By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Colombo, January 13 (newsin.asia): The upcoming week promises to be an unusually interesting one for Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On January 14, he will be separately meeting two Foreign Ministers, Sergey Lavrov of Russia and Wang Yi China, and the US Assistant Secretary of State, Alice Wells.
With the UNHRC March session around the corner, the challenge before the new President will be to convince the US to be on the same page as Russia and China on the so-called “war crimes” issue, which is to come up at the February-March session.
Though the US has left the UNHRC, it still wields much influence among the members. However, with President Rajapaksa’s focal point being cross regional and cross ethnic economic development and poverty elevation in Sri Lanka, he may find common ground with Alice Wells. After all, the US is committed to the very same goals, though it will seek some assurances on human rights and reconciliation mechanisms. It remains to be seen how far Gotabaya Rajapaksa will go along that line.
When discussing relations between Sri Lanka and US, the general view is that during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration (2005-2014), the two countries had parted ways over the issue of human rights and alleged war crimes. And that the relationship was reset by the “Yahapalana” government led by the pro-West Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. While there is some truth in this, it should be remembered that relations deteriorated only in the latter part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nine year rule. Till then, relations were very good and progressive especially in regard to the question of eradicating terrorism in Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, the trust and confidence Sri Lankans had in the US eroded during the Yahapalana government, though it was in popular conception, a pro-West or pro-American government. During the four and half years of the Yahapalana government, Sri Lankans changed their perception about the US to think of the latter as an “invader” and not as a “friend”.
One of the main factors which dislodged the Yahapalana government in such a short time was the apprehension people began to have of the US’ role in shaping its policies. Though US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz tried to reach out to the Sri Lankan people and assure goodwill, she failed because people felt that the pro-US Yahapalana Government was not representing the interests of Sri Lanka.
Irrespective of the stance any government may take, at the end of the day, it is the people’s perception which counts. Hence, whilst the progressive steps taken by the former Rajapaksa Administration to address the social and economic gap created by thirty years of terrorism may have been seen as inadequate by the West, the people of Sri Lanka felt otherwise.
Even during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration, foreign judges and subject experts were invited to ascertain the conduct of the war during the final phase. This did not draw any protests from the people of Sri Lanka as they felt that the process was balanced and fair. In contrast, the Geneva Resolution 30/1 of 2015 was, and is still seen, as the greatest betrayal of the country since 1815, when Sri Lanka was handed over to the British on a platter.
Therefore, to address the concerns of the West, the incumbent Gotabaya Administration needs to be sensitive to the feelings of the Lankan masses. In turn, the West needs to trust the new Administration to do right by its own people. The US, who President Gotabaya had always viewed as a friend, can be a great influencer in this regard in the councils of the world, like the UNHRC.
President Gotabaya’s economic policies hope to bring development right across the country. He will redress the grievances of people not only in the Tamil-speaking North and the East, but also in the other provinces. The US can take the lead among Western nations to invest in Sri Lanka and partner in its progress.
Welcoming Sergey Lavrov Back
President Rajapaksa will have the pleasant task of welcoming Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who started his diplomatic career in 1972 at the Soviet Embassy in Colombo and had even learnt Sinhala. Relations with the then USSR commenced in December 1956. Since then, the two countries have enjoyed a very solid friendship. Bilateral relations had concentrated mostly on economic and technical cooperation.
Through the years the Soviets had assisted Sri Lanka in numerous ways including building a steel mill with a production capacity of 50,000 tons per year, a tire plant and a construction materials plant. Currently, 17 percent of Sri Lanka’s tea exports account for 30 percent of Russia’s tea market. Sri Lanka is also a favorite tourist destination for Russians and with each year recording a significant increase in arrivals from Russia.
During the 30- year terrorist era, Russia continued to believe in and support Sri Lanka. Russia had provided battlefield training to the Sri Lanka Army and had helped equip the Sri Lankan military with MiG-27 and Mi-17 fighter planes; T-54-55 battle tanks and BTR-80 APCs and a Gepard-class frigate.
In the UN, Russia has always stood by Sri Lanka. In 2009, during the final stages of the war against terrorism, European nations, along with Canada and Mexico, brought a ceasefire resolution against the Sri Lankan military, but it was vetoed by Russia and China. The war crimes resolutions against Sri Lanka that were repeatedly tabled by Western nations continued to be opposed by both Russia and China. In turn, Sri Lanka acknowledged that Russia’s concerns over the Ukrainian crisis were justifiable.
With technology transfer and economic development being the paramount objectives of President Gotabaya, the meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister can be expected to be very fruitful in economic terms.
Strong Sino-Lankan Bond
Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China. This was done in January 1950 and diplomatic relations where established within seven years.
In recent years, resistance to China’s rise as a world power had unfortunately affected Sri Lanka. There has been a sinister attempt to create a division between the two historically friendly nations. However this vicious campaign based on blatant falsehoods, has not upset the Sino-Lankan apple cart. It attests to the strength of the bilateral ties.
The world, led by the West, has been making a huge song and dance about Sri Lanka’s getting into a “debt trap” because of China-funded projects, particularly the US$ 1.1 billion Hambantota Port project.
But the fact is that China never coerced Sri Lanka to hand over the strategic asset. Some of the Yahapalana government’s financial decisions, such as increasing public sector salaries by Rs. 10,000 ended up costing the government US$ 1.1 billion a year. Taxes were reduced on commodities such as fuel. Reduction of income also contributed to putting the country in the red. Government therefore felt constrained to request China to take over the port in a debt-equity swap. But this was deliberately misinterpreted as a distress sale to a creditor, by those who wanted to portray China as an economic hit man and Sri Lanka an innocent victim.
Be that as it may, it has to be admitted that Sri Lankans are most unhappy that the Hambantota port, a strategic asset, is no longer in their control though it is Sino-Lankan joint venture. As such, the new President is under tremendous pressure to regain the port.
However, to keep China investments coming in, and also to mollify China, which had done a lot for Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya has assured China (and other countries) that their investments in Sri Lanka are secure and a change in government will not harm their investments.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Administration has said that it will honor the commercial aspects of the Hambantota lease agreement. But as China too has agreed, a strategic asset such as a port, should be under the country’s sovereignty. Security aspects, including border control, should be the responsibility of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka alone.
China has no objection to this line as it has always shown confidence in Sri Lanka’s ability to resolve its internal issues. Likewise, Sri Lanka will respect China’s position with regard to the agitations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as other matters that are essentially China’s internal affairs.
When President Gotabaya meets with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, they will have much to discuss. As in the past, much of the discussions will be on increasing Chinese investments in the Hambantota Economic Zone and the Colombo Port City.