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Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson

Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin):Good afternoon friends and thank you very much for being here this afternoon for our regular interaction on a weekly basis. I have one announcement to make, subsequent to which I am willing to answer any questions on those aspects. After that, in case you are interested in anything else I will try and see if I can respond to those. The announcement that I have to make relates to the External Affairs Minister’s visit to another neighbouring country.

The External Affairs Minister, Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, will be visiting Nay Pyi Taw, the capital of Myanmar, from the 8th to the 11th. This is her fourth visit to a neighbouring country. Her first visit was to accompany the Prime Minister to Bhutan. Subsequent to that she travelled to Bangladesh and Nepal. And this is her fourth visit to another one of India’s neighbours emphasising again the importance that India places on our relations with our neighbourhood.

There are several elements to this visit. On the 9th of August, the External Affairs Minister will be participating in the 12th annual India-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. On the 10th of August in the morning she will be participating in the 4th meeting of the EAS Foreign Ministers. On the 10th afternoon she will be participating in the meeting of the 21st session of the ARF. These are all plurilateral in nature.

Subsequent to that, on the 11th, the External Affairs Minister will have bilateral discussions with her counterpart from Myanmar. She will also meet important leaders of Myanmar including the President and the Speaker of the Assembly. Let me try and take you through some of these elements so that you have some background information on this. On the sidelines of the plurilateral meetings, the External Affairs Minister is scheduled to have a series of bilateral meetings. These include with the Foreign Ministers of China, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Canada.

Let me take you through the ASEAN- India event. India and ASEAN have a very robust relationship. We have 26 dialogue mechanisms covering seven areas of cooperation. These are: agriculture, trade and commerce, environment, science and technology, tourism, new and renewable energy. Our relations with ASEAN have reached a critical mass and we are in the process of pushing them to the next level. The ASEAN-India meeting will focus on how to enhance connectivity between India and ASEAN states, people-to-people relations, and seamless integration of the economic space.

The meeting of the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers will focus on the seven areas where there is cooperation and focus on. These are: education, energy and environment, finance, pandemic management, disaster management and mitigation, connectivity, and food security. Also, it is normal for the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers to discuss issues of peace and security in the region.

And finally, the ARF, as you are aware, discusses in a closed-door setting issues relating to peace and security in the region. As far as India is concerned we will focus on issues relating to terrorism as well as developments in the region in terms of peace and security especially relating to Afghanistan.

I think I will stop with this background information. I will be willing to answer any questions that you may like to ask on this or on anything else.

Question:I have a question on the bilateral between India and Myanmar. I remember that last time our Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao had visited Myanmar, and after that I think Minister Krishna also went to Myanmar. Between those visits and today, what is the development between the two nations as far as bilateral issues are concerned?

Official Spokesperson: I think you have missed out several other important meetings. Prime Minister visited Myanmar. The last time Foreign Minister’s bilateral visit to Myanmar was by Mr. Salman Khurshid in 2012. The Foreign Secretary of Myanmar was recently here in India while you were all focused on other issues. There was a Foreign Office Consultation where we focused on basically two or three elements which will be carried forward in the coming meeting. But as far as the political significance of this meeting is concerned, it is the first interaction at a political level between Myanmar which is a close neighbour which has a long border with India. So, issues related to border management will of course figure.

Also connectivity. We see Myanmar as bridge between India and ASEAN. So, there are issues of connectivity here. We will also discuss on the trilateral highway and also the multimodal project relating to Kaladan. These are matters of connectivity. Energy cooperation also an area of interest. Border management will certainly include issues of security of interest to us.

In addition, Myanmar and India have a bilateral trade of approximately USD 2 billion. This is in favour of Myanmar. Myanmar is the largest supplier of pulses to India. All of us havedalsin our houses. Myanmar is a major supplier of thosedals.

Of course this is also a getting to know each other meeting because the new Government of India is very keen to move our relationship with Myanmar into a more intensive phase of interaction as has been done with other neighbouring countries. So, that is broadly the areas of discussion.

Question:Myanmar is interested in joining SAARC of which a summit is due in November. Is this issue likely to figure in Mrs. Swaraj’s meetings in Myanmar?

Official Spokesperson: As regards SAARC, I am not aware that there is an issue regarding expansion of membership of SAARC. I do not know whether that is on the agenda at all. I think the best people to respond to that would be the hosts of the SAARC. But my understanding is that this is not an issue at this stage on the agenda at all.

Question:Will she meet Aung San Suu Kyi?

Official Spokesperson: As regards meetings, certainly Aung San Suu Kyi is a respected leader in Myanmar and every opportunity of interaction Government of India takes to interact with her. That said, during this time she is based in Yangon and there is no Parliament in session. So, our understanding is that she is unlikely to be in Nay Pyi Taw during that period.

Question:Can you give us an update on India-ASEAN FTA?

Official Spokesperson: My understanding is that all the ASEAN process has to be completed, and they have signalled their intention to sign this at the earliest available opportunity. As you are aware, the FTAs are handled by the Ministry of Commerce in India as well in those countries. So, at the earliest available opportunities for such interaction at high level they are focusing on signing it.

Question:Akbar, you spoke of several bilateral meetings. Probably Pakistan Foreign Minister is also going to be at the ARF meeting. Is there a meeting scheduled with Pakistan Foreign Minister as well?

Official Spokesperson: I just told you the meetings that were scheduled.

Question:EAM would be meeting the Foreign Minister of China as well. Would the issue of incursion be raised because even the Defence Minister told the Parliament sometime back that Chinese troops violated the Border Defence Cooperaton Agreement in Ladakh Sector?

Official Spokesperson: You are aware that in pull aside meetings we are not at liberty to indicate to you the agenda well in advance because these are not structured and long duration meetings. These are short duration meetings which will be focused on a few limited issues. And once these meetings are over, we will certainly share the outcomes with you.

Question:It has been at least two years since India promised to start flights going into Yangon or Nay Pyi Taw. Even so there is no way to travel from India to Myanmar without going via a third country. Is there likely to be anything discussed on this during the EAM’s visit?

Official Spokesperson: First of all, India is beyond Delhi. There are flights between Kolkata and Yangon. There are Air India flights on a regular basis. I can see people who travelled nodding their heads. All our officials travel on those flights. So, there are flights. That said, ultimately these are commercial decisions that commercial airlines take. The Government provides a framework and that framework is in place. And the national carrier flies between Kolkata and Yangon. These are for limited duration. There are also certain off-season times in which they do not function. But that is normal scheduling for airlines. For example, I understand that they do not function during certain parts of the year when there are not many pilgrims to Bodh Gaya. But that is again related to the tourist season rather than any other requirement. Governments can only provide enabling arrangements. All of you represent the private sector. You know how decisions are taken there.

If there are no more questions on this, let us move on to questions on anything else.

Question:Sir, there have been numerous reports of the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Libera, etc. Are we issuing any advisories to people who might be wanting to visit there to be more careful? I think in a couple of these countries we only have honourary counsels also. So, what is the process?

Official Spokesperson: Let me try and take you to each of these countries so you know the number of people travelling and the number of Indians there and what we are doing. Essentially, health issues are handled by the Ministry of Health in India and my understanding is that they are coordinating a response on this within India. So, I will not get into those areas. But let me try and take you through areas outside India. This morning the Government of India announced a USD 50,000 each cash assistance to Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Republic of Guinea. This is to be used for medical or humanitarian purposes relating to the Ebola virus. The idea of providing this is that usually we provide medicine and assistance, but given the emergency there, that process will not be met in time. So, therefore, we have adopted a separate route in this case. Secondly, our understanding is that currently in Sierra Leone there are about 1200 to 1300 people either of Indian origin or Indian passport holders. In Libera there are approximately 3000 Indians. And in Guinea there are approximately 500 Indians. What we are doing is that we have reached out to them, we have communicated information that may be useful for them in such circumstances. We are keeping a close watch in terms of travel patterns of non-Indians from that region to India because ultimately visa is required. So, we are aware what are the numbers, etc., and all. Thirdly, our Embassies are in touch with the Indian communities in all these countries. And I notice that there was a story in one Indian Hindi newspaper which said, Indians stranded because exit visas are not being granted to people in Ebola-hit region. Let me assure you that there is no such issue there. Also, there has not been death of any Indian so far on account of the Ebola virus. My understanding of the numbers of other deaths is approximately in Guinea 358, in Liberia 255, in Sierra Leone 273. No Indian so far. So, at the Ministry of External Affairs which is dealing with these issues outside India, I have outlined what we are doing.

Question:Are there any problems concerning Haj, and what is being done to resolve those issues?

Official Spokesperson: The quota of Indian nationals who will undertake Haj this year is 156,000. Of these, 120,000 are through what is called the Haj Committee where the Government of India makes all the arrangements. The remaining 36,000 were through what are called private tour operators. In accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court last year where it had approved a policy, Ministry of External Affairs had put out a press release for the 36,000 and how to go about getting registered, who would take how many. Before I begin on that part let me tell you, as regards the 120,000 who are going through the Haj Committee and the Government of India assistance in terms of all the arrangements, there are no issues. That process is complete. There are issues relating to the 36,000 Indians who will be going through the private tour operators. And these problems arose primarily because contrary to the Supreme Court judgment which last year said that this judgment will not be contested by anyone, there have been court cases filed in several courts across India at levels lower than the Supreme Court. These were in Mumbai, Kerala, Indore, and Jammu and Kashmir. They are at various levels where they are currently being considered. But one of these courts decided to stay the press release which began the process for allocation of quotas for various tour operators. That basically meant, this whole allocation of quotas for private tour operators, the 36,000, came to a standstill. The last date for application for Haj pilgrims is fast approaching. The matter is now with the Supreme Court. But unless the private tour operators review their position, it is going to be extremely difficult for them to meet the requirements of the Saudi Government and they may well lose the opportunity to send Indian pilgrims to Saudi Arabia through their aegis. Our request to them, and we have also through a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court made it very clear that should they stop this approach of trying to maximise their personal interest at the cost of the pilgrims from India, as all may suffer.

Question:Akbar, my question pertains to the boat refugees of Sri Lankan Tamil origin who had left Chennai and gone to Australia and then according to the last reports did not want to meet Indian consular officers and they were all supposed to be pushed on to Nauru. Most of these refugees, if they come in on genuine papers, Sri Lankan refugee status, and they are already in Tamil Nadu in this given case, and then go on to a third nation, within whose jurisdiction do they strictly fall? Somebody needs to clear this up. I do not know if they have been granted refugee status on Indian soil. Then to what extent is India responsible for them, to take them back if they wish to?

Official Spokesperson: I think this matter has been addressed by the Ministry of Home Affairs twice. They have indicated that if there are Indian nationals there we will certainly welcome them back. If there are any others who we are bound by international laws and in accordance with our regulations, we will accept them. That is where we stand. Also, the same applies to other countries who are involved in this. So, as far as we are concerned we made it clear, all Indian nationals are welcome. As regards other nationals, if they are within the ambit of any international convention that India has signed and has integrated into our laws, we certainly will have a look at that. At this stage we have not reached that process.

Question:Sir, India-Nepal Joint Statement mentioned about one sub-regional cooperation on transit, connectivity and power. Any future roadmap is planned now for any sub-regional meeting ahead in a few months?

Official Spokesperson: Sub-regional cooperation is an intrinsic part of regional cooperation. This is accepted that if there are possibilities of Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan cooperating on some of these aspects, we certainly will. It could be trilateral, it could be more that. For example, if the power flows into India and from India if it is in excess, if there is grid connectivity it goes to Bangladesh, this is one option that has been talked of. It is also possible from Bhutan. These are all possibilities when that grid connectivity established, when power flows. At this stage we are far from that.

Question:An international tribunal has delivered its verdict on Indo-Bangladesh maritime dispute last month. And at that time you said that India respects the verdict and it was being studied in detail. One month on, would you like to make any further comment in terms of what India has gained or lost in the verdict?

Official Spokesperson: I think we had made it quite clear diplomatically that this was how good neighbours work. We had both gone to the tribunal. Both have abided by the outcome of that tribunal and now we seek to cooperate in avenues that are open for cooperation on the basis of that verdict. That is the diplomatic outcome of that. These are matters which we see in terms of our relationship with Bangladesh rather than in black and white terms that you have described.

Question:Akbar, recently China withdrew unilaterally its huge USD 1 billion oil rig from Vietnamese waters. What is India’s reaction to this, particularly against the backdrop of the fact that China had made a lot of fuss about Indian oil exploration in Vietnam?

Official Spokesperson: Rajiv, you are aware of our views on issues relating to disputes in the South China Sea. These are: (1) We are not party to sovereignty disputes there. (2) We hope that sovereignty disputes between those parties concerned are resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law and conventions including the 1982 International Law of the Seas Convention. (3) We believe that navigation should not be impeded in the South China Sea, which is an important water way. Those are the elements which basically are of a generic nature but provide for an understanding of our position on any issue related to the South China Sea.

Question:Sir, a Sri Lankan national during interrogation has given exhaustive details about his being used by the ISI for spreading terror activities in India. In this regard, has the MEA discussed this with the Sri Lankan Government or taken it up with Islamabad?

Official Spokesperson: Shrinjoy, what you are saying is what I have seen on your channel and elsewhere. However, let me tell you, India and Sri Lanka have a multiplicity of channels to address each other’s concerns. These need not always be in the public domain. You are aware that diplomats use front doors. However, there are other doors as you have known in other issues. And should there have been issues of a sensitive nature that impinge on our security, let me assure you that the appropriate channels will be used to address them.

Question:Sir, ek khabar aayi ki BSF ka ek javaan Chenab nadi mein beh kar Pakistan chala gaya tha. Kya aapki taraf se kuchh is tarah ki baat hui?

Official Spokesperson:Mujhe iske baare mein nahin pata. Agar aisa kuchh hua toh ek mechanism haibetween the border guards on our side and their side, and certainly they will work it out. I have always said that issues which happen on the border are handled by those who are responsible for border management. And certainly we are not those.

Question:What is the status of the 41 Indians held hostage or captive in Mosul? Is there any update on what their status is?

Official Spokesperson: Nilova, in situations of conflict there is always a tussle between hope and fear. There is always a tussle between those who are interested in finding corroboration and confirmation, and those who are interested in speculation. Finally, there is always a tussle between those who are interested in persisting with the issue and those who want to conclude the issue. What we see in some reports is this tussle playing out. We in the Government of India have made the choice. We are on the side of hope. We are on the side of confirmation. We are on the side of persisting until all information is available about every Indian national in captivity. Of course there are others who made the other choice, and we do not want to go down that track because we feel that the sources of information available to us far exceeds what is being put out in the public domain as speculative or conclusive information. So, as the Minister of External Affairs has said, ‘We have confirmation of those Indian nationals being unharmed, of those Indian nationals remaining in captivity; and we have through our sources corroborative evidence of that.

Since there are no more questions, thank you very much. Have good evening.

(Concluded)
07 August 2014


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