The report from London that the electoral changes in Sri Lanka saw the well-entrenched Mahinda Rajapaksa replaced as president by his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena has triggered speculation that this was the handiwork of the Indian foreign intelligence agency RAW.
In a strategically placed island country so near the Indian coast, such speculation is nothing new and should even be expected. But in the present case, such reports of Indian intervention only seek to obfuscate the real issues involved in the massive change that has come over Sri Lanka with the January 8 election.
In his nearly decade-long rule, Rajapaksa had sought to entrench himself and his family by placing his family members and trusted lieutenants in key positions across the government. The first thing he did after crushing the LTTE with armed force was to ensure that then army chief Lt General Fonseka did not share the glory of the success of the state. The general was forced to quit and was trapped in a corruption charge.
Rajapaksa had got Indian support for his action against the terrorist organisation that LTTE turned itself into, assassinating not only many Sri Lankan majority community leaders but also entire groups of moderate Tamil leaders, extending its terror into India by planning the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
In turn, Rajapaksa had promised India’s leadership in 2009 that after the LTTE was crushed, he would treat the Tamil minority largely concentrated in the north and east of the island country with respect and draw it into the Sri Lankan polity by implementing the 13th constitutional amendment that mandates devolution of power to the Tamil majority provinces. But he did nothing of the kind, postponing actual devolution on one pretext or the other.
Rajapaksa was also facing increasing local opposition to his dictatorial measures and curbing of media freedoms as more and more of his government’s violation of human rights, suppression of dissent, even within the majority Buddhist community, began to tarnish his image.
To counter the Indian government’s pressure on him to implement the key provision in the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement of 1987 regarding devolution of power to the Tamil majority provinces, Rajapaksa wooed China with a 1.5 billion dollar Chinese plan to develop the new port of Hambantota near Colombo. He gave the Chinese naval vessels the right to anchor in Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka aligning himself with Beijing’s recent attempts to dominate the Indian Ocean. At the same time Rajapaksa was surreptitiously hindering the work of the Indian Railways to repair the Colombo-Jaffna rail line that was damaged during the LTTE revolt and also a new line India was building.
This was happening at a time Colombo was facing intense international pressure against its violation of human rights, especially in the Tamil areas, and the human rights panel of the UN at Geneva had already voted for international investigation into the Sri Lankan government’s record in this area.
With the tide in Sri Lanka turning against him and his close associates and family members, Rajapaksa’s group has been trying to insinuate that it was India that had manoeuvered to oust him from power. The defeated president’s tactic of blaming India might stick with those who want to pillory New Delhi but the bare facts prove that the seeds of public protest in Sri Lanka against his rule were building up from the ground level in Colombo and within the majority community itself. The build-up of the opposition to president Rajapaksa’s dictatorial methods began when he got an impeachment motion in 2013 against then chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake passed by parliament after the apex court questioned the validity of his authoritarian steps to curb all dissent. The tide against Rajapaksa suddenly picked momentum when the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s former leader and ex-president Chandrika Kumaratunga came forward to oppose the slide to dictatorship. All the various opposition streams joined together and were looking for a credible common candidate when Sirisena left the government and opposed Rajapaksa.
The combined opposition now found the right person to challenge the then president. The rest, as they say, was history. No analyst with a sense of history would in such a case accuse India of manoeuvring the different streams of opposition to the Rajapaksa regime to join hands. As foreign minister Samaraweera has said it was a “rainbow revolution” with a firm locale in Sri Lanka.
New Delhi would have to exercise its power and influence in the region with a breadth of vision and a firmness of action to enhance its natural influence and gain confidence of the other members. The Modi government took the initiative in this matter by inviting the heads of all SAARC governments to participate in the swearing-in of the new regime in New Delhi and following this up with extending a cooperative hand to all of them. This had an impact in most of the members of this regional grouping.
In Afghanistan, for instance, the democracy challenged by a jihadi militancy has stabilised further with a consensual government at the helm; in Nepal the political leaders have hammered out a compromise on the basic principle of a new constitution with only the obdurate and electorally defeated Prachanda-led party getting isolated. In Bangladesh the democratically elected Sheikh Hasina government has been able to face the challenge and threat of jihadi elements. In Myanmar the process of transfer of power from the army-dominated political entity to an elected parliament is in progress. Pakistan’s isolation from such a process of change for the better is to be traced to inherent historical factors as the terror group supplier to the world.
In Sri Lanka the change has been dramatic though it is just two weeks since the old government was voted out. No wonder the Chinese rulers seem to be chastened by the Lankan people getting rid of a regime that sought to play China against India. Beijing’s Global Times, the indicator of inside thinking in the Communist Party of China, has recognised how strongly traditional are India’s ties with Sri Lanka. In its article commenting on the changes in Colombo, it claims the competition between the two countries in Sri Lanka need not necessarily be “exclusive” or “confrontational”. After all, even China has much to gain from a constructive, inclusive relationship with the third largest Asian nation in terms of GDP than playing exclusivist in Sri Lanka. It must have by now realised how as well as why.