By: Nirmanusan Balasundaram
Nirmanusan Balasundaram, a political analyst, reviews the historical context of geo-politics in the island of Sri Lanka with regards to the Indian Ocean region and leads to the suggestion that India and the western world should consider a fresh look at their respective foreign policies on Sri Lanka in order to find just solution and sustainable peace in the island.
News that former president, Mahinda Rajapakse, had signed nomination papers with the UPFA for the upcoming election on 17 August has sent shock waves through not only Sri Lanka but also political circles in the western world.
Mahinda Rajapakse’s conflicting relationship with the western world led to its belief that Rajapakse would not be willing to accommodate its interests in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, Rajapakse’s foreign policy also created displeasure in Indian political circles. Although India and the US may differ in views according to their respective national interests, the pro-China policies adhered to by Rajapakse created a common converging point between Indian and the western world led by the US. In fact, Rajapakse’s faction has argued this as the reason behind the January 2015 regime change in the Island of Sri Lanka.
All Sri Lankan regimes in power since 1972 have been determined to destroy the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Meanwhile, powerful countries wanting to transform the geo-politics centring on the Indian Ocean in their favour, have found the LTTE’s commitment to its political ideology somewhat obstructive to their intentions. As a result, these countries and successive Sri Lankan governments worked together to destroy the LTTE with such activities commencing during Ranil’s government and concluding when Rajapakse was in power. At the end of the covert and overt operations in this direction, which continued for nearly six years, the LTTE was defeated militarily in 2009. Rohitha Bogollagama, the then Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, boasted about these activities stating that Sri Lanka had defeated the LTTE with the support of over 20 countries.
The powerful countries, however, were well aware when they worked with Rajapakse to destroy the LTTE that he was not one to follow their policies. Analysis suggests that the attitude of ‘destroy LTTE first and deal with Mahinda Rajapakse later’ prevailed. After winning the war against the LTTE, Rajapakse began to permeate with new strength making it impossible for him to be defeated in the presidential elections of January 2010. Further invigorated with his re-election as president, Rajapakse seemed an invincible man. It took five years of strategic operations, unifying several factions locally and abroad, to finally defeat Rajapakse in the presidential elections of 2015.
Feelings of aversion and growing agitation against Rajapakse amongst various ethnic groups, religious groups, political parties, civil organizations, media organizations and NGOs in the Island of Sri Lanka were identified, analyzed and plans devised cautiously knowing the fatal consequences should failure occur. The result of this common coalition was the defeat of Rajapakse in the presidential election of 8 January this year. However, 5 years of intricate and delicate handling to defeat Rajapakse took him a mere 5 months to re-emerge as a formidable challenge yet again. It is uncertain, though, how long this challenge will last.
Ironically, the very man created to defeat Mahinda Rajapakse has emerged as the prime factor in Rajapakse’s re-emergence. The thought that Maithripala Sirisena, a man marketed as the centrepiece of good governance, capable of restoring democracy and rule of law, could have now connived to bring back into politics a person who had moved the country towards autocracy, has sent a flood of rage among the South and disappointment in the western world. Sirisena has since made public statements distancing him from Rajapakse’s election campaign in an attempt to alleviate these concerns.
Though having a 49 year history with the SLFP, Sirisena, however, did not become president through natural progressive growth within the party. He was created hastily and decorated with glorifying images and illusions of grandeur. Behind these decorations lay the geo-political interests of powerful countries.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the island of Sri Lanka within two months of Sirisena becoming president. The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo was the first person to greet Sirisena with a bouquet after his election win. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka in the first week of May this year. A host of American diplomats and high level officials arrived in Sri Lanka. At the end of each of these visits praises and adorations were showered on the new government of Sri Lanka and President Sirisena. Warm welcome was given to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera when he visited the US. The island of Sri Lanka was suddenly spoken of as an example to South Asia’s election democracy. And the report that was to be submitted to the UNHRC last March was postponed till September to avoid possible encumbrance to the Maithri-Ranil government.
Yet, even after the granting of such graces, President Maithripala Sirisena was unable to prevent the Former President Mahinda Rajapakse’s re-entry into politics. Earlier, it was Rajapakse who thought of Sirisena as having betrayed him. Witnessing Sirisena’s inability to inhibit Rajapakse’s re-emergence into politics, now Sri Lankans behind the recent regime change consider Sirisena a betrayer of revolution and the revolutionists who stood behind the regime change in support of him.
Both the results of the January presidential election as well as the political moves being staged in southern Sri Lanka in recent times have been unexpected and unpredictable. On one front it has caused shock and disappointment to the western world. On the other it raises questions as to whether evaluations and planning regarding Sri Lanka had gone awry. In politics nothing is permanent but national interests. A project undertaken for 5 years to fulfil national interests counteracted in a mere 5 months is matter that requires deep reconsideration. It is in this context that powerful countries should consider revisiting their respective foreign policies vis-a-vis Sri Lanka and a fresh approach should take place in order to find a just and sustainable peace in the island.
The very same man utilized to destroy the LTTE had turned into a monster to be reckoned with. The external strength given to him had developed him into a war hero, internally. It is this supernatural image which has endowed him with a strength that cannot be easily challenged by the western world.
The overwhelming external support given to Rajapakse from China however is not permanent, for China will not hesitate to form an alliance with any government that comes to power as long as it will be cooperative like that of the Rajapakse regime.
At this conjuncture a few important points are to be noted. Although China poses a common challenge to the US and India, the US taking a deep foot holding in Sri Lanka would not be looked upon favourably by India, due to any domination of the US in the Indian Ocean creating a future possible challenge to India’s national interest. In the 1970s, the US made moves to establish its domination in Indian Ocean with Sri Lanka at its centre. India sought to bring the Sri Lankan government of the time into its control through strengthening armed Tamil movements and exerting pressure on the then J R Jayawardene government. In 1981, at the Non-Alligned Summit held in New Delhi India tried to table a resolution claiming that the US Naval base in Diego Garcia constituted a threat to the Indian Ocean region. However, Sri Lanka altered the resolution in favour of the US. This paved the way for India’s moves which would later create crisis for Sri Lanka. When the Ranil government was in power during 2002, Sri Lanka and US attempted to sign the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) but it was reported that this was abandoned on India’s pressure. However, this agreement was later signed in 2007. Although India and the US see common ground on certain issues, any regime cooperating with the US to help increase US dominance in the Indian Ocean India would not be seen favourably by India. It is in this historical background that unexpected changes in the politics of the island of Sri Lanka unfolding today, particularly Rajapakse’s unexpected re-entry, is a matter upsetting the western world.
Not only this particular incident, but also political developments over the last three years relating to it, have demonstrated the need to re-examine the policies of the western world regarding the island of Sri Lanka, for Rajapakse’s re-entry represents neither an a internal problem of a party nor a domestic problem of a country. On the contrary, it represents a problem which started as an ethnic conflict between a nation fighting to exist and a nation negating that existence, then experienced regional intervention and later internationalized by geo-politics. If a permanent resolution is to be had a just and fair solution needs to be found for the ethnic conflict, the root cause of the problem in the island, and until such change occurs no other solution will be permanent.