“Past in the Present: Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa” by Suthaharan Nadarajah
The sudden collapse of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime following his shock defeat in Sri Lanka’s presidential polls on January 8 has been heralded as a potential sea change in both domestic governance and foreign relations. Under Rajapaksa Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States and other western states, which had been excellent since the late seventies (i.e. throughout the three decade armed conflict), had deteriorated sharply in recent years. Relations with India have been more robust, despite intense agitation in Tamil Nadu over Sri Lanka’s wartime mass atrocities, but problems have emerged here too. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s relations with China – consistently warm since the 1950s – have expanded significantly in the past decade and especially in recent years – just as relations with the West have grown frosty. The Indian, US, British and other western governments are visibly delighted with the election outcome; even before the count was over, Indian Premier Modi congratulated Sirisena, followed by his British and Canadian counterparts and US government. For its part, new President Maithripala Sirisena’s government has promised to rebuild relations with estranged capitals and pull back from Rajapaksa’s wholesale embrace of China.
Much commentary, both within Sri Lanka and internationally, traces these dynamics to the exigencies of great power rivalry. That is, amid emergent competition in the Indian Ocean between India, the US and China, Rajapaksa’s government unwisely eschewed Sri Lanka’s long-standing approach of good relations with all major states and made a fateful decision to turn towards China and away from traditional friends – Delhi, Washington and London; this raised the latter’s ire and led to growing international isolation.
Notably, in this reading, commonplace within Sri Lanka, the specifics of Sri Lanka’s domestic conduct are either irrelevant or, at best, a minor consideration. That is, recent US-led international efforts to pursue accountability for wartime mass atrocities, western criticism of rights abuses, and insistence by these governments and India that Colombo pursue a process of ‘reconciliation‘ with the Tamils – that is, a negotiating a ‘political solution’, demilitarisation, ethnic accommodation generally and accountability – all stem from the fundamental problem of a mistaken ‘turn’ to China, rather than any serious commitment. The implications that flow from this are, provided Sri Lanka balances good relations with Delhi and Washington as well as with Beijing, rather than privileging the latter, and effects some gestures towards ‘reconciliation’, ‘accountability’ and ‘devolution’, India and the West would continue to overlook the Sinhala nationalist state and social order making that Sri Lankan governments have been pursing since independence.
However, this logic stands on discounting what both India and, separately, western states and allied donor and NGO networks have sought to achieve with a view to stability in Sri Lanka, through myriad practices both during and after the war. It also reads a complex regional context through a timeless frame of zero-sum great power (military-strategic) competition. For example, Indian antipathy to the Rajapaksa government, which in fact has never been overt, is traced to China’s increasing ‘influence’ in Sri Lanka (evidenced by its funding of a major port in Hambantota, and other infrastructure projects) that has ‘alarmed’ India. However, whilst India keeps careful watch on growing Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean, and despite the intense, sometimes hysterical, media and public commentary in India, the Delhi establishment is more relaxed, for geostrategic reasons James Holmes, Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College, has laid out recently.
Interestingly, Modi himself has excellent links with China built over a decade as Chief Minister of Gujarat (which has drawn a reported 90% of Chinese investment in India in the past decade), and has made thicker relations with China – and Chinese investment – a foreign policy priority for his government. Moreover, although ruptures in Washington’s relations with Colombo emerged only three or four years ago, and those with Britain are even more recent, the now ‘alarming’ Chinese investment in Sri Lanka began a decade ago (during the Norwegian-led peace process), and as contracts for Hambantota port and other Chinese projects were signed, the US and India actively assisted Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE to its bloody end years later. Meanwhile, until very recently (when overtaken by China), Sri Lanka’s most important donors were Japan, the World Bank and the Asian Development bank, who have never ceased lending.
In short, rather than western and Indian antipathy towards Rajapaksa’s government deriving from Sri Lanka’s turn to China, it is the other way round; it was Sri Lanka’s refusal to undertake steps (accountability, negotiating a political solution, demilitarisation and development of the Northeast and so on) repeatedly urged by western states as essential to lasting peace and stability that led, and then only gradually, to the breaks in relations which left China as Sri Lanka’s only reliable major friend. Similarly, it was the Rajapaksa government’s refusal after the war’s end to negotiate a political solution with Tamil leaders, and its undermining of multiple Indian efforts to reconstruct and develop the Northeast – for example, through building 50,000 houses for the vast numbers of war-displaced Tamils, and revamping the sea and air ports that could link the Northeast to Tamil Nadu and beyond – that eventually alienated Delhi.
As such, Sri Lanka’s recent international problems can be directly traced to the brutality with which the Rajapaksa government ended the war – killing tens of thousands of civilians, shelling hospitals, rebuffing international demands for a ‘humanitarian ceasefire’ and executing captured LTTE fighters – and, in particular, its conduct since the war’s end. Long-standing western and Indian support for Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE was predicated on accommodation of Tamil grievances through a negotiated political solution – within a united Sri Lanka – something successive Sri Lankan leaders had routinely pledged to pursue once the LTTE was marginalised or defeated. It was to this end – an inclusive liberal market democracy – that generous western and Indian assistance (military and developmental) has flowed for the past two decades. In fact, however, military victory in 2009 was followed by a triumphalist expansion in the Sinhala nationalist transformation of state and social order, and the rejection of negotiations with Tamil politicians; as the government made clear, with the LTTE gone, there was no more need to make ‘concessions’. Meanwhile, as high-profile Indian efforts – launched by visiting Foreign Ministers – to reconstruct, rehabilitate and develop the former warzones were thwarted by Colombo’s foot-dragging and subtle interferences in the projects, the Rajapaksa government expanded the domineering military presence in the Northeast (there are over 100,000 troops in the two provinces – more than Britain’s entire army).
It is in this context of growing international frustration that a nascent campaign by a loose coalition of international rights groups and Tamil diaspora organisations for accountability for mass atrocities in the war’s final months began to gain significant traction in western capitals, receiving a fillip in 2011 after a UN panel of experts produced a damning report into Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war. Yet even then, western states exercised patience; in 2012, the first of three US-led resolutions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council called on government to conduct its own ‘independent’ investigation into the ‘allegations’. The government bluntly refused. The 2013 resolution, while more strongly worded, did much the same – and Sri Lanka again refused. Even in late 2013, when the question of accountability overshadowed completely the Commonwealth summit in Colombo, western states continued to press for an independent ‘domestic’ inquiry. Only in 2014, five years after the war’s end, did the US and UK lead a third UNHRC resolution authorising an external investigation by the UN rights chief. The government violently rejected the resolution, as it had the two previous ones, but the inquiry is underway and will report to the UNHRC this year.
It is clear that western states and India want unproblematic relations with Sri Lanka’s new government and vice versa. However, this entails specific actions by the latter that the former believe are essential for long-term stability and peace in the island. But these steps, whether longer term( such as a negotiated political solution i.e. ‘power-sharing’ of some form, or accountability) or short term (such as demilitarisation and opening up of the Northeast to international -including diaspora flows) are an anathema to the Sinhala nationalist polity that has radically shaped the Sri Lankan state and social order since independence, and each of these steps will be vigorously opposed. In his election campaign, Sirisena, who until late last year was a senior minister in Rajapaksa’s government, explicitly vowed to oppose demands for accountability, and pointedly ignored Tamil and Muslim constituencies – it was, after all, his own Sinhala nationalist credentials that allowed him to draw off a large chunk of Rajapaksa’s vote base. Notably, since taking office Sirisena has kept Tamil leaders at arms-length and reassured Sri Lanka’s powerful Buddhist clergy that ‘security’, i.e. the heavy military presence, will be maintained in the Northeast. Yet at the same time, Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister is pledging to the international community that Sri Lanka will make progress on all these key issues – a political solution, accountability and demilitarisation.
Such inconsistency is not new, having been manifest throughout the armed conflict. However, then the gap between rhetoric and practice was easily attributed to the consequence of ongoing war – i.e. the impossibility of serious progress towards inclusive peace amid the LTTE’s armed struggle. In that sense, Sirisena’s government is attempting this dual (internal-external) strategy in a new context. In presenting itself internationally as the antithesis of Rajapaksa’s regime, and domestically as a less corrupt and repressive, but similarly committed custodian of Sinhala nationalist values, the government is banking on its declared ‘turn’ back to the West and India sufficing to forestall serious international pressure for substantive change. But it is in making good on both sets of pledges that things will sooner or later come apart – and now without the LTTE to blame – and there is already a ripple of protest in the Northeast. Thus whilst the new government has asked for, and will receive, more ‘time and space’ from the international community, to the fore now is an irreducible contradiction between international and Sinhala nationalist expectations of the ways things should be in the island.