that MOU and it lays out a blueprint for projects India would be involved in, including an oil refinery, roads, power stations and the container terminal. The agreement also includes room for Indian involvement in the development of industrial zones.

The cabinet meeting was supposed to give clearance for the port project but President Sirisena said the country, already mired in $8 billion of Chinese debt, couldn’t give any more of its assets to foreigners, according to Senaratne.

“There was a misunderstanding between the president and the prime minister,” said Senaratne, who was the health minister in the deposed cabinet. The Colombo terminal should be left to the state-owned Sri Lanka Port Authority, which was already developing the facilities, he quoted the president as saying.

Tension had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe even before the clash over the port project. The president did not approve of some economic reforms, such as opening up the services sector to foreign investment, being introduced by the prime minister.

Sri Lanka is only one of a number of South Asian countries where the China-India rivalry has roiled domestic politics.

China has been constructing ports, power stations and highways in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal, much of it now tied to its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to connect China with countries cross Asia and beyond.

In September, the leader of the Maldives – who had courted Chinese investments – lost an election in a result seen as a setback to Beijing’s ambitions for the islands.

“Debt diplomacy”

One of the officials briefed on the cabinet meeting said he was told Sirisena quoted U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s warning last month that China was using “debt diplomacy” and the Hambantota port in the south could become a Chinese forward military base.

Sirisena told the cabinet Sri Lanka didn’t want this kind of international attention and vowed he wasn’t going to compound the problem by granting the Colombo deal to an outside party, this official said.

But Wickremesinghe, who has forged close ties with India and Japan to balance ties with China, said at the meeting that the cabinet had already approved the broader pact with India a year ago, he told Reuters.

He said the debt-burdened Sri Lanka Port Authority wasn’t in a position to build the terminal on its own, Wickremesinghe said he told the meeting.

“It wasn’t even an Indian project, Japan was going to be the majority partner with India at 20 percent,” Wickremesinghe said in the interview.

But the president not only rejected the proposal but shocked those present by turning on New Delhi, saying he was the target of an assassination plot and suggesting that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was behind it, said officials who attended the meeting.

The Sri Lankan government later denied Sirisena named the agency. The foreign ministry in New Delhi said Sirisena spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the issue to ensure it didn’t lead to a diplomatic crisis.

But ten days after the cabinet meeting, Wickremesinghe was out and former president Rajapaksa was named in his place. Rajapaksa had ushered in Chinese investment when he was president from 2005-2015 and lost a presidential election to Sirisena after reports that RAW had helped build a coalition against him.

Changing landscape

In Colombo, the increasing Chinese influence is there for all to see.

On the city’s ocean front, a part of the ocean is blocked from view because of the reclamation project that will eventually turn into the new commercial district. Giant billboards and wire mesh, including some signs in Chinese, close off the largest construction site in the capital.

There is a growing Chinese community of about 12,000 expatriates, up from barely a few hundred a few years ago. They are scattered in Colombo and Hambantota.

PM Modi’s government is determined to start to turn back the tide. It is aggressively pitching for projects next to Chinese investments, so China’s military does not get a free pass.

“India can ill afford to ignore the strategic advantage China has gained in Sri Lanka so close to peninsular India,” said Colonel R. Hariharan, a retired Indian army intelligence officer.

The Colombo port isn’t the only priority. In Hambantota, India is bidding to take control of an airport built next to the Chinese seaport even though it handles hardly any flights.

“We are fully in the game,” said an Indian government source. It kept its profile low, though, because of local sensitivities, the source said.







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Rahul Gandhi To Discuss Tie-Up In Delhi, AAP Has 2 Seats To Offer

Arvind Kejriwal had said the Congress “refused to go for an alliance” in Delhi. (File)

New Delhi: 

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi will meet the leaders of the party’s Delhi unit at noon today to discuss the possibilities of an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party for the coming national elections. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party declared candidates for six of Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha seats earlier this month, accusing the Congress of refusing an alliance. But sources said AAP has now offered two seats to the Congress in Delhi and is open for an alliance in Punjab as well. The Congress, however, is holding out for three seats, sources said.

In the 2014 national elections, the BJP won all seven seats of Delhi, but AAP has found tremendous support in Delhi. In the 2015 assembly elections, AAP won 67 of Delhi’s 70 seats, the Congress drew a blank.

The fractured relations between the Congress and AAP had not mended despite the efforts of opposition leaders like Ms Banerjee, her Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu, DMK’s MK Stalin and CPM’s Sitaram Yechury. While Arvind Kejriwal has joined the opposition fold and shown readiness to collaborate with the Congress on the national level, the hostility between the two parties at the state level has persisted. 

Last month, at a mega meeting of the opposition, the two parties were again urged to put behind their differences and stitch up an alliance in Delhi. But Rahul Gandhi had signaled reluctance, saying his party was willing to go it alone.

Days later, Mr Kejriwal said the Congress has “refused to go for an alliance” in Delhi and that he was “fed up” with repeatedly asking for a tie-up. The comment did not go down well with the Congress and its Delhi chief Sheila Dikshit, who denied that any talks on the subject took place.

On March 2, AAP announced its candidates for Delhi.

The Pulwama attack and the subsequent IAF response, however, have triggered a rethink in the opposition camp.

The need of the hour, key leaders feel, is to put up a well-knit front instead of a piecemeal approach, where parties that are allies at the national level, would be pitted against each other in the states in the national election.

Apart from Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav appear determined to leave the Congress out of the alliance, two big gaps in the opposition bulwark would be Bengal and Delhi. In both places, the Congress would be contesting against AAP and Trinamool candidates.

Sources told NDTV yesterday that Chandrababu Naidu and Nationalist Congress chief Sharad Pawar have both asked Rahul Gandhi to revisit the possibilities of alliance with Mr Kejriwal and Ms Banerjee. 

Now, there is a possibility that the Congress and Ms Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress may explore an understanding in some of Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats.







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Pakistan Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan Faces Criticism For Calling Hindus Cow Urine Drinking People

Pakistani minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan referred to the Hindus as “cow urine-drinking people”

Islamabad: 

Punjab Information and Culture Minister Fayyazul Hassan Chohan became a target of intense criticism by senior members of his party, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf following his castigating remarks on the Hindus.

The minister was quoted by Samaa news agency, during a press conference last month, where he referred to the Hindus as “cow urine-drinking people”.

“We are Muslims and we have a flag, the flag of Maula Alia’s bravery, and flag of Hazrat Umara’s valour. You don’t have that flag; it isn’t in your hands,” the Minister was quoted.

“Don’t operate under the delusion that you are seven times better than us. What we have, you can’t have, you idol-worshippers,” Mr Chohan said in a video that went viral on the social media.

The remarks by Mr Chohan came amid reports of escalating tension between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir that claimed lives of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans.

In response to the attack on the minorities, Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari condemned Mr Chohan’s statement saying, “No one has the right to attack anyone else’s religion. Our Hindu citizens have also sacrificed for their country. Our Prime Minister’s message is always of tolerance and respect and we cannot condone any form of bigotry or spread of religious hatred.”

Reiterating the same, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on Political Affairs Naeemul Haque, in his tweet said, “The derogatory and insulting remarks against the Hindu community by Fayyaz Chohan, the Punjab Minister demands strict action. PTI government will not tolerate this nonsense from a senior member of the government or from anyone. Action will be taken after consulting the Chief Minister.”

Finance Minister Asad Umar also said that the flag of Pakistan is not just green and it is not complete without the white which represents the minorities. “Hindus of Pakistan are as much a part of the fabric of the nation as I am. Remember Quaide Azam’s whole struggle was for a country free of discrimination,” Umar said.

Columnist Mehr Tarar further took to Twitter, demanding an “unconditional apology” from Chohan, followed by his resignation. According to reports, at least 1.6 per cent of Pakistan’s population is Hindu and Hinduism is the second largest religion followed in the country. The PTI government itself has at least seven Hindu members of the National Assembly and four minority members in the Punjab Assembly.







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On Yesvantpur-Tatanagar Superfast Express Train, Fire Breaks Out In East Godavari, Andhra Pradesh, Many Trains In Andhra Pradesh Delayed

New Delhi: 

A fire broke out in the pantry of a running train late at night in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. The staff separated the pantry car, stopping the fire from spreading to the other bogies of the train. No injuries from the incident have been reported so far.

The origin of the fire, which broke out at around 2 am, is not yet known.

The pantry car of the train, the Yesvantpur-Tatanagar Superfast Express, was destroyed in the fire. Before separating the pantry, the train staff reportedly attempted to put out the fire, but were not successful.

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The pantry car of the train was detached after staff were unable to put out the fire

The train was heading to Jamshedpur in Jharkhand from Karnataka capital Bengaluru.

Trains in the Vijayawada-Vizag sector were delayed. Police and railway officials are currently at the spot, to ascertain the cause of the fire.







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