The defeat of President Mahinda Rajapakse in the elections he had called, with two years remaining in his second term, demonstrated the vibrancy and maturity of Sri Lankan democracy to its neighbours and to distant capitals, from London to Washington. While India was circumspect and correct in welcoming the elections as a manifestation of the strength of democratic institutions in Sri Lanka, the results were seen as a rejection of authoritarian family rule. The foundations for the defeat were laid when two powerful Sri Lankan politicians—former President Chandrika Kumaratunga from the ruling SLFP and opposition leader and former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe—staged a virtual political coup, persuading Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary of SLFP, to challenge Rajapakse’s re-election bid.
The election saw a consolidation of the votes of the Tamil, Christian and Muslim minorities constituting 30 per cent of the electorate. The minorities were joined by Sinhalas tired of continuing erosion of democratic freedoms and arbitrary arrest, with the island’s normally independent press wilting under fear of abduction and detention. What is significant is that Rajapakse was defeated at a time when the Sri Lankan economy was growing at over 7 per cent annually, with industries like tourism booming. The election results could not have come at a better time for Sri Lanka’s relations with India. Many in New Delhi had come to the conclusion that Rajapakse had been less than sincere in abiding by his promises to address the grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils, and was recklessly undermining India’s security interests.
The continuation of the stifling military presence in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province and the refusal to devolve meaningful powers and authority to the popularly elected CM, Justice Vigneswaran, were contrary to assurances given by Rajapakse to India. Similar insincerity was manifested when Colombo sought to deliberately ignore India’s security concerns about facilitating a Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. Rajapakse chose to endorse the Chinese proposal for a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” which virtually encircled India’s coastline, during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Sri Lanka. A Chinese consortium was permitted to operate a new container terminal in Colombo, where Sri Lanka provided berthing facilities for two Chinese submarines.
President Sirisena and PM Wickremasinghe have made it clear that they intend to end the authoritarian Presidential system. While Sri Lanka will continue to seek economic cooperation with China, it will also balance Beijing’s economic profile by restoring the traditionally good relations that Sri Lanka had with the US, its European allies and Japan. One can also expect that the new dispensation will not share Rajapakse’s propensity of supporting a Chinese security role in South Asia, or his ardour for China’s membership of SAARC. New Delhi was the first capital that Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Mangala Samarawera visited. Sirisena will visit Delhi this month and one could reasonably expect a visit to Colombo by Narendra Modi this year.
While New Delhi’s security concerns will be suitably addressed by the new dispensation in Colombo, Wickremasinghe indicated that his government will move ahead on measures for devolution of powers to CMs under the 13th Amendment. Colombo has replaced the Rajapakse-appointed military governor in Jaffna. The immediate focus should be on easing the stifling military presence in the Northern Province. India should seek an international consensus on the establishment of a credible Sri Lankan Commission to investigate alleged war crimes by all concerned, including the LTTE. The vexed issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu inviting the wrath of the Tamil fishermen in Jaffna, by unrestrained fishing in Sri Lankan waters, should be addressed realistically. The recent elections have demonstrated the maturity of the electorate and political leadership in Sri Lanka. Realism and understanding, and not overblown rhetoric, should characterise our conduct of relations with Colombo. firstname.lastname@example.org The writer is a former diplomat