By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, December 15: In Sri Lanka, 2019 was marked by the advent of a new kind of terrorism, Jehadi terrorism, and political turbulence, which combined to bring about a change of regime at the end of the year.
As in 2018, in 2019 too, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were locked in a non-holds-barred political combat, bringing the country’s administration to a grinding halt and placing the economy in the doldrums.
2019 also witnessed a bitter rivalry in the ruling United National Party (UNP), with its leader Ranil Wickremesighe, stubbornly dragging his feet about giving the party nomination for the Presidential election to the more popular Sajith Premadasa, and the latter starting his election campaign without party sanction. 2019 saw the weakening of the UNP, the decimation of Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the rise of the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramua (SLPP).
Exploiting the administrative sluggishness, a bunch of local Jehadi terrorists led by Moulavi Zahran staged simultaneous suicide attacks on three churches, three five star hotels and a restaurant killing 250 people on April 21 Easter Sunday. The government had callously brushed aside adequate and timely intelligence from India.
The carnage led to anti-Muslim riots in Kurunegala district, widening an already existing chasm between the majority Sinhala-Buddhists and the minority Muslims in the island. Insecurity of the Sinhala-Buddhists, triggered by Islamic terrorism, coincided with insecurity among Muslims, who had been subjected to attacks inspired by a bunch of Buddhist extremists led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) since 2014.
The BBS was thought to be enjoying the tacit support of the powers-that-be and the majority community. The Presidential pardon given by Sirisena to the incarcerated BBS leader Ven. Gnanasara Thero, seemed to confirm that political support continued even after the change of government in 2015.
Majority and minority insecurities led to the Sinhala-Buddhists and the Muslims voting very differently in the November 16 Presidential election. While the Sinhala-Buddhists voted massively for Gotabaya Rajapaksa who promised tough action to ensure “national security” against domestic and international threats, the Muslims voted for Sajith Premadasa who promised to restore peace and security through reconciliation rather than aggression.
The Tamils too were seized by insecurity after the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by the Rajapaksa family associated with a tough line on ethnic and minority issues, swept the local government elections in the Sinhala-Buddhist areas in February 2018. SLPP’s successes at the grass roots clearly indicated the return of the Rajapaksas in the next Presidential.
In 2009, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had decimated the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily, thereby crippling the 70 year old Tamils’ struggle for autonomy/ independence. Like the Muslims, the Tamils too voted en masse for Sajith Premadasa who appeared to be a dove and more sympathetic to the Tamils’ political demands.
The communal divide in the voting pattern has given rise to the apprehension that ethnic and religious reconciliation will be a major challenge for the Gotabaya administration which needs peace and all round public cooperation to fulfill its electoral promise to bring about rapid economic development through FDI.
However, despite the writing on the wall, President Gotabaya has not made any effort to make up with the Muslims. He has not included a single Muslim in his Council of Ministers. Furthermore, the Gotabaya regime has chosen to pursue the controversial case against Muslim gynaecologist Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi of the Kurunegala government hospital. According to Sinhala Buddhists, Dr.Shafi had allegedly sterilized 4000 Sinhala women to limit the Sinhala-Buddhist population in Sri Lanka ,though police investigators had found the allegation to be baseless.
Chances of President Gotabaya’s making up with the Tamils also appear to be dim given his categorical statement that he does not believe that devolution of power is a practical way of bringing about ethnic reconciliation. He firmly believes that equitable economic development across regions and communities is the panacea for all ills in Sri Lanka.
2019 began with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe continuing their combat. In October 2018, Sirisena had arbitrarily sacked Wickremesinghe from the Premiership and made Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister.But the Supreme Court forced Sirisena to reverse the decision. However, come 2019, Sirisena continued to torment Wickremesinghe.
As part of his anti-corruption drive, President Sirisena re-started the investigation into the multi-billion rupee Central Bank bonds scandal involving its Governor Arjuna Mahendran, a close friend of Wickremesinghe’s. Sirisena went to Singapore to get fugitive Arjuna Mahendran extradited, but failed. However Sirisena set up a Presidential Commission on corruption in the Wickremesinghe government.
Sirisena then went to Philippines and came back saying that he will sanction death sentences awarded to habitual drug traffickers, touching off a controversy. Sri Lanka has a tradition of not carrying out death sentences.
Opposing Wickremesinghe’s neo-liberal economic policies, Sirisena opposed the Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. The country’s economy was held hostage to the economic differences between the President and the Prime Minister. Each had his own Economic Council to make policies. These two councils rarely saw eye to eye with the result the President routinely countermanded decisions taken by the Prime Minister’s council.
Wickremesinghe tried to hit Sirisena politically by getting the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to table the 20 th Constitutional Amendment to enhance the powers of the Prime Minister and clip those of the President. But the 20 th. did not see the light of day.
Continuing his nationalistic policies, Sirisena prevented the signing of the highly controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US on the grounds that it will allow US troops a free run in Sri Lanka. They were to be allowed to carry weapons and communications equipment. Their ships and cargo could not be inspected. They would not need visas to enter Sri Lanka and they would be subject only to US law. The Defense agreement was to be signed without running it through the Defense Minister who is the President himself.
An irate President sent Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana to meet US leaders including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell him how SOFA violated the Lankan constitution. The Wickremesinghe government had no option but to put SOFA on hold.
The same was the fate of the US$ 480 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC Compact) which the Lankan cabinet just before the Presidential election. The US grant project had a land registration component and a transport improvement component. Sri Lankan nationalists were opposed to the land registration part as it would pave the way for Americans and other foreigners buying up land from peasants on an economic corridor linking Colombo on the West coast with Trincomalee on the East Coast. The Americans and the Japanese are interested in this economic corridor as they are also eying a place in the Colombo and Trincomalee harbors. The MCC is now going to be reviewed by the Gotabaya government.
After winning the Presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa went to India on the latter’s invitation and re-set Lanka’s strained ties with India. He agreed to be ever mindful of India’s security interests in the light of increasing Chinese presence in Lanka and the Indian Ocean. On Chinese investments, Gotabaya told the Indians that they are necessary as much as investments from other countries including India. On the fate of Indian aided development projects gathering dust since April 2017, Gotabaya said that his government would implement what is possible.
While India asked him to fully implement the India-inspired 13 th., Amendment of the Lankan constitution which devolves powers to the provinces, including the Tamil-peaking provinces, the President said that devolution of power to the provinces has no support among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community and that the best way to bring about ethnic harmony is to go for equitable economic development and development opportunities for all.
Gotabaya however displeased China by telling an Indian magazine that he would re-negotiate the 2017 agreement with China on the Hambantota harbor. The President said that national assets like the harbor should not have been handed over to another country and that too for 99 years. But when a representative of the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew down and met Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa a lid was placed on the demand for re-negotiation. The Prime Minister covered it all up by telling Xinhua that President Gotabaya was “quoted out of context.”
2019 ended with the alleged abduction of a local lady employee of the Swiss embassy in Colombo which could have been exploited by the West to shame Sri Lanka at the March 2020 ession of the UN Human Rights Council.
The Swiss authorities were fully backing her and would not allow the Lankan police to see her, talk to her, and record a statement from her even as they were making allegations of abduction, detention and sexual harassment. But thorough investigations revealed that she was not telling the truth. The Lankan government openly said that the alleged abduction was part of a mudslinging campaign against the Gotabaya regime.
(The featured image at the top shows bickering leaders Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe)