Sri Lankan election and International politics

“The Western involvement in the Sri Lankan election should be viewed through the US, Britain, the European Union and to lesser degree Australia, which are largely concerned with ideological issues – namely human rights issues. They also house large Tamil diaspora communities.”

By Dr. Kasun Ubayasiri

(January 23, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is frequently said that for a small country, Sri Lanka punches well above its weight. Its location in a key maritime route has historically placed the island nation in a strategic position where it has found itself frequently playing politics in the courts of more powerful allies.

Sri Lanka’s north eastern port of Trincomalee was used by the British Navy until 1957, and while Sri Lanka is no longer used in this manner, Britain and the US currently share a naval base in the Indian Ocean region on the island of Diego Garcia around 1600km south of the south Indian coast. In more recent times China has also entered the region, while India itself has bolstered its maritime activities.

The 2010 presidential election between the ultra-nationalist President Rajapakse and his former military commander General Sarath Fonseka is the first in nearly three decades to be contested without the backdrop of an armed ethnic conflict. The election also comes at a time of shifting geopolitical boundaries in the Indian Ocean which places Sri Lanka once again in the epicentre of another international power struggle in the region - this time between China, India and the West. As such, the future direction of Sri Lanka may be determined by which ally or allies the winning candidate favours. The strategic influence of the region's maritime powerbrokers will similarly be determined by which candidate is successful at the polls.

The Indo-Chinese sphere:

China is rapidly flexing its commercial and political muscle in the region and encroaching into what is traditionally India’s sphere of influence. As China’s commercial naval interests expand in the Indian Ocean, so too does the need for a quasi-military presence, which is becoming vital for the safety of the Chinese commercial fleet in pirate-active waters off the east African coast. A Chinese defence white paper released in January 2009 claims the navy is "developing capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats, so as to push forward the overall transformation of the service".

While no overt negotiations are under way for a Chinese naval port in the region, Gwadar on the Balochistan coast in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka are touted as possible locations. China has already built a commercial port at Gwadar which is expected to be expanded to include a Pakistani naval base. While the base could double as a Chinese naval facility, the region still remains unstable due to the Baloch freedom struggle, casting concerns over such plans. China is also financing the construction of a commercial port in the southern Sri Lankan town of Hambantota, and while there is no indication of plans for a navy base in the region, the port could offer an ideal location for a Chinese navy ipresence without the security concerns of Gwadar. Hambantota and Gwadar are further seen as strategic points in the Chinese naval plan, with China already having assisted financially in the upgrade of ports at Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Burma. This strategy has been outlined by numerous analysts including the Pentagon’s Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher J. Pehrson and Major-General (Retd) Dipankar Banerjee of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi.

Following Sri Lankan’s formal agreement to a Chinese port in Hambantota in March 2007, China was believed to have played a crucial role in arming Sri Lankan troops in its war with the LTTE. Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that a month after the agreement, China had signed a classified $37.6 million deal to sell Chinese ammunition and ordinance to the Lankan army. Following the destruction of a number of Sri Lankan aircraft in an LTTE aerial attack in 2007, China is also believed to have given the Sri Lankan government six F7 jet fighters in 2008, reportedly free of charge. Indian defence sources also claim China played a crucial role in securing Pakistani military assistance to end the Sri Lankan conflict. A significant percentage of the Chinese weapons were procured through Lanka Logistics and Technologies, a company co-directed by President Rajapakse’s Defence Secretary and brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse. China's support for the Sri Lankan military has not only been material. It also shielded Sri Lanka from a western diplomatic backlash against perceived heavy-handed military tactics during the final phase of the conflict. The Sri Lankan Information Ministry claims China vetoed a United Nations Security Council motion for a discussion on the humanitarian crisis triggered by the war in the north in March 2009. "China informs the United Nations Security Council [UNSC] not to interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs," the Lankan government website wrote.

Meanwhile The London Times reported in May that Chinese aid to Sri Lanka jumped from a few million dollars in 2005 to almost $US1 billion in 2008, replacing Japan as the biggest foreign donor. In contrast United States gave $US7.4 million and Britain just $US2 million in 2008. Chinese aid was also able to effectively negate the economic influence wielded by the United States, Britain, Japan and the European Union, the co-chairs of the Tokyo donor conference which formed the financial backdrop of the 2002 peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. This financial power shift from the Tokyo donors to China could also be viewed as a vital strategic asset in President Rajapakse’s uncompromising military campaign against the LTTE.

The connection between Rajapakse and China is indeed an interesting one. The Rajapakses have successfully colonised the nationalist political landscape of late, moving in on political territory vacated by the once powerful Bandaranaike family which is now deposed and heirless. The shift has also facilitated a change in the symbolic seat of power - moving from the Colombo-centric, bourgeois families who acquired political dominance in colonial Ceylon, to a family that has thrived in southern-centric Hambantota through post-colonial nationalist politics. Hambantota remains the political seat of the Rajapakse’s. The President’s uncle DM Rajapakse represented the district in colonial Ceylon’s state council in 1930, and Mahinda Rajapakse, later served as an MP for Hambantota. Therefore President Rajapakse's return to power will benefit China’s strategic interests in the region – namely plans for a port.

The Indian Theatre:

India’s relationship with Sri Lanka remains complex, and its contemporary roots lie in cold war battle lines. It has frequently been argued that India played a strategic role in a ‘controlled armed conflict’ in Sri Lanka partly due to President JR Jayawardena aligning Sri Lanka with the US. In the early 1980's the Sri Lankan government revised a 1951 Voice of America radio broadcasting agreement and gave the organisation a new broadcasting station with the capacity to cover the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, parts of China, Soviet Central Asia, and East Africa. This was seen as a direct encroachment of India’s sphere of influence by what India maintained was an American propaganda base and a covert military communication centre. The radio station issue also fuelled Indian paranoia that an American naval base would be established in Trincomalee - a concern sparked by Jayawardena's decision to lease the Trincomalee port's WWII oil tanks to western firms, despite India’s generous tender 2. Indian papers also reproduced a Washington Post report quoting a Pentagon Project Report for 1980-81 advocating the establishment of an American naval base in Trincomalee, further fuelling Indian concerns.

However the United National Party policy has somewhat changed over the past two decades and by the new millenium UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, had adopted a more cordial approach to India compared to that of his uncle JR Jayawardena. In May 2003 Indian Petroleum Minister Ram Naik met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, for the inauguration of Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (Lanka IOC) and its retail outlets in Sri Lanka. The full extent of the agreement between the two governments included the modernisation of the Trincomalee port's oil tanks. India then retained its hold of Trincomalee through tsunami rehabilitation projects, undertaking clearing and mapping work without third party international involvement.

The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project which will see India dredge the shallow Palk Straight, adds another dimension to Indo-Lanka relations. The channel will enable large ships to sail along the Indian coastline, bypassing Sri Lanka. The trade route shift should see an economic and industrial boom in coastal Tamil Nadu, with some possible financial returns to northern Sri Lanka. The removal of the renegade LTTE, a terrorist organisation with a limited blue water navy and an extremely effective coastal navy - both responsible for attacks on a number of commercial vessels in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, was a crucial element in the long term viability of the project. This is perhaps one of the reasons for India’s policy of non-interference in Rajapakse’s military offensive at the close of the war. Rajapakse's well timed initial agreement to limit the use of heavy artillery during the final stages of the war was effective in silencing political dissent in Tamil Nadu – which is great strategic benefit to the Indian Central government. Although it can be argued, from the available records, that the Rajapakse government may indeed have used heavy artillery contrary to the agreement. While it is unlikely Sri Lanka will actively alienate its northern neighbour, it is equally unlikely the Rajapakse government will continue to woo India in the future, particularly if its alliance with China bears fruit. The President may have harnessed a fortuitous alignment of interest with respect to the military annihilation of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, but it is unlikely Lanka’s political ego will submit to India – a nation viewed as a historical nemesis of the Sinhala Buddhist country. It is equally unlikely that the Rajapakses, who are in the throes of – at least symbolically – reviving the Sinhala monarchy, will gain any strategic merit in nationalist theatres if they were to submit to Indian political will .

In terms of its own Tamil population, while the Sri Lankan government has suggested what it claims is an equitable devolution of power, it is unlikely the island’s Tamils will gain any meaningful autonomy from a victorious Sinhala nationalist government. With the armed struggle for Tamil Eelam effectively ended, the embers of Tamil nationalism have been forced to lie dormant in Tamil Nadu, which may yet prove to be an ongoing concern for India. Similarly the plight of Sri Lankan refugees on Indian soil and the continued incarceration of Tamil civilians in internment camps are also likely to twist Indian’s political arm into action.

As a soldier, Rajapakse’s political contender, General Sarath Fonseka is no stranger to India, but as a politician he is an unknown quantity. However it seems Fonseka understands Indo-Lankan strategic needs and has tailored his actions accordingly. At the end of the war he openly told media that the Sri Lankan army’s weapons came from China and Pakistan and not India, silencing any Tamil Nadu agitation against an Indian involvement. However, a few weeks later as the new Chief of Defence Staff he cancelled Chinese and Pakistani weapons deals. Perhaps he was Rajapakse’s cat’s paw in severing weapons deals the nation no longer needed, and by forcing Fonseka to end these deals, the President and his brother the Defence Secretary could continue their relationship with China and Pakistan unhindered. However, the action lands Fonseka on the Indian side of the future battleline.

The Western dimension:

The Western involvement in the Sri Lankan election should be viewed through the US, Britain, the European Union and to lesser degree Australia, which are largely concerned with ideological issues – namely human rights issues. They also house large Tamil diaspora communities.

Both the US and British media remained active in covering the final stages of the war despite Sri Lanka’s continued media censorship and restriction of access to the conflict zone. British Channel 4 Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, and British newspapers such as The Guardian and The Sunday Times produced extensive reports on the conflict. A Sunday Times article by journalist Marie Colvin claimed she had brokered a surrender for a number of Tiger leaders including political wing leader Balasingham Nadesan and peace secretariat chief Seevaratnam Puleedevan who were later reported to have been killed by the government forces while allegedly attempting to surrender. A study conducted by the American Association of the Advancement of Science was quoted by a number of news groups including the BBC and the New York Times which suggested government attacks on civilian safe zones. The London Times said American officials were examining images for evidence of war crimes – notably images taken by US military satellites which monitored Sri Lanka’s conflict zone during the last days of the war3. The newspaper’s South Asian correspondent Jeremy Page claimed; "The images are of a higher resolution than any that are available commercially and could bolster the case for an international war crimes inquiry." (Page, May 22, 2009). Since then, a video of extrajudicial executions procured and distributed by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, and subsequently aired on British Channel 4 was given wide coverage in the western media and subsequently validated by the UN special rapporteur Philip Alston who claimed the footage was genuine, following a detailed analysis by US forensic video specialist Jeff Spivak. The ripple of Western concern over Sri Lanka’s human rights violations during the conflict and possible war crimes have also begun to affect the island nation’s export trade, with the European Union suspending a preferential trade tariff costing Sri Lanka more than $US150 million in lost revenue following an EU probe on Sri Lankan human rights abuses.

A 68-page US State Department report prepared by the War Crimes Office details 170 alleged "atrocities" by both the military and LTTE during the final stages of the war between May 2 and 18. The UN verdict has wider ramifications considering the President’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse is a dual US citizen and Gen Fonseka a Green Card holder. Fonseka evaded an interview with the US Department of Homeland Security while he was in the States last year to renew his Green Card. It was implied Fonseka may be called to testify against the Defence Secretary who is a naturalised US citizen. The editor of the influential Sri Lankan broadsheet The Sunday Leader, Frederica Jansz, claimed Fonseka had admitted knowing that Brigadier Shavendra De Silva had been issued a direct order from Defence Secretary Rajapakse to kill any LTTE leaders who wished to surrender to government forces while the army commander was purportedly out of the country in the final days of the war. Fearing voter backlash, the General later claimed he had been misquoted, and took full responsibility for the military’s actions. If President Rajapakse secures a second term it may be likely the former General will become a scapegoat of a war crimes tribunal if the government was backed into a corner. While America seems keen to play a more central role in Asia as indicated by State Secretary Hillary Clinton in more recent times, it may be difficult for the Obama administration with its human rights lobby to ignore allegations of war crimes.

The political power base of the Rajapakses remains grounded in a deep south, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist, anti-colonial ideology which will force them to snub western interference in Sri Lanka, an inevitable political reality in light of war crimes allegations. The government’s ultra-nationalist ally of the Buddhist monk-dominated Jathika Hela Urumaya has frequently claimed the LTTE was backed by the west and has openly accused the Norwegian peace negotiators of being Prabharakan’s puppet masters and the true enemies of Sri Lanka. This anti-Western sentiment is further evident it the Rajapakse lobby’s allegation of the US and Norway financing Fonseka’s election campaign – an allegation denied by both countries.

The Sri Lankan war and its aftermath has also become an internal political drama for Australia, with respect to the politically unpopular development of a influx of refugees in the form of ‘boat people’ and the sensitive issue of border protection and immigration control in an election year. A significant segment of these so-called ‘illegal immigrants’, claim to be Tamil refugees fleeing political persecution in post war Sri Lanka. The Australian government’s handling of two of these boat loads, has already proven to be a political nightmare for Kevin Rudd’s Labor government.


Sri Lanka’s main opposition, the United Nationalist Party (UNP) lead by the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe remains a spent force; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the third major stake holder of the contemporary political theatre remains splintered. General Fonseka’s bid for power as a war hero is indicative of the Sri Lankan opposition’s political impotency in countering the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition and the Rajapakse power base. The SLFP with its socialist bent has remained an ally of China since the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a tradition that is continued by the Bandaranaike’s dynastic successors the Rajapakses. While both India and the West represent socio-historical baggage for the Sinahala nationalist lobby, the former as a historical nemesis and the latter as a colonial invader and its contemporary progeny, China holds no such cultural sentiments among the nationalist lobby, which form the bedrock of Rajapakse’s power base. While it is likely a Rajapakse presidency will not deliberately antagonise either India or the West, it will turn to China in the event of Indian or Western pressure as it has done in the aftermath of the war. India will not be able to ignore the plight of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka or a marginalisation of Tamils in Sri Lanka’s post war political landscape. The West will also be forced to interfere through self proclaimed politico-moral obligations and through the campaigning of a growing Tamil diaspora. On the other hand, China with no such stake in Sri Lankan ethno-politics, and with a questionable human rights record of its own, will shield the Rajapakses. Therefore while Rajapakse will continue to maintain cordial relations with both India and the West, they will not be able to exert any real political pressure on the President while China continues to flex its military and commercial muscle in the Indian Ocean.

If Fonseka were to win the election, the Rajapakse power based while diminished would continue to pose a significant opposition to a Fonseka presidency and a possible Wickremasinghe government. The result, perhaps would be, a more equitable division of power among the numerous political stakeholders of Sri Lanka. With it, India and the West will gain crucial time to muscle in on China’s expanding sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean.

[The writer, Dr Kasun Ubayasiri is a PhD in Media and Armed Conflict based at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, and commentator of the Sri Lankan theatre.]