ASHOK B SHARMA
Recent political developments in Sri Lanka have drawn the attention of South Asian countries and the world at large. The credit goes to the people and the political spectrum of the island country for dislodging a despotic and arrogant President Mahinda Rajapaksa in what can be termed a bloodless coup, albeit through the ballot box. Importantly, Rajapksa’s exit is expected to usher in a process of further democratic reforms in Sri Lanka.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardass Modi promptly congratulated new President Maithripala Sirisena and not only assured to work with him but also invited him to visit India. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj too called on her counterpart Mangala Samaraweera and invited him to visit India, which was accepted. Samaraweera is expected to visit India on Sunday 18 January, his first foreign tour. On its part New Delhi wants Sirisena to settle down and fulfill the people’s mandate.
Undeniably, Rajapaksa had created concerns for India. Despite New Delhi asking him to devolve political and financial powers to the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces as per the 13th Constitutional Amendment. But the former President arrogantly refused.
Worse, after the brutal decimation of one of the world’s deadliest guerrilla group, LTTE, and killing of thousands of innocent Tamils in the process, Rajapaksha was slow and tardy in his rehabilitation plan. Notwithstanding, India extending financial support for the rehabilitation of Tamils.
Further, he also refused to allow an independent inquiry into the 2009 horrific massacre, no matter the human rights violations invited global concern and was debated in the UN Human Rights Council. Even as New Delhi but India hoped good sense would prevail upon Rajapaksa sooner than later.
Hopes abound that Sirisena might take steps to address the concerns of the international community. The UN Human Rights Council is likely to take up this issue in its next session in March in Geneva.
Bluntly, had Rajapaksa been allowed to remain in power and continue with his arrogant attitude, he would have invited sanctions from Western powers, thereby further dwindling the island country’s economy. Moreover, his despotic nature knew no bound. Just to annoy India, he planned closer links with China even at the cost of South Asia.
Both Sirisena and new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have criticized Rajapaksa for inviting huge loans from China for building roads, ports and other infrastructure. They have opposed the building of another port in Colombo with Chinese assistance as it would amount to huge ecological damage. Recall, despite New Delhi’s protests, Rajapaksa allowed Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo port twice and threatened to turn Sri Lanka into a strategic asset for China at India’s expense.
Remember, after the 2009 massacre, Rajapaksa bounced back to power for the second successive term in 2010, but he did not prove well for Sri Lankan democracy. Add to this, post the Parliamentary elections in April 2010 which gave his Party two-third majority he decided to amend the Constitution which stipulated only two terms for a President.
Why did he do this? Primarily, Rajapaksa felt that the Buddhist-majority population would reward him for the 2009 massacre by bouncing him back to power many times. His other interests was to protect himself and his coterie: brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, army generals, officials and hosts of other Rajapaksas from possible war crimes. But unfortunately for Rajapaksa, Sri Lankans were not too happy to tolerate his game any longer.
The 18th Constitutional Amendment gave sweeping powers to the President in the appointment of heads and members of major institutions like Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Anti-Bribery Commission. Rajapaksa trampled upon the independence of judiciary and removed Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and appointed Attorney General Mohan Peiris in his place.
But over-confident Rajapaksa met his fatal consequences when he declared his decision to hold Presidential polls after completing four years of his six-year term. His colleague Sirisena defected to become the joint opposition sponsored Presidential candidate. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with others came out to lend support to Sirisena, who also got support from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
Besides, Sirisena had the support of Muslims and some Sinhalese outfits who were fed up with the dictatorial and corrupt Rajapaksa regime. This ensured Sirisena’s victory.
Significantly, Sirisena has promised to abolish the executive powers of the President and return to the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy. This would amount to scraping the 18th Amendment and bringing in further amendments to the Constitution. Towards this end, he would have to mobilise numbers in Parliament and possibly have to rely on Rajapaksa’s SLFP or depend upon further defection from the SLFP. Clearly, a hard task.
As for the devolution of powers to Tamil provinces, Sirisena is better equipped with the 13th Constitutional Amendment already in place. TNA while extending support to Sirisena had demanded devolution of powers to Tamil provinces on the lines of that enjoyed by State Governments in India.
But Sirisena during his campaign, with a view to placate Sinhalese outfit, promised not to withdraw the army from Tamil provinces. One should not forget that Sirisena is also perceived as a Sinhalese hardliner.
Additionally, Sirisena has won with the support of several forces who were opposed to Rajapaksa’s style of functioning and his corrupt regime. His first priority will be to introduce necessary democratic reforms and ensure a corruption free regime.
Notably, India has always attempted to have better relations with Sri Lanka. Its economic engagements with its island neighbor, including the free trade agreement between the two countries, could help Colombo to graduate to the status of a developing country from a least developed one.
One hopes Sirisena will better its relationship with India. Rajapaksa had obliged India by his presence at Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in May. But his approach did not move further from this gesture. It now depends upon how much Prime Minister Modi and President Sirisena work out their relations to the mutual benefit of the two neighbours, SAARC and BIMSTEC groups in which both are active participants.
(Ashok B Sharma is a senior columnist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on strategic and policy issues in many Indian and foreign newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com His mobile phone no 09810902204)