Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) just secured a landslide victory in parliamentary polls, bringing back Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Admiral Jayanath Colombage, foreign secretary and former commander of the Sri Lankan Navy, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh on the implications of the return of the Rajapaksas, and Sri Lanka’s equations with India and China:How do you explain the massive victory of the SLPP in the parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka?
How do you explain the massive victory of the SLPP in the parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka?
The major factor is the activities carried out by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa since November 2019. He has proven to the country that he can deliver. He is determined to maintain the security and sovereignty of the country. So the main factor is the trust that the Sri Lankan people now have on the incumbent President. SLPP is a new party having been formed only in 2017. But it has steadily gained immense popularity by winning local elections in 2018. Last year this propelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the presidency. Now the President has given a boost to the party in the parliamentary polls.
Will we now see the return of an all-powerful executive presidency in Sri Lanka through a repealing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution?
Most of the constitutional amendments carried out in Sri Lanka were targeting individuals – either to benefit an individual, or to victimise an individual, or to keep an individual out of power. That is why these constitutional amendments have not really lasted long.
There was concern during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency that Sri Lanka was drifting towards China. Now that the Rajapaksas are back in power, will it be more of the same?
It will be different. The President has made it very clear in no uncertain terms that as far as strategic security considerations go, it is an ‘India first’ approach. Which means Sri Lanka cannot be, should not be, and will not be a strategic security concern for India. In the President’s agenda, national security is first. And you can’t have national security without regional security. But on the economic front, the President has said that we are open to anyone who is able to bring foreign investments to the country and no more loans. We want joint ventures, FDI, build-operate-transfer and other such arrangements, but no more loans. Anyone is welcome under this approach. The President has also said that Sri Lanka wishes to remain neutral and to maintain friendly relations with all countries. And finally, he has categorically stated that he will not give total control of a national strategic asset – port, airport or anything – to a foreign country. Deciding the foreign policy is the prerogative of the President in Sri Lanka as per our Constitution.
I want to remind you that even during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure as President, we had excellent relations with India. That was the main factor as to how he could finish the war against the LTTE separatists in 2009. He had even appointed a Troika – then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then secretary to the president Lalith Weeratunga, and then senior adviser to the president and his brother Basil Rajapaksa – who would shuttle between New Delhi and Colombo and keep the former briefed about the ground situation in Sri Lanka. That helped us win the war. So there was no major shift towards China even during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. What happened after 2009 is that Sri Lanka’s development needs exceeded tremendously. And at that time the only country that came forward to invest in Sri Lankan infrastructure in a big way was China. Therefore, it wasn’t a foreign policy shift but an economic necessity. True, India also did a lot in the period after 2009 – it built a railway track to the north, built more than 50,000 houses, rehabilitated the northern-most port. But our development needs far exceeded what India alone could do. And the West had boycotted us on the grounds of human rights violations. So China filled that vacuum. But in dealing with China more, Sri Lanka created fear in the minds of the Indian strategic community that began to see Colombo as a threat. And I think that is why India wished for a regime change in 2015 which they did. But the situation after 2015 became worse. Although we had dealings with China we hadn’t given our strategic assets to the Chinese for 99-year lease. That’s exactly what the subsequent government did with Hambantota. So then India became even more concerned. That is why the current President is very clear that national strategic assets won’t be handed over to anyone. Therefore, we won’t be titling towards anyone, we will maintain neutrality and keep India in our hearts as far as strategic security is concerned. But we also have to develop and need investments. So anyone, China, Japan, or anyone else can come.
But China’s naval presence is increasing in the region. How will Sri Lanka deal with this?
Sri Lanka will never allow its soil or territorial waters to be used by anyone against anyone. Especially so against India. That is the last thing we will ever do because it is suicidal. Yes, Chinese naval expansion is a reality, they have the second largest navy in the world, they can build four aircraft carriers in four years, and yes they have a strategic interest in the Indian Ocean and are present here along with other navies from Russia, Japan, UK, France, etc. But starting from 2009 to 2020 August, more than 525 warships have visited Sri Lanka. Topping the list is India with 110, which is natural, second is Japan with 80 ships, and way down the list is China with about 40 ships. So there is no ground to believe that in the last decade Sri Lanka has given any preference to China. Whereas we have given special preference to India and then Japan. So there should be no fear of Sri Lanka becoming a naval facility for China.
Does Sri Lanka fear getting sucked into a geopolitical rivalry between India and China?
We are already stuck in it since 2011-12. In fact, we are caught up in this power game between India, China, Japan and the US because of our geostrategic location. We want to avoid that. We don’t want to be the soccer field where the match is played. Either we should be a player or a referee, but certainly not the soccer field. So that is why the President is very clear that we want to maintain our neutrality and don’t want to be caught up in the major power game. This is the situation for many smaller countries in the region where they are expected to choose between one or the other, or hedge between one against the other. We want to consciously avoid both situations. We believe in multiple alignments instead of singular alignment with a particular country.