Colombo, November 19 (The Citizen): There are indications that under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka will see India as its “main security provider” given India’s proximity and its status as the regional power. On the other hand, China will be seen as a key source of funds for big infrastructure projects, given its deep pocket and willingness to lend.
Sources close to Gotabaya say that given neighboring India’s strategic concerns, and the stormy history of Sri Lanka-India relations, Gotabaya will not take China as a strategic ally but only as an important source of funds for the many large infrastructure projects he has in mind.
Investments from India and other countries will also be welcomed as Gotabaya has come to power promising rapid development to make up for five years of inactivity under the slothful Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. .
What Messages Say
The foundation for India-Sri Lanka ties under the Gotabaya administration can be seen in the messages exchanged by them when Gotabaya won the November 16 Presidential election by a huge margin of 1.3 million votes.
In his congratulatory message, the first by a foreign head of government, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed confidence that “under the able leadership of Rajapaksa the people of Sri Lanka will progress further on the path of peace and prosperity, and that the fraternal, cultural, historical and civilizational ties between India and Sri Lanka will be further strengthened.”
The Indian Prime Minister, who also spoke to Gotabaya on the phone, unlike other heads of government, reiterated India’s commitment to continuing to work with the Government of Sri Lanka towards these ends.
In his reply, Gotabaya thanked Modi for his good wishes and “expressed his readiness to work with India very closely to ensure development and security.”
The emphasis on development and security in Gotabaya’s message is significant as these two areas are of special interest to both countries.
As Sri Lanka’s Defense Secretary between 2005 and January 8, 2015, Gotabaya was part of the Indo-Lankan “Troika” to consult and decide on matters relating to defense during the war against the Tamil Tigers.
The Troika comprised the then Indian National Security Advisor M.K.Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Defense Secretary Vijay Singh. On the Sri Lankan side it was Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and Economic Affairs Minister and political organizer Basil Rajapaksa.
The “Troika” was one of the key factors which had helped Sri Lanka defeat the LTTE, and that was publicly acknowledged by the Sri Lankan side several times. Even recently, Mahinda Rajapaksa had sought the revival of the Troika system to determine and smoothen defense and strategic ties with India.
Significantly, Prime Minister Modi extended an invitation to Gotabaya to visit India at his early convenience and the Lankan President accepted the invitation. Therefore, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first overseas visit will be to India.
Revival Of Pending Projects
In the proposed talks in New Delhi, Modi is expected to make use of Gotabaya’s interest in development, especially infrastructure projects, and remind him about the many pending Indo-Lanka joint venture projects.
Sri Lanka and India had drawn up an extremely tight schedule for the economic projects mentioned in the MoU signed in New Delhi on 25 April 2017, in the presence of Prime Ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe and Narendra Modi. The list included a re-gasified Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) fired 500 megawatt capacity power plant in Kerewelapitiya near Colombo, plus a LNG Terminal/Floating Storage Regasification Unit (FSRU) in the same place. It was to be a Joint Venture with entities from Sri Lanka, India and Japan.
There was a project for piped gas distribution system and retail outlets for the supply of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) to the transportation sector. The LNG project also envisaged a piped gas distribution system; and conversion of liquid fuel-based power plants to R-LNG fired plants.
There was to be a 50 MW (extendable to 100 MW) solar power plant in Sampur in the Eastern Province. On the Trincomalee oil tanks the two countries had decided that the 84 giant oil tanks in the Upper Tank Farm in Trincomalee would be “jointly developed” by the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). A Joint Venture (JV) was to be set up for this.
India and Sri Lanka had agreed to build a port, a petroleum refinery and other industries in Trincomalee, for which the governments of Sri Lanka and India was set up a Joint Working Group. The two countries were to jointly set up Industrial Zones or Special Economic Zones in identified locations in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was to submit to India a list of road projects to be considered for joint development. The two countries had already agreed to develop a Mannar-Jaffna and Mannar-Trincomalee highway; and to build a Dambulla-Trincomalee Expressway with Indian investment.
India and Sri Lanka were to build a Container Terminal (the East Terminal) in Colombo Port as a Joint Venture. India had also made a bid for the China- built Mattala Airport near Hambantota to make the world’s emptiest airport hum with activity. There were also projects in livestock development, water management and agro-based industries.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, being a development enthusiast, is expected to find ways and means of implementing these projects.
No Mention of Rights And Reconciliation
It is noteworthy that in his message to Gotabaya, the Indian Prime Minister did not mention the politically sensitive subject of ethnic reconciliation, good governance, and democracy which India now considers as being part of the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
And human rights and ethnic reconciliation are not priority areas for Gotabaya because his focus is on economic development. He believes that if economic development is evenly distributed and if economic justice is rendered equitably, ethnic issues will not arise.
Reconciliation Issue Will Strain Ties With US
However, Gotabaya will be under domestic Tamil and international compulsion to attend to human rights and ethnic reconciliation issues because of the voting pattern in the November 16 Presidential election.
The entire Tamil-Muslim dominated North-East voted for his rival, Sajith Premadasa, and the entire Sinhalese South, Central and West and North Central voted for Gotabaya dividing the country on ethnic lines. The reason for such a division was that Sajith had included some conciliatory elements in his manifesto, and Gotabaya had not. Muslims saw Sajith as being conciliatory towards them, while Gotabaya was seen as being anti-Muslim.
Handle To West and US
The issues created by this voting pattern will give a handle to the US-led West and international human rights lobbies to put pressure on Sri Lanka. The Tamil parties in Sri Lanka are already sounding an alarm about impending “persecution” by the Gotabaya government because Gotabaya had come to power almost solely on the basis of his appeal to the majority Sinhalas. There will be attempts to activate rights lobbies and rights oriented governments in the West, especially the US.
American Statement’s Emphasis
The American statement on Gotabaya’s victory issued on Monday had said: “We are ready to continue our work with the new President and with all the people of Sri Lanka in supporting the country’s sovereignty through heightened good governance, expanded economic growth, the advancement of human rights and reconciliation, and in fostering an Indo-Pacific region where all countries can prosper.”
Thus, the US could use the ethnic issue to interfere with and control the Gotabaya regime. It will try its best to thwart his plan to opt out of the resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council, which had suggested accountability mechanisms to bring to trial and punish Lankan military personnel who had allegedly committed war crimes in the closing stages of the war against the Tamil Tigers.
But Gotabaya and his Sinhalese constituency are totally opposed to these resolutions, and that could lead to trouble with the US and the West.
Status Of Force Agreement
The other irritant in US-Lanka relations could be the US anxiety to get Colombo to move forward on the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s projects which have already been approved by the Lankan cabinet. While Gotabaya might take the US$ 480 million MCC project forward by getting it parliamentary approval, he would be most reluctant to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which, in its new avatar, would turn Lanka into a US military base.
But given the American fear that the Chinese might use Hambantota harbor as a naval base sooner or later, exploiting the 99 year lease they enjoy, the Americans are unlikely to give up on SOFA.
This will put Gotabaya in a tight spot because SOFA is anathema for the majority community in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese. The majority Sinhalese not only fear an American takeover of Sri Lanka but the conversion of Sri Lanka into a battle ground for big powers wanting to dominate this part of the Indian Ocean. A people who had gone through 30 years of war and terrorist bombings just want to be left alone.