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Mega trends 2010

How is the year 2010 going to be for Sri Lanka? What are the likely trends?

By Col R Hariharan

(January 03, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The year 2009 had been a remarkable year of achievement for Sri Lanka. By May 2009 President Mahinda Rajapaksa managed to lead the country to eliminate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tigers (LTTE) founder leader Prabhakaran its entire leadership. But significantly, he failed to carry the nation as a united entity to handle post war problems of economic woes of the poor, human rights and humanitarian aberrations and ethnic distrust. So it was a dismal ending of a great year.

Here is an assessment on three issues – politics, international affairs and human rights - based on analysis of major events of 2009 to identify Sri Lanka’s major trends in 2010. However, this analysis does not cover trade and commerce, which is a speciality in itself. Similarly, the trend in Tamil insurgency is excluded here as it has been covered in detail in Sri Lanka update No 188 dated December 23, 2009. Strategic security trends and Indian policy options in Sri Lanka in 2010 are proposed to be covered in a separate piece.

Political

The remarkable year of 2009 ended in a sour note when the President allowed political expediency to take over and advanced the presidential poll by two years to January 26, 2010. When one of the chief architects of military victory General Sarath Fonseka challenged the president’s bid for a second term in office, the polity and people have been polarised. The nation is divided vertically when unity was the key to reap the dividends of peace.

Thus we find the nation using irreplaceable resource of human endeavour on a political exercise instead of addressing vital national issues that have a strategic connotation on Sri Lanka’s future. The issues include kick starting the national economy to pay off war debts, upgrading human resources stunted durrng the war years, redress of historical grievances of minorities and rectifying human rights and humanitarian aberrations.

The President is leading the race in the run up to the elections. However, General Fonseka, the common opposition candidate, is improving his competitiveness. He has revamped his campaign making a foray into Jaffna peninsula, a no-go area for any erstwhile army commander without escort for the last 25 years. Apparently Fonseka is determined to improve his trust quotient among Tamils which suspects his new found sympathy for Tamils plight. However, unless the former political ally of the LTTE – The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) –makes up its mind to support him he is unlikely to get no large scale Tamil support. With the government in power in a position to indirectly trade off favours, the TNA's much delayed decision may not be wholehearted even in the unlikely event of favouring Fonseka.

Compared to the General, President Rajapaksa is better placed to win Tamil votes despite historical Tamil tilt towards the rival United National Party (UNP). Thus it would be reasonable to expect the President to win the mandate for a second term.

If that happens we can expect him to become even more assertive in the run up to the parliamentary poll. His aim would be to strengthen his coalition numbers in parliament as no single party by itself has a chance to get a absolute majority in the proportional representation system.

So the year 2010 will probably see the deferring of contentious questions like abolition of executive presidency. Even with all good intentions, in the coming year we can expect no dramatic improvement in other hardy perennials – human rights, Tamil autonomy, and enforcement of 13th and 17th amendments to the constitution. At best expect there would probably be cosmetic changes through a patchwork quilt of measures to buy time and space rather than paradigm changes because politically that would be more convenient.

International affairs

Sri Lanka is likely to adopt a more conciliatory profile with nations which matter because it would need their support to prop up its war ravaged economy, handle embarrassing human rights and humanitarian issues coming up internationally, and take maximum advantage of the strategic power play in the Indian Ocean and South Asian regions.

Sri Lanka's relations with the U.S. are likely to undergo a face lift with. The Obama administration already indicating its mood to ‘forget and forgive’ in reshaping its Sri Lanka policy. Of course, Sri Lanka has to thank the increasing footprint of China in the country for change in the U.S. attitudes. Otherwise the U.S. would not have suddenly discovered it should have "an integrated strategy that leverages political, economic, and security tools for more effective long-term reforms" in Sri Lanka.

Of course 2010 will be the year of sizeable increase in the Chinese profile beyond its projects in Sri Lanka. We can expect the markets to open up for a flood of Chinese goods giving a run for the money to Indian and local brands. Towards the year end probably we would see the first of the Chinese tourists in large number.

Indian response to the Chinese moves could be slow in its own ponderous pace. The focus would be on developmental activity in the Tamil areas and taking up other projects long in incubation. In 2010 Indian concerns with Af-Pak region are likely to occupy greater space in its foreign policy preoccupations due to the likely downsizing of the U.S. profile in the region as prelude to progressive military disengagement in that region. Despite this, with the Tamil Nadu legislative elections due in another year the Tamil issue could be brought back to the top of the open agenda from backroom parleys. So Sri Lanka will be required to handle this isue whether it likes it or not.

The EU despite periodic fulminations about extending the GSP+ tariff concessions may well end up striking a compromise. The EU rarely takes abrupt or precipitate action in handling such situations. Usually it provides enough space for the other nation to evolve a workable solution. Moreover, it has both strategic and commercial interests in the region and cannot exclude itself in the power game in the region.

Britain’s Sri Lanka relations had a forgettable year in 2009. They are unlikely to fare any better in 2010 due to Britain’s own political compulsions in responding to ethnic Tamil lobbying and human rights pressures outweighing other considerations.

Human Rights issues

It is pay time for Sri Lanka’s human rights aberrations and alleged war crimes. In 2010 there is likely to be more international pressure on Sri Lanka to show concrete actions to prevent economic and diplomatic stand off with powerful entities like the EU and the U.S. In view of this Sri Lanka could move away from its hard positions and take face saving measures so that it presents a reasonable image to a more friendly U.S.

However, if past experience is any guide, Sri Lanka is likely to fall short of translating words into action. Usually it works out a slew of half way measures to ease international pressure and to buy time. Though executive presidency gives adequate freedom for the president to do so he is unlikely to expend it on this count to make a radical departure from past practice for want of political incentive to do so.

Of course a strong peoples’ movement could change this. There are no signs of such a movement in the near future. It is extremely doubtful whether the opposition parties with their own tainted record would be inclined to do so.

Allegations of war crimes are much more serious in the international eye. But politically it is going to be difficult for the President – regardless who is in the chair - to seriously investigate allegations of war crimes and take them to logical conclusion. So this issue is likely to be a major challenge for the new president. China is likely to be the gainer if the West confronts Sri Lanka on this issue. China has a history of taking advantage of such confrontations. Usually it uses them as opportunities for strengthening its relations by preventing concerted international action. Myanmar and Sudan are two shining examples of this strategy. Moreover, the international process of handling war crimes is bureaucratic and time consuming. So the Western powers are likely use the time delay and economic pressures, rather than direct confrontation, as tools to try and bring Sri Lanka on line. In view of this issue is likely to hang fire during the year 2010.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: www.colhariharan.org E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com )

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