The process of doing something all over again can be terrifying for some, especially for a minority group that had made some progress on its demands and was hopeful of an equitable future in a majoritiarian milieu.
Regardless of who the northern Tamils in Sri Lanka voted for, this was their state of mind when the country woke up on August 6 to an era of a one-party, one-family rule for the foreseeable future. The results of the parliamentary elections declared that day marked the end of the Tamil people’s hopes and aspirations for a just and equitable political solution, and forced them to accept a new reality of living in Sri Lanka as second-class citizens.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), was voted to power with a massive two-thirds majority.
The era when the liberal Colombo elite ran Sri Lanka was not just history; it does not seem to have a chance of staging a comeback. Instead, hardcore ‘nationalists’ from the deep south of the Sinhala heartland are handling the levers of power.
The Sinhala-Buddhist administrative-spiritual complex that was in charge from 2005 to 2014 will be resurrected. In short, the Sri Lankan state has changed its basic character, and that change happened in the course of a democratic exercise. This fits in with the narrative of right-wing resurrection in several parts of the world. In fact, the new rulers of the country have proclaimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is one of their models (the Chinese Communist Party being the other).
In the new Parliament of 2020, the parties that had held sway since the country’s independence are no longer represented in any significant measure. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is a pale shadow of its former self; the United National Party (UNP) was decimated, winning just one seat and securing just 2 per cent of the votes.
The UNP’s breakaway faction, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), won 24 per cent of the votes and bagged 54 seats. The SJB is now the second largest party in Parliament.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which won just 10 seats, will have to share the Tamil space with other parties, including ultra-nationalist parties and also those supporting the SLPP. The TNA is no longer the sole representative of northern Tamils.
This ‘new dawn’ was scripted by a Sinhala-majoritarian political party, the SLPP, whose leaders, in an earlier avatar, were notorious for human rights violations during the debilitating war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended in 2009. The Tamils were at the receiving end of this war, caught between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lanka Army, which progressed by culling anyone standing in its path.
In his analysis of the Sri Lankan elections, Alan Keenan, senior consultant, International Crisis Group, said: “The explicitly pro-Sinhala and anti-minority rhetoric of the SLPP’s campaign, the Rajapaksas’ demonstrated commitment to centralised and authoritarian rule and the comprehensive defeat of the political voices supporting a more liberal, pluralist and tolerant vision of Sri Lanka, together threaten to entrench a more dangerously intolerant form of majoritarianism than Sri Lanka has seen before.”
By 2013, the people of Sri Lanka were fed up with the country’s situation because of the economic slump, the lack of any clear direction of the polity, and the excesses of the Ministers and their children.
The Western nations were pushing for accountability for war crimes, the United Nations Human Rights Commission was on Sri Lanka’s case, Sri Lanka’s debt to China was rising, and China was being granted more and more concessions by the government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The media were gagged and made pliable, while opponents of the regime mysteriously disappeared in ‘white vans’; the Rajapaksas controlled a large part of the budget and government departments; many others just fled the country. Those who harboured political ambitions were ruthlessly cut down to size. In fact, the war-time Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, was imprisoned.
It was a perfect storm of all these negative factors that resulted in politicians from warring combines coming together to defeat the Rajapaksas.
National unity govt
In 2015, a new government of national unity—formed by the SLFP minus the Rajapaksas and the UNP, and supported by the TNA—took charge after the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP met with a shock defeat. Two factors that made this possible: the coming together of two important politicians, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, and the surreptitious work put in ahead of the combination announcing its intention to join hands publicly. India was the adhesive for this combine.
However, India and the government in Sri Lanka squandered away the gains. Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Maithripala Sirisena underwent humiliations that differed only in scale. Ranil saw his party being broken and nearly finished in his own lifetime and he was also defeated in the election. Sirisena returned to the Mahinda faction and is not even a Minister in the new Cabinet.
Before the 2015 presidential elections, the Sri Lankan government made the sensational claim that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer posted in Colombo was interfering in the Sri Lankan elections. This forced India to recall the officer. After he was defeated, Mahinda Rajapaksa too made the charge that India had defeated him.
Also, after the change of government in Sri Lanka, the RAW and the government of India did not forcefully counter articles in the media that the RAW had engineered the change in Sri Lanka.
After the new Sri Lankan government assumed office in 2015, the Indian engagement was evident from the high-level exchanges, the request for help in various forms and the Indian pledges to help Sri Lanka emerge as a strong, democratic country and a reliable ally of India. The officials responsible for guiding this new direction, on the Indian side, were many. Critical among those were India’s then Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, who assumed office in January 2015, and was mainly responsible for guiding strategic interests along with National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
The brief for the Indian side was to help the Sri Lankan government in its endeavours to establish an inclusive government, and ensure that the Indian interests were served. The Sri Lankan government went about the first part with a great sense of purpose in the initial years—that of establishing a Constituent Assembly to discuss the Tamil question and arrive at a lasting solution to the political aspirations of the Tamils. The second related to Chinese projects in Sri Lanka. Most Western powers, and India were alarmed at the rise in Chinese investments in Sri Lanka, and almost all the governments, including India, had brought this issue to the fore in their discussions with the Sri Lankans. This has been repeatedly been discussed and debated in the media and elsewhere too.
Initially, even before he assumed office as Prime Minister, Ranil had stated that all Chinese projects would be reviewed. But soon after he came to power, he changed tack. From the public reactions of the Indian diplomats at that time, it is clear that this issue was not taken up with the Sri Lankan authorities with the seriousness it deserved.
Western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that they were of the opinion that too much pressure on a government at that time was not needed; and could even end up being counterproductive.
The second issue related to prosecuting the Rajapaksas, who, the ruling combine claimed, had amassed wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income, and have stashed it away in foreign countries. This was an election campaign slogan, and was also the crucial preoccupation of the government during its first year in office. Sri Lanka realised that it did not have trained manpower or equipment to conduct the sophisticated audits required to pull this off. One Sri Lankan official said that this was “not a major issue”.
Since many developed economies had this capability, all it was needed for the Sri Lankan government to do was to ask any of these governments for help. Another source confirmed that this training was indeed imparted to Sri Lankan personnel.
But, according to a diplomat from a South Asian nation who was stationed in Colombo at the time, despite some noise the prosecution of the Rajapaksas did not proceed with the required sense of purpose.
Also, India and Japan were to develop Colombo port’s east terminal. As much as 70 per cent of the capacity of the Colombo port is used by Indian exporters and importers. Even if India suddenly decides that it will no longer use the Colombo port for its export/import needs, there is no comparable port in India right now to take on the volumes handled by Colombo. In this sense, India is still dependent on the Colombo port, despite the fact that it is China which is operating a large part of the new terminals. The East terminal development is now in cold storage. This decision was hanging fire even before the Ranil-Sirisena government came to power.
India also wanted control over the Mattala Airport, the world’s emptiest airport, built on the grand premise that it would help in the development of the impoverished south. The negotiations over this airport too dragged on for over five years. Recently, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared that he would not part with such important strategic assets to any other country.
India also wanted the Sri Lankan government to desist from handing over control of the Hambantota port to China, and also requested it to expedite the handover to the Lanka Indian Oil Corporation, the oil tanks in Trincomalee. Indian demands on both these counts have not been fulfilled.
The price to be paid for five years of inaction and lack of appropriate action will be steep. India will know this once the Rajapaksas settle in.