Geopolitics

Whither Sri Lanka ?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 Nov , 2019

As China’s clout grows in the Indo-Pacific, so does its obduracy, vile and cunning. Solomon Islands government recently said that a contract signed by one of its provinces to lease entire island of Tulagi to a Chinese company is unlawful and should be terminated. Recall Pakistan leasing Shaksgam and Gilgit-Baltistan (both Indian Territory) to China. Inaugurating Sri Lanka’s tallest tower on September 16, 2019, Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena said that Chinese firm Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co. Ltd. (ALIT) contracted for the project in 2012 during President Mahinda Rajapaksa disappeared with $11.09 million (SL Rupees 2 billion plus) state funds. Whether Rajapaksa shared the booty or China gifted him all remains unknown but Mahinda Rajapaksa wittingly turned China’s surrogate allowing rapid expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka and drowning Sri Lanka in Chinese debt. 

Above are but few examples how China’s political warfare and money-power are being employed. Debauchery of China’s rulers is percolating down; a Chinese Team has been disqualified and kicked out from World Military Games for “extensive cheating”. Having politically, economically and culturally invaded Sri Lanka, next Sri Lanka elections on November 16 may prove a bonanza for China. Even in the prosperous province of Kandy which remained untouched by LTTE insurgency, the Chinese makeover is prominent. Many Chinese own businesses in Kandy and signboards have sprung up in Mandarin along with English and Sinhalese.  Chinese migrants began moving into Sri Lanka since 1990s and thousands are working in various infrastructure projects, ports, harbours and power projects in Sri Lanka. Even state-run organizations like Norocholai Power Station and Colombo National Performing Arts Theatre reportedly employ 900 and 1000 Chinese respectively.  Having taken over Hambantota Port for 99 years and with major investments in Sri Lanka, China-isation of the island nation is running full steam. 

President Sirisena is not contesting the upcoming elections in Sri Lanka on November 16. This is not surprising since he had caused a constitutional crisis last year by sacking Prime  Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe replacing him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, the Supreme Court later reversed Sirisena’s action and reinstated Wickremesinghe. Now Sri Lanka’s  Parliament Select Committee (PSC) has ruled that President Sirisena “actively undermined’ national security by suspending police chief Pujith Jayasundara and defence secretary Shantha Kottegoda as part of revamping the security establishment following the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The PSC blamed the Director of State Intelligence Service (SIS) as primarily responsible for the intelligence failure that led to the deadliest terror attack in April. It may also be recalled Sirisena later admitted that defence and police officials had received an Indian intelligence report warning of the imminent terror attack in April which had also identified the plotters, albeit he had not seen the report.

Initial reports concerning the November 16 elections in Sri Lanka were that 41 individuals had filed their nomination papers while Sirisena had not. However, now 35 candidates are reportedly in the race. The two front runners are: Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Sajith Premadasa of United National Party (UNP). Gotabaya Rajapaksa (brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa) was the Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka who worked out the strategy in concert then Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka to finally herd the LTTE in a corner with the sea behind them and annihilate the lot with their families and Tamil populations (both Hindus and Muslims) in that area. According to the UN, the final military offensive against LTTE was a grave assault on the entire regime of international law with as many as 40,000 civilians killed. Significantly, Sarath Fonseka later stated that Gotabaya had ordered summary execution of LTTE leaders as they surrendered.

Two lawsuits are pending against Gotabaya (a former Lieutenant Colonel of SL Army) in US federal court over war-crimes committed by him as Defence Secretary.  Mahinda Rajapaksa is ineligible to run for president under the country’s regulations. Gotabaya, who has renounced his US citizenship for becoming eligible to contest elections, will likely continue the legacy of elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya has declared he will not honour the deal with UN concerning war crimes and that he will release and rehabilitate soldiers jailed for war crimes, specifically stating, “We will always work with the United Nations, but I can’t recognize what they have signed with past Sri Lankan government.” The present army chief Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva has said that army did not commit any war crimes.

Gottabaya has also cashed on the Sunday Easter Islamic bombings by fanning flames of Sinhalese nationalism and has promised that if he becomes President he will re-introduce surveillance of citizens in order to crush extremism and that he will strengthen intelligence services.  Importantly, he has also stated that if elected, he will “restore” ties with China. This perhaps is an understatement of the decade given how his elder brother virtually mortgaged the country to China. On October 23, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed an ambitious interim budget of 1.47 trillion rupees ($8.11 billion) in spending for the first four months of 2020. This expects 745 billion rupees in government revenue in the first four months of 2020 and sought permission to raise it up to 721 billion rupees as loans – this is what China will pounce on.

Sajith Premdasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premdasa. Latter too had stamp of authoritarian rule and was known to assist the LTTE at the time when the IPKF was pulling out of Sri Lanka. Sajith, presently Minister of Housing, has otherwise been a non-controversial figure, seldom speaking on strategic issues. He has been promising larger rural employment, free mid-day meals in schools, various welfare schemes and free market economy. Yet, he is part of the UNP-led government that has not been able to ensure accountability (massive corruption scandal of Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 2015 being one example) and delivering good governance, showing lack of political will.  However, the present Sri Lanka government has shown leaning towards retaining the democratic ways far more than compared to the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.

Over 15 million Sri Lankan voters will exercise their votes on November 16. Gotabaya appears to have a larger support base with majority Sinhala viewing him as someone who helped crush the LTTE, even though he has little political experience. Businessmen and professionals perhaps also view him as someone who can take quick decisions, his army service giving him administrative experience as well but his presidency will likely see the divide between the Sinhala-Buddhists and others widening sharply. China’s influence over Sri Lanka will rise exponentially, with China’s BRI consolidating faster. This will have repercussions for the region given the strategic location of Sri Lanka. China should be expected to put its total effort behind a win for Gotabaya.  

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Between Gotabaya and Sajith, latter may be a better choice for Sri Lanka.  For that matter, it was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that had jointly challenged the unconstitutional act of Sirisena in sacking the incumbent prime minister.

Therefore, it may be even better if Sri Lanka’s next president be from the JVP for ensuring social and ethnic harmony. But while Tamils may not vote for Gotabaya, the Sinhalese-Buddhist votes may be get split amongst the other presidential candidates, helping Gotabaya win in the process. China would gain most if that happens.  The final say is with the voters, who may spring a surprise.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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