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Sri Lanka Political Chaos

Berlin (17/11 – 75)

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the cynosure of public attention. He is Sri Lanka’s man of the season and is well positioned to guide his country out of the current mess. The manner of his ascent to the highest political office, though controversial, through the parliamentary route, he has general acceptance of the civil society and stakeholders despite opposition from interested and vested parties.

Wickremesinghe will hold office till November 2024 and has a massive domestic and international agenda ahead while in office. He will oversee several critical political events such as the establishment of the All-Party Government, 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, General Parliamentary elections, elections to Provincial Assembly and local bodies. He has an unenviable task to meet not only political demands also to contend with legal cases and address the dysfunctional civil service and other institutions and address the immediate demands of socio-economic sector.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe will hold office till November 2024 and has a massive domestic and international agenda. He has an unenviable task to meet political demands and address the dysfunctional civil service and immediate demands of socio-economic sector. The governance mess he has inherited from his predecessor, has left Sri Lanka with very few friends.

On the strategic side, Wickremesinghe will head on address the governance mess he has inherited from his predecessor, which has left Sri Lanka with very few friends and options to secure its interests.

LPG is now available in Sri Lanka, fuel stations chaos has reduced following introduction of the QR code system, and power situation is worrisome but better. There are positive indications in other sectors and it will be months to go before the return of a modicum of normalcy.

India may have every reason to feel relieved with President Wickremesinghe at the helm of affairs. India has been his “international safety net” when he negotiated the cease-fire with LTTE in 2001. The quality of Sri Lanka diplomacy in India has undergone a sea-change since August 2021 thanks to the efforts of its Milinda Morogoda, High Commissioner to India and his equation with the political leadership and strategic community.

Wickremesinghe has made two important statements on Sri Lanka-India relations. He was present at a ceremony in Colombo on Aug 14, 2022, to witness the handing over a Dornier Maritime Recce and Surveillance Aircraft to the Sri Lankan Navy. Even more importantly he delivered an 8-minute speech giving his reflections on Indo-Lanka relations. It is very thought provoking. The speech and his presence at the ceremony have important connotations. This was in the backdrop of the controversy over the permission given by Sri Lanka to a Chinese survey vessel to visit Hambantota. 

Even in his Throne Speech on August 3, 2022 to the Parliament, Wickremesinghe devoted several minutes talking about India and it was exceptional as no other country was mentioned directly or indirectly. This is unprecedented in recent times that no Sri Lankan Head of State has used the parliamentary platform or diplomatic event to articulate positive statements on India. It can be surmised that these are indications of relations moving to the next level and greater positivity as well. It also underlined that he feels secure in his job.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe was in Tokyo to take part in the commemoration ceremony of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This will give him the golden opportunity to meet the Indian Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi and other heads of government and states. The focus will of course be on his meetings with PM Mr Modi and the road map ahead. It will give India a time to review past actions of the Sri Lankan government and to remove irritants preventing growth and development of bilateral relations. Wickremesinghe’s interaction with the Chinese and other dignitaries including QUAD, ASEAN and Western countries should be watched with interest.

The political situation in Sri Lanka has eased following the departure of Gotabya Rajapaksa. Consequent election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to office has brought in a sense of calm. However, any misstep could revive the Aralagaya movement. Challenges that lie ahead include Fundamental Rights (FR) petitions on forcible eviction of protestors from Galle Face, confrontation between Army personnel and civilians in Galle and police action in parts of the country, dealing with UNHCR and international opinion over the eviction issue. There is anger over prosecution of protestors who were in occupation of Presidential Secretariat, in the Supreme Court and other government buildings. The government is seeking to replace the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with the National Security Act (NSA). It will be weeks rather months before normalcy returns.

There are lessons to be learnt from the people’s agitation that ousted Rajapaksa. An opinion poll by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) last week saw 89.9% in favour of early general elections, 98% for audit of all political parties, 86% for 21st Amendment, 75% for abolishing Executive Presidency and 83% for all party interim government.

Under the heading Trust on Leaders, JVP veteran Anura Kumar Dissanayaka (AKD) received 48.5% followed by RW with 36.65% with Mahinda Rajapaksa bringing up the tail with 11.28%. JVP veteran receiving top marks in the opinion poll is an important development which needs to be carefully analysed especially its alignment with FSP.

There were doubts whether Wickremesinghe will walk the talk. To a large extent he has displayed political acumen on several counts. The impressive Throne Speech (TS) was RW’s masterstroke. Without ruffling feathers, he conveyed the sense that he is in command and expects to run his term till November 2024.

By publicly closing the door on Rajapaksa’s immediate return to Sri Lanka, RW used the parliamentary platform to signal his distancing away from the Rajapaksa’s and their supporters. He is however, unlikely to shake the cage at this juncture or till he constitutes the All-Party Government. The Rajapaksa family has been badly “wounded” by the events of the past several months, their downfall has been dramatic and importantly they do not have the support of the 6.9 million people who voted for Gotabya Rajapaksa in 2019. The Rajapaksa’s retain the capacity to “call the shots” and influence developments should it threaten them. Former Gotabya Rajapaksa still retains his charisma. It is unwise to rule them out of any political equation. Meanwhile, they have many court cases to contend with.

It is important to note that Wickremesinghe has received support across party lines. The SJB is the latest to join the bandwagon. The minorities have vested faith in him, while some are keen to join the government others have expressed outside support.

The government has lifted proscription of overseas Tamil groups and has also banned some unnamed Muslim groups. The effect of both decisions needs to be examined. Some sections of the Emergency regulations have been amended, obviously keeping in mind that a FR application is filed in the Supreme Court. It is just possible that emergency may be lifted soon. The possible return of Gotabya Rajapaksa in last week of August 2022 will be challenge to law-and-order situation and possible resurrection of “Aragalaya” situation.

Sri Lanka’s economic mess has its origins in the period 2006-2009 and 2009-2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in office. Profligate spending, obtaining unsanctioned loans from foreign creditors and nations without adequate parliamentary oversight or accountability is the cause for the unprecedented economic mess. Gotabya Rajapaksa added to it by several unwise economic, fiscal and monetary policies. The biggest crime was the decision to go for the Port and International Airport at Hambantota, the international airport at Matale and the Colombo Port City among others.

Wickremesinghe has given out his blueprint in his Throne Speech (Aug 03, 2022) and some reliable inputs have become available on pulling Sri Lanka out of this logjam. The Colombo based Pathfinder– think-tank of Milinda Morogoda- has brought out a comprehensive document on the subject. Harsha De Silva (MP/SJB) has made a ten-point blueprint on same subject. Harsha is expected to be part of the All-Party Government.

The IMF bailout is being seen as the precursor to efforts at arresting the downward slide and put the country back on wheels. It will be a signal for others to follow suit as most countries are awaiting the outcome of IMF-Lanka agreement. The reluctance stems from fear of weak institutions, inexperienced civil servants and local politics that have contributed to the Mess.

Wickremesinghe has spoken in the Parliament about accountability for the mess and petitions are in the Supreme Court to arraign former leaders including the Rajapaksa’s, civil servants and others for massive mismanagement. Outcome of court cases will be interesting to watch.

The two Rajapaksa administrations (Mahinda Rajapaksa / 2010-15) and (Gotabya Rajapaksa / 2019-22) and the flip-flop during the Sirisena administration (2015-19) are infamous for the manner in which Sri Lanka’s strategic and foreign policy was conducted. This was the period when China considerably strengthened its hold on Sri Lanka at the cost of Sri Lanka’s traditional allies including India.

Wickremesinghe dwelt on this aspect in his Throne Speech (Aug 03) blaming the downturn in his country’s external relations “due to instability of the foreign policy, we faced many setbacks in in the international arena” and “we don’t belong to any group”. He promised to follow “a friendly” and “purposeful” foreign policy.

The failure of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has impacted its Diaspora considerably. Sri Lanka’s passport is placed below nations like Sudan and greater visa restrictions are placed on them. Wickremesinghe therefore has a major task ahead to restore balance to foreign affairs and international relations. Even more he has to devise ways and means to energise the foreign office and its foreign service.

Though tested at frequent intervals, India-Lanka relations rest on strong foundations and have grown in stature thanks to high level political interaction and leadership intervention at all times. The trust deficit that presided over the bilateral relations particularly since 2009 has receded but it remains a source of worry for Indian foreign policy managers. The meeting between Indian and Sri Lankan leaders at upcoming Tokyo event must provide the solution to addressing the deficit trust.

India’s immediate response to the economic crisis by providing rescue, relief and humanitarian assistance amounting to over USD 4 billion is internationally acclaimed and received kudos in Sri Lanka from civil society and others. This is one of the several major initiatives of India in recent years to help Sri Lanka. It was in sync with the policy of the Union government to provide assistance to the people of Sri Lanka. However, there was the usual baggage of anti-India statements by vested interests who have made India their constituency to stay relevant in national affairs.

India-Lanka relations have been seen through a narrow prism. The need to identify fault lines and distrust in bilateral relations is urgent and important. There are several options to consider. One way forward is to focus attention on southern Sri Lanka and along the west coast that have remained bastion of Sinhala-Buddhist society. This is the heartland that decides major issues binding the parties in power to making decisions often not commensurate with contemporary developments.

The opposition to India’s participation in the West Coast Terminal project is one such example and there are others too. It is not difficult to identify the vested interests here. These have cast deepening shadow on India-Lanka relations. Policy makers on both sides have an arduous task ahead to try and remove the irritants.

The CPA opinion poll has some interesting revelations especially about the JVP. The Inter University Students Front (IUSF) and Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) are of interest and may have the potential to influence people against India. The “united” JVP in the past had a clear anti-India agenda besides identified as pro-Beijing. The presence of several parliamentarians from JVP to welcome the Chinese “spy” ship at Hambantota on Aug 16, 2022 is another example.

That Hambantota is an irritant in India-Lanka relations is to state the obvious. The recent visit of Yuan Wan-5 has proved it beyond doubt and also exposed the limitations of Sri Lanka’s strategic thinking on such critical issues. This may be beginning of a new challenge to both India and Sri Lanka as more such visits will take place in future. This fault line has to be addressed by both sides. Obviously, there are lessons to be learnt here especially for Sri Lanka policy makers.

The need for a detailed White paper on India-Sri Lanka relations has become necessary with the objective to bring balance to it and highlight India’s contributions. There is not much that is written on India’s role along with Norway in brokering the cease fire between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); India’s insistence of creating the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to monitor the cease-fire, the activities of two Indian Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) in Humanitarian Demining efforts in Vavuniya and Mannar and India’s role in Tsunami relief. The list is endless.

Another exercise is to study of Chinese activities in Sri Lanka in past 7 decades particularly in the 21st century. This will be an important strategy paper which should serve as institutional memory and a ready reckoner for present and future policy makers, opinion makers and practitioners.

China did not shed a tear for Gotabya Rajapaksa when he lost political office. The lesson here is that China has its national security interests as foremost in all its transactions and nothing else matters.

An article by Chinese Ambassador to Sri Lanka (Aug 26, 2022) circulated to the media said that “Sri Lanka and China should jointly protect their sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence in view of threats they face”. It was built around visit of US delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and visit of Yuan Wan 5 to Hambantota. It said “Just like Sri Lanka, China had suffered a hundred years from 1840 till 1949. Because of similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka”. Letter made no attempt to disguise criticism of India and went on to draw attention to the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council next month and “whether they use human rights as a cover up tool to interfere in the Island nation’s internal affairs and continue to rub salt into the wounds of Sri Lankan people”.

For a country like China to abandon Sri Lanka when it needed assistance to overcome its severe economic crisis, the article by the Chinese Ambassador is like “rubbing salt into the wounds of the Sri Lankan people”.

Source : Vivekananda International Foundation