Col R Hariharan
The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President with a clear majority of 52.25% votes, 10.25% more than polled by his younger rival Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United Nationalist Party (UNP), tells many things. Sinhala majority has voted Rajapaksa clan back to power with a strong mandate; on the flip side, minority community votes mostly in favour did not help Sajith win.
With the consolidation of Sinhala majority in favour of President Gotabaya is likely to further delay the ethnic reconciliation process; it was never seriously taken up by both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sirisena governments, during the last ten years of peace. In other words, ethnic polarization is here to stay.
The Sinhala majority has preferred Gotabaya to lead the state after they saw President Sirisena government’s inept handling of national security resulting in Easter Sunday attacks. Evidently, they consider national security as more important than other issues like structural reforms, ethnic reconciliation and good governance. So we can expect President Gotabaya to remove 19th Amendment to the Constitution as promised in the run up to the election and restore powers of executive presidency.
Lastly, Gotabaya’s victory also indicates peoples’ disillusionment with the outgoing yahapalana government. It is likely to affect the United National Party’s (UNP) performance in the parliamentary election likely to be held in March 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the newly elected president soon after the result was announced. This underlined the importance India attaches to leadership change in Sri Lanka. The visit was strategically significant for India as the Rajapaksas were seen as close to China. The two-day visit to New Delhi on November 29-30 was equally important for President Gotabaya because he needs India’s support to improve national security, combat Islamist terrorism and help economic recovery. His statement after he was accorded the ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan, that he wanted to “bring the relationship between India and Sri Lanka to a very high level,” underscored his agenda.
So it was not surprising that the talks of the two leaders went off well. PM Modi commenting on the talks said a stable Sri Lanka was in the interest of India and the entire Indian Ocean Region (IOR). He said the two countries have decided to work together to strengthen their multi-dimensional partnership. PM Modi added “In line with my government’s neighbourhood first policy and SAGAR doctrine, we give primacy to our relationship with Sri Lanka. That is why it is natural that we are concerned about each other’s defence and security needs and sensitivities.”
PM Modi assured Sri Lankan president of India’s help in overall development of the country. PM Modi also announced a line of credit of $ 400 million to boost the island nation’s development and $50 million for dealing with security related issue.
After the talks with PM Modi, President Rajapaksa was more explicit on a number of issues in his media interviews. These are summarized here:
· 19th Amendment to the constitution: The Sirisena government introduced 19th amendment to make the executive president more accountable to the parliament. The President said the amendment was “a failure and if we get 2/3 majority in parliament we will drop it from the constitution.”
· Implementing 13th Amendment: PM Modi in a brief press statement on November 29, had expressed the hope that the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution based on the Indo-Sri Lanka accord would be adhered to. However, President Gotabaya says 13th Amendment could not be implemented “against the wishes an feelings of the majority community.”
· On Islamic State (IS) terrorism: The IS was a global threat and India and other countries have more information on this threat than Sri Lanka. Gotabaya hoped for more cooperation with India on national security issues, particularly on terrorism. As a part of his focus on security issues, he said he was reversing the Sirisena government’s moves to curtail powers of the military.
· On China’s investment in Sri Lanka: If they want to provide an alternative to Chinese investment, India, Japan, Singapore and other countries “should tell their companies to invest in Sri Lanka and help us grow” because if they do not, then not only Sri Lanka, but countries all over Asia will have a problem.
· Ties with China and Pakistan: On the ‘main issues’ of Sri Lankan ties with China and Pakistan, there would be no problem ‘that creates suspicions amongst Indian authorities’.
· Regaining control of Hambantota port: Sri Lanka government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. With Sri Lankan control, they can do anything. The 99-year lease agreements the previous government had signed would have an impact on our future.
However, after President Gotabaya has come to power, there are disturbing trends that remind the people of highhandedness during the Rajapaksa rule. Sunday Times, Colombo, reported a Special Presidential Commission is to be appointed to probe those responsible for falsely implicating people in murders or related investigation. Civic rights of those responsible will be stripped. The probe will cover staff of state investigative agencies like the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
Even before SPC probe started, investigators of the CID are being investigated. This was sparked off after Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva, head of organized crimes division of CID left with his family for Switzerland; he is said to have sought asylum there. Inspector de Silva was handling high profile cases that occurred during the Rajapaksa rule. These included the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of The Sunday Leader and the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, Associate Editor of The Nation. The Swiss government has accused the government of interrogating a female local employee of the Swiss embassy in Colombo, after unknown persons kidnapped her and intimidated her immediately after de Silva fled.
So despite President Gotabaya’s correct rhetoric after assuming office, he has to show that he was capable of carrying all sections of society to progress in a safe environment.