News behind the News|November 25, 2019

Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa Thursday swore in his elder brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister in the capital Colombo, cementing the powerful family’s political comeback. The appointment came after the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tendered his resignation following the defeat of his United National Party’s (UNP) candidate in the presidential election.

It is the first time in Sri Lankan history that two siblings have held the two top political positions, although Mahinda is only in charge of a caretaker government until parliamentary elections next year.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a defense secretary under his brother Mahinda was credited with military victory ending the 27-year civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers.

The brothers are considered heroes among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and the powerful Buddhist clergy, but Gotabaya has been accused of war crimes in connection with the alleged killing of around 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the conflict. Rights groups have long called for investigations into alleged rights abuses committed during the Rajapaksas’ previous terms in power.


The expected victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has evoked fear among the minority Tamil and Muslim population who largely voted for his main rival Sajith Premadasa. The Hindu writes “If Tamils blamed the Rajapaksas for the death of thousands of civilians at the end of the civil war in 2009, and the subsequent reluctance to probe war crimes and disappearances, Muslims were worried about being targeted by majoritarian elements backed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”

Conceding there were other factors behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s impressive performance, the paper states these included “anxieties arising from the state of the economy, revulsion towards unabated corruption and fears set off by the Easter Sunday bombings. Events since President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October 2018, leading to a constitutional crisis, made this election a referendum on the failures of the power-sharing arrangement between the two leaders.”

The two former allies parted in the backdrop of corruption allegations and poor economic performance, the arrangement collapsed. The worst fallout was perhaps the April 21 bombings, which happened despite advance intelligence, indicating a staggering breakdown of communication within the government.

However, it is significant that “those blamed for the past democratic deficit are back in power. The country is nowhere near the promised constitutional reforms, either to address minority concerns or to abolish the executive presidency. Fears that the two-term limit on running for President, as well as constitutional curbs on the chief executive’s powers, will be removed in future are not misplaced.”


Ahilan Kadirgamar (political economist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna) writes that “the 2019 presidential election will be a watershed in Sri Lankan history. The Rajapaksa regime was decisively defeated in both the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. Since then, remnants of the regime have persevered to rebuild.

“The Rajapaksa camp built a base in their Sinhala constituencies by engaging the rural population and lower-middle classes. They spoke to the discontent with a long-neglected drought and deteriorating economic situation. They capitalized on the Easter attacks, and claimed to be the only actors who can address national security.”

Each of the gains of the Rajapaksas writes Kadirgamar “was, in fact, a failure of the SirisenaWickremesinghe government. The coalition government was rocked by infighting, and its aloof leadership with grand projects of trade liberalization and foreign investment neglected people’s everyday concerns. With the global Islamophobic discourse on the rise, the government did little to confront the chauvinist forces that ideologically mobilized the Sinhala constituencies by constructing the Muslims as the new enemies..”

In fact, the “great liberal democratic experiment of 2015 has now been overcome by authoritarian populism.”


Dealing with the Rajapaksas has always proved to be a challenge for India. C Raja Mohan (Director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express) however, cautions that India need not assume them to be inherently “pro-China”.

India, says Mohan “is acutely aware that China’s economic and strategic salience in the Subcontinent will continue to grow and is not tied to the regime leadership in its neighborhood.” For example, even the outgoing coalition led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that was labeled “pro-India”, in the end, became cozy with China.

“In any case, Delhi can’t expect its neighbors to shut down economic and commercial engagement with Beijing……… But Delhi will be right to ask Colombo not to take steps with Beijing that threaten India’s security. Delhi and Colombo need a clear understanding of mutual red lines relating to national security and a political comfort level to discuss cases that fall within the orange zone. That should help prevent the recurrence of the controversy over Chinese submarines in Colombo port that generated so much bad blood between the two nations in 2014.”

Delhi too “needs to invest some political capital in resolving problems such as the long-standing dispute over fisheries. Beyond its objection to China’s BRI projects, Delhi, either alone or in partnership with like-minded countries like Japan, should offer sustainable terms for infrastructure development. Delhi also needs to contribute more to the development of Colombo’s defense and counter-terror capabilities.”


Calling Gotabaya a ‘saleable politician’, Lt Gen PC Katoch retd. (Distinguished fellow, United Service Institution of India) writes his “win is a special bonanza for China as it will provide a big boost for China’s Belt and Road project, with Sri Lanka straddling the busiest global shipping lanes in the Indo-Pacific. India’s relief over the Maldives coming out of Beijing’s hold has been outweighed many times more with Sri Lanka landing up in China’s lap. Gotabaya is not the one to view China’s financial overtures as a debt trap…….”

Disregarding Gotabaya’s ‘neutrality’ and ‘balancing’ line, the former General is convinced that Sri Lanka under him “will plunge deeper into China’s gravitational pull. This could make Sri Lanka harden its stance against India. Witness Nepal’s Prime Minister asking the Indian Army to withdraw from the Kalapani area rather than calling for dialogue. China’s consolidation in Sri Lanka would challenge the alternative to its Belt and Road plans by the US, Japan and others that are rooting for free and open seas and global commons. China has never bothered about international norms and neither is it likely to do so in the future.”

Warning that “Gotabaya would likely make life difficult for minorities, turning Sri Lanka into a police state,” the former General predicts “he can be expected to go after Islamic fundamentalists with a vengeance, showing no mercy and without a bother, encouraged by China and without a whimper from Pakistan. Pakistan is immune to the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang while China assists Pakistani military genocide in Balochistan.

“India should be wary of the military hawk in Gotabaya as well. While both China and Pakistan helped Sri Lanka in decimating the LTTE, he is unlikely to forget the Indian intelligence-trained cadres of the already established powerful terror organization of the LTTE replete with ground, air, and naval wings.

“Given the above setting, India should be prepared for a boost to Pakistan’s ISI activities against India from the Sri Lankan soil. This would increase terror threat to South India where radicalization is already stirring……..” Pragmatism, in geopolitics, concludes Katoch “is the need of the hour to cope with the emerging dynamics in Sri Lanka.”


Taking a different view, Alok Bansal (director, India Foundation and adjunct professor at New Delhi Institute of Management) says the perception that the Rajapaksa family is pro-China, is wrong. “As president, Mahinda had said that China is a good friend but India is a relative. In the South Asian context, friends may come and go, but relatives are for keeps.

“The Rajapaksas have had good relations with India and have visited the country many times, including for pilgrimage. Gotabaya also knows of India’s immense contribution to Sri Lanka during the civil war and realizes that neither China nor Pakistan can be a substitute for India. India is Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner and also one of the largest investors in the country. The largest number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka are from India. Sri Lankans, of all economic strata, across racial and religious divides, come to India for healthcare, education, and pilgrimage. So, it is unlikely that any sensible leader would like to snap such relations.”


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ties with India will be tested on not only his family’s close ties with China, says Dipankar Roy Chaudhury (Sr Assistant Editor at The Economic Times - Foreign & Strategic Affairs) “but also his links with Pakistan.”

A Pakistan Foreign Office official said, “For Pakistan, the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is certainly a positive development.”

As a young army officer in the early 1970s, Rajapaksa was sent to Pakistan for an officers’ training course at a time when Sri Lanka maintained strong relations with Pakistan. Later, during the war with the LTTE, when he was the defense secretary under his brother Mahinda’s presidency, Pakistan military supported the Sri Lankan army to which it also supplied defense equipment. According to The News of Pakistan, pilots of Pakistan Air Force participated in airstrikes against LTTE bases in August 2008. Pakistan also deputed some of its army officers to Colombo to guide the Sri Lankan security forces in their operations.

Sr Assistant Editor (The Economic Times - Foreign & Strategic Affairs) notes “the ISI had for years been trying to get a foothold in Sri Lanka and one of its officers was once even targeted by the LTTE in Colombo. The ISI also tried to fish in troubled waters following tensions between Sinhala majority and Muslims in Sri Lanka, hoping to recruit for terrorist organizations, according to people aware of the matter.”


India should also learn from the past and not get too involved with the Tamil issue. “India’s involvement in Sri Lanka’s tragic civil war has been far more consequential than the China factor in complicating Delhi’s relations with Colombo. Delhi has certainly learned the dangers of being drawn too deep into the domestic conflicts of neighbouring countries.”

Still, as Neena Gopal (Resident Editor, Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru) writes, “India would like to see no further vilification of the Tamils, some closure on the fate of the ‘disappeared’, and a rehabilitation of the war-devastated north, the rebuilding of their homes and their lives, that has seen a far greater presence of an intrusive Sri Lankan military than before. Tamil anger and unease must be assuaged, even if it means revisiting the unresolved issues of devolution of powers to the northern provinces — however, watered down — and doing nothing to imperil the livelihoods of fishermen and restoring the farmlands, taken by the military, in the largely egocentric north.”

India should, in any case, take heart from the new President’s message of “neutrality” vis a vis China and India. At the same time, writes Gopal “he is hoping the Narendra Modi government will look at Sri Lanka with ‘a new set of eyes’, bringing home to New Delhi that the island nation may be small but it does occupy a strategic position in the heart of the Indian Ocean, sitting astride a major trade route that the new President believes could be the pathway to move Sri Lanka to a first world country. India, partner or adversary, lies in the hands of the new strongman in Sri Lanka.”


The relations with the Rajapaksya starts with a handicap for India. Maj Gen Ashok Mehta (retd), defense Commentator reminds “that India was part of the plot to dislodge Mahinda in 2015 is New Delhi’s worst kept secret. Mahinda has openly accused R&AW of engineering his defeat. Gota’s younger brother and chief strategist, Basil Rajapaksa, a former commerce minister in Mahinda era, has said Mahinda as their supreme leader, adding that while India is their closest neighbor and friend (Mahinda used to call India a relative) — and that they will depend on it for political security — they will count on China for economic development. How this will play out of the ground with Gota, who was critical of India during the war, at the helm only time will tell.”

New Delhi now emphasizes it will work with a President Sri Lankans elect. But the question, according to the former General is “Will Gota follow his brother Mahinda’s anti-West (and anti-India) path or contrary to what he has said in his campaign about withdrawing from international agreements, a more balanced policy?


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November 25, 2019