New Sri Lanka president in India for first foreign trip

Maithripala Sirisena begins four-day visit to neighbouring country, underlining New Delhi's importance as regional ally.

    Sirisena will be looking to boost bilateral trade with India, now standing at around $1bn [AP]
    Sirisena will be looking to boost bilateral trade with India, now standing at around $1bn [AP]

    Sri Lanka's new leader has made his first official overseas trip as president, visiting India in a move that underlines its importance as a regional ally.

    Maithripala Sirisena was welcomed on Sunday evening by officials in New Delhi as he arrived for a four-day visit.

    A ceremony and banquet for Sirisena will be held on Monday as well as top-tier meetings befitting the countries' "unique" historical and cultural ties, Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

    The visit follows years of uneasy relations between the two countries and international pressure to speed up post-civil war reconciliation efforts at home.

    Sirisena has said his government will review the loans and projects approved under his powerful predecessor and one-time ally, Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he defeated at the polls last month.

    Relations between India and Sri Lanka had become tense in recent years, as China grew cozier with the island nation, long considered by India as being within its traditional sphere of influence.

    Last year, President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Sri Lanka in 28 years as he courted Colombo's support for a maritime trade route. Sri Lanka also irked New Delhi by allowing two Chinese submarines to dock along its coastline, and by brokering deals for billions in Chinese loans and infrastructure projects.

    While campaigning for the election, Sirisena had criticized the Chinese projects as debt traps, but he has since announced plans to visit China after his India trip.

    Sirisena will be looking to boost bilateral trade with India, now standing at around $1bn.

    "We will be making a new beginning with India," government minister and spokesman Lakshman Kiriella told reporters in Sri Lanka on Sunday.

    The president is to visit a Buddhist temple complex in the eastern state of Bihar before travelling to the southern Indian city of Tirupati later on Tuesday before returning hoem on Wednesday.

    Independent investigation

    Sirisena and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are also likely to focus talks on Sri Lanka's efforts to establish reconciliation in the wake of its long civil war, which Sirisena has named a priority for his government.

    Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority complain that little has been done to restore trust and national unity since the 25-year civil war ended with the defeat of ethnic Tamil fighters in 2009, despite pledges to devolve power to Tamil-populated provinces.

    India, with its own sizeable Tamil population, has also voiced concerns about the slow pace of reconciliation efforts, and has urged Sri Lanka to heed international demands for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes.

    "This is an important issue. We will discuss issues relating to the reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka," Akbarrudin, the Sri Lankan foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters.

    Rajapaksa had been widely popular in the Sinhalese-majority nation for ending the war, but became increasingly unpopular abroad as he refused international calls for an independent investigation into alleged human rights violations during the war, saying a government inquiry would be sufficient.

    Amnesty International praised Sirisena for taking "important steps" in restoring an independent judiciary and other institutions in the country, while also urging efforts toward ending discrimination, protecting free speech and conducting a speedy and thorough investigation into the rights abuse allegations.

    "It is important that the international community supports Sri Lanka through these initiatives, beginning with India, which is one of its closest and most important partners," the UK-based rights group said on Sunday.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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