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China Hoping To Win Big In Sri Lankan Presidential Elections – Analysis

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By Lt Gen PC Katoch (retd)*

Over 15 million voters will participate in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections on November 16. President Maithripala Sirisena is not contesting, having little chance of winning after the Supreme Court reversed his unconstitutional act of sacking the prime minister last October.

Besides, Parliament’s Select Committee (PSC) has ruled that Sirisena “actively undermined’ national security by suspending Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara and Defence Secretary Shantha Kottegoda in revamping the security establishment soon after the Easter Sunday terror attacks in April. The PSC held the Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) primarily responsible for the intelligence failure that led to the attacks.  

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest elections under existing regulations. Among 35 candidates in the running, there are two front runners: Gotabaya Rajapaksa of SLPP and Sajith Premadasa of UNP. Gotabaya, younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the Defence Secretary who worked the strategy in concert with then Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka to corner the LTTE, with the sea behind them and massacre them all, with families and Tamils in the area – both Hindus and Muslims.

According to the UN, the final military offensive against the LTTE was a grave assault on the entire regime of international law, with as many as 40,000 civilians killed. Fonseka later said Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of LTTE leaders as they surrendered.  

Inaugurating Sri Lanka’s ‘Lotus Tower’ on September 16, 2019, Sirisena said a Chinese firm contracted for the project in 2012, during President Rajapaksa’s regime, disappeared with $11.09 million (SL Rupees 2 billion-plus) in state funds. Whether Rajapaksa shared the loot or China gifted it all to him remains unclear, but Rajapaksa wittingly allowed rapid expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, drowning it in debt that eventually forced Sri Lanka to handover the strategic Hambantota Port to China for 99 years. This is just one example of how China’s political warfare, including money-power, is being employed in the region.  

Two lawsuits are pending against Gotabaya in a US federal court over war crimes committed by him as defence secretary. Gotabaya, who renounced his US citizenship to become eligible to contest these elections, will likely continue the legacy of his elder brother. He has declared he will not honour the deal with the UN over war crimes by the Sri Lankan government and will release and rehabilitate soldiers jailed for war crimes. Cashing on the Easter Sunday bombings, he has promised he will re-introduce surveillance of citizens to strengthen intelligence services. He has also said he will “restore” ties with China, which perhaps is an understatement, considering his elder brother virtually mortgaged the country to China.  

Sajith Premadasa is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who too was authoritarian and assisted the LTTE when the IPKF was pulling out of Sri Lanka. Sajith, presently Minister of Housing, promises more rural employment, free mid-day meals in schools, various welfare schemes and free market economy. But the UNP-led government has not ensured accountability (corruption scandal of Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 2015 is one example) and not delivered good governance, indicating lack of will, even though the government is viewed as more democratic than the Rajapaksa regime.  

Gotabaya is hailed by Sinhalas for having crushed the LTTE, while businessmen and professionals consider him decisive, even though without political experience. However, he will widen the divide between Sinhala-Buddhists and the rest of the population. China’s influence in Sri Lanka will rise exponentially, which will have repercussions for the region, given the strategic location of Sri Lanka.  

Sajith may be better for Sri Lanka than Gotabaya, but recall it was the JVP and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which jointly challenged Sirisena for sacking the prime minister in October 2018. Therefore, it may be even better if Sri Lanka’s next president is from the JVP, in the interest of social and ethnic harmony. Tamils may not vote for Gotabaya, but splitting of the Sinhalese-Buddhist votes amongst other candidates would help him. China would gain most if that happens.  

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 upon – provide more loans to Sri Lanka to increase its stranglehold.    

China’s political warfare is all-encompassing, with the total weight of its comprehensive national power behind it. For India, political warfare is limited to political parties waging it against each other within the country; outside its own borders is considered interfering in affairs of another country, even as the world has moved on. For the Maldives to move out of China’s clutches, India just waited for providence to help. This luckily did happen eventually. China has not given up on Maldives totally, but Sri Lanka is a far bigger catch for China than the Maldives.    

America employs political warfare but is largely laced with hard power, as visible in many regions of the world. Recall the statement by General Wesley Clark in 2007, about his conversation with a Pentagon general in 2003 and the latter telling him, “They just made the decision to go to war with Iraq. I guess it’s like we don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a good military and we can take down governments. I guess if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail.”  

Sri Lanka would hardly be a priority for the Donald Trump administration. China, therefore, would win big should Gotabaya win the presidential race.

*About the author: The author is Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India

Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor



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South Asia Monitor

South Asia Monitor

To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (www.southasiamonitor.org), an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

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