Sri Lanka, India cooperate on COVID-19

SAARC leaders video conference

Indian diplomacy nipped in the bud an avoidable embarrassment about the nation sending troops to help Sri Lanka fight Covid19 epidemic. Given the fact that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces are involved in the pandemic-fight in full swing almost from day one, and also the history of Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) fighting the LTTE terror-group on Sri Lankan soil in the late eighties, the prompt clarification by the Indian High Commission (IHC) in Colombo went a long way in assuaging domestic sentiments in the island-nation.

“There is no plan to send the Indian Army to Sri Lanka for whatever purpose,” the local media quoted sources in the Indian High Commission as saying, when early media reports from New Delhi indicated such a possibility. “These are factually inaccurate and misleading. We have responded promptly to requests from Maldives and Kuwait for deployment of Rapid Response Teams comprising doctors, nurses and paramedics to deal with the Covid19 pandemic. These Rapid Response Teams are ready for deployment to other friendly countries at short notice if requested by them,” Economic Times quoted Anurag Srivastava, the new spokesman of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), an old Sri Lanka hand, giving a clarification.

The confusion was centred on a media report that the Indian Army was readying separate teams to be deployed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan to help those countries boost capabilities to deal with rising cases of coronavirus. The report also referred to a 14-member Indian Army team going to Maldives  to fight against the pandemic, in mid-March. In the case of Maldives, the report added that the team was sent to help the nation set up coronavirus testing laboratories and train local medical professionals to fight the pandemic. In early April, the Army also sent a team of 15 personnel to Kuwait as a part of bilateral cooperation.

As the media report from New Delhi pointed out, “India has also been playing a key role in pushing for a common framework in fighting the pandemic in the SAARC region. While doing a video conference on 15 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched for formulating a joint strategy to fight COVID-19 in the SAARC region and proposed an emergency fund with an initial offer of $10 million from India. It is understood that India has already made the contribution.”

However, the report also quoted official sources as saying that “teams for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan are being readied as part of India’s policy of extending helping hand to all friendly countries in the region to fight the pandemic. This part of the report caused eyebrows to be raised in neighbouring nations, their capitals especially.

Without much loss of time, the Sri Lankan Government also clarified that there was no move to get military personnel from India, to combat coronavirus. Defence Secretary, Maj-Gen Kamal Gunaratne (retd), said that no request was made for Indian troops to assist the country in the matter. “No such discussion has taken place,” he stressed and pointed out how the nation’s military and police were doing a good job in assisting medical practitioners perform their duties.

Sri Lanka was not alone in coming up with a quick clarification. In Dhaka, Bangladesh Foreign minister A K Abdul Momen promptly clarified that his nation did not require the services of the Indian Army team for containing Covid19. “We do not need such assistance, rather we are sending teams to different countries,” the ‘New Age’ quoted Minister Momen as saying.  Bangladesh armed forces have sent medical teams to Kuwait, the Minister pointed out. The country also extended support to Maldives, Bhutan and China, he added. Bangladesh has also sent medical supplies to Maldives.

Obviously, host-governments in India’s neighbourhood do not want political trouble from their domestic Opposition just now. Nor do they want any misunderstanding centred on such reports. In small nations across the world, permitting larger foreign militaries to work on the ground, especially on a civil crisis like the current pandemic, however unprecedented it be, as test, if not a challenge, to their ‘sovereignty’. It’s more so in the case of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

However wrong it be, the sentiment has remained despite India rushing military and medical aid to Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck the island-nation in December 2004, and India’s Tri-Services Command in the Andamans was badly hit. India again sent military personnel and medical supplies when Sri Lanka suffered the worst floods in 2017, worse than the one earlier in 2003.

Even in the Covid19 fight, India deployed only Air Force transporters to send medical supplies to Sri Lanka, Maldives and other nations seeking such assistance. However, there was no question of New Delhi unilaterally offering to send military teams, however be their expertise and whatever the number without an express request – and after considering all merit and circumstances.

Forces in charge

The reality of the pandemic-fight in Sri Lanka now is that the Armed Forces are fully in charge of the Government operations. President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the nation’s war-time Defence Secretary, lost no time in putting the military in charge and putting Army chief, Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva, as the head of a task force set up for the purpose. Initially issued for a month, the President has since extended the task force’s term by another month, through a Gazette notification.

Smaller nations, especially Sri Lanka and Maldives in India’s Indian Ocean neighbourhood, have been pressing their respective defence services to help or take over from the civilian administration, calamity-relief of every kind. In Sri Lanka’s case, Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne has implied that the situation could not have been handled as well if civilian medical doctors alone were left to handle the pandemic situation.

“Apart from the Tri-Forces and Police, we use our Intelligence agencies extensively to trace those who have close links to coronavirus-positives to make the particular areas free of the virus,” Secretary Gunaratne said. According to him, the military and police, were playing supportive roles to the health authorities, and also help analyse the cluster of corona-infected people, their behaviour, and their close links before locking down a village or an area. Apart from enforcing selective and nation-wide lock-downs, Army personnel are also undertaking temperature-checks and random-tests on people, for identifying the coronavirus-spread.

Continuing cooperation

Post-clarification on Indian troops, Acting High Commissioner for Inda Vinod K. Jacob called on Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and exchanged information on the respective countries’ efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The two expressed their happiness over the continuing bilateral efforts to fight against COVID-19 and agreed to continue to work together in this regard. They also agreed that the post-pandemic economic revival requires substantial collective effort.

Minister Dinesh Gunawardena thanked India for its support in bringing back stranded Buddhist pilgrims from India in March. Other Sri Lankans stranded in India are also being flown back home, soon afterwards. The Minister also expressed appreciation for the gift-consignment of over 13 tonnes of essential life-saving medicines supplied by India to Sri Lanka in early April. He has sought further cooperation for bringing back Sri Lankan students from India.

(Observer Research Foundation)



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