ON January 8 this year Sri Lanka’s powerful president Mahinda Rajapakse was defeated in a shock vote propelled by a “peoples’ revolution” focused on endemic political corruption in the country. The winner Maitripala Sirisena has presented to the electorate a “100-day” program to rid the country of corruption.
However, when the “100-day” period expired on April 23rd with most of its promises unfulfilled, and with many of its leaders showing more interest in mending fences with the West than attending to tackling corruption at the grassroots, many Sri Lankans are now openly expressing fears of their country drifting towards the kind of chaos created in Libya and Syria in recent years.
These fears were further exacerbated after the visit of the US Secretary of State John Kerry to the island on May 1 and 2, where he was blatantly trying to tell officials of the new government how to run their domestic and foreign affairs.
President Sirisena, a defector from Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), after his victory appointed as Prime Minister the leader of SLFP’s arch rival the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickemasinghe, whose party only commands 45 seats in the parliament while the SLFP and its allies command 130 seats.
The UNP has traditionally being strong allies of the West, and particularly Wickremasinghe is well known to be very close to the US and Norway, and he is widely seen in Sri Lanka as a politician whose interests are aligned more with the geo-political needs of the West rather than the national interests of Sri Lanka.
With the SLFP badly divided at the moment between two factions – one backing Sirisena and the other allied to Rajapakse – a parliamentary election now could decimate the SLFP to give Wickremasinghe’s UNP victory on a silver platter. A Wickremasinghe led government could see Sri Lanka align itself closely with the US and EU, push back Chinese investments and scuttle China’s Maritime Silk Route project, where Sri Lanka’s China-built Hambantota harbor is a crucial lynchpin.
It is interesting how Kerry was trying to woo Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority who are largely suspicious of the West. He visited Sri Lanka on the eve of the Vesak festival, a grand festival in Sri Lanka held over three days to mark the Buddha’s birth. He attended a widely publicized ceremony at one of the leading Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, where he was given a traditional blessing by the chief monk, who placed a Buddhist relic on his head.
In a speech he gave at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relation, Kerry said: “It is sometimes necessary to go to war, despite the pain it brings. For all of my country’s disagreements with the previous government in Sri Lanka over how it fought the LTTE, we clearly understood the necessity of ridding this country of a murderous terrorist group and the fear that it sowed.”
If the US understood Sri Lanka’s need to eliminate the LTTE, one would ask why there was such a witch-hunt against the Rajapakse regime spearheaded by the US at the UN Human Rights Council accusing the government of war crimes and threatening sanctions against the country?
The Council’s report recommending sanctions is been withheld until September and one would assume that, it will be tabled in Geneva if the Sri Lankan voters, by then, haven’t elected a Wickremasinghe-led government. Kerry knows, that to achieve that aim, an election needs to be held soon and a substantial portion of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote needs to drift away from Rajapakse to Wickremasinghe.
A movement to bring back Rajapakse to power as SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate at the general elections, has been gathering steam in the past 2 months. Already, 4 mammoth rallies have been held by his supporters from the SLFP and their former governing alliance the United Peoples Freedom Alliance, which have drawn over 500,000 each time. The former president has risen from his unexpected setback and with his trademark street fighter brand of politics, attracting more attention from the public than Sirisena or Wickremasinghe. He has been visiting Buddhist temple functions and making speeches, also visiting his former ministers detained on bribery allegations in prison giving media interviews at the prison gates.
In March, Rajapakse gave an interview to The Hindu newspaper in which he said that the January election result was an outcome of a conspiracy to change regime undertaken by RAW (India’s intelligence agency), the US, Norway and some other EU countries.
Under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka was one of the earliest subscribers to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) project that will challenge the Manila-based US-Japan controlled Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) monopoly on development funding and policy management in the region.
Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, after infamously accusing Chinese investors of being corrupt, has been negotiating intensely with ADB for loans and he told the media after returning from an ADB meeting on May 8th, that the bank will increase its loans three fold to Sri Lanka.
Thus it is interesting to see how the geo-political battle between the US and China in Asia is being played out in Sri Lanka, while corruption allegations are used to silence anyone who may not be supportive of the western designs.
The US and the EU hate both Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse because both ignored western attempts to interfere in Sri Lanka’s civil war in support of the LTTE. They told the West basically to mind their own business and with help from China and Russia they were able to finish the war. This has been the only instance in the “war on terror” era of a country successfully eradicating a terror group.
In the aftermath of the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development took off in a frenzy with Chinese aid, and the economy was growing at a healthy 7 percent when Rajapakse was overthrown. For the West, this cannot be held up as a good example, because it showed that the West could be irrelevant in shaping up the 21st century Asian Age.
On the other hand, China should also learn from Sri Lanka’s experience that money alone cannot build Chinese influence in the region. China needs a well coordinated media and public relations strategy in the region with local media and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners – which the West is best at as seen in Sri Lanka right now.