Sri Lanka: New reality

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) with Mahinda Rajapaksa during the launch of his election manifesto in Colombo on October 25. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

Supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a rally in Galle on October 22. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Ranil Wickremesinghe during a vigil in Colombo on October 26 on the first anniversary of the “coup” by Sirisena, who sacked him as Prime Minister and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

Regardless of who wins the presidential election on November 16, India’s equation with its neighbour will have to be reworked owing to the China factor.

Late in 2011, as an invited group of residents of the posh Colombo-7 neighbourhood was partying in the Sri Lankan capital, an influential official took this correspondent aside and said, pointing to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga: “Watch her. She will be critical to a formation that will replace Mahinda [Rajapaksa].”

It was difficult to take him seriously then. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa had won the election in 2010 with a clear majority after winning the war against the seemingly invincible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. He did not scrape through like in 2005, when he first came to power, but won by a handsome margin and was the most popular politician in the country.

He had the state and its organs in a vice-like grip, with his trusted brothers in key positions: one brother, Gotabaya, was the all-powerful Defence Secretary, while another brother, Basil, was in charge of most economic and developmental activities in Sri Lanka. A third brother, Chamal, was the Speaker of Parliament, and his son Namal had been made a Member of Parliament to ensure that someone from the family would succeed him.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s relatives headed major state-run corporations and government undertakings, and he had quelled dissent by giving ministerial portfolios (without much power) to almost 100 persons. Over the next few years, Rajapaksa undermined the judiciary; dismissed a Chief Justice (Shirani Bandara-nayake) via a farcical impeachment process; appointed his yes-man, Attorney General Mohan Peiris, as Chief Justice; made sure that Parliament passed an amendment to the Constitution that did away with the term limits on the presidency (the earlier law stated that a person could hold the office only for two ;nd reduced the powers of all independent commissions and made them subservient to his presidency.

The president truly had sky-high powers. The Colombo elite, who never lost their sense of humour even during the worst years of war, would refer to this jokingly as the people electing a dictator each time they voted for a president. In short, the path had been laid for Rajapaksa to continue in power in perpetuity.

The suggestion that Chandrika Kumaratunga would somehow turn all this around and prevail over the people to vote for someone else was unthinkable. Rajapaksa also had absolute control over his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and each time someone in the senior ranks met Chandrika Kumaratunga, they were looked upon with suspicion.

From 2005, Rajapaksa worked to curtail Sri Lanka’s dependence on India by encouraging Chinese investments, and no amount of inducement, threats or cajoling on India’s part could change his mind. There was nothing going for the Sri Lankan opposition when he called for the January 2015 presidential election, much ahead of schedule. The main opposition party was the United National Party (UNP), whose chief, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s only achievement was that he had managed to remain at the helm of the party despite its various defeats.

The Tamils, who were responsible for Rajapaksa’s first election victory by a slender margin because they boycotted the election following a diktat from the LTTE, had ceased to be a force to reckon with by 2015. The Muslim political parties were hedging their bets and would jump on to any formation that came to power.

It was from this position of absolute power that Rajapaksa lost the election. Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was working behind the scenes, did the unthinkable by bringing elements of the SLFP and the UNP together. The SLFP and the UNP are the main political parties in Sri Lanka, and what Chandrika Kumaratunga managed was nothing short of a coup. The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, readily backed this formation. Rajapaksa’s shock defeat came about because of a series of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres by a number of other politicians and those interested in the political process in the country.

Rajapaksa’s accusation

Rajapaksa accused India of intervening in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and claimed that this was the reason he lost. Soon after the SLFP-UNP deal to form a government became public, much before Sri Lanka went to the polls, Rajapaksa forced India to recall the Sri Lanka station chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), K. Ilango, who was accused of engineering this combination. It did not help that India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, had met the opposition’s presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, in the run-up to the election.

Indian and Sri Lankan media carried stories of how India and the RAW pulled off the impossible and defeated Rajapaksa. On Ilango being called back from Colombo, the then Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, said in 2015: “I am here standing in front of you, willing to be quoted, and saying to all of you that the normal tenure of an Indian diplomat in Sri Lanka is three years, and all officials who have been transferred during the last year have completed that. So, it is a normal transfer. Do not read anything into it, unless somebody stands up and says that yes. Using unnamed sources is just hiding behind and obscuring the truth. I am ready here, anybody can stand up and say that is there anyone who says what I said was wrong.”

The explanation was barely convincing. It seemed as if the Government of India and the RAW wanted to take credit for the regime change in Sri Lanka. “Regardless of who was responsible, this is truly out of character for India,” a former top intelligence officer said. “If we begin taking credit for all our covert actions, we will not be able to function,” he added. Ilango went on to become the second-in-command in the RAW, headed the Aviation Research Centre, and retired in considerable glory because of his contribution to strengthening intelligence gathering in the region and furthering Indian interests.

India’s interest in Sri Lanka is primarily dictated by geopolitical interests. The people of north, east and central Sri Lanka, who share linguistic affinity with the people of Tamil Nadu, have been central to furthering the country’s interest in the island nation.

But in Sri Lanka, the clock did not stop in 2015; Mahinda Rajapaksa did not fade away. Four years later, the country is back to where it began because the “unity government” had unity only on paper, in reality it was a divided house. The Prime Minister and the President did not agree on critical issues, which led to governance paralysis. All of this culminated in the October “coup” where President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. In the 51 days that Mahinda Rajapaksa was Prime Minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa took charge of Defence and Security and cast a surveillance ring around Indian diplomats, making sure their movements were closely watched.

“One thing that the 51-day rule of Mahinda and his brother taught us was how it will be when they are back in power,” a South Asian diplomat who did not want to be named said. A 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory will mean the same kind of restrictions for Indian diplomats in Sri Lanka.

Although the coup did not succeed, and Mahinda Rajapaksa came away looking overambitious from the experiment, the purpose that the Rajapaksas set out to accomplish was achieved. This was to put the fear in the minds of those targeting the Rajapaksas that they would be back in power somehow, whenever there was an opportunity, and parliamentary niceties would not stand in the way of their attempts to grab power. But just six months later, the Easter Sunday attacks that left more than 250 dead changed the public perception of the Rajapaksas. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa harping on the security narrative and making this the highlight of his agenda, it is clear that this theme will subsume all others in the run-up to the election.

PSC report

The parliamentary select committee (PSC) that studied the April blasts indicted various arms of the government and questioned the functioning of others, giving the Rajapaksas further ammunition. For instance, it confirmed that the Sri Lankan Intelligence Service chief did not do enough to prevent the blasts, and called for systemic changes.

The most serious observation in the report was: “Further investigations will be needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instill fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead-up to the Presidential election.”

(The report confirmed the finding of Frontline’s investigation (“Home-bred terror”, July 5, 2019) that the Islamic State was not guiding the attackers and that there was a dry run almost a week before April 21.)

The report notes that on October 30, 2018, soon after the “coup”, “Hemasiri Fernando [was] appointed as Secretary of Defence. Neither the NTJ [National Thowheeth Jama’ath] nor its activities were discussed at any of the NSC [National Security Council] meetings he attended, while a large amount of time was devoted to discuss trivial issues. ‘I remember there was a long discussion on a fishing issue and possible terrorist attacks using drones. Makandure Madush was also discussed at length’ (testimony of former Secretary to Ministry of Defence, Mr Hemasiri Fernando).”

There are indications that India had provided the information to Sri Lanka. The PSC also notes that the Indian Defence Secretary visited Sri Lanka on April 8 and that such a visit would have under any circumstances increased the security measures. It was just before this visit that the Director of State Intelligence Service (SIS) received the first intelligence information of a potential attack. This was also a day prior to the meeting when the SIS Director was called to brief on the intelligence information received.

Considering the visit of the Indian Defence Secretary, the security measures in place related to this visit and the intelligence information received from the external source, there was greater responsibility on the SIS Director, and the PSC questions his inaction.

The PSC also notes that the intelligence information received from the external source and the visit on April 8 must be given due attention and that this increased the responsibility on the SIS Director to brief the Intelligence Coordination Meeting and the political leadership.

Intelligence information received after the blasts and the direct reference to the Indian High Commission being a target should have prodded the SIS Director into taking immediate action by way of requesting the President and/or the Secretary, Ministry of Defence, for an NSC meeting on April 17 or soon after, according to the report.

The President is also held responsible: “Testimony also indicates to the ad hoc nature with meetings of the NSC. Whilst the period during the war and immediate post war resulted in regular NSC briefings due to the security threats and issues requiring attention, testimony indicates that the NSC did not have regular meetings. The PSC not given reasons as to the failure to have regular NSC meetings. The PSC was also noted that the reliance was on the President to call the NSC meeting. None in the security and intelligence deemed it fit to advise the President to have regular meetings and revisit the working methods in the NSC.”

Wickremesinghe gets off lightly: “The Prime Minister and the State Minister for Defence both informed the PSC that neither was informed of the intelligence at any point prior to the Easter Sunday attacks. The PSC notes that this is a serious failure considering the fact that the President left for an overseas trip on April 16, 2019. In the absence of the President, the Prime Minister and the State Minister for Defence should have been kept informed of intelligence received.”

In all, the PSC report could not have been released at a better time for the Rajapaksas, who have been holding the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government responsible for the lackadaisical approach to security. With Sirisena opting out of the presidential race, the target of all attacks of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is the UNP, whose candidate, Sajith Premadasa, has to necessarily rely on minority votes to pull off an improbable victory.

Five of the important Tamil political parties, who represent a minority with just under 20 per cent vote share, will only consider a candidate seriously if he or she accepts a 13-point charter of demands they have drawn up. “Evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a ‘separate sovereignty’ status for the Tamils and their right to self-determination, rejecting a ‘unitary state’; conducting an international probe of war crimes; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; stopping Sinhala-Buddhist ‘colonisation’ of the north and east; and enabling investments from Tamil diaspora to enhance development and employment in the war-affected areas”, are among the demands, according to a report in The Hindu.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s SLPP has already rejected the demands. It is well known that if the Tamils stay out, a Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory is certain. Although the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has grown to become the third biggest force in the island and although the fourth candidate, Mahesh Senanayake, a former army commander, is considered credible, neither the JVP candidate nor Senanayake appear to have a chance of victory against Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In any case, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JVP candidate, has made it clear that he will not support withdrawal of the military from the Tamil-majority Northern Province.

The Tamils of the north will not vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, or for that matter any Rajapaksa, because they hold the Rajapaksa presidency responsible for all the deaths and disappearances even after the conclusion of the war in May 2009. The only real choice for the minorities appears to be Sajith Premadasa, who, at the time of going to the press, had not taken a stand on the demands of the Tamil parties.

It is this landscape that India, which is seen to have heavily invested in the Tamils from 1987, has to negotiate. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi brokered the first settlement to the Tamil-Sinhala dispute. His formula, incorporated into the Sri Lankan Constitution, the 13th Amendment, still remains the only realistic chance for Tamils to achieve their dreams of equity in a country skewed in favour of the Sinhalese. The irony is that no presidential hopeful can win Sinhala votes if he or she states that the 13th Amendment will be implemented. When it comes to the question of Tamil rights, there is a considered vagueness in the answers of all candidates: Gotabaya Rajapaksa has talked about realistic and practical solutions to the problem, while Premadasa has promised to look into all issues of minorities.

Despite the fact that there is a lot of shared history, and mythology, between India and Sri Lanka, India’s relationship with the island nation has remained strained since the 1980s. However, because of India’s importance in Sri Lanka’s economy and since India is the net guarantor of security in the Indian Ocean region, Sri Lanka’s attempts to reach out to other world powers have met with limited success.

South Asian reality

But with China beginning to take a keen interest in securing its energy supplies, a venue opened up for Sri Lanka to replace India in many spheres of development and strategic cooperation. With Pakistan actively working as a catalyst, Sri Lanka accessed arms and ammunition from China to fight the LTTE and later gave a slew of development projects to China.

After Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2010, he was emboldened to take back a piece of land given to the Indian government (meant to provide housing for Indian diplomats stationed in Sri Lanka) and handed it to China to build a hotel-cum-commercial complex.

In less than half a decade, the new Chinese-created island, the financial city off Galle Face Green in Colombo, will be functional. The island will not just cater to Sri Lanka but serve as a post for East Africa, which is now serviced from Dubai. The Chinese are firmly entrenched in the infrastructure sector, hospitality and logistics, and China is planning to use the Hambantota port, which it has leased from Sri Lanka for 99 years after Sri Lanka defaulted repeatedly on payment, as a strategic redundancy to cater to East Africa, according to a local official.

China is also pushing for the adoption of Huawei’s 5G technology in the country, as it is in India. “5G is perhaps the most conspicuous example of what we need to face as it slices through the entire body of knowledge that we possess,” said M.K. Narayanan, former Intelligence Bureau chief, who was also India’s National Security Adviser, at the recently concluded Synergia Conclave, organised by the Synergia Foundation.

Even as India is deciding how to approach the 5G issue, other countries in the region, including Sri Lanka, have indicated that they are not averse to adopting the new-generation mobile telephone technology.

This creates additional problems for India as it seeks to redefine its engagement with its neighbour, in an era where China has a significant presence in almost all countries in South Asia. “Our efforts have been to forge win-win partnerships with our friendly neighbours,” said Jayant Sinha, MP, at the Synergia Conclave. “We are working with Sri Lanka to forge closer economic ties.... We have open skies in aviation with each of these countries [Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh]… BIMSTEC is a new institution that we have created to be able to have conversations with our neighbours,” he added, in response to a question.

Chinese investments did not stop abruptly after the change of government in Sri Lanka in 2015. In fact, Sri Lankan politicians have said that there has been no significant change in Chinese strategy even with a government which came into office promising a relook into all Chinese investments in the island nation.

Going by this experience, it is amply clear that regardless of who comes to power after the 2019 presidential election and which party has the majority after the upcoming parliamentary elections, the Chinese presence will continue to grow in Sri Lanka.

India needs to deal with this new reality.