Dramatic change in Sri Lanka: Can it foster better relations with India
by Ashok B Sharma on 20 Jan 2015 1 Comment

Recent political developments in Sri Lanka have drawn the attention of South Asia and the world. The credit rightly goes to the people and political spectrum of Sri Lanka for dislodging a despotic and arrogant Mahinda Rajapaksa from power in a bloodless ballot box coup. Rajpaksa’s exit is expected to usher in process of further democratic reforms in the island country.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was prompt in congratulating Maithripala Sirisena on being sworn in as the new President of the island republic and assured to work with him and invited him to visit India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also called on her counterpart Mangala Samaraweera and congratulated him and invited him to visit India, which he immediately accepted. Samaraweera is expected to begin his first foreign tour with a visit to India on January 18. But all said India is ready to allow Sirisena to settle down and take his own time in fulfilling the people’s mandate.


Rajapaksa created concerns for India by refusing to devolve political and financial powers to the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces as per the 13thAmendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. After the decimation of one of the world’s deadliest guerrilla groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and killing of thousands of innocent Tamils in the process, Rajapaksha was too slow in his rehabilitation plan. India extended financial support for the rehabilitation of Tamils, but the Rajapaksa regime was tardy. 


The former president also refused to allow an independent inquiry into the horrific massacre in 2009. The violation of human rights in the 2009 massacre invited global concern and the issue was debated in the UN Human Rights Council, but India did not pressurize much hoping that good sense would prevail upon Rajapaksa sooner than later. It is now hoped that Sirisena may take steps to address the concerns of the international community. The UN Human Rights Council is likely to take up this issue in the next session in Geneva in March.


Had Rajapaksa been allowed to remain in power and continue with his arrogant attitude on this issue for long, Colombo might have invited sanctions from the Western powers, thereby hurting the island country’s economy.


Moreover, to annoy India, Rajapaksa planned closer links with China even at the cost of South Asia. Both Sirisena and the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have criticised Rajapaksa for inviting huge loans from China for building roads, ports and other infrastructure. They are opposed to building another port in Colombo with Chinese assistance as it would cause huge ecological damage. Despite India’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 New Delhi’s expense.


After the 2009 massacre, Rajapaksa bounced back with a second successive term in 2010, but did not strengthen Sri Lankan democracy. The parliamentary elections of April 2010 gave his party a two-third majority and enabled it to amend the Constitution that stipulated only two terms for a president. Why did he do this? He thought that the Buddhist-majority population would reward him for the 2009 massacre by electing him repeatedly. His other interest was to protect himself and his coterie – his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, army generals and officials and hosts of other Rajapaksas - from possible war crimes. But unfortunately for Rajapaksa, Sri Lankans were not willing to tolerate his game any longer.


The 18th Amendment to the Constitution 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 the judiciary and removed Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and appointed Attorney General Mohan Peiris in his place.


Over-confidence made Rajapaksa go in for fresh polls after completing only four years of his six-year term. Overnight, 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 Wickremasinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sirisena also got support from some Muslim and Sinhalese outfits that were fed up with the dictatorial and corrupt Rajapaksa regime. This ensured Sirisena’s victory.


Sirisena had promised to abolish the executive powers of the President and return to Westminster style parliamentary democracy. This would amount to scraping of the 18th Amendment and bringing in further amendments to the Constitution. He would have to mobilise numbers in Parliament and possibly have to rely on Rajapaksa’s SLFP or depend upon further defection from SLFP. This will not be an easy task.


As for the devolution of powers to the Tamil provinces, he is better equipped with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution already in place. The 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 outfits, promised not to withdraw the army from Tamil provinces. One should not forget that Sirisena is also perceived as a Sinhalese hardliner.


Sirisena won with the support of several forces 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. India has always attempted to have better relations with Sri Lanka. Its economic engagements with its island neighbour, including the free trade agreement between the two countries, could help Colombo graduate to the status of a developing country from a least developed one.


One hopes Sirisena will better Colombo’s ties with India. Rajapaksa had obliged India by his presence at the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in May 2014, but his approach did not move beyond this gesture. It now depends upon how much Prime Minister Modi and President Sirisena work out relations to the mutual benefit of the two neighbours and for SAARC and BIMSTEC groups in which both nations are active participants.   

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