The Presidential election result in Sri Lanka may bring significant changes at the domestic level in terms of political and economic policies. Sri Lanka may reorient its relations with other countries that can bring maximum benefit to the country. At the same time, India and Sri Lanka may have to work harder in ensuring a smooth bilateral and regional cooperation due to divergence of opinion on some political, economic and security issues confronting them.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential elections that took place on 16 November 2019. He won against the National Democratic Front candidate and the United National Party (UNP) leader Sajit Premadasa with a comfortable margin. The election victory of SLPP brought back his brother and the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister (PM) of the country. The election result may bring significant changes at the domestic level in terms of political and economic policies. Sri Lanka may reorient its relations with other countries that can bring maximum benefit to the country. At the same time, India and Sri Lanka may have to work harder in ensuring a smooth bilateral and regional cooperation due to divergence of opinion on some political, economic and security issues confronting both nations. In this context this issue brief touches upon the post-election developments, possible political, economic and security changes at the domestic level; Sri Lanka’s foreign policy expectations and India-Sri Lanka relations in a changed political scenario in Sri Lanka.
The Result and Aftermath
The SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election with a clear victory over the National Democratic Front (NDF) coalition led by UNP. Gotabaya received 52.25 percent (6,924,255) of total votes polled (13,387,951), whereas, Sajit Premadasa secured 41.99 percent (5,564,239) of the votes. The JanathaVimukthiPeramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NMPP) stood third. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as the President of Sri Lanka on 19th November 2019.
The election results led to the resignation of PM Ranil Wickramasinghe as well as his Council of Ministers. It brought to an end the five-year rule of National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed in 2015. The government of 2015 had been welcomed as bipartisan by international actors and expected to transform the Sri Lankan polity and economy affected by nearly three decades of conflict into a more inclusive society. However, the 2019 election result is an indication that the NUG’s domestic economic and policy decisions did not appeal to the majority population, and the Sinhala majority overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP. The promise of good governance remained undelivered due to differences of opinion between President Maithripala Sirisena and the PM Ranil Wickrmasinghe. The NUG was projected as a weak government by the opposition which appealed to Sri Lankans to vote for a strong government. In 22 districts of Sri Lanka, fifteen districts comprising Sinhala majority voted for Gotabaya Rajapksa. The Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim dominated provinces overwhelmingly voted for Sajit Premadasa. The result of the Presidential election has thus divided the nation ethnically and politically. The ten post-war years have not brought all communities together and it seems the impact of war is still felt across the communities. However, in his inaugural speech, Gotabaya Rajapaksa assured that he will be the President to all Sri Lankans and appealed to “Tamil and Muslim brethren to join together as true Sri Lankans for the sake of the country’s future prosperity”.
The election result has also brought back the family of Rajapaksas to power and has entrenched their position in the Sri Lankan politics. The former President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the PM on 22 November 2019 and a new interim cabinet was appointed. The PM Mahinda Rajapaksa has kept the portfolio of Defence, Finance, Economic Affairs, Policy Development, Buddha Sasana, Cultural, Water Supply and Urban Development, Housing Facilities. Another brother Chamal Rajapaksa was appointed as the Minister of State Defence, Minister of Mahaweli Development, Agriculture and Trade. Another brother, Basil Rajapaksa had setup the SLPP and led the party to its victory in local council elections as well as in Presidential elections.
The agenda before the SLPP is to implement the promises made in the manifesto. This was a detailed document enlisting the changes that the new government will bring in if voted to power. According to the SLPP, it was prepared after consulting public in 2500 villages of Sri Lanka. To implement the agenda, the SLPP needs a two-thirds majority in parliament. Given the verdict of the Presidential election, it is clear that the parliamentary elections, which might take place by next year, will, cement the power of the SLPP at both executive levels as well as at the legislative level. The SLPP manifesto titled “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour “provides in detail the political, economic and foreign policy changes the government will bring about. Some of the key policies promised by Gotabaya Rajapaksa are Priority to National Security; Friendly, Non-aligned, Foreign Policy; An Administration Free from Corruption; New Constitution that fulfils the people’s wishes and People-Centric Economic Development.
Before implementing the agenda, the new government may want to reverse most of the policy decisions taken by the previous government. The President has already communicated to the newly appointed ministers on the decision to review all agreements signed in the last five years. Some of these agreements are the Hambantota Mirrijiwela oil refinery project signed with Singapore registered 'Silver Park International', 99-year lease Hambantota Port Agreement and proposed/pending agreements in aviation and power sector with India such as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in Colombo and Solar Power Plant in Sampur in Trincomalee. The government also promised to look into the Central Bank Bond Scam Issue. As promised the government announced tax concessions and value Added Tax VAT has been reduced from 15 percent to 8 percent.
There is not much promised on the reconciliation front by the SLPP manifesto except for release of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres in custody. However, after taking oath, the President promised to work with all the communities including Tamil and Muslim communities. But the question is whether it will result in policy decisions more or less favourable to minority communities? A thirteen point agenda of Tamil parties were rejected by the SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa before the elections. Even the UNP candidate Sajit Premadasa did not commit to implement the demands put forward by five Tamil Parties, which include Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Tamil Makkal Kootani (TMK), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Changing the unitary nature of the state, referring Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and creating an international mechanism to address the issue of disappeared Tamils are seen as unreasonable demands to meet in the present circumstances and these demands are considered a threat to sovereignty of Sri Lanka and not accepted by Sinhala leadership both the UNP as well as the SLPP.
TNA’s call to other Tamil political parties to join the alliance and unite on the issues faced by Tamils soon after the presidential elections is a desperate attempt to put together the Tamil community leadership which is divided on their expectations from the Sri Lankan state. Under these circumstances, unity among the Tamil leadership will depend on how the new government will address the question of devolution, merger of both the provinces as well as the issue of colonisation of Eastern province of Sri Lanka i.e slow settlement of Sinhala population in Tamil and Muslim dominated province. The government if it opens a dialogue with the Tamil leadership, as expected by the minority leadership, might work on release of lands occupied by security forces and release of prisoners. Given the devastating effect of war on Sri Lanka’s economy particularly on minority-dominated Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka, whether the government of Sri Lanka will allow the Tamil Diaspora to invest in the provinces as expected by Tamil parties is also uncertain. The active Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the West and some South-East Asian countries such as Malaysia, supporting the cause of separate Eelam and trying to revive the LTTE, is carefully watched by the Sri Lankan government.
In the past, the Muslim community leaders aligned with the Sinhala leadership both the SLFP and the UNP and were part of the government for many years. The clash between the hard-line Sinhala groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BDS) and Muslim community persons in post-war years has slowly widened the gap. The church attacks in April 2019, by Islamic State-inspired youth in Sri Lanka, had done damage to the delicate religious balance. It will take a careful approach by the new government to bridge the gap.
Since the government will try to bring in a new constitution after the parliamentary elections next year there are other questions it will try to address, such as replacing the current Presidential System with a Parliamentary System, provincial council powers and term of the executive. The scraping of 19A amendment will be the first step to strengthen the executive system, as it restricted presidential powers. Some of the features of the 19th A Amendment are as follows; the Amendment restricted the Presidential terms to two; established a Constitutional Council and established various Commissions which are answerable to parliament such as Human Rights Commission and Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption.
Sri Lanka’s geographical location is its advantage and it understands the importance of the economy in its larger foreign policy approach. The emphasis on non-aligned foreign policy by governments of Sri Lanka since independence emanates from the idea of cooperation with all, to advance its economic interests. Post independence, the SLFP and the UNP governments, despite the ideological differences tried to follow a foreign policy approach with a large economic content. The situation changed from the 1970s as to the emergence of conflict and security issues overshadowed other initiatives. In the post-war years, Sri Lanka has got a breather, to rebuild infrastructure along the coast to emerge as a commercial hub in the Indian Ocean. But political issues overshadowed its economic policy decisions, during the Rajapaksa regime. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government endorsed the concept of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China, much to the concern of India and the West. The previous government however could not reduce its dependence on China. The new President has promised to follow a non-aligned foreign policy and asked countries such as India, Japan, Australia and Singapore to invest or encourage private companies to invest and provide an alternative model to China’s BRI.
The SLPP’s win also raised number of concerns about the possible political fallout with opposition parties in the future as well as with civil society and media groups. For example, the new leadership’s decision to review the United National Human Rights Council Resolution (UNHRC 30/1), 2015 resolution titled, “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka”, has not gone down well with the West. The resolution asked the Government of Sri Lanka to find a political settlement through constitutional means; it also directed the Sri Lankan government to investigate attacks on journalists, civil society groups and religious minority groups and it asked the government to address human rights accountability issues by involving Sri Lankan judicial mechanisms special Councils and foreign judges.
The United States (US) and the European Union(EU) made a statement asking the new leadership to respect the commitments made on the issue of human rights. The Labour Party of United Kingdom (UK) as well as the Conservative Party, have mentioned Sri Lanka in human rights context in their manifestos in December 2019 elections. The message given to the Sri Lankan government was it expects the government to work towards reconciliation. But post election developments indicate otherwise, as the Sri Lankan Government has chosen to appoint few war crimes accused to key positions. For instance, the South Africa based International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) has released a 100-page dossier on the newly appointed secretary of defence, Kamal Gunaratne, for his alleged role in war crimes. To an extent there is also an element of continuity with the former government. The EU, US and the UN also raised objections in the past, to the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, as the Army Commander by the former President, Maithripala Sirisena.
India - Sri Lanka Relations: At Crossroads?
In this context, how India-Sri Lanka relations will shape up in the future under the new government is a question to ponder. India - Sri Lanka relations will continue to also depend on domestic developments in both countries, India’s response to internal political dynamics in Sri Lanka as well as each other’s foreign policy discourse. India termed the elections as a “festival of democracy”. India maintained that its ‘relationship with Sri Lanka is not dependent on a third country and it stands independently’. During the visit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to India on 29th November 2019, the Indian PM’s statement hoped that Sri Lanka ‘will carry forward the process of reconciliation and implement 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka’. Convergence of interests on the issue of reconciliation, security and economic cooperation at bilateral and regional level may play an important role determining the future relationship.
TheTamil Question Delink to Development
In the past India-Sri Lanka relations underwent important changes at bilateral level as well as at the regional level. The factors that impacted relations were mostly defined and influenced by domestic developments and political compulsions in both countries. The scenario changed after the war ended in 2009. Both countries reoriented their policy with the changed political scenario in Sri Lanka and the focus shifted to rebuilding of war-affected Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka. India’s development assistance was fruitful in this respect. However, at the reconciliation front, both countries did not always agree. India chose to vote against Sri Lanka at the UN in 2012 to 2014, as it did not see much progress under the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa on delivery on the on the promises made on human rights, demilitarisation and peace building. Though, India supported the approach of Sri Lankan government to defeat the LTTE, proscribed as it was by India as a terrorist organisation, the large scale human rights violations that took place during and after the war continue to be a concern. In this context, India tried to manage the limited political space available in post war years by issuing statements, which reiterated its support to meaningful devolution by building upon the 13th Amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka that asked for devolution of powers to provinces.
India has backed the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka since 2015 sponsored by the Sri Lankan government, despite the opposition to the resolution from some of the Sri Lankan Tamil parties as well as Tamil political parties in India. The decision to support Sri Lanka was taken in the background of changing political environment within Sri Lanka. The government that was formed in 2015 was backed by the Sri Lankan Tamil political party – TNA and India expected that it will provide ample space for the government of Sri Lanka to work with minority communities. The recent visit of Indian Foreign Minister to Sri Lanka on 19th November 2019 was also used to reiterate the point that post-war reconciliation efforts should be taken forward.
The implementation of 13th Amendment may not however a priority for the new government. It might focus on the development of the provinces, in particular on sectors such as agriculture and fisheries. But the developmental approach towards these regions will be mostly decided by Colombo rather than the Tamil political parties. Since the new government would want to delink the development issues with political demands of the Tamils, India’s stand on political issues confronting Sri Lankan Tamils may not take the centre stage in the future. The implementation of UNHRC resolution has been ruled out by the new leadership and a fresh representation will be made at the UN to look into the issue in totality and not just the final stages of the war. Whether the Sri Lankan government will come up with a domestic political solution is not clear. Even within India, currently, the issue does not figure as prominently in political calculations in Tamil Nadu, though issues related to Sri Lanka, especially Sri Lanka Tamil Issues have been a priority of Tamil Nadu political parties in the national Parliament. And this can however change depending on the situation in Sri Lanka, The other pressing issues are the fishermen issue and the repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamils from India.
Security Cooperation: The Priority
The convergence of interests in the security domain between the two countries appears as priority for both the countries. India announced US $50 million to combat counter-terrorism during the recent visit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. During the war in 2008-2009, Sri Lanka and India worked through “Troika” mechanism consisting of key officials from both the sides. The mechanism included the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from Sri Lanka, Basil Rajapaksa the senior advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President of Sri Lanka. Indian side consisted of, M.K. Narayanan, National Security Advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, Foreign Secretary and Vijay Singh, Defence Secretary. This mechanism helped in authentic information sharing at the highest level during the course of the war. Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his visit to India in February 2019, before the elections, did not rule out setting up of such a mechanism again.
A main issue now is also the rising non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean Region. Both countries understand the need to deal with threats through joint mechanisms. The Easter Sunday attacks on churches by Islamic State ideology inspired youth in Sri Lanka where 270 lives were lost brought back the memories of the past conflict to citizens of Sri Lanka. The Maldives is also facing the same threat as the number of Maldivians who travelled to Syria to join the IS in recent years is more than 200. Therefore, the current government of Sri Lanka will look forward to India for cooperation under regional platforms such as South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). At the same time, Sri Lanka expects India, according to Mahinda Rajapaksa, not to allow its territory, by various groups to organise against Sri Lanka’s interest, as it happened in 1980s. Organisation of groups against Sri Lanka, on Indian soil, has also been a constant concern for Sri Lankan governments in the post-war years.
In the maritime domain, both China and the US are competing for influence in IOR. Sri Lanka is part of BRI, which India has opposed on invincible grounds. The US’ increasing economic and security interests are manifested in its decision to start a Partnership Dialogue with Sri Lanka in February 2016. The dialogue covers, ‘cooperation in law enforcement, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and the establishment of US Departments of Treasury and Justice programs’. The US considers Sri Lanka as an important partner in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. This shows that Sri Lanka is willing to take the help of both the powers to advance its interests in the IOR. It seems that India’s SAGAR concept is still to sink in with Sri Lanka’s vision of IOR and it may take time.
Development and Economic Cooperation: Scope for Further Enhancement
In the post-war scenario, India has tried to enhance bilateral cooperation through development assistance for infrastructure development, particularly to rebuild the North and East of the country affected by war. In recent years the assistance has been extended to provide island-wide health services such as the India funded ambulance services. India’s housing project is another important project which is helping to build 46000 houses in the North and East and 14,000 houses for upcountry Tamils of Indian origin. During the visit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 29th November 2019, additional $400 million lines of credit for infrastructure and development.
Enhancing economic cooperation has also been an integral part of bilateral cooperation. India remained as the largest trading partner for Sri Lanka in 2018, followed by China and USA. In terms of tourist arrivals, India remained at the top followed by China in 2018. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and Sri Lanka has been an important player in enhancing trade relations between the two countries. However, both the countries could not expand the FTA to an Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) due to political and business opposition in Sri Lanka. The ETCA has proposed to expand the trade in goods and services, investment promotion, economic and technological cooperation. It is important to point out here that Sri Lanka signed an FTA with Singapore in January 2018 and negotiations are on with China and Thailand to sign FTAs.
Sri Lanka has continued to receive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the post-war years, mainly for port development and infrastructure. The total outstanding external debt of the country as a percentage of GDP has now increased to 58.7 percent in 2018. By the end of 2018, Sri Lanka’s total outstanding external debt was US $52, 310 million. Sri Lanka needs four to five billion dollars annually for repayments. Therefore, it will look forward to more investments and financial sources. China and the US are competing for influence in this domain. China’s position in Sri Lanka is more entrenched in economic terms. To the newly elected President’s statements about the renegotiation of the 99-year lease of Hambantota Port, China responded by saying, ‘is based on equal-footed consultation and win-win spirit’. It is a joint venture and any approvals including calling of ships at the Hambantota Port is entirely Sri Lanka's decision”. In this scenario, the new government will change few modalities of the agreement. The US also tried to push the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement in recent months to devolve Sri Lanka’s transport and Land administration. The agreement was approved by former Unity Government’s Cabinet and the SLPP opposed the agreement. The new leadership in Colombo may or may not implement the agreement, given the past US-Sri Lanka relations under Mahinda Rajapaksa. The US was at the forefront in bringing resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UN from 2012 to 2014. But this scenario may change depending on US’s position on internal political developments in Sri Lanka.
The visit of the newly elected Sri Lankan President to India on 29 November 2019 enabled a sharp focus on the political, economic and security issues at the bilateral and regional level. The task at hand remains to enhance cooperation dialogues at the highest level, to avoid any misunderstandings in the future. This might help furthering discussions on pending India’s investments in aviation, port and energy sectors of Sri Lanka. The President of Sri Lanka stated that Sri Lanka will welcome more investments from Asian countries and expect alternative models of development. There is an urge to move away from increasing dependence on China, which Sri Lanka hopes would be balanced by other Asian powers. Whether this will be actually be possible in another five years remains to be seen. Over the years, political issues overshadowed the potential for economic and security cooperation at bilateral and regional level. There is no certainty whether this will change in the future. Trade concessions from the West are tied to political developments in Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka under the present setup will look to enhance economic, maritime and security cooperation in its Asian neighbourhood. In this possible scenario, the ways in which both Sri Lanka and India will work out a political, economic and security mechanisms for mutual benefit remains to be seen, although the potential is considerable.
*Dr Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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