By Shivanthi Ranasinghe/Ceylon Today
The world’s reaction to Sri Lanka voting Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the seventh Executive President is interesting to say the least.
The Western media and even certain sections of the Indian media launched an immediate assault on “GR”. Blatantly ignoring the fact that he got a lead of 1.3 million votes, the narrative has been about a “strongman”, “authoritarian rule”, “alleged war crimes”, as if he came to power by force than by the ballot.
They speak of corruption charges that got wiped off the slate overlooking Yahapalana Government’s failure to prove any of the charges for nearly five years.
However, more than the media reporting, it is the foreign missions’ reaction that has been most revealing.
As soon as the election results were announced, India sent its Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar to congratulate and pledge India’s support to GR. This is very significant considering that during the previous Rajapaksa Administration, these very two parties had parted ways. The Modi Government felt that the Rajapaksa Administration was insensitive to India’s sensitivities vis-a-vis China. In turn, the Rajapaksas accused the Modi Government of interference and playing an instrumental role in toppling their Government.
Now, much water has flowed under the bridge. The newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa readily accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India on November 29. GR’s two-day visit, which also happened to be his first official overseas visit, was cordial to say the least. India rolled out the red carpet and brought out the silver for their special guest.
The two larger than life personalities were able to amiably and frankly discuss a number of issues that used to raise each other’s heckles. GR beautifully handled the matter over China. He is resolute about renegotiating the long term lease of the strategic Hambantota Port to China but not willing to burn bridges with it.
India never expected their role in toppling the strong nationalist Rajapaksa Administration to crash on their own heads. However, that is exactly what happened when the Yahapalana Government leased the Hambanthota Port to China, which literally stationed the Chinese at India’s doorstep. GR explained his reasons for wanting to get the Port back in Sri Lanka’s hands as soon as possible. GR’s resolution to dislodge the Chinese sooner than the 99- year term in the contract, is thus deeply assuring to India.
Another issue that had greatly concerned India is China’s investing heavily in Sri Lanka. GR did not mince words when he explained the reason for China’s many investments in Sri Lanka. He has a mandate from the people of Sri Lanka to develop the economy. To do so, he needs Foreign Direct Investment. Sri Lanka has opened the door to not only China, but to the whole world. However, it is only China who had made full use of Sri Lanka’s “welcome” mat. Therefore, India too must look positively and progressively at investing in Sri Lanka was the message the new President of Sri Lanka had for India.
The most sensitive and longstanding issue between Sri Lanka and India has been the controversial 13th Amendment of the Lankan constitution. India had been always pushing Sri Lanka to fully implement it and Sri Lanka had been balking. GR was the first President of Sri Lanka to explain candidly to India the ground realities. He said that the 13th Amendment is already in the Constitution and is operational up to a point. However, without the consent of the majority of the people it is impossible to fully implement it, by giving land and police powers to the provinces.
GR also pointed another unspoken aspect. He noted that Tamil politicians for the past 70 years were focused only on power devolution. That has been their obsession. However, it is development that people really need, GR said. While the Sinhalese (mainly) are opposed to dividing the country along ethnic lines, no one is opposing development seeping to all communities. This logical reasoning is irrefutable and India too has to agree that development is paramount.
As a host and as a regional giant, India was more than generous to its guest. India offered USD 400 million for infrastructure development, USD 100 million to use solar power and USD 50 million to strengthen intelligence.
However, India was careful not to be seen as the Big Brother who would create apprehensions among Sri Lankans. Instead, Prime Minister Modi repeatedly assured that Sri Lanka would decide on the projects and the pace of project implementation to be undertaken by India. Thus the Indian premier effectively portrayed an image of mutual trust and regional harmony.
This very positive movement did not happen on impulse. For the past couple of years, the Indian Government and the GR camp had been reaching out to each other and working hard at ironing their differences. The fact that India more than matched the MCC “gift” of USD 480 million to be spread over five years offered by US is noteworthy indeed.
Whether there is such a thing as “coincidence” in diplomatic relations is open for debate. Either way, India assured Sri Lanka that the Island nation now has more than one option open for development.
The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka must be saluted for the change in relations. They had obviously identified accurately and advised their Government Sri Lanka’s current insecurities. India’s foreign policy makers’ decision to assure Sri Lanka instead of exploiting its current weak position shows remarkable maturity. It is a welcome change and stands to benefit both countries mutually.
In direct contrast to India’s professionalism is the Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock’s immaturity. Going by the word of one of its employees, the Swiss embassy he is jeopardizing bilateral relations. The Swiss embassy chose not to follow laid down legal procedure in the case of the alleged abduction of one of its local female staffers by an unidentified gang.
While the Lankan police were kept in the dark, the alleged victim’s story was carried in the foreign media a day after the incident supposedly took place. This was then followed by the Ambassador himself lodging a protest at the Foreign Ministry. However the most basic step, that is to lodge a complaint with the police, had still not taken place.
Yet, the Sri Lankan Government took the protest very seriously and investigations are now in the hands of both the CID and the Colombo Crime Division.
However, while pushing the Sri Lankan Government to resolve the issue, the Swiss Government is refusing to corporate. This is similar to the basis on which the Geneva Resolution 30/1 is founded – namely, unsubstantiated allegations with so-called evidence locked away for 20 years so it cannot be examined or challenged.
A few days before the alleged abduction, the Swiss embassy was caught in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to the Sri Lankan Government as to how they facilitated a Sri Lankan CID Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva, to get out of the country with his family. Giving sanctuary to a citizen of a country with which Switzerland has diplomatic relations was a most undiplomatic act.
Time will tell if the alleged abduction was a concoction by the embassy to cover up the embarrassment of helping a man under criminal investigations to escape or if an employee saw opportunity to migrate in the brewing situation and chose to exploit it. If it is the latter, Ambassador might be digging his heals to avoid embarassment of being made a fool by one of his own staff members.
Either way, his failure is damaging bilateral relations and the situation is fast developing into a confrontation between the two governments.
In the meantime, a Swiss Federal court “feels” that during the period of 1999 to 2009 LTTE was not a criminal organization and any act of terrorism the LTTE might have committed was simply to be recognized as an independent ethnic community.
This “feeling” coupled with Ambassador Mock’s readiness (if that is indeed the case) to continue to believe that a member of his staff was abducted despite evidence to the contrary, needs to be seriously noted by the Foreign Ministry.
(The featured image at the top shows Prime Minister Modi gifting President Gotabaya a group photo of his batch at an Indian military academy from which Gotabaya got a Master’s in military science)
(The author can be reached at: [email protected])