On Sirisena visit, India, Sri Lanka ink civil nuclear agreement

New Delhi: India and close neighbour Sri Lanka Monday sought to begin a new chapter in their ties as the island nation's newly-elected President Maithripala Sirisena, on his maiden visit abroad since taking over last month, held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi here and the two sides inked four agreements, including one on civil nuclear cooperation.

Sirisena, who defeated long-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Jan 8 election, signalled the new closeness in bilateral ties, saying Modi is expected to visit his country in March and that they are "eagerly awaiting the glorious event", which would be "an honour and a blessing" to their country. Modi's likely visit would be the first bilateral visit by an Indian prime minister to the island nation in over 25 years.

Addressing media after delegation-level talks at Hyderabad House, Modi said the agreement on civil nuclear cooperation was "yet another demonstration of our mutual trust". He said it is the first such agreement that Sri Lanka has signed and it "opens new avenues for cooperation, including in areas like agriculture and healthcare".

The two sides held talks on the issue of peace and reconciliation process in the island nation over a working lunch. However, in their speeches, none of the two leaders touched on the subject of the 13th Amendment on devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority Northern Province, which India has been gently pressing Colombo on.

Ties between the neighbours had come under strain under the Rajapaksa government, especially on the issue of arrest and incarceration of Indian fisherfolk and over Sri Lanka's increased dalliance with China. The berthing of a Chinese submarine in Colombo port had caused consternation in India.

Congratulating Sirisena on his election, Modi said: "India is Sri Lanka's closest neighbour and friend. The goodwill and support of the people of India will always be with you." Modi had been one of the first leaders to congratulate Sirisena after his victory.

He also assured Sirisena of "India's commitment to its development partnership" which would continue to cover areas, including infrastructure. Both sides have also agreed to expand their defence and security cooperation, including in maritime security cooperation and in trilateral cooperation with the Maldives, another geo-strategically important Indian Ocean neighbor of India.

The four agreements inked are on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, on cultural cooperation, a MoU on establishment of Nalanda University, and a MoU on cooperation in agriculture. On the ticklish fishermen's issue, Modi said both leaders "attach the highest importance to the issue" and have agreed for a "constructive and humanitarian approach" to it.

He said that the Indian assisted projects for the Tamil displaced had made excellent progress, including more than 27,000 houses which have been constructed. On boosting economic cooperation, Modi said in view of India enjoying a huge trade surplus with Sri Lanka, he had voiced his support "for a more balanced growth in trade in both directions" and for promoting "greater flow of Indian investments and tourists into Sri Lanka".

The commerce secretaries of both sides are to meet soon to review bilateral commercial ties. "We are at a moment of an unprecedented opportunity to take our bilateral relations to a new level. This visit today has set us firmly in that direction," said Modi.

Sirisena said during the talks, both sides came to "several good conclusions to strengthen ties and strengthen the friendship and we were able to strengthen that friendship", which will not only help build stronger bilateral relations "but in international forums India will support us and have more understanding between the two countries; building more relations and strengthening the ties, and we agreed to work on a mutual understanding, and it is very clear."

His statement indicates that Sri Lanka is keen that India support Colombo in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) council session in Geneva in March. Sirisena also said that both sides have agreed to work closely on issues including trade, energy, defence, security, education and commerce. He said his first official visit to India has "borne very fruitful results" and helped bring the relationship to "greater height".

"Now we are in the path of progress and this is a remarkable milestone in that process," he said. Earlier, he was accorded a ceremonial reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and later went to lay a wreath at Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. He was also hosted by President Pranab Mukherjee at an official banquet.

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