By Barun Das Gupta
In a way, the outcome of the presidential election in Sri Lanka, held on November 16, was decided as far back as April 21, Easter Sunday, when Islamist terrorists killed 259 persons in a series of attacks on three churches, three luxury guest houses and a housing complex. The Sinhala public opinion turned decisively against the Muslims. They wanted a “strongman” like Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A former lieutenant colonel in the Sri Lankan army and later the country’s Defence Secretary, it was Gotabaya who decimated the LTTE with ruthless ferocity. Not only was the founder and leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran shot dead, even his twelve-year-old son Balachandran was also riddled with bullets.
Complaints of cold-blooded murder of unarmed Tamil civil population in the final stages of the civil war were made to the United Nations, but as his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa later became the country’s president, Sri Lanka successfully stalled the proceedings in the UN body. Even India did not press for inquiry into the human rights violations. Mahinda did not contest this time. He fielded his his younger brother Gotabaya. Both the brothers are pro-Chinese and it is during the elder Rajapaksa’s tenure as president, that Sri Lanka allowed two Chinese submarines to be docked in the Colombo port, much to the consternation of India.
Maithripala Sirisena’s election as president in 2014 was a severe setback to Beijing as Sirisena brought his country’s foreign policy back on an even keel, giving up the pronouncedly pro-Chinese tilt of the Rajapaksas. One prominent feature of the Rajapaksa regime was that it led the island nation into China’s debt trap.
As was to be expected, this month’s election was held in a highly surcharged atmosphere. Poll day saw stray attacks on Muslim voters. A Sri Lankan writer, Lasantha Wijeratna, was stabbed by four unidentified men who broke into his home. Apparently, the assailants were angry because Wijeratna had written a book which was critical of Gotabaya. The role of the electronic media was also a factor. None other than the Election Commission chairman Mahinda Deshapriya admitted that the election coverage of the TV channels – private as well as State-controlled – was “highly biased”. He warned that the offenders would be prosecuted after the election.
Deshapriya has asked for powers to control private electronic media during elections. Otherwise, he has said, it would be impossible to ensure free and fair elections. He has also “gently reminded” the President-elect about the urgency of holding Provincial Council elections which had been made to “disappear”. How Gotabaya reacts to the Election Commission’s observations will give an insight into his democratic intentions and how he wants to rule the country for the next five years.
Though there were 35 candidates in the fray, the main contest lay between Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party (SLPP). Gotabaya polled 69,24,255 votes or 52.55 per cent, while his principal rival Premadasa polled 55,64,239 votes or 41.91 per cent. But the election results show the highly polarized nature of the 1.6 crore electorate. Premadasa polled as much as 80 per cent of votes in the Tamil-dominated north and the Muslim majority east. The Sinhala vote which is the decisive factor went in favour of Gotabaya. It is this that enabled Gotabaya to win.. But unless Gotabaya is sensitive to the people living in the north and the east, it will not be easy to govern the country.
The election of Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015 signified India’s diplomatic victory over China. In a diplomatic see-saw battle, China has now effectively turned the tables on India. India will have to accept it and fashion its diplomacy to best serve its interests in the changed circumstances. It will have particularly to watch Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under Gotabaya. Even before his election, he had assured Beijing that if he won, he would promote his country’s relations with China. After his victory, how Sino-Sri Lanka relations develop will be a matter of concern to India.
With the Chinese Navy increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s importance has increased. Colombo has already been forced to sell its Hambantota seaport to the Chinese because it could not pay the debt to the Chinese company which built it. So China has now got refueling facilities for all its naval vessels including submarines, close to India.
India needs to take a re-look at her diplomacy vis-à-vis China in South-East Asia. Nepal has gravitated toward China. India has now suffered another setback in Sri Lanka. New Delhi will have to make special efforts to deepen and widen its ties with the Maldives. The people of this small island nation in the Indian Ocean have voted out the pro-Chinese and authoritarian regime of Abdullah Yameen and elected Ibrahim Solih as its new president. Solih is a friend of India. China may make its next move in the Maldives. South Block should be prepared in advance to frustrate Chinese efforts at wooing Maldives back into its orbit. (IPA Service)