Sri Lanka Perspectives: December 2020
by R Hariharan on 08 Jan 2021 0 Comment

Sri Lanka needs a positive agenda for 2021, after a wasted year


The year 2020 will go down as a tumultuous and inglorious year in Sri Lanka’s history. It was a bleak year on many fronts, after huge public expectations were kindled by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election 2019.  No doubt, the global Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the President’s woes. Its disastrous effect on the already debt-laden economy brought three major sources of income and employment – tourism, maritime trade and expatriate income – to almost a standstill.


President Rajapaksa is known as a hands-on leader, who works with clear goals and a structured approach to problem solving. So, he managed the Covid threat with reasonable success, kept the economy afloat, with some patch-up credit from big powers. He spoke of stimulus package for economic revival and using technology tools to improve governance while explaining his vision in his address to the parliament. He restructured the national security apparatus.


As a good military strategist, the first time politician-turned-president reinforced his power base by successfully holding the general election in the midst of the pandemic. He cashed on the feeling of insecurity of Therawada Buddhist Sinhala majority, which zoomed after home-grown Jihadi terrorists’ suicide attack on the Easter Sunday in April 2019, killing 259 people. In the process, his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) gained two thirds majority support in the parliament, decimating the badly split main opposition – United National Party (UNP).  He minced no words to proclaim a unified Sri Lanka was for the Buddhist majority who voted him to office, where Tamils and Muslims can live amicably. The die was cast to create him as a modern day Duttagemunu, set to restore the majoritarian pride and ensure a safe and secure country for the Buddhists.


President Rajapaksa used his political strength to regain the powers the executive presidency by pushing through the 19th amendment to the Constitution. Within two months in office, he ensured the three Rajapaksa brothers, between them, controlled the ministries of defence, public security, finance, economy and policy development, Buddhasasana and cultural and religious affairs, urban development, water supply and residential facilities. His lack of trust in political leaders came out loud and clear, with creation of a super cabinet of sorts, packed with trusted military veterans and expert bureaucrats to oversee the government ministries’ performance.


The President halted the investigative agencies, like the CID and the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), which were investigating a number of criminal cases involving the Rajapaksas and military intelligence and naval personnel. Senior officers of these agencies actively working on these cases were hounded out. His Special Presidential Commission (SPC) constituted to probe those responsible for falsely implicating people has recently submitted its report.


It is clear that under President Rajapaksa’s dispensation, we have a highly centralised government, with strong military overtones, run on Sinhala Buddhist religious and cultural ethos. Only the President’s writ runs and the rule of law has become a dictated one. This has proclaimed death knell for minority political aspirations for an equitable society. They fear even the few measures taken by the earlier governments to meet some of their aspirations are likely to be undone. The delay in holding provincial council (PC) elections, periodic threat to repeal 13th amendment that created the PC, repeated calls for changing the electoral system, delay in drafting a new constitution and the witch hunting of Muslims by fringe elements in administration and ruling parties are a few examples justifying minority fears. The latest in this series is the administration’s callous refusal to allow burial of Covid victims from Muslim community, as required by Islam, on specious health grounds.


The leaders of the badly mauled opposition parties, including Tamil and Muslim minority leaders, are equally guilty for this state of affairs. They should stop looking over the shoulder for external powers to bail them out of their inability resolve their problems. They are neither united internally, nor networked externally, to evolve a game plan to provide an alternative agenda for the people.


President Rajapaksa continues to enjoy unmatched popularity and majority support in parliament. With total control of the government machinery in his hands, he had a great opportunity in 2020 to embark upon resolving long standing national issues stymieing growth and development. These include ethnic reconciliation, restructuring democratic governance, removing human rights aberrations and restoring rule of law. Unfortunately, he spent the year in strengthening his position and pandering to those who politically supported him. He needs to recast his agenda on a broader national format.


Otherwise, President Rajapaksa is likely to spend 2021 in trying to manage the fallout of his flawed priorities. In the increasingly networked world, these issues are inextricably woven in Sri Lanka’s external relations, as much as in internal relations. We can expect Sri Lanka to come under immense pressure in managing the strategic security polemics in the Indo-Pacific region, as China is expected increase its aggressive economic and military muscle flexing during 2021. This is likely to further constrict President Rajapaksa’s space to do tight rope walking to further Sri Lanka’s national priorities.


His agenda should be to build a national consensus for a positive action plan for the year. It should include ethnic reconciliation, restructuring democratic governance, removing human rights aberrations and restoring rule of law. These issues are required to be resolved, because he appears to be the only leader capable to doing it at present. This casts a leadership burden on him, not to satisfy is any external power, but to be known as the true achiever, beyond winning wars.  Will he? The coming year only can tell.



South Asia Security Trends, January 2021,


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