By Kalinga Seneviratne*
On January 8, 2015 when President Mahinda Rajapakse’s former Cabinet colleague Maithripala Sirisena defeated his old boss in a shock election result campaigning on heralding a non-corruptible ‘yahapalana’ (good governance) regime, people of Sri Lanka took a deep breath, some with euphoric expectations and others with fears of war and terrorism re-visiting the now peaceful island.
Mixed reviews of the anniversary in local newspapers agree that there is a better climate of freedom especially in the media. But it is another question whether democracy and media freedom could eradicate corruption from the political system.
The very corruption Sirisena and his allies in the UNP (United National Party) and the NGO sector claimed were endemic in the Rajapakse regime is now gradually creeping into the new government, with corruption tainted Cabinet ministers from the Rajapakse regime now drafted in to the new regime’s Cabinet.
Meanwhile Sri Lanka’s new allies, the U.S. and the UK leaders, are singing the praises of the new government for heralding a new era of democracy and freedom. After all the failures in Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Syria, the Obama administration in particular seems to be desperate to demonstrate a “success story” in its regime change democracy crusades – and Sri Lanka is thus becoming the latest geo-political battle ground with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
In March last year on the eve of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka, Rajapakse said in an interview with an Indian newspaper, that the U.S., Europeans and India’s intelligence services known as RAW had a role in the overthrow of his regime but he absolved Modi from this alleged conspiracy.
Rajapakse regime was detested by the West because it ignored western pressure and went ahead and finished off the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 becoming the only country to eliminate terrorism in the modern era.
Just two weeks before the LTTE leadership was killed in action, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner flew to Sri Lanka to make a personal demand on President Rajapakse and his brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse to declare a ceasefire. The latter was reported to have told the visiting foreign ministers that Sri Lanka was no more a colony of the Europeans.
This rebuff not only bruised European egos, to make matters worse, Sri Lanka accomplished its aim to eliminate terrorism because of diplomatic and military assistance from China, Russia and Pakistan, and financial assistance from Libya and Iran. This is a scenario that the West is loath to want other countries, especially in Asia and Africa to look up to as a template to solve their internal problems.
In return, the West trained and funded local NGOs to make allegations of human rights violations and corruption against the Rajapakse regime, while mobilizing the UN system to mount inquiries on alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan armed forces on the final days of the war with LTTE.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon took the unprecedented step of setting up a committee headed by former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman to inquire into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka.
The report, which was supposed to be an advisory report to Ban, and widely criticized Sri Lanka for lacking credibility, became the basis of a number of resolutions moved by the U.S. and its allies at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against the Rajapakse regime’s alleged human rights violations.
The Rajapakse administration and most Sri Lankans saw this campaign as a classic example of western double standards and hypocrisy, as neither the UNHRC nor the UN Secretary-General have raised any issues with regards to war crimes perpetuated by the West in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and lately in Libya and Syria.
Pushed into a corner, the Rajapakse regime became paranoid of domestic dissent and cracked down heavily on human rights activists (mainly funded by the West) and tightened controls on the media.
The Rajapakse government came closer to China, which invested heavily in Sri Lanka building ports and airports. In November 2014, President Xi Jingping visited Sri Lanka and declared the country a “strategic partner” of China.
Thus, when the Rajapakse regime fell in the shock election result there was much elation in Washington and London. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal has visited Sri Lanka twice in 2015, first in February and later in August just after the general elections.
During her visit in February she said: “It is a privilege to visit Colombo to witness for myself the sense of excitement and optimism that the Sri Lankan people have ushered in through the historic January 8 election.” During both visits, she met not only with government leaders but also opposition Tamil politicians and civil society (NGOs), which would amount to a direct interference in domestic affairs of a country.
The U.S. has also hinted that they may dump the Tamils, whom they have used in the war crimes campaign against the Rajapakse regime. The visiting Tamil Chief Minister of the Northern Province C .V Wigneswaran was told by Biswal in July 2015 to soften his “genocide” rhetoric and work with the Sirisena government for reconciliation and development of the province.
In May 2015 her boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, visited Sri Lanka and paid glowing tributes to the new government’s commitment to democracy and human rights. Knowing that the U.S. needed to have the support of the island’s Buddhist majority who are mainly distrustful of the West, he made a highly publicized visit to a leading Buddhist temple near Colombo making traditional Buddhist offerings to monks and getting their blessings in return.
A string of U.S. military leaders have also visited Sri Lanka in the past year hinting at closer cooperation between the two countries in this sphere. In November, State Department Counsellor Thomas Shannon during a visit to Colombo said: “Sri Lanka’s contributions to the development of a regional consciousness – one that promotes the values of democratic governance and respect for human rights, freedom of navigation, sustainable development, and environmental stewardship are noteworthy.”
It is the comment on freedom of navigation pushed into the middle of the statement that should be of concern to China that regards the Chinese-built Hambantota harbour as a crucial lynchpin in their Maritime Silk Route project.
The U.S. is also trying to conscript the Sri Lankan armed forces into their disaster relief schemes very likely via the UN. The U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia, Dr Amy Searight, during a three-day visit to Sri Lanka December 17-19, “examined the future role of Sri Lankan security forces in humanitarian assistance, responding to natural disasters, and increased participation in overseas peacekeeping operations”, according to a U.S. Embassy statement issued in Colombo.
Many in the Sri Lankan Defence establishment are known to be unhappy with a commitment given in September 2015 to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by the government when Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution with the U.S. to establish a domestic mechanism that may include foreign judges trying war crimes cases in Sri Lanka.
Senior army offices have held discussions with President Sirisena recently on the issue and it is very unpopular with the Sinhalese electorate, who see it as an infringement of the country’s sovereignty. Many Sinhala politicians have criticised the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to table a report prepared by a commission headed by a respected former Judge Maxwell Paranagama at the UNHRC sessions and instead co-sponsoring a resolution on Sri Lanka with the U.S. This resolution is seen as a capitulation to western pressure.
The Paranagama Commission was set up in August 2013 by President Rajapakse to inquire into the issue of missing persons in Sri Lanka, where international human rights organisations, the UN, international media and even the Darussman report have quoted a figure of 40,000. But no one has even named 400 such missing persons.
The Paranagama Commission report questioned the credibility of such allegations made in the Darussman report, while acknowledging that both the armed forces and LTTE may have been involved in what amounts to war crimes. Couched in the usual UN jargon, this report makes comparisons with western behaviour in the war against terror.
Instead of capitulation, the Sri Lankan government should have tabled this report at the UNHRC and called on its membership to set up a South African style lessons learnt commission to look at the war on terror worldwide in order to learn from each other and develop strategies to fight terrorism, where terrorists are increasingly using civilians as shields.
In the first months in office, the Sirisena government demonized Chinese investments in Sri Lanka accusing the Chinese of building infrastructure projects at enormously inflated costs and giving billions of rupees as kickbacks to the Rajapaksas. All such infrastructure projects including the multi-billion dollar Colombo Port City project inaugurated by President Xi in November 2014 were suspended. Many believed that this was succumbing to pressure from India.
Even beginning of this year a deal to purchase JF-17 fighter jets from Pakistan was cancelled when India raised strong objection to it. The deal would have involved the Chinese along with the Pakistanis, setting up an aircraft-servicing base on the island. India has questioned Sri Lanka’s need for fighter jets.
Both Pakistan and China played a major role in Sri Lanka’s war with LTTE. It is no secret that Pakistani air force pilots helped to train their Sri Lankan counterparts in precision bombing, while China provided hi-tech radar and other military hardware. India did not object to these at that time.
China has been a friend of Sri Lanka for a long time. The relationship goes back to the 1952 rubber-rice pact where China sold rice to Sri Lanka at under the market price while buying rubber at above the market price. In the 1970s China was a close ally of the Srimavo Bandranaike government, which also had a close relationship with India.
A U-turn in dealing with China
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government seems to be making a remarkable U-turn in its dealings with China. It became quite evident after a high-level Chinese delegation led by Yang Weiqun, director of the department of Asian affairs at the Chinese Commerce Ministry, visited Colombo early January.
Addressing an investment promotion seminar early January, the Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka indicated that the Colombo Port City project will be given pride of place in Sri Lanka’s grand strategy to become a developed nation. Ranawaka was a member of the Rajapakse Cabinet and after defecting to the Sirisena camp, he was one of the most vociferous critics of Chinese kickbacks to the Rajapakses during the elections campaign.
“The new city will tap the intrinsic values of the region and environment to create a new ideal modern community for business, living and leisure. This will help attract companies and investors, to ensure it will become a beacon of excellence for Sri Lanka,” he said.
The State Minister for Trade Sujeewa Senasinghe told reporters on January 12 that the Port City project will go ahead with slight changes to the agreement where the 50 acres to be given to a private company will be changed to a government deal. He also said that Sri Lanka would be getting a large loan from the Chinese at 2 percent interest to pay off loans the previous regime has taken at 6.9 percent.
The overtones to China have perhaps been influenced by an IMF report in November 2015 on the Sri Lankan economy that is believed to have adverse comments on government economic policy.
The government has not given its consent to publish the report and on top of it, financial gurus George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz, who attended a special economic forum organized by Prime Minister Wickremasinghe in Colombo on January 7-8, gave some gloomy forecasts of Sri Lanka’s ability to attract foreign investments in the current economic climate. While they were in Colombo, the stock market collapsed with indices showing lowest level since the government came to power.
“All Chinese funded projects were halted the moment the new government took office until ‘investigations’ into them were over. This was an extraordinary insult to a powerful nation which has never had anything but goodwill towards Sri Lanka,” noted the ‘Island’ newspaper in a special commentary to mark the first anniversary of the Sirisena government.
“It was only when a whole procession of American dignitaries came to Sri Lanka and brought not a cent with them, that reality deems to have dawned on the government that if the Americans were going to give Sri Lanka any money, they would have to borrow it from the Chinese! As this reality dawned on them and the economic crisis began to bite, the government started making overtures to the Chinese once again.”
Sri Lanka is thus at the crossroads having to battle geo-political crosscurrents in the Indian Ocean. But, there are opportunities to be grabbed, which needs imaginative diplomacy. The loan deal mentioned above could give an indication.
During President Sirisena’s visit to China in March 2015, President Xi is reported to have told him that Sri Lanka, China and India together could play an important role in the development of Asian trade routes.
With Prime Minister Modi promoting the Indic-Buddhist Civilizational movement to help link China’s Silk Routes projects with a cultural focus, to which President Xi has responded positively, Sri Lanka is well placed to play a pivotal role in it. After all, it was the Sri Lankans that preserved the Indian Buddhist tradition and spread it to Southeast Asia after the writing of the Buddhist cannon Tripitaka in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC.
If the Sri Lankan government grabs this opportunity to work together with India and China in the cultural sphere, it will also contribute enormously towards reconciliation between the Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, which no divisive constitutional reforms could achieve.
*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic who teach regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.