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Atul Keshap’s Talks With Mahinda Rajapaksa Has Brought a New American Twist Into the Politics of Sri Lanka

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Lucien Rajakarunanayake

The politics of division bothering the governing coalition made worse by the two key politicians associated with questionable donations from Perpetual Treasuries and its associate companies, the focus of political debate in the past three weeks, has been pushed back by the reports of the US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s reported critical comments on the possibility of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa being a candidate for, and possibly the next Executive President of Sri Lanka.

The story was first reported in the Tamil daily “Kaalaikkathi” (Morning Ray) on June 12, 2018, from a special correspondent reporting on what Ambassador Keshap had told former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at a meeting on June 10 at the former president’s residence, which could have been Keshap’s farewell meeting with MR. There was sufficient time for the US Embassy to comment on or contradict the report, which has not been done; and the story has gained wider publicity by being on the blog of journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, having very good contacts with the political and Tamil media, and has now hit the headlines in the local media.

The report in Jeyaraj’s blog states: “According to details disclosed by the Jaffna daily the 90 minute meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Atul Keshap had taken place on Sunday June 10th evening at the ex-president’s residence. The talks held cordially were on a number of relevant matters. Among these the most significant issue was about the possible presidential candidacy of ex-Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. “Kaalaikkathir” quoting very reliable sources said that the US envoy had in ‘clear, unambiguous and definite’ terms told Mahinda Rajapaksa directly that the western nations including the USA would not favourably regard Gotabhaya Rajapaksa being nominated as a Presidential candidate.

“The newspaper went on to say that Atul Keshap had reportedly stated the international community was looking forward to a person with political maturity and experience who could interact effectively within the sphere of democratic politics to be the leader of the country. The US envoy had emphasised that crushing terrorism with an iron hand and governance in a political democracy were two different things. Ambassador Keshap had bluntly told Mahinda Rajapaksa that the US and West were not in favour of a person like Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and would not welcome his contesting the presidency.” (dbsjeyaraj.com – June 14, 2018)

The trend of news reports, journalist comments and analysis on Keshap’s observations on a Gotabhaya candidacy or presidency in Sri Lanka is largely of strong criticism, considering it to be American interference in the politics of this country. This is not surprising knowing how former US Ambassadors have interfered in the politics in Sri Lanka, especially with records of antagonistic involvement and applying pressure on Sri Lanka during the country’s fight against LTTE terrorism. The US has also sought to send messages on the progress of democracy in this country, which certainly sought to favour right wing political parties and leaders, and give overall support to regional interest of the USA, as well as the political strategies of US leadership. This was very clear when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State in the first Obama Administration, and how she obtained funds from pro-LTTE organizations in the US for her first presidential election campaign. Amb. Keshap has certainly walked into the muddy terrain of local politics, and will certainly receive much more of attacks on foreign interference in our politics.

This interference in the politics and the coming presidential election in this country has to be looked at in the context of the huge protests in the US about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which saw the election of Donald Trump.

Citizenship puzzle

Yet, apart from aspects of interference in our politics, there is also a difference to this Keshap thinking on a Gotabhaya presidency. One must not forget that Gotabhaya is also a US citizen, and has been so for many years. His brother Basil is also US citizen, and there is yet another brother of the Rajapaksa family resident in Texas for very long time. Whatever may be the US thinking on a Gotabhaya presidency here, it is an interesting quirk that a family which seeks to promote strong nationalism in this country, with clear emphasis on majoritarianism – both in race and religion – is also, so much a part of US citizenry. What Keshap has spoken of is the dislike of the US (and other western nations) to a US citizen – no doubt with economic and other ties in the US, as well as very close fraternal family ties there – wanting to be the next leader of this South Asian democracy.

At a time when the US is breaking its alliances with longtime allies in the G7, the European Union, and with immediate neighbours – Canada and Mexico – in the disconcerting drive of the Trump presidency, Atul Keshap may have got it wrong on how the US government would view Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. There are indications that some of the Viyath Maga thinking has to do with Trump policies, and Chinese politics, too. Atul Keshap’s reported statement that the international community was looking forward to a person with political maturity and experience who could interact effectively within the sphere of democratic politics to be the leader of the country, emphasizing that crushing terrorism with an iron hand and governance in a political democracy were two different things; is certainly questionable with Donald Trump’s new understandings with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Trump-line America’s and so-called commitments to democracy.

US Dual Citizenship

Another interesting aspect of the Keshap thinking on Gotabhaya was the recent media statement by Pivithuru Hela Urumaya’s Udaya Gammanpila, on how easy it would be for Gotabhaya do give up his dual citizenship in the US. Responding to what he called a “Gotaphobia” being spread by his critics, Gammanpila said the renunciation of US Dual Citizenship is so simple and so quick, taking just a couple of days, and would speedily remove from him the restrictions on contesting the presidency under the 19th Amendment.

But Amb. Keshap has reportedly told MR that US laws would not permit Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to renounce US citizenship at this juncture. He had stated that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa needed to clear himself of allegations against him over war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations before the US would allow him to renounce US citizenship formally. It is only after he is cleared fully that the US would let him renounce citizenship and be eligible to contest Parliamentary or Presidential elections. (dbsjeyaraj.com – June 14, 2018).

Sri Lankans are certainly unaware of all these charges said to be against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and more information of such situations would certainly add to the rising political debate about his possible candidacy for the presidency. What we know is that our judiciary has accepted a petition from him and prevented his arrest on matters of Public Property – not war crimes or crimes against humanity – and the non-arrest gets prolonged due to recusing by learned judges. Keshap has certainly opened a whole new window, which will give strength to those who talk of ‘Gotaphobia”, and also to others who have serious concerns about a possible Gotabhaya candidacy for president by 2020 or even before, and his suitability for such position.

Family matters

The Keshap revelations, that remain unconfirmed, but not denied too, certainly brings a new veer to the debate on the future of the presidency, and must cause concern among those in the SLPP, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa who are thinking of strategies for the next presidency. It may weaken the forces with the Viyath Maga strategies for the next presidency, and also give some strength to those in the SLFP and the other parties of the Joint Opposition thinking of Chamal Rajapaksa as the candidate. This must also cause worries to those in the Sirisena-camp of the SLFP, thinking of Gotabhaya as a balancing force against the wider political strength of MR.

What the Keshap talk with Mahinda Rajapaksa has done, is to bring a new American twist into the politics of Sri Lanka. It has moved towards adding to differences within the SLFP on the emerging politics in the country, and adding to the continuing divisions within unity in the governing coalition. It could strengthen the voices of UNP campaigners who think Gotabhaya would be an easier candidate to defeat, but pays little attention to the overall popularity of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who remains the UNP’s candidate.

It is a new configuration of fraternal ties that is making its way into the politics of Sri Lanka, throwing a spanner into the works of those thinking of the content of political changes needed after the overall failure of the Yahapalana strategies of 2015, the widening divisions between the UNP and SLFP, and the unquestioned strength of the SLPP, but without an understanding of the voter base nationwide.

How much more can American thinking manipulate politics in Sri Lanka, as it continues to face the crises of divisive politics made worse with perpetual links with the politics of the crooked?

Courtesy:Daily News

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