Sri Lanka: Bill To Control Monks Divides Buddhists

monks

Lotus News Analysis  by  Kalinga Seneviratne

Singapore, 20 Feb 2016:  A bill tabled in the Sri Lankan parliament in January to create a legal framework to control the behavior and conduct of Buddhist monks has created deep divisions within the majority Buddhist community in the country regarding its intentions and implementation. Continue reading “Sri Lanka: Bill To Control Monks Divides Buddhists”

Advertisements

Sri Lanka: Turning Anew into a Geopolitical Battle Ground

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepthNews Analys 29 January 2016

Biswal.png

On January 8, 2015 when President Mahinda Rajapakse’s former Cabinet colleague Maithripala Sirisena defeated his old boss in a shock election result campaigning on heralding a non-corruptible ‘yahapalana’ (good governance) regime, people of Sri Lanka took a deep breath, some with euphoric expectations and others with fears of war and terrorism re-visiting the now peaceful island. Continue reading “Sri Lanka: Turning Anew into a Geopolitical Battle Ground”

SRI LANKA REMAINS COMMITTED TO RECONCILIATION

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis and also published by the Asian Journalism Association magazine (South Korea) on 9 June 2014

COLOMBO (IDN) – Rejecting the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 27 to mount an ‘independent’ international investigation into alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapkase said that Sri Lanka would continue with its own reconciliation process that was started after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated in May 2009.

The resolution, which was adopted by 24 votes to 12 with 12 abstentions, has been described by the government as a lop-sided vote where most of those voting for it were Europeans. “The EU votes as a block and the US had more than a dozen votes already in the bag while we started with none,” Rajapakse pointed out in a meeting with foreign media representatives in Colombo.

Two days after the vote, posters appeared all over Colombo claiming a moral victory and questioning the UNHRC mandate. It thanked the 24 nations that did not vote for the resolution including giant neighbour India. Government spokespeople have noted that these 24 nations were a better reflection of the views of the international community.

Continue reading “SRI LANKA REMAINS COMMITTED TO RECONCILIATION”

Sri Lanka: POPULAR BUDDHIST MONK’S DEATH HIGHLIGHTS Country’s FAILING ‘REVOLUTION’

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepthNews Feature 15 November 2015
Sobitha
The Convener of The National Movement For a Just Society Ven. Maduluwawe Shobitha Thera, presenting President Maithripala Sirisena with a “Ten Point Proposal” in May 2015 at an event held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo (Credit: http://www.president.gov.lk)

SINGAPORE (IDN) – The death of popular Sri Lankan Buddhist monk 73-year old VENERABLE Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera due to heart failure at a hospital in Singapore on November 8 has drawn attention to the waning “good governance” revolution that he helped to launch at the end of 2014.
Ven. Sobitha was a socialist and a social justice advocate who used the non-violent style of Buddhist social activism to take on governments when these drifted into dictatorial politics.  He never joined any political party, but the power of his Buddhist sermons – twined with political messages – attracted a lot of charisma and he was twice instrumental in bringing down powerful presidents.
As a young monk, Ven. Sobitha got his initial inspiration from the 1956 socialist revolution that toppled an English-speaking pro-western ruling elite and brought a reformist government to power that gave the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority their long-suppressed rights.  He came into political prominence in the late 1980s when the then dictatorial President J.R Jayawardene invited Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka, while centralizing power within an executive presidency and suppressing civil liberties.
An excellent orator, Ven. Sobitha was able to mobilise peoples’ opposition to Indian intervention, and later on when Jayawardene’s successor President Ranasinghe Premadasa became even more dictatorial and stifled all forms of dissent, he was a powerful voice that stood against him, until Premadasa’s assassination at the hands of a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.
“Just like many other Buddhist monks who had an impact on social change in the country, Sobitha Thera too started his rebellious career with nationalism,” noted Umesh Moramudali writing in Ceylon Today. “However, unlike many others, he did not stick only to nationalism, but was concerned about many other social and political issues as well. He was direct and had immense courage to stand up against the social injustice despite how strong his opponent would be.”
His social causes included playing a major role in the 1980s against an Education White Paper that would have undermined the free education system in the country.  In recent years, he has campaigned heavily to abolish the Executive Presidency, which he saw as the biggest threat to democracy and freedom in the country.
In 2014, Ven. Sobitha again came into political limelight when he offered himself as the sole opposition candidate to challenge President Mahinda Rajapakse who was using Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to consolidate his power and restrict dissent, especially among the Buddhist majority. He formed the National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS) and using his charisma, influence and oratory skills he was able to unite a divided opposition as well as TRADE unions, rights groups, artistes and academics behind a common candidate, which he was instrumental in choosing.
This candidate was the then health Minister in the Rajapakse regime, Maitripala Sirisena, who defected and challenged Rajapakse for the Presidency as the “common opposition candidate”. After Sirisena won the presidency in a surprise result in January 2015, Ven. Sobitha became the power behind the throne with considerable clout in directing government policy under a Buddhist slogan of ‘Maitri Yahapalanaya’ (compassionate good governance).
However, this policy did not restrict itself to empowering only the Sinhala Buddhists but he strongly advocated reconciliation with the Tamil minority and co-existence with the Muslims. Thus, when he died on November 8 both Tamil and Muslim leaders praised him as a genuine compassionate reformist monk.
A heart broken man
He died a heart broken man. Since President Sirisena was elected to office on the ‘yahapalanaya’ slogan to stamp out endemic corruption from the political system, he had seen his dreams shattered by a chain of government actions that seemed as if one corrupt lot of politicians have been replaced by another corrupt lot. The outspoken monk openly criticised the new government’s corrupt practices such as the multi-billion-rupee Central Bank bond scam.
The fatal blow to his dreams came after the August 17 general elections when President Sirisena using a constitutional loophole nominated to parliament candidates from his party that have lost the popular vote and named them as ministers in the National Unity Government. All these candidates served in the Rajapakse regime (like Sirisena) and were tainted with corruption allegations.
Following this action, Ven. Sobitha issued a scathing statement under the NMJS banner on the new government’s action. Few hours after it was released to the media the monk was believed to have suffered a heart attack and entered a local hospital. His health deteriorated since and on November 4 he was taken to Singapore for heart surgery where he died.
In July 2015, after the parliament was dissolved, Ven. Sobitha argued that people involved in corrupt practices with business interests in casino and other gambling, drug dealings, operation of taverns and bars, should not be nominated as candidates.
He told the Sirasa television network that such people are not worthy of peoples’ vote and it is the people that have to provide for their wages and other perks, as well as a life-long pension if they serve five years as a member of parliament.
In an editorial after his death, the Daily Mirror observed that in his vision and mission for “liberative spirituality” Ven. Sobitha believed that religious leaders – while not getting involved in party politics – have a responsibility and moral duty to get involved in politics because ‘Deshapalanaya’ (governing the country) needs to be for the common good of all the people, especially the impoverished or marginalised and not for the rich and ruling elite, to get richer and more powerful.
In a statement issued immediately after his death, President Sirisena said that Ven. Sobitha’s “determination to bring negative political forces that existed in the country to the right path was a great guidance and stimulation for the public commitment to strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka.”
President  Sirisena added: “That inspiration gave us an immense courage to form a good governance government under my leadership to take the country towards the right path.”
But, recalling the final conversations they had with the monk, NMSJ member and unionist Saman Rathnapriya told a media briefing after his body was brought back to Sri Lanka that the Sobitha Thera had told them that “his expectations were shattered and told us to lobby for social and political reforms continuously”.
His passing has resurrected the now largely forgotten issue of abolishing the executive presidency. President Sirisena, surprising many, said in his eulogy to Ven. Sobitha in front of hundreds of thousands of mourners and millions watching live on national television that he would do “everything in his power” to make that vision a reality.
The government declared November 12, the day of his funeral, a national day of mourning and he was given a state funeral. But, many Sri Lankans from all walks of life mourned that fact that Sobitha Thera has passed away at a time when the nation needed him the most, to keep the corrupt politicians honest.
“In this corrupt, criminalized and communalized political and social environment Ven. Sobitha has been a ray of hope and a rare source of inspiration, irrespective of race and religion, to all those who cherish family, religious and cultural values and firmly believe and dream of a decent government, corruption free administration and a peaceful country where all could live in harmony,” said Latheef Farook, a Muslim columnist of the Colombo Telegraph.


	

SRI LANKA’S SOURING ‘REVOLUTION’

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis 11 May 2015

Kerry

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.

SRI LANKA: NEW GOVERNMENT MAKES U-TURN TO CHINA

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis 9 February 2015

GreatWallCOLOMBO (IDN) – When President Mahinda Rajapakse was toppled by a “peoples’ power” anti-corruption vote on January 8 there were messages from Western leaders and op-eds in newspapers in London, New York, Toronto and Oslo welcoming the success of another “regime change” campaign to overthrow a leader who was hostile to the West and cuddling with the Chinese.
On January 19, the New York Times even ran an insensitive cartoon alongside an op-ed by New York University’s law and sociology professor Ryan Goodman under the heading “Helping Sri Lanka’s New Democracy” showing an American flag-carrying Yankee riding on top of the Sinhalese Lion on the Sri Lankan flag.
This month (February), the Obama administration rushed in their South Asian troubleshooter, Nisha Biswal, who even met with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders in Colombo to discuss reconciliation. The U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice also chipped in pledging to assist Sri Lanka in a “transition” to democracy.
But, the new government’s U-turn towards close ties with China would sour this mood.  Not only in Washington but also in New Delhi.
On February 5, a day after celebrating Sri Lanka’s 67th Independence (from British rule) Day, the government announced that all the Chinese projects would go ahead in Sri Lanka. The announcement was made following a two-day visit to Sri Lanka by Chinese President Xi Jingping’s special envoy Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liu Jianchao – who was accompanied by a 10-member delegation of top Chinese foreign affairs officials.
Local media reported that during a meeting with the delegation, new President Maithripala Sirisena has paid gratitude for China’s assistance in the past, especially in eradicating terrorism, and has invited the Chinese government and its companies to INVEST even more in Sri Lanka. He has also indicated that he has accepted an invitation by President Xi to visit China in March.
During Rajapakse’s decade long rule, China rose to become Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner, investor and closest ally helping to both defeat terrorism by selling sophisticated arms, which the West refused to give, and later helping to fend off any action by the UN Security Council on alleged “war crimes” by Sri Lankan security forces in the final push to eradication LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorism. Today, TRADE between the two nations stands at over $3 billion U.S. dollars both ways.
In the lead up to the January 8 election, the opposition campaign focused heavily on alleged corruption on the Rajapakse regime’s multi-billion dollar development projects with the Chinese. Both the new President Sirisena (who was Rajapakse’s Health Minister for a long time and even acting as Defence Minister in the final two weeks of the war with LTTE) and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (opposition leader during the Rajapakse regime) vowed to review and even scrap some of the Chinese funded development projects, one of which is the 1.4 billion U.S. dollar Colombo Port City project, which was described as an “environment disaster” and a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by Wickremasinghe during the election campaign.
The ‘Colombo Port City’ project, designed with malls, HOTELS and marinas, built on reclaimed land by the Chinese, seeks to rival Singapore and Dubai. It was a major showpiece of the Rajapaksa regime’s slogan of making Sri Lanka the “Wonder of Asia”.
Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne (a former Rajapakse government’s Cabinet member) addressing a press conference on February 5 said that the Chinese project has been given the green light by the government. He said that the government is satisfied with the Environment Impact Assessment done by a local university and a second one will be done after the land reclamation was completed. He however said that the government would look into the land ownership issue, because under the agreement signed with China during President Xi’s visit to Sri Lanka in November 2014, China would own the reclaimed land. “Ownership of land by foreigners is illegal in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Possible splits
A day later, making a special statement in parliament, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe said the biggest foreign investment project in Sri Lanka’s history, has not been given the go-ahead yet, but was still under review.
This episode has brought into the open possible splits within the governing coalition, between the pro-Western sentiments of Wickremasinghe and his foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera as well as their United National Party (UNP) and President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was led until the elections by Rajapakse.
Following the election victory of Sirisena – who challenged Rajapakse as the “common opposition candidate” without any party – after a one-to-one meeting between the two leaders, Rajapakse agreed to step down and become party patron while Sirisena moved in as the party President.  This has created an unprecedented political scenario in Asia’s oldest democracy, where the President’s own party (SLFP) is the official opposition in parliament, yet, holding the largest number of seats by any single party. Former president’s brother, Chamal Rajapakse continues as the speaker of the House.
After his victory, President Sirisena appointed Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister keeping to a pre-election pledge and in turn the PM selected a Cabinet that is dominated by UNP parliamentarians, even though they are not the majority party in the legislature. Many legal experts have pointed out that this was an unconstitutional act, which survived, because the SLFP did not challenge the appointment in the House.
With parliamentary elections expected to be called for June 2015, the power struggle between SLFP and the UNP as well as other minor parties, the Buddhist nationalist JHU (in government) and Marxist JVP (in opposition), is expected to intensify creating possible tensions between the President and Prime Minister.
The urbane Anglicized Wickremasinghe is known as a staunch American (and European) ally who is suspected by Sinhalese nationalists to be working with the West to undermine Sri Lanka’s national interests, especially the unitary state and its close relationship with China.
On the other hand, Sirisena, a son of a rice farmer raised in Pollonnaruwa – the rice growing Buddhist heartland – has even better Buddhist credentials than Rajapakse. The fact that, Sirisena was the “common opposition candidate” and not Wickremasinghe, is because the latter could not master a substantial Sinhalese Buddhist vote (which Sirisena did) to win the presidency.
Immediately after the election results, when statements from western leaders called for war crimes investigations and charges against the former president and his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, President Sirisena and his SLFP and JHU allies were quick to assure the Rajapakse brothers that it will not be allowed under their government. Both are held in high esteem within the country’s Sinhalese majority and even among many Tamils who live inside the country, for having got rid of the terrorist menace – despite western obstacles on the way – and brought peace to the country.
Wanted peace and economic development
What people need in Sri Lanka most is peace and economic development, and in his Independence Day message on February 4, President Sirisena hinted as such when he said that eradicating poverty is essential to reconciliation in the country. This is a concept that the Chinese understand well.
It was well illustrated during the recent visit to the island by Obama’s special envoy Nisha Biswal (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs) and the Chinese president’s special envoy Liu Jianchao. While the Americans focused on reconciliation and improving democratic institutions, even flirting openly with Tamil political leaders and civil society groups; the Chinese envoy concentrated in meeting government and business leaders and talked exclusively about economic relations and development assistance.
Sri Lanka is an important linchpin in China’s Maritime Silk Route project with the Chinese built Hambantota harbor and the Colombo harbor that is adjacent to the upcoming Colombo Port City, expected to play a pivotal role in TRADE flows between Asia and the rest of the world. In 10 to 15 years time, once infrastructure is completed on both the land and sea routes of the new Silk Routes envisaged by the Chinese, Sri Lankan ports could become the transshipment hub for exchange of goods between Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe. This will bring enormous economic benefits to Sri Lanka because it has the educated workforce to establish the service industries needed for such trade flows.
The western media and some of the Indian media have been painting the Silk Route projects as Chinese attempts to dominate Asia. But, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in New Delhi, India has begun to look at it from a more positive frame of mind. When Modi visits China in March, a number of deals are expected to be signed that would link India to the Silk Route projects.
If trans-shipment goods are going to go through Indian rail links to Sri Lanka, both neighbours would benefit. Modi would obviously look at it from that vision as long as Sri Lanka does not allow Chinese nuclear submarines to dock in its harbors without prior notification to India.
Japin Jacob, Assistant Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi points out that Sri Lankans have started to learn Mandarin in significant numbers and the Chinese have started sending students to study Sinhalese and Sri Lankan/Buddhist culture to local universities, reflecting the two countries common ambitions.
During President Xi’s visit to Sri Lanka in September, Sri Lanka accepted China’s invitation to become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, and the Beijing Foreign Studies University signed MoUs with the Colombo University to establish a China-Sri Lanka Study Centre as well as a Confucius Institute with plans also for a joint degree program and scholarships.
Rather than being obnoxious and trying to lecture to Sri Lankans on how to run its democracy and community relations, the West, and the Americans in particular, would be well advised to take a leaf out of China’s approach to relations with economically weaker countries.
”Even though Rajapaksa is gone, Sri Lanka will continue to harbor ambitions of becoming a maritime, commercial, knowledge and energy hub linking Europe and Africa with Asia,” notes Jacob. “This ambition is well-supported by the current form and scope of the Chinese Maritime Silk Road strategy (and) the Colombo Port City project, despite criticism in the course of the election campaign (it) is still a rather attractive idea”.

Sri Lanka: “Peoples Power” Revolution faces many challenges

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis 15 January 2015
SLBe it with “pinch-hitting” and “sling bowling” in cricket, eradicating a ruthless terrorist group, winning Asian games GOLD medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races running barefoot or electing the world’s first woman prime minister, Sri Lankans always excel in using unorthodox means to achieve their objectives.
On January 8, they added another – using a candidate with no party AFFILIATIONS or tested election machinery to overthrow an “invincible” autocratic President through a largely peaceful election.
The world is desperately looking for a template to overthrow corrupt politicians and political structures as seen by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in the Middle East which has sadly transformed into an Arab Winter and Thailand’s ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ protests, which led to the overthrow of a democratically elected government to be replaced by a military regime that is becoming increasingly autocratic.
Thus, Sri Lanka’s example of overthrowing an all-powerful President through the ballot box and latter’s gracious exit from his official residence provides an encouraging new template for “peoples power” revolutions. Yet it will have to face many challenges in the coming weeks.
In November last year, when President Mahinda Rajapakse called a presidential election for January 8 two years before schedule because his trusted astrologer had told him that his stars were better placed now than in two years time to win an election, no one expected him to lose.
There was no credible opposition candidate who could master enough of the Sinhala Buddhist vote to win and Maitripala Sirisena (who beat him to the presidency on January 8) was then his Health Minister and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general secretary.
Soon after calling the elections, President Rajapakse’s coalition ally, the Buddhist nationalist Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU), defected to the opposition, and soon after Sirisena made the surprise announcement that he was standing as the opposition’s “common candidate” against the president. Yet, he did not leave the SLFP, but President Rajapakse as the party president sacked him as the general secretary.
Throughout the campaign, the Rajapakse camp painted Sirisena and his opposition alliance called the National Democratic Front (NDF) as a western-funded conspiracy for regime change that will result in the same chaos and anarchy as in Libya, Iraq and Syria. In turn, the Sirisena camp carried a vociferous campaign against President Rajapakse accusing him of heading a corrupt regime packed with his relatives, drug and ethanol dealers and casino operators.
The campaign slogan of Sirisena was “Maithree Yaha Palanayak” (Compassionate Good Governance), a astute blending of Buddhist principles with western secular cliché. The two former Cabinet colleagues of Rajapakse, Sirisena and JHU leader Champika Ranawaka, blasted the regime, particularly the Rajapakse brothers for widespread corruption, even citing Cabinet discussions and papers.
The mainstream media, which had been intimidated into silence in the past many years by the government, got a new lease of life and they reported on the election campaigning without any fear or favour giving the opposition candidate ample space.
Rajapakse did not try to use intimidation to silence the media, but used the government-owned national media networks to its full potential to counter the allegations and make counter allegation of western-funded cronies trying to provide a platform for re-colonisation of the country. They ignored calls by the Election Commissioner to stop using the government media for election propaganda.
Rampant corruption
Rajapakse started the one-month long official election campaign in December as the front-runner, but by the New Year the trend was beginning to shift. The corruption allegations made by the president’s own former Cabinet colleagues were beginning to hit a nerve in the country.
On January 2, when IDN spoke to a group of formerly staunch Rajapakse supporters in the crucial Gampaha electorate near Colombo, the Sinhalese voters said that they were meanwhile inclined to vote Sirisena.
“When we drive on the road, we have to be careful that we don’t knock into a vehicle driven by Rajapakse cronies. If we do, we are likely to be assaulted both by the driver and the police when they arrive,” said a retired senior police officer, who added, “during my time (in the force) police sometimes acted with ruthlessness but not to that extent”.
“You cannot get your child into the government school today even if you live next door to it without paying a bribe to the local government MP or his crony. This used to be a basic right of a citizen,” said a government health services officer.
A retired banking executive who is a devout Buddhist complained that the government has let loose a bunch of extremist Buddhist monks known as the Budu Bala Sena (BBS) that has allowed people inside and outside Sri Lanka to denigrate Buddhism. “We now know who is behind it. It is Gotabaya (president’s brother who is Defense Secretary), there is no way I will vote for the Rajapakses. I do not want Buddhism to be denigrated anymore.”
As these comments indicate, it is this huge groundswell – a peoples’ power movement of sort – against corruption that propelled Sirisena to the presidency. Though the western media and some of the ethnic minority politicians argue that it was the large turn out of Tamil and Muslim voters who voted for Sirisena that toppled Rajapakse, a closer scrutiny of the votes will show that Rajapakse did loose a large segment of the Sinhalese Buddhist votes, even in provinces he won.
A detailed analysis made by a government statistician (who does not want to be named) shown to IDN indicates that though Rajapakse won in the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese provinces in the south and the north-central, his percentage of votes have dropped drastically from the landslide he achieved in 2010 in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
Interestingly he had slightly increased his percentage of votes in the Tamil dominated Jaffna and Wanni, even though he lost the provinces overall. This could be due to post-war infrastructure development in the north.
Since Sirisena won with about a 3 percent margin and the minority vote was about 4.5 percent, the minorities would appear to have helped him to tip the scales. But, the statistician argues that taking into account that Rajapakse won with a landslide 62 percent vote in 2010, his vote drop constitutes about 14 percent, which means that about 10 percent of the Sinhalese mainly Buddhist voters deserted him this time.
Analysts in Colombo, including the new Health Minister Ranjitha Senaratne (another defector from the Rajapakse regime) quoted these statistics in a TV interview to argue that the Sinhalese Buddhists in large numbers have deserted Rajapakse. Many argue that the crucial factor is the defection of Rajapakse’s close ally JHU.
JHU played a leading role in bringing Rajapakse to power in 2005 and again in 2010 by helping to mobilise the Sinhala Buddhist votes, especially among the urban populations. Another factor was the BBS, which has alienated much of the educated and urban Buddhists. Though JHU has not disagreed with the Buddhist grievances articulated by the BBS, they have resented its tactics of expressing it – especially monks in robes behaving like thugs.
Many in Sri Lanka felt that they were getting away with it, while the police and the army were ruthlessly suppressing demonstrations by student groups, NGOs and unions. Many believed that President’s brother Gotabaya Rajapakse was behind it.
‘Wonder of Asia’
Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, W.A Wijewardena, writing in the FINANCIAL Times referring to former President Rajapakse’s much touted ‘Wonder of Asia’ slogan with reference to the positive economic indicators and infrastructure development in the country, argues that Sri Lanka has in fact demonstrated to the world that it is indeed the ‘Wonder of Asia’.
“Sri Lanka voted out a powerful executive President and elected a candidate who had to go through an unfair contest right from the beginning until the announcement of the final results” he noted. “That was the ‘Wonder of Asia’ Sri Lanka has demonstrated to the world.” He pointed out that Twitter and FACEBOOK played a leading role in this process to take the opposition candidate’s message to the masses. He argues that with the widespread availability of mobile phones across the country this social media was in the Sinhalese language and it reached both urban and rural masses.
Adding to this “wonder” is the widely circulated allegation (so far denied by military sources and the Rajapakse inner circle) that Rajapakse did try to declare a state of emergency and stop the counting process around 1am on January 9. But his Attorney General, Army Commander and the Head of the Police have refused to conduct a sort of a coup that is similar to the military refusal to handover power in Burma in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi was on the brink of being elected as the country’s leader.
Still in infancy
The “peoples power” in Sri Lanka is still in its infancy and faces huge challenges. The mood of the electorate is to rid the political system of corruption and cronism and President Sirisena has started on the correct note by even quoting from the Buddhist  ‘Bible’ Dhammapada on the essence of good governance in his first address to the new Cabinet. He has said that Sri Lanka does not need a King but politicians who serve the people.
“This is the first time since Independence in 1948, when a new Cabinet of Ministers was given such a message by a Prime Minister or an Executive President,” noted former media advisor to President Rajapakse and veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake. “His message was quite clear – if there is corruption, fraud and irregularities in office – there would be firm disciplinary action despite the rank or office held by a person.”
There are also rumblings from Tamil civil society groups in the country and in the West that the new regime has to address what they call the “Tamil question”. However, if such pressures come from Western governments or from India it could be divisive in the current climate and destablise the government, especially calls to have Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabaya to stand war crimes charges in The Hague. The Sinhalese will close ranks to protect their war heroes and it could tip the scales in favour of the Rajapakses in general elections expected later this year.
President Sirisena, as well as the JHU, gave an assurance even before the presidential elections that they do not support such a war crimes investigation. In fact, Sirisena was the acting Defence Minister in the Rajapakse government during the final week of the war in 2009 when these war crimes are alleged to have occurred, because both President Rajapakse and army chief Sarath Fonseka were overseas.
The new government’s thinking on the issue is reflected in a comment the new Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake made to ‘Sunday Leader’ this week. “We will establish good governance, independence of media and independent commissions, etc. Thus the question of Geneva does not arise,” he argued, referring to the war crimes inquiry of the Geneva based UN Human Rights Commission that is widely unpopular in Sri Lanka.
“(Sri Lanka’s) ability to ensure a free, fair and wholly credible election, where the people clearly expressed their views on the two main candidates, has brought credit to our record as the Asian country with the oldest record of universal franchise. This would help silence many critics, especially abroad, that we lack the ability as a society to resolve our own problems in a truly democratic manner”, argues Rajakarunanayake.
If the West still believes in democracy, anti-corruption and good governance, political observers hope they will listen to his advise and not try to exploit the opening, and destabilise the country like they have done in Libya and Iraq.