COMMENTARY

Lessons for Asia in Sri Lanka’s souring ‘Revolution’

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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.

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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.

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14 Comments

  1. Milk gone sour can never be restored to its original state except to keep on going sour! This IS the tragedy of Sri Lanka!!!

  2. The former Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa overestimated his popularity and allowed corruption, nepotism and culture of impunity to proliferate. Lankans got fed up and voted him out. They must be accorded the credit. Some Mahinda supporters in a state of denial try to attribute the defeat to foreign influence. For the first time since independence in 1948 the ethnic- divide played a minor role in the election.
    The new Lankan government is unearthing mega scale corruption – most of them involving projects on Chinese loans. Naturally these are on hold pending investigation and must not be construed as anti-Chinese. Even if some of the corruption allegations are proved, the lessons learned may lead to a less corrupt era. The ethnic divide must not be the issue at future elections.

  3. This article hardly captures the ground reality in Sri Lanka. Actually Sirisena is the first president in 4 decades to win over people from all over the country. No one should under estimate their power.

  4. What is not made explicit in the article is that “the murderous terrorist group was created since 1956 by an even more murderous and even racist religious bigoted terrorist State through policies, laws, race riots and pogroms against Tamil people backed by mobs and politicians aand killings etc for over 2 decades to win so-called majoritarian votes at elections” by racist inclined parties/governments”. The Rajapakse regime gave the final icing to the rotten governance by a war of attrition against Tamils and even Muslims backed by monks. The present government by careful manipulation seemed intent to change the culture of impunity, corruption, murderous cults institutionalised in the State by radically manipulating the constitution, the division of state responsibilities by amalgamating all such functions within the Presidency and making him a “dictator” with untrammelled powers with absolutely no checks and balances making it a supreme murderous dictatorship. Now we learn about billions of $ salted away in hidden bank accounts even if proof is yet awaited. The Chinese loan is yet another story secretly signed with no details made known then to the public even though the pubic will have to settle the debt!The Mattala airport was rushed through seemingly without pre-feasibility and feasibility studies. Same goes for the rest of the projects reflecting supreme ignorance on the subject known as “prestige projects”!

    When will the people learn? Will they ever?!!!

  5. I agree with L Raja. The Problem is , When Sri Lankans realise what happened, may be afte 4 – 5 years, it will be too late. Really, Sri Lankans made a big mistake and our mother land is in danger. Mahinda Rajapaksa also deserve part of the blame and he should try to correct his mistakes for the missed opportunity. The rapid and vast development led by Gota was never done by any person in the history. Imagine how was colombo before they do that in last few years. They should correct their faults and come back again. It is obvious We cant expect any development from present goverment except obaying to Western powers.

  6. Rajapakse family has decided to rule sri lanka like their own fiefdom while disregarding all rules and democratic values.

    IF he is a Democrat, he should accept the will of the people since those who voted are non other than Sri Lankan Citizens.

  7. Oh please Mahinda Rajapaksha is still the hero of the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka or at least the vast majority of them. Sirisena clearly only got over the line due to a combined vote between the Tamils and Muslims. The muslims were annoyed by Rajapaksha’s failures in addressing and taking action against idiotic parties such as the BBS run by extremist monks who went on rampages against the muslims in order to harm the social fabric of Sri Lanka. He also failed to fix up the Sri Lankan parliament but people also saw that he did more work than essentially any other Sri Lankan president in history in terms of the provision of infrastructure and development. The fact that he ended a war that was supposedly never endable, is reason enough for him to be a hero to the country forever. I believe he will comeback, learn from his mistakes and take Sri Lanka to where it actually belongs in terms of the world economy.

    • Rajapakse oppressed the Tamils much more after eliminating the LTTE – so it was not terrorism he was really after – he was after destroying the social fabric of the Tamils. He didn’t criticise the BBS that went on rampage against the Muslims., So Rajapakse was a racist who loves the Sinhalese too much to make Sri Lanka hell for the ‘others’.

  8. Your articles seems one sided and aiming to destroy other group(s) on behalf of another group. Sri Lanka political problems need an indepth study before even think to write any articles in your journal.

  9. A. I Wimalasena on

    This writer is trying to brainwash the public. He is taking us all for fools.

    This writer is totally distorting facts and is selective in choosing facts so that he can distort them.

    He had better permanently absorb it into his head that the people decided that MR had to be kicked out with his misbegotten band. That was the main and only aim. The other actions in the 100 day program are complementary to this main aim. And the only way to achieve that was to get the total support of the UNP. Even Ven Sobitha would not have won if he was forced to present himself as the common candidate.

    This so-called writer must realize that this movement to kick out MR and his misbegotten band rose in the public domain led by many people including Rev. Sobitha. It was not a strategetic plan of the UNP or Western powers. Only mentally bankrupt people would think so or even try to make other people think so.

  10. Thanks Kalinga for writing the truth. When Sri Lankans realise what happened, may be afte 4 – 5 years, it will be too late. With the the last presidential election, Sri Lankans made a big mistake. Mahinda also deserve part of the blame for the missed opportunity. For me, Gota is the only hope, if he improves his patience and contest the election. God bless mother Lanka!

  11. This article completely ignores and cover up why people of Sri Lanka decided against voting Mahinda Rajapakse to power; extremely high corruption by his family and henceman, complete breakdown of law and order and manipulating it for personal gains and silencing any critics by hook or crook. It was as same as the era of Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines. A high portion of Chinese loans were obtained at high interest, and used in infrastructure projects that brought no income (Mattala airport and Hambantota harbour). Recently the current president Sri Lankan president toured China and wanted to renegotiate a deal to construct a highway. The original estimate (during Rajapakse era) was SLR 24 billion and the same company, using the same specifications, agreed to build it with SLR 8 billion. What would have happened to that SLR 16 billion is anybody’s guess.

  12. Chandranath on

    Former President was outvoted because of corruption , nepotism and dictatorship. It is unlikely that he will return to power soon.

    • Suduhunpola on

      ‘corruption, nepotism and dictatorship’ – the Big Lie scheme against President that worked this time.
      President was outvoted because of deception by he-who-lost-29-times-in elections + most unpopular-woman politician + the king of Betrayal + US & Indian support to separatists in the country