Sri Lanka's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves at his supporters at the end of the five-day protest march from Kandy about 116 km to Colombo, in Sri Lanka, August 1, 2016. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
Sri Lanka's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves at his supporters at the end of the five-day protest march from Kandy about 116 km to Colombo, in Sri Lanka, August 1, 2016. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resounding performance at the local-council elections in early February has prompted the observation that Rajapaksa is back in politics and poised to regain political power. This is a blow to the “unity” government that replaced the Rajapaksa regime in January 2015.

The regime change that resulted in the formation of a “unity” government came about when former Rajapaksa loyalists joined the opposition right-leaning United National Party (UNP). The “unity” government suffered its first setback when a Rajapaksa-backed no-confidence motion was made against Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe on  April 4, and 16 members of the “unity” government voted for the motion.

Although the prime minister survived the motion, the government was weakened, with those 16 members who voted in favor of the no-confidence motion crossing the floor and taking their seats in the opposition benches.

Regime change

The regime change was welcomed by New Delhi and Washington. On  January 9, 2015, even before the formal announcement of the election result, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first foreign leader to call and congratulate the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, on his victory.

On the eve of the election, US secretary of state John Kerry had telephoned Rajapaksa to insist that he conduct a “free and fair election” and ensure a “peaceful” handover of power if Sirisena won the ballot. The high-level involvement by Washington in Sri Lanka’s presidential election implied that US interests were at stake.

Both Washington and New Delhi had found the increasing influence of China over Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa government to be a threat to their own influence in the strategically significant island nation.

Since late 2009, Washington had been deeply worried about Sri Lanka’s drift toward China. A December 2009 US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, “Sri Lanka: Re-charting US Strategy after the War,” had noted that Sri Lanka’s strategic drift toward China would have consequences for US interests in the region and that the United States could not afford to ‘‘lose’’ Sri Lanka. It called for increasing US leverage vis-a-vis Sri Lanka by adopting a multifaceted, broader and more robust approach to secure US interests.

New Delhi became particularly concerned after Colombo, brushing aside India’s concerns, permitted two Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo within a space of seven weeks in late 2014.

As such, Washington and New Delhi had common grounds to welcome a change of government in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it has been suggested with some justification that New Delhi with Washington’s backing had played an active role in the regime change.

Reports from Colombo accused the chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), K Ilango, of helping the opposition oust Rajapaksa as president. In the run-up to the presidential election, Ilango was transferred. In an interview given to an Indian journalist, Rajapaksa accused the West of working with RAW to oust him.

The regime change came about when Maithiripala Sirisena, a senior member of the Rajapaksa government, chose to defect with some members of his own party and challenge Rajapaksa at the presidential election of 2015. Although Sirisena won the election, he was unable to garner a majority of the Sinhala votes; he won because the Tamils and Muslims voted for him.

The Tamils had suffered immensely throughout Rajapaksa’s rule, and later in his term, Muslims were subjected to state-condoned violence. Tamils voted for Sirisena for various reasons. Some believed that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had reached an understanding with Sirisena to implement a new constitution permitting self-rule for the Tamil-dominated northeast, while others were persuaded by Sirsena’s promise to conduct an open inquiry into war-crimes allegations, and many who had lived under oppressive conditions for almost six years believed that a new administration would be an improvement.

Heavy voter turnout in the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka has also been interpreted as a negative vote cast against Rajapaksa. But there is no gainsaying that the challenge to oust Rajapaksa succeeded mainly because the Tamils voted for Sirisena.

Re-embrace of China

The regime change soon proved to be illusory for all those who had hoped to benefit. No attempt was made to address Tamil grievances. Colombo, having initially sought to balance its relationship with New Delhi and Beijing, soon began to tilt once again toward Beijing.

Sri Lanka’s re-embrace of China is attributable to two factors. The first is China’s debt-trap diplomacy, which involves providing large loans at commercial rates to countries like Sri Lanka to develop infrastructure projects in strategically significant locations. These loans are often extended in circumstances where the country is in no position to service them, forcing the borrower to lease back the asset to China.

In Sri Lanka, the management of Hambantota Port, which was built with Chinese loans, is no longer under the direct control of the Sri Lankan state. Its operation is controlled by China via its state-owned China Merchants Ports Holdings, to which Colombo sold a 70% stake as it was unable to meet its loan-repayment obligations.

Sri Lanka’s re-embrace of China was also driven by another factor: the Sinhalese fear of India’s interventionist agenda.

Ever since Sri Lanka became independent, its foreign policy has been driven by this fear of its giant neighbor. It is this perception about New Delhi that caused Sri Lanka to sign defense agreements permitting Britain the use of naval and air bases in Trincomalee immediately upon independence; take up a pro-Pakistani position during India’s war against Pakistan in 1971; seek help from countries inimical to India during the early stages of the civil war; and surreptitiously involve China during the final phase of the war without letting India know.

As far as Colombo is concerned, irrespective of the government in power, its foreign policy has always been underpinned by a compulsion to counter Indian influence.

India’s response

Undeterred, New Delhi has tried to bring Colombo within its own sphere of influence either through coercion, as Indira Gandhi did by arming Tamil rebels to exert pressure or through an alliance, or as the Indian government under Manmohan Singh attempted by helping Colombo defeat the Tamil rebels.

The latest attempt by the Indian government to bring Colombo within its orbit through “regime change” failed because New Delhi failed to grasp that the majority-Sinhala nation harbors strong reservations and resentment when it comes to India. These reservations were openly articulated by Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the United Nations, when in April 2015 he declared that India is not Lanka’s natural ally.

Nevertheless, New Delhi is unlikely to give up on Colombo. But any such effort is bound to clash with Beijing’s own robust agenda to establish its presence in Sri Lanka. Currently, Sri Lanka owes China US$8 billion of its total $65 billion of debt and as such continues to be exposed to China’s debt-trap diplomacy, not to mention Colombo’s own desire to stay out of New Delhi’s orbit.

For the foreseeable future, Colombo will continue to remain a challenge for New Delhi.

Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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