Colombo, November 29 (SAM): Sri Lanka’s new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, faces formidable domestic and international challenges like any other leader. But a point to be noted is that his domestic problems, whether economic or political, also have a foreign dimension. The foreign dimension complicates the domestic issue.
Internationalization of domestic issues has been a feature of Sri Lankan politics since the early 1980s. It has retarded the country’s economic and social growth by needlessly extending the life of conflicts. It has raised the level of conflicts and made the intractable. It has invited economic sanctions to the detriment of the country, especially the common man.
The non-performing Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has bequeathed Gotabaya a sluggish economy with a growth rate of 3.2%. There had been a lack of investment in the public and private sectors. Tax compliance has always been poor and only 3% of the population pays direct taxes. There is the loan repayment burden with the total external debt being US$ 55.4 billion. The country’s export basket is limited. The market is also limited to Europe and the US. That makes Sri Lanka very vulnerable to threats of sanctions by the West for alleged human rights violations. The European Union had withdrawn GSP-Plus concessions for some years.
Gotabaya had proved that he is an excellent administrator when he was Defense Secretary and Urban Development Secretary during the Rajapaksa years (2005-2014). At that time Sri Lanka saw much economic development. Gotabaya has a clear economic recovery plan which he will implement with his habitual ruthlessness.
But he has the Tamil-Sinhala and now the Sinhala-Muslim issues also to face, which have doggedly defied solution. These issues came up in the Presidential election and sure enough the Sinhalese voted en masse for Gotabaya and the Tamils and Muslims voted en masse for his rival Sajith Premadasa.
To Gotabaya’s discomfiture, the ethnic voting pattern is being cynically used by rivals, opinion leaders, civil society activists, international and international agencies like Fitch Ratings to predict doom and demoralize Gotabaya. But the tough as nails President is expected not to be perturbed by these.
While Gotabaya can take on the challenge on the domestic front given the massiveness of his mandate, the challenge from overseas mounted by the US and Europe is not so easy to meet.
Foreign powers are aided and abetted by the Sri Lankan comprador class. Sri Lankan political leaders have the habit of approaching foreign embassies for help to solve the country’s political problems. Getting foreigners to intervene in internecine conflicts has been an age old tradition. But interventions by White nations (Portugal, Holland, England and now the US) have been the most injurious to the polity and economy of Sri Lanka.
The minority Tamils were the first to internationalize their issue which was to secure regional autonomy or independence. The Sinhalese, with no sponsor outside the shores of their island home, could not cope with it. So they resorted to guile. They would sign on the dotted line when intimidated by a foreign power, but draw upon their native ingenuity to dodge implementation of the agreements they had signed.
But the end result has not been entirely pleasant. Sri Lanka has suffered loss of credibility and trust both in the domestic and international spheres. Non-implementation of agreements solemnly entered into had also resulted in problems not being solved. The Tamil issue, raised in 1948, is still simmering with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) determined to take it to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) with renewed vigor and call for help from India and the West.
And the West will do its best to name and shame Sri Lanka in the UNHRC. Since 2009, the West has used the UNHRC to name and shame Sri Lanka brazenly using one-sided and unconfirmed evidence of human rights violations in combat. A series of resolutions was passed, some in collaboration with the pro-West government Ranil Wickremesinghe government. These resolutions concretized international interference by demanding the establishment of mechanisms to address alleged war crimes. A judicial mechanism with the participation of foreign judges and attorneys, and with powers to hand down sentences was among the expectations. Then, there was the demand for the abolition of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The judicial mechanism with foreign judges and attorneys would violate the Sri Lankan law. Abolition of the PTA was too much to ask form a State which had just then come out of a 30 year war against terrorism and was just about resuming economic development.
Though the then pro-West government signed on the dotted line, it did not implement the drastic measures mandated by the UNHRC because it would have been politically suicidal to do so, and would have exacerbated the ethnic conflict instead of mitigating it.
However, the West continued to support the Wickremesinghe regime because the alternative was worse – a Rajapaksa family-led government which had refused to call off the war upon the demand of the Western powers, resisted UNHRC intervention, and sought China’s help to develop the war-ravaged economy.
Chinas entry during the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2014) to build a new port at Hambantota lying along the West-East Sea lane raised the hackles in the West. The Hambantota port was thought to be part of China’s “String of Pearls” to encircle the Free World. In a step which shocked the West, the pro-West Wickremesinghe government gave Hambantota port to China on a 99 year lease. This deal only strengthened the fear that China will sooner or later make Hambantota port a Chinese naval base with sway over the Western Indian Ocean.
To contain China, the US stepped up defense cooperation with the Wickremesinghe government. It proposed that Sri Lanka enter into a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with it. SOFA was meant to give the US military, seamless access to Sri Lanka’s ports. It would entitle US personnel to extraordinary freedoms in violation of the Sri Lankan constitution.
To sweeten the bitter pill, the US pushed for Sri Lanka’s acceptance of a US$ 480 million grant given by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) for the digitalization of land records and improvement of transport.
As expected, both SOFA and MCC came in for flak from nationalists in the majority Sinhala community. Even the MCC pact was seen as a Trojan horse to change the egalitarian landholding pattern for the purpose of making land available to Western investors with the connivance of a pro-West regime.
After Gotabaya was swept to power in mid-November, the US assumed a belligerent stance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the US wants to work with Sri Lanka in “deepening good governance and promoting justice, reconciliation and human rights,” areas which are considered a “no-go” zone for foreign powers.
According to the Voice of America, Pompeo wanted Gotabaya to also carry out security forces reforms. This would entail putting on trial security forces personnel for alleged war crimes, which will be a very unpopular among the majority Sinhalese. President Gotabaya has already declared that he would release arrested soldiers. The arrest of soldiers has greatly demoralized the forces, he told the Indian defense journal “Bharat Shakti.”
Alice Welles, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, declared that the MCC pact will be signed “soon”, but Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, said that the pact will have to be “examined again in view of the vehement opposition to it.”
Gunawardena further said that Sri Lanka will revisit the UNHRC resolutions against it as some of its clauses undermine Sri Lanka’s independence and sovereignty. Sri Lanka would also move away from the West and towards the non-aligned countries, he added. All this is bound to exacerbate tension with the West and the US.
However, relations with India will be on an even keel as Gotabaya has publicly stated that his government will do nothing that will harm India’s security interests. He also welcomed Indian investments in education, especially technical education.
Like the US, India has also sought steps towards ethnic reconciliation. But unlike the US, India will not put pressure whether in the UNHRC or outside.
However, an informal proposal to abolish the elected Provincial Councils made by some Gotabaya loyalists (on the grounds that the Provincial Councils have been White Elephants) could sour relations with India, given the fact that these councils were brought about by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.
But India is unlikely to make a fuss about it if the Lankan government accommodates the Tamils in an acceptable way. In 2006, India did not object when the Lankan Supreme Court annulled the unification of the Northern and Eastern Provinces which was mandated by the Accord.
India’s main concerns are security vis-à-vis China and investment opportunities in Sri Lanka and economic integration with it. The ethnic issue is marginal in India’s present scheme. New Delhi is also more worldly wise now, and is content with having friendly relations with the government of the day.
As regards China, it will remain the single largest investor and funder of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka because its pockets are deep. But China has no option but to agree to the scaling down of the lease period in respect of the Hambantota port from the current 99 years.
“Our people do not like this. Strategic national assets like ports should be in Sri Lanka’s hands,” Gotabaya told “Bharat Shakti”.
China appears to be unhappy with Gotabaya’s categorical assurance to India on the latter’s security and also his statement on renegotiating the Hambantota lease period.
China did not congratulate Gotabayaon his victory immediately and President Xi Jinping in his delayed message reminded that Sri Lanka is part of the BRI. Xi hoped that Sino-Lankan relations will be based on “mutual trust” and “docking development visions within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.” He also said that “a new chapter of China-Sri Lanka Strategic Cooperative Partnership,” should be opened.
But as in the case of other countries in which China’s investments had to be renegotiated, China will eventually agree to renegotiate the Hambantota lease period.