Beijing bares it in Jaffna, warms up to Tamils in Sri Lanka

Taking off their shirts and wearing traditional white veshtis, the bare-chested men, carrying trays laden with fruit and puja offerings, entered the temple. Nothing unusual because that’s the practice at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a temple near Jaffna in Sri Lanka. But the man who dressed as a devotee and led the others into the temple Thursday stood out — Qi Zenhong, China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka.

Days after announcing on Twitter that a Chinese solar company had found a new client in the Maldives because security concerns” of a “third party” had led to the suspension of its project on three islands off Jaffna peninsula, Ambassador Qi is touring Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province, wooing an ethnic minority that has traditionally been close to India.

His visit to Jaffna peninsula on Wednesday and Thursday and his outreach to a community that remains cold to the Sinhalese south 12 years after the end of the ethnic war also came amid a bitter, public rough patch in Sri Lanka-China relations over Colombo’s cancellation of a fertiliser import.

In conversations with Jaffna’s civil society representatives, Qi responded to questions on the China-India rivalry in Sri Lanka, saying there was more geographical distance between India and Sri Lanka than between India and China since both countries share a border.

Dismissing the rivalry, he said both countries were continuously engaged in resolving their problems. He even said that talk of “third party” pressure on Sri Lanka to cancel the solar farm on three islands off Jaffna was “fake news”.

While this is not the first time that a Chinese diplomat has visited the Northern Province, it may be the first time that any Chinese ambassador has stayed overnight and engaged in such extensive public diplomacy in the peninsula where India takes its diplomatic and political influence for granted because of the ties of history, language, culture that have remained strong despite Delhi distancing itself from the Tamil separatist cause.

Chinese interests and its infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka have been largely focussed on the Sinhala south, particularly due to the snug relations that Beijing has with the Rajapaksas. While the Chinese have constructed roads and houses in the war-ravaged Tamil areas, Qi’s visit, which included a tour of Vavuniya and Mannar districts too, indicate a desire to expand the engagement on turf where political and people-to-people ties with India are strong.

Among his stops in the peninsula was the historic Jaffna Library which was burnt down by a mob led by Sinhalese politicians in 1983. There, he donated laptops and computers and offered assistance in the digitisation of the library. After its restoration in the 1990s, both Delhi and the Tamil Nadu government have donated thousands of books to rebuild the collection. In 2015, an “India Corner” was inaugurated in the library.

The main livelihood of people in Jaffna is fishing, and their rivalry with Tamil Nadu fishermen for scarce marine resources has eluded resolution. On Wednesday, the Chinese envoy’s outreach included donations of fishing nets and dry rations worth $100,000 to members of the Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Union Federation. Sri Lankan Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Douglas Devananda, who is also a parliamentarian from Jaffna, accompanied Qi during the visit.

“So far, Tamil people have not had much rapport with the Chinese. The visit might have been to improve relations with the Tamils,” said Dharmalingam Sithadthan, a member of Parliament from Jaffna and leader of the former militant group PLOTE.

In recent months, Tamils have questioned signage in Sri Lanka that includes Mandarin but has left out Tamil, even though it has the status of an official language. Official sources said the Chinese wanted to be seen as making amends for this. The visit is being viewed as a message to the Tamils that they should consider China as a friend.

Some also see the visit as a signal to the Sri Lankan leadership during a downturn in ties after Colombo cancelled the import of an organic fertiliser which did not pass local tests. In retaliation, China blacklisted the Sri Lankan state-owned People’s Bank for a payment “default” which the Chinese Embassy described in a tweet as “vicious”. China’s Ministry of Commerce said the default on the Letter of Credit had caused huge losses to Chinese companies.

Sritharan Thirunavakkarasu, a former member of the EPRLF and a Jaffna resident, said Qi’s visit was “unprecedented” by a Chinese diplomat for the time the envoy spent on the peninsula, and for the range of people he met during the visit.

Qi held discussions with government officials and civil society members on how China could contribute to increasing employment opportunities in the Northern Province. Shrimp farming was among the ideas that figured in the discussions. (Indian Express)

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