Sri Lanka

Rajapaksas back in the game

Print edition : December 20, 2019

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother and former President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during the swearing in ceremony in Colombo on November 21. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS


Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar with Sri Lanka President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa during a meeting in Colombo on November 19. Photo: PTI

The two Tamils in the Sri Lankan Cabinet, Douglas Devananda and Arumugam Thondaman (below). Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA

eqf ew rfsedfsda Photo: R. Ragu

With Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning the presidential election in Sri Lanka and his brothers Mahinda and Chamal Rajapaksa holding important positions, the country is expected to continue its pro-Chinese foreign policy. And civil society in Sri Lanka, including Tamils, is looking at a period of curtailed freedoms.

In politics, the first mistake is one too many. Second chances are rare, though not uncommon. Left without much to choose from, Sri Lanka has given a Rajapaksa yet another shot at the helm.

After a gap of four years, the Rajapaksas are back in power in Sri Lanka. Former Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who won the presidential election convincingly over his uninspiring rival and former Minister Sajith Premadasa by about 10 percentage points, was sworn in as President on November 19 in the Anuradhapura Ruwanweliseya premises, more a symbol of Sinhala pride than the peaceful tenets espoused by Gautama Buddha.

“I am President of not only those who voted for me but also those who voted against me and irrespective of which race or religion they belong to. I am deeply committed to serve all the people of Sri Lanka,” tweeted Gotabaya Rajapaksa on November 17, soon after his victory. The importance of the choice of words “voted against me” was not lost on anyone, especially those who voted for Sajith Premadasa. On the map, this region is demarcated clearly—the north, the east and a bit of the plantation areas. Basically, Tamils.

His brother and former President and the Leader of the Opposition in the current Parliament, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was sworn in as interim Prime Minister on November 21, after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resigned. Mahinda Rajapaksa will be in charge of Finance, Economic Affairs, Policy Development, Buddha Sasana, Culture, Water Supply and Urban Development Ministries.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s eldest living brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, has been made Minister in charge of Mahaweli Development, Agriculture, Irrigation, Rural Development, Internal Trade, Food Security and Consumer Welfare. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, is a Member of Parliament.

Basil Rajapaksa, who planned and executed the campaign for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the only one who is yet to be inducted into the Cabinet. Potentially, there could be at least five centres of power in Sri Lanka, each with differing capabilities, and all of them will be Rajapaksas. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, the unwritten rule in the family was that everyone falls in line with what he decides in the event of a dispute or issue. It is too early to say if this equation within the family will be reworked if Gotabaya Rajapaksa becomes an executive President with full powers (after repealing the 19th Amendment, which curtailed the President’s powers to some extent).

Basil Rajapaksa is now keen on focussing on the upcoming parliamentary elections. Parliament needs a two-thirds majority to recommend the dissolution of the House ahead of its term, and no parliamentarian is in a rush to do so because there still is about a year for the House to complete its current tenure.

But the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) wants elections as soon as possible. Its Chairman, G.L. Peiris, said a new Parliament should be elected to reflect the mandate of the people. “The incumbent Parliament does not reflect the people’s mandate today. When we look at the results of the presidential election, we see a clear mandate given to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with an overwhelming majority. Had this been a general election, we would have secured more than 120 seats in Parliament,” he told presspersons on November 25, according to the Daily Mirror newspaper.

“Constitutionally, the President can dissolve Parliament on March 1 next year when its term completes four and a half years. However, Parliament can be dissolved with a two-thirds majority before March. Therefore, it is the duty of MPs to respect the people’s mandate given in the presidential election and go for general elections,” he added.

Ministry size

The small size of the interim Ministry indicates that Gotabaya Rajapaksa has prevailed over his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is known to distribute posts to keep everyone happy. He had given out nearly 100 such posts when he was in power until 2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who thinks a lean government is a must and has already cut down his security detail, wants to cut down on wasteful government expenditure and wants to be seen as an efficient President. In that sense, he still remains a bureaucrat while Mahinda Rajapaksa remains a politician who will dole out favours. On November 27, a new list of 35 State Ministers and three Deputy Ministers were announced. There is no Tamil or Muslim on that list.

There are two Tamils in the Cabinet though. One, Arumugam Thondaman, is the representative of the plantation Tamils, who trace their roots back to India. He will be in charge of Community Empowerment and Estate Infrastructure. The second is Douglas Devananda, who has been given a portfolio that Mahinda Rajapaksa once held, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Both Thondaman and Devananda, who have remained steadfastly with Mahinda Rajapaksa, are considered by the Sinhala south as examples of how an “ideal” minority integration into Sri Lankan society could be achieved.

An exclusion from the list is G.L. Peiris, the former Foreign Minister, who was a permanent fixture in the Sri Lankan Cabinet until 2015, regardless of which party was in power. The Foreign Ministry has been given to Dinesh Gunawardena (apart from Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations), a loyalist who floated various theories on the Easter Sunday blasts. He questioned the findings of the Parliamentary Select Committee report on the blasts because its chair, Rauff Hakeem, Gunawardena claimed, had met those responsible for the blasts earlier.

All the remaining major Ministries go to die-hard supporters of the Rajapaksas, including a few who created a ruckus inside Parliament in October 2018 when the no-confidence motion against the then Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was taken up. They include Johnston Fernando (Roads & Highways, Ports & Shipping), Dullas Alahapperuma (Education, Sports and Youth Affairs), Bandula Gunawardena (Information & Communications Technology, Higher Education, Technology & Innovations), Wimal Weerawansa (SME & Enterprise Development, Industries & Supply Management) and Nimal Siripala de Silva (Justice, Human Rights & Legal Reforms).

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has promised that government corporations will not be filled with friends and relatives. “To ensure state enterprises are made profitable, the chairmen and boards of directors with suitable qualifications will be appointed through a selection committee,” he tweeted on November 24.

With the Rajapaksas in power, Sri Lankan civil society is adjusting itself to a period of curtailed freedoms. Two very vocal Tamil voices on Twitter have gone silent on their own, and there are reports of the Sri Lankan media playing down criticism of the newly formed government. One columnist complained on social media that his article was not used by a newspaper, something that had not happened to him in the past four years.

The police officer who was the points-person for investigating many important cases, including the murder of the editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, has fled the country after receiving death threats. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has held that the officer, Inspector Nishantha Silva, and his associate, Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer Shani Abeysekera, were biased against him. “No chance for the rule of law in Sri Lanka when those doing their job are accused of fleeing and bias,” tweeted the human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka. New restrictions have been placed on CID officers leaving Sri Lanka. The names of all the 704 police personnel attached to the CID have been given to immigration officers to prevent them from travelling abroad.

“It is sad that in its first week, the new administration has prioritised a witch hunt against the CID,” tweeted opposition United National Party (UNP) MP Harin Fernando. “Each time a crime has shocked the nation’s conscience, it is the CID the state has turned to. Police officers should not be punished and insulted for doing their job,” he added.

Assurances on Accountability

This is the most compact Ministry in recent times, but it is clear in which direction the Rajapaksas intend to move. Dinesh Gunawardena, the Foreign Minister, for instance, has announced that Sri Lanka will “fully review” the assurances that it had given to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“Sri Lanka will fully review and revisit the U.S. and Sri Lanka co-sponsored UNHRC resolution 30/1 adopted in October 2015 in Geneva promoting accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka,” Daily Mirror said on November 25, quoting Gunawardena.

“There is no doubt that we have to review and carefully go through all bilateral agreements inked after 2015 and remove any line, clause or paragraph detrimental to our national security, sovereignty, the well-being of our people and negatively affect our economy, trade and industry. Sri Lanka has witnessed a tremendous political change through which [it] has restored political and economic stability under a fresh development path. The main task at hand of the new government is to strengthen national security and rebuild the lost confidence both domestically and internationally, he added,” Daily Mirror said.

One important appointment that gives an indication of the direction in which Sri Lanka is headed is that of the Defence Secretary, Major General (retd) Kamal Gunaratne. Gen. Gunaratne, author of Road to Nandikadal: True Story of Defeating Tamil Tigers, was among the first to start the campaign for Gotabaya for President and is a trusted aide of the President. Both share identical views on the Tamil issues of political autonomy and reconciliation.

Gunaratne’s rise in the ranks to Major General was aided by Gotabaya Rajapaksa (out-of-turn promotion for performing officers) and he headed the 53 Division which engaged the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Velupillai Prabakaran in a 45-minute firefight on May 18, 2009, leading to his eventual killing.

“I wrote this book [Road to Nandikadal] for the poor parents who sent their sons to fight with the ruthless LTTE, the elite people in Colombo and abroad and the human rights activists who were misled by a wrong picture about our soldiers and the war,” he said. He did not want his “memories to be buried with him after his retirement”, he said in an interview to Daily FT on September 6, 2016. The book was initially published in Sinhala and later in English.

In the same interview, he dwells on the question of war crimes and reconciliation:

“No human rights abuses and no war crimes were committed by the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] during the final battle. It was a war between the Army and the terrorists. During a war situation, definitely there could be casualties. We took all possible precautions to minimise civilian casualties following humanitarian law.

“We talk about reconciliation but listen to those who ask for land powers, devolution of powers, police and judicial powers and demand the removal of the Director of the Kilinochchi Hospital as he is a Sinhalese and to appoint a Tamil official….”

The official Sri Lankan line on war crimes, accountability and related issues can be read from the responses of the Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary.

The new regime offers little hope to the Tamils, regardless of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) trying to make it clear that Tamils voted for a Sinhala–Buddhist candidate and did not get swayed by the calls for boycotting the election or voting for the Tamil candidate M.K. Sivajilingam. “One community [Sinhalas] voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not even 10 per cent of the others [Tamils and Muslims] voted for him,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, TNA leader, to a local Tamil cable news television station. “You should view this as a setback, engage with the representatives of these people and find an acceptable solution to the Tamil question.”

The suggestion that Tamils voted on racial lines was also debunked by the TNA’s patriarch, R. Sampanthan. “If the Tamil people had wanted to vote on racial lines, wouldn’t they have voted for the Tamil candidate, Sivajilingam, who, it may be argued, had racist overtones in his manifesto?” he asked. “Instead, they voted in large numbers for Sajith Premadasa.

As of now, neither Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor anyone from his administration has reached out to the TNA. A section within the SLPP is of the opinion that before anything else is done, the TNA, the lone representative of the Tamil people of the North, has to be split.

Modi’s phone call

This is the context in which the Indian response to the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs to be viewed. On November 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the phone. “Conveying the good wishes on behalf of the people of India and on his own behalf, the Prime Minister expressed confidence that under the able leadership of Mr. Rajapaksa the people of Sri Lanka will progress further on the path of peace and prosperity and fraternal, cultural, historical and civilisational ties between India and Sri Lanka will be further strengthened. The Prime Minister reiterated India’s commitment to continue to work with the Government of Sri Lanka to these ends,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in a release. There was no mention of the most important issue that has defined India-Sri Lanka relations for three decades—the question of the political rights of the Tamils.

Displaying a new sense of urgency, barely two days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar rushed to the Sri Lankan capital and sewed up the newly sworn-in President’s first visit abroad, to India. Jaishankar, a former career diplomat who was stationed in Sri Lanka, has first-hand knowledge of how the ground shifts beneath the feet in Colombo’s power corridors.

Though there was no reaction from the Indian High Commission in Colombo or from the Minister himself, on November 21, the External Affairs Ministry spokesperson went to great lengths to explain the India-Sri Lanka relationship in the context of the Tamil question. This was in response to a question:

“During his meeting with President Gotabaya, the new President of Sri Lanka, the first part of the discussion was of course focussed on strengthening the bilateral relationship. The EAM [External Affairs Minister] conveyed to President Rajapaksa India’s expectation that the Sri Lankan government would take forward the process of national reconciliation to arrive at a solution that meets the aspirations of the Tamil community for equality, justice, peace and dignity. You must have seen President Rajapaksa’s statement where he reaffirmed that he will be the President of Sri Lanka, of all Sri Lankans irrespective of their racial or religious identities, whether they voted for him or not.

“The new Sri Lankan President also stated that he is committed to ensuring development of Northern and Eastern provinces and considers India a valued partner towards this endeavour. On how India is looking at the relationship, I think it is clear that India is ready to work closely with the government of the day in deepening our age-old relationship. You are aware that exchanges of greetings have taken place between the two leaders. Our relationship with Sri Lanka or, for that matter, with any other country is not dependent on a third country. We enjoy a historical and very close relationship with Sri Lanka and we are looking forward and we will work very closely with the new Sri Lankan government,” the spokesperson said.

So far, there has been no response to this from anyone authoritative from Colombo. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa had outlined his foreign policy even when he was campaigning. He did not want Sri Lanka to get caught in superpower politics or in a fight between the Asian giants, he said. “As a policy, we will maintain an equidistant and yet cordial relations with all countries and remain neutral in the power struggles amongst nations. I also appeal to all global leaders to respect the sovereignty and unitary status of Sri Lanka,” he tweeted on November 18.

A wishful slogan

The talk of equidistance has been often viewed in New Delhi as a euphemism for moving away from India. This is exactly what former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen tried even as he invited China to invest heavily in the Maldives. The first test of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sincerity will be the Hambantota port project. Does he have it in him to push China to renegotiate the deal? In his first interview as President to a news website, he said that the manner in which the Chinese-built port of Hambantota was given to China on a 99-year lease would be re-examined. But similar voices were heard after the 2015 victory, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe asserted that all deals with China would be re-examined. Not one deal was examined.

Given China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region, renegotiating Hambantota or other deals is easier said than done. For example, China has sent its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) 33rd fleet to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations and provide security to civilian ships in the Indian Ocean region. Also, in mid-September, the news agency ANI reported that the Indian Navy’s P-8I spy planes had tracked the Chinese amphibious warship, Xian-32 in south Indian Ocean.

Though China has a base in Djibouti, its nearest rest and recreation spot is Colombo, where it is already developing the second phase of the port. Hambantota offers a rest and recreation spot away from curious foreign missions. China is present in many sectors of activity in Sri Lanka and Chinese firms are buying out Sri Lankan companies. For now, China’s interest in Sri Lanka appears to be strategic and long-term (oil routes, access to East Africa) and does not appear directed against India. But strategic interests do change with geopolitical realities.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is indebted to China for the help it provided during the war years when India refused to provide ammunition to the Sri Lankan forces. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an army officer, and later Defence Secretary, is certain to have more than a soft corner for China.

Potentially, there will be a new border where the Asian giants will sit eyeball to eyeball: the Palk Straits and the Gulf of Mannar. This will not be in the interest of Sri Lanka.

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