By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis 11 May 2015
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets a venerable monk with a traditional fruit basket at the Kelaniya Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka on May 2, 2015. [State Department Photo/Public Domain]
COLOMBO (IDN) – It was a well-spelled out 100-day program to rid the country of endemic political corruption presented to the electorate by challenger Maitripala Sirisena that helped to topple Sri Lanka’s powerful president Mahinda Rajapakse in a shock vote on January 8 this year.
The ‘100-day’ period expired on April 23 with most of its promises unfulfilled, except for a constitutional amendment that holds promise of CLEANER government in the future. However, this has been overshadowed by the spectrum of the new government leaders showing more interest in mending fences with the West.
With western powers given to meddle with the island’s internal affairs again, many Sri Lankans are now openly expressing fears of the 30-year old ethnic conflict resurfacing creating the type of chaos currently seen in Libya and Syria.
These fears were further exacerbated after the recent visit of the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to the island on May 1 and 2, where he was blatantly trying to tell the new government how to run their domestic and foreign affairs. He even let the cat out of the bag when he unwittingly said in response to a journalist’s question that Sri Lanka will be holding parliamentary election “in the summer” after which Sri Lanka and the U.S. will develop a close strategic relationship.
After being elected to office, President Sirisena has been trying to play a very delicate balancing act. He was Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general-secretary for over 15 years and his Health Minister until his defection to become the common opposition candidate after Rajapakse called for a snap presidential poll in November last year.
After his election victory, President Sirisena nominated as Prime Minister the leader of SLFP’s arch rival the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickemasinghe, whose party has only 45 seats in the parliament while the SLFP and its allies command 130 seats.
The UNP has traditionally been strong ally of the West, and particularly Wickremasinghe is well known to be very close to the U.S. and Norway, and he is widely seen in Sri Lanka as a politician whose interests are aligned more with the geopolitical needs of the West rather than the national interests of Sri Lanka and often labelled as anti-Buddhist.
With the SLFP badly divided at the moment between two factions – one backing Sirisena and the other allied to Rajapakse – a parliamentary election now could decimate the SLFP to provide Wickremasinghe’s UNP victory on a platter.
A Wickremasinghe-led government could see Sri Lanka align itself closely with the U.S. and the European Union, push back Chinese investments and scuttle China’s Maritime Silk Route project, where Sri Lanka’s China-built Hambantota harbour is a crucial lynchpin.
Kerry woos Buddhists
During his visit, it is interesting how Kerry was trying to woo Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority who are largely suspicious of the West. He visited the island state on the eve of the Vesak festival, a grand festival in Sri Lanka over three days to mark the Buddha’s birth. He attended a widely publicized ceremony at one of the leading Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, where the chief monk gave him a traditional blessing by placing a Buddhist relic on his head. He also made a public statement expressing understanding of Sri Lanka’s war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorism.
“It is sometimes necessary to go to war, despite the pain it brings. For all of my country’s disagreements with the previous government in Sri Lanka over how it fought the LTTE, we clearly understood the necessity of ridding this country of a murderous terrorist group and the fear that it sowed,” said Kerry in a speech given at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations.
If the U.S. understood Sri Lanka’s need to eliminate the LTTE, one would ask why there was such a witch-hunt against the Rajapakse regime spearheaded by the U.S. at the UN Human Rights Council accusing the government of war crimes and threatening sanctions against the country?
The Council’s report recommending sanctions has been withheld until September and one would assume that it will be tabled in Geneva if the Sri Lankan voters, by then, haven’t elected a Wickremasinghe-led government. Kerry knows, that to achieve that aim, an election needs to be held soon and a substantial portion of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote needs to drift away from Rajapakse to Wickremasinghe.
Rajapakse back to power?
However, a movement to bring back Rajapakse to power as SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate at the general elections has been gathering steam in the past two months. His supporters from the SLFP and their former governing alliance of United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) have already held four mammoth rallies, which have drawn over 500,000 each time. They have been using a well-crafted slogan “panas ata laksha” (5.8 million voters) candidate. This refers to the national vote he garnered in the January 8 presidential elections in contrast to Sirisena’s 6.2 million votes.
The new regime’s own actions that contradicted its election slogan of heralding a ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) era has played into the hands of Rajapakse and his supporters. The appointment of a Finance Minister tainted with multi-million dollar money laundering allegation involving the disgraced American insider trader (now in a U.S. prison) Raj Rajaratnam and a huge financial scandal centred around the newly appointed Central Bank Governor – a close friend of Wickremasinghe – have dented the Sirisena government’s claim to good clean governance.
Rajapakse and his supporters have latched on to these claiming the January 8 elections was a “regime change” conspiracy hatched by the old imperial powers and India to overthrow a regime that was too close to China.
On the eve of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March, Rajapakse gave an interview to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper in which he said that January election result was an outcome of a conspiracy to change regime undertaken by RAW (India’s intelligence agency), the U.S., Norway and some other EU countries. But, he added that Modi was not involved in it.
Under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka was one of the earliest subscribers to China’s Asian Infrastructure INVESTMENTBank (AIIB) project that will challenge the Manila-based U.S.-Japan controlled Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) monopoly on development funding and policy management in the region. Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, after infamously accusing Chinese investors as being corrupt, has been negotiating intensely with ADB to get development funding.
Karunanayake and other government leaders have alleged that during the Rajapakse regime large-scale contracts have been given to Chinese companies financed by the Exim Bank of China, without issuing competitive tenders. They have also alleged that the Chinese have charged high interest rates for the loans.
A statement issued by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka (CCCSL) on April 26 rejected Karunanayake’s allegation. It pointed out that while Sri Lanka was raising MONEY in the international bond market at 12 to 14 percent interest, China has provided Sri Lanka with billions of dollars worth of loans, more than half at 2 percent interest.
Karunanayake told the media after returning from an Asian Development Bank meeting on May 8 that the ADB will be increasing its funds three-fold to Sri Lanka because of the “remarkable initiatives adopted by the new Lankan government, with a key focus on good governance”.
U.S. and China playing a geopolitical battle
Thus it is interesting to see how the geopolitical battle between the U.S. and China in Asia is being played out in Sri Lanka, while corruption allegations used to silence anyone who may not be supportive of the western designs.
The U.S. and the EU hate Rajapakse because he ignored western attempts to interfere in Sri Lanka’s civil war in support of the LTTE and with help from China and Russia he was able to put an end to the war – the only instance in the ‘war on terror” era a country has been able to successfully eradicate a terror group.
In the aftermath of the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development took off in a frenzy with Chinese aid, and the economy was growing at a healthy 7 percent when Rajapakse was overthrown.
For the West, this cannot be held up as a good example, because it showed that the West could be irrelevant in shaping up the 21st century Asian age. On the other hand, China should also learn from Sri Lanka’s experience that MONEY alone cannot build Chinese influence in the region. They need a well-coordinated media and public relations strategy in the region with local media and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners.
Veteran Sri Lankan political analyst Dr Dayan Jayatilake in a commentary published in the Colombo Telegraph immediately following Kerry’s departure argued that the coming parliamentary elections will be the majority Sinhala population’s last chance to protect themselves from their external enemies.
“In the name of justice, equality and autonomy for the minorities, the majority on the island, the Sinhalese, who are the real minority when you consider the massive geopolitical realities just a few kilometers of ocean away, not to mention in the world as a whole, will find themselves politically displaced, distanced from their real friends (i.e. China) in the world, and left naked to their existential enemies,” he warned.
“If we don’t generate a tsunami of Sinhala votes which will sweep away the local puppets and defend our natural status in this island home, it will be our last summer as an independent nation, (which) will be followed by a long winter as a dependency of the Empire,” Jayatilake added.