Consolidating post-election gains in Sri Lanka

The challenge confronting the rainbow coalition is managing differences after the glue provided by the 100-day transition and reform plan comes apart

January 24, 2015 01:23 am | Updated 01:23 am IST

OUSTED: While “Mahinda Rajapaksa put the economy on a high growth trajectory, he failed to move on reconciliation and accountability.” Picture shows him inspecting a war victory parade in Colombo in May 19, 2012.

OUSTED: While “Mahinda Rajapaksa put the economy on a high growth trajectory, he failed to move on reconciliation and accountability.” Picture shows him inspecting a war victory parade in Colombo in May 19, 2012.

Now that a peaceful and democratic regime change has occurred in Sri Lanka, a story that nearly played out can be told. Hours before voting, a senior diplomat in the Indian High Commission in Colombo, when asked whether President Mahinda Rajapaksa would get an unprecedented third term, replied: “How can he lose?” But he added: “It will be very close and if he loses by a whisker, he may go to the Supreme Court or ask the military to intervene.” In a stunning verdict, Sri Lankans spoke: Rajapaksa must go. He was defeated by an unthinkable rainbow coalition of different religious and political groups. Rajapaksa’s astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardene, has no place to hide, as the presidential poll was called two years early at his bidding…

Reasons for defeat

The other person who can claim credit for his defeat is his younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa whose insensitive advice on politics and security evoked profound resentment among the minority Tamils and Muslims. After the election results, Mr. Rajapaksa said: “I was defeated by the Tamils, the Muslims and the upcountry Tamils.” The excesses of the extreme Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena against the Muslims, south of Colombo at Aluthagama, proved the clincher. Mr. Rajapaksa’s dictatorial rule treated the state as a family fiefdom. The Indian Defence Advisor in Colombo told me in 2011 that the Rajapaksas are ‘intoxicated’ by victory in war which annihilated the LTTE in 2009. While he did put the economy on a high growth trajectory, averaging nearly 7 per cent, he failed to move on reconciliation and accountability.

In my paper “Defeating Insurgency and Terrorism in the 21st Century — The Sri Lanka Model: Can it be Replicated?” I provided an emphatic no to the question, because of the use of kinetic military action. The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, observed sometime in 2010 in Parliament that the defeat of the LTTE could not have been achieved without India’s help. Excesses allegedly committed during the closing stages of the war and Mr. Rajapaksa’s clean chit to the military, raised hackles in the West. Mr. Rajapaksa’s defiance of the U.N. and the West at one stage lost him such friends as Libya, North Korea, China, Pakistan and Russia, but won him accolades from Sinhalese nationalists for eliminating the LTTE and India’s irksome influence. It is a mystery why India did not demand a quid pro quo — say on devolution — for its strategic support during the war.

New Delhi should cooperate with Colombo to investigate the allegations of war excesses through an independent and transparent mechanism

The destruction of the LTTE marginalised India with China being encouraged to fill this strategic void. Mr. Rajapaksa also used the China card to deflect Indian pressure on devolution. China and Pakistan, indefatigable allies in targeting India, have a long history of military assistance to Sri Lanka, sourced to the epic battle of the Elephant Pass in 2000, in which the LTTE won. Later though with their help in military stores and equipment, the LTTE was destroyed. China edged its way into Sri Lanka politically and economically, beginning 2005, though its influence emerged in 2012. Today, in Sri Lanka, the Tamil majority north-east is under India’s political and economic dominance, and the south is in Chinese economic stranglehold. Mr. Gotabhaya’s familiar refrain was: The Chinese are here only for trade. Mr. Rajapaksa would say: while China is a friend, India is a relative. Mr. Rajapaksa should know that friends can be chosen, not relatives, and India is Sri Lanka’s only neighbour.

The rainbow coalition that toppled Mr. Rajapaksa was cobbled together in secret meetings over 18 months in London, New Delhi and Colombo between an odd mix of right and left-wing politicians, intellectuals, lawyers and Buddhist clergy that included former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, constitutional expert Jayampathy Wickramaratne, left-wing academic Kumar David and Sinhalese Buddhist monk Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero. The difficult part was poaching Mr. Sirisena so that Mr. Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremasinghe, bitter political opponents, could sit together.

The 100-day transition and reform plan, to which all parties in the coalition are signatories, will repeal the 18th Amendment, revive the 17th Amendment to restore institutions of governance, and replace the Executive Presidency with a Parliamentary system. A parliamentary election is planned for later in the year to ensure a two thirds majority to alter the constitution. But what after 100 days?

Allegations of a coup d’état are not well founded though Mr. Rajapaksa may have considered declaring an emergency in the event of a bad result. Despite four botched coups since 1962, the powerful military is well democratised, notwithstanding Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s militarisation overdrive in the north where soldiers are engaged in a lucrative commercial enterprise to the detriment of their military training. The new government is taking the military out of business and all land not constituting the high security zone is to be returned to the civilian government.

India’s expectations

While in New Delhi last week to organise the first visit to a foreign country by President Sirisena, Mr. Samaraweera said that foreign policy during the earlier regime was ‘paranoid.’ On the Tamil question, Mr. Wickremasinghe announced that the 13th Amendment will be implemented within a unitary Sri Lanka. During his visit to New Delhi for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony last year, Mr. Rajapaksa had told him that police powers could not be devolved. As regards Mr. Wickremasinghe’s announcement, most Tamils in the north are saying that they have heard it before and will believe it only when implemented. The appointment of a civilian governor, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, former Foreign Secretary, replacing Major General G.A. Chandrasiri; changing the Chief Secretary with whom Chief Minister of the Northern province C.V. Wigneswaran had a conflicted relation; and returning land being used for commercial purposes are welcome steps. India should provide enough time and space for the two sides to work on the devolution of powers. On accountability, New Delhi should cooperate with Colombo to investigate the allegations of war excesses through an independent and transparent mechanism, preferably with the help of the U.N. On China, the government is to review all contracts awarded to Beijing to whom Colombo is indebted to the tune of $2.5 billion. In short, it will no longer be a free run for China. As far as New Delhi goes, Colombo crossed the red line when it allowed the Chinese conventional submarine, Great Wall 329, to dock in Colombo in September and October 2014. The previous government had been testing India’s tolerance threshold.

The challenge confronting the disparate coalition is one of managing differences after the glue provided by the 100-day programme comes apart. Political volatility could lead to the creation of new power centres around Ms Kumaratunga, Mr. Wickremasinghe and Mr. Sirisena. The government has no coherent economic policy and lack of political stability will complicate government functioning. Corruption charges being investigated against members of the old regime should not turn into a witch hunt which could consolidate support for Mr. Rajapaksa who lost by just three percentage points.

(General Ashok Mehta is former GOC IPKF South and convener of India-Sri Lanka track II dialogue.)

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