The winds of change
SRI LANKA’S recently elected Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, received a warm welcome in New Delhi. He has long been regarded as a friendly statesman, sensitive to India’s national security interests. He had also shown courage in seeking to build bridges to the estranged Tamil minority in the island’s northern and eastern provinces. During his second tenure as Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe concluded a ceasefire agreement and commenced negotiations with the LTTE, which were called off by Velupillai Prabhakaran, who appeared determined to undertake a fight to the finish. This decision by Prabhakaran was suicidal. It ultimately led to the defeat of the LTTE and his own elimination in a bloody conflict, which pitted him against a no less determined and single-minded President Mahenda Rajapakse.
Ecstatic at his victory in the bloody ethnic conflict, which was marked by excesses on both sides, Mr Rajapakse was swept back to power. He then chose to act like a triumphant victor, bent on denying justice and the promised devolution of powers to the hapless Tamils. This was accompanied by a streak of ruthlessness, in which the Rajapakse family suppressed and even allegedly eliminated opposition, while amassing wealth, in the belief that the “victory” in the ethnic conflict guaranteed them a virtually endless term in office. President Rajapakse seemed to have forgotten that the political fruits of victory in battle are often shortlived. Winston Churchill was unceremoniously unseated in elections immediately after the Second World War. The Democratic Party, led by Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, likewise lost the elections to a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. Josef Stalin became a hated non-person after he died, less than a decade after the end of World War II.
Rajapakse’s authoritarianism led the covert forging of an alliance between his own party, led by his erstwhile colleagues Maithripala Sirisena and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, on the one hand, and his arch rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other. Not only was the seemingly invincible Rajapakse defeated in his bid for another term as President, but he was also checkmated by the alliance between his own party (SLFP) and the opposition UNP, in his bid to become Prime Minister, following recent parliamentary elections. There are indications that he may well face judicial proceedings on charges of corruption and abuse of power. But, the ruling dispensation will do well to remember that the wheels of fortune change rapidly in politics. Churchill soon returned to power in the UK and Mrs Indira Gandhi, victorious in the Bangladesh conflict, was defeated in 1977, only to return to power in 1980.
The election of Maithripala Sirisena as President and the formation of a national government of both major parties, led by Wickremesinghe, have predictably been welcomed in New Delhi. While India backed President Rajapakse in his war against the LTTE, it soon found that he had no intention in keeping his word on the devolution of powers to the Tamil- dominated areas of Sri Lanka. Moreover, his erosion of democratic freedom and his growing closeness to China, set alarm bells ringing. The die was cast, when two Chinese submarines berthed in Colombo, despite expressions of concern from South Block. Rajapakse’s actions not only raised hackles in New Delhi, but also evoked concerns in Washington and Tokyo. There is confidence in New Delhi that Colombo, under the new dispensation, will tread more carefully on issues of security concern to India.
The recent report of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, calling for an international judicial tribunal and for an intrusive international say in the investigation and prosecution for alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, is going to pose diplomatic and domestic challenges for New Delhi. This report has come alongside demands in Tamil Nadu for an international trial of all those accused of human rights violations, during the last years of the ethnic conflict. The Sinhala majority will reject any such resolution. New Delhi will have to deal dexterously with this issue, noting that the aim should be to promote reconciliation and not widen the ethnic divide. Steps will have to be devised to ensure that the UN Human Rights Commission comes up with proposals that are not internationally intrusive, but ensure a credible investigation and fair trial of those charged with excesses. Unlike in the recent past, the US and its EU partners are well disposed to the government in Colombo and would not want it to be destabilised.
India’s total assistance to Sri Lanka now totals $2.6 billion. It is predominantly Indian assistance, which includes the construction of 50,000 houses for displaced Tamils, that has helped in getting Tamils resettled. Indian private investment in Sri Lanka now exceeds $1 billion, with projects identified for doubling this amount. In overall terms, the projected investment of $4.6 billion by India, compares favourably with the total Chinese investment of around $5 billion in the island. Moreover, Chinese projects, with exorbitant interest rates, are now being largely seen as ‘white elephant’ in Sri Lanka. The much-touted Warehouse built by the Chinese in President Rajapakse’s constituency at Hambantota is now being used to store paddy. The Sri Lankan government will also look very carefully at the much-advertised Colombo Port City Project, before it is cleared. The project involves long lease of 108 hectares of land, adjacent to the strategically located capital, to the Chinese.
We will also see greater economic involvement by Japan, the US and its European Allies in Sri Lanka. It would only be appropriate, if President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe fulfil past Sri Lankan assurances on the effective devolution of powers to the Tamils. The India-Sri Lanka partnership can play a crucial role in fostering, mutual confidence, friendship and cooperation, both bilaterally and across the entire Indian Ocean rgion. It would be only natural for this to happen, given the shared cultural and spiritual ties that have historically linked the two countries.