By Kelum Bandara/Daily Mirror
Colombo, May 16: Many wonder why Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena undertook an overseas visit at a time when the country was in the grip of violence which warranted his presence as Head of State, Defense Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
The situation was volatile in the country after the multiple and simultaneous bombings in Colombo and elsewhere on April 21. It looked as if violence could be sparked off at any time, any where, on the slightest instigation.
The President was not oblivious to volatility. But still he left for China on the morning of May 13 on an official visit.
The President’s move was looked at with dismay by many since it was a time when his presence was imperative to defuse tension and de-escalate violence. But the dates for the China visit had been planned before the April 21 incidents that rocked the country. The Chinese leaders wanted to engage the President since the bombings had triggered security concerns for China, as they did for many other international investors.
The serial bombings, committed by local terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State (IS), targeted three Churches and three high-end hotels claiming more than 250 lives individual including over 50 foreign nationals.
The horrific act of terrorism, perpetrated at a time when Sri Lanka was getting accustomed to peace after a 30 year war, is bound to alter Sri Lanka’s political, social, security and geopolitical landscape.
The President’s visit to China has a geopolitical, security dimension to it in the aftermath of the terror strike. The attack opened a new window for the international community to look at Sri Lanka.
Peace and order in Sri Lanka are important for superpowers China, India, the United States, Japan, and Australia because of its geostrategic positioning in the Indian Ocean. There is stiff competition among the world players to outperform each other in their frenzied tussle for hegemony – a fact hidden in diplomatic language as seeking a peaceful order in the Indian Ocean region.
Following the attack, assistance from different countries came to counter the threats of IS terrorism in Sri Lanka, since the threat is global. In the broader context, these countries desire peace in the region in their own geopolitical interest. Assistance can be a tool for drawing Sri Lanka into their sphere of influence.
Alongside, there are country-specific interests as far security is concerned. This is where the President’s visit to China matters most.
The terror strike in Sri Lanka had a bearing on China for two reasons: One is security for their investments in Sri Lanka. China is a key development partner of Sri Lanka. One of the hotels that came under attack – Shangri-La- is a Chinese investment. Lying across the road in front of the hotel is the Colombo Port City which is a real estate investment by China under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has invested heavily in the Hambantota Port. China sees Sri Lanka as an important partner in the execution of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So, safety in Sri Lanka is important for China.
Secondly, China is concerned about the safety of its nationals visiting Sri Lanka as tourists. The President’s visit takes place in this context.
The President, along with other Sri Lankan delegates, flew to Beijing to attend the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC) in Beijing to be held between May 15 and 16. But, on the sidelines of it, there were bilateral meetings both with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
During his stay in Beijing, the President placed his signature on three security related agreements with China. According to a statement from the President’s office these agreements would be important for the security of Chinese tourists in Sri Lanka and Chinese investments.
President Xi said China stands firmly with the Sri Lankan people, and resolutely supports Sri Lanka in safeguarding its national security and stability.
President Sirisena also held talks with Wang Yang who is chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee. Wang said China stands ready to strengthen security cooperation with Sri Lanka to counter the threat from terrorism.
Like China, the other countries also have their own security interests in Sri Lanka. While countering the terrorism of radicalized Islamists, Sri Lanka has to reconcile all such interests.
Assistance from different countries is readily available. But it has to be obtained in a manner that befits Sri Lanka’s long term interests.
Fear Of Refugee Radicalization
According to the UN statistics, at present there are 844 refugees and 826 asylum seekers awaiting determination of their claims in Sri Lanka. They are mostly from Pakistan belonging to Christians and Ahmadiyas communities.
The Easter Sunday bombings posed fresh challenges to Sri Lanka. President Sirisena requested the UN to help repatriate them. In his briefing to the diplomatic community earlier, he said Sri Lanka finds it difficult to keep these refugees due to the current security crisis.
The government may fear that there can be radical Islamists among them, who can pose a threat to security one day. The fear is reasonable. What Sri Lanka faces today is a microcosm of the problem that is confronting Bangladesh in dealing with 1.2 million Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
The Rohingya Muslim refugees fled from Myanmar and took shelter in Bangladesh. Today, they are housed in refugee camps on a hilly tract of land near Cox’s Bazaar. The influx of such a large number of refugees from nearby Myanmar has become not only an economic burden but also a social problem.
More than that, Bangladesh fears radicalization of the refugees. During an April visit to Bangladesh, this columnist got an opportunity to see the Rohingya refugees in their camps. More than aid, they yearn to return homes in Rakhine state in Myanmar.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dr.A.K.Abdul Momen, in his interaction with a group of foreign journalists, talked of the danger of radicalization of the refugees unless they were sent home. He said radicalization would pose a security to other countries also.
The Bangladeshi security authorities have increased their intelligence to track signs of radicalization. The Bangladeshi government does not allow these refugees to engage in economic activities in the country.
Probably, Sri Lanka can take a leaf from Bangladesh’s book in dealing with refugees though the problem here is minuscule. Like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka is not ready to give these refugees citizenship.
Motion Against Rishad
Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is at the center of controversy these days over allegations that he gave political patronage to the terrorists who carried out the April 21 bomb attacks.
Now, a move is underway to bring a No Confidence Motion against him. The Joint Opposition or the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), decided to support the motion which, if passed in Parliament, will strip Mr. Bathiudeen of his ministerial posts.
The motion is bound to put the government in a spot because it is difficult for its MPs to stand in solidarity with Mr. Bathiudeen because of seriousness of the allegations.
It is learnt that some government MPs are in support of the motion. Mr. Bathiudeen has, however, denied all the allegations against him.