A political shift is imminent in Sri Lanka

| Updated on November 21, 2019

Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa, known for their China tilt and hardline views, are set to come back to power. India should take note

Is it back to the past for Sri Lanka after voters elected as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, once the much-feared defence minister who brutally crushed the Tamil Tigers? The eyes of the world, and especially India, China and the US, will be watching the first moves of Gotabaya, who made national security his campaign’s central theme after the Easter terrorist attacks. Domestically, Tamils and Muslims will be nervously watching the man, who was the favourite of militant Buddhist groups. Almost all the Tamils and Muslims, who comprise 25 per cent of the population, are thought to have voted for Rajapaksa’s rival, Sajith Premadasa. Gotabaya, who belongs to the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist SLPP, has moved quickly to say he aims to “serve all Sri Lankans,” not just the ones voted for him. India’s had differences in the past with the Rajapaksa family because of its perceived closeness to China, but it’s thought both sides have attempted to bridge the gaps. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday saying he looks forward to deepening bilateral ties with the new government.

It’s almost certain Gotabaya will name as Prime Minister his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s strongman President until his 2015 defeat. While the President’s the key constitutional authority, the Prime Minister reports to the legislature. The biggest challenge ahead for the Rajapaksas is to revive the economy, growing at a five-year low of 1.6 per cent. The island’s heavily dependent on tourism, which took a hit after the Easter attacks. Indian tourists moved to the top spot from a lowly ninth after Sri Lanka allowed visa-free travel for Indians. Beyond that is the question of whether the brothers erode press freedom and democracy that lost ground during Mahinda’s earlier rule as president.

The biggest question mark, though, now that the hitherto Chinese-tilting Rajapaksas are returning to power, is how they’ll play the China card. The Chinese have poured money into Sri Lanka, underwriting huge projects like the Hambantota Port, and they reckoned to have completed infrastructure projects worth over $10 billion. But Sri Lanka’s been forced to give Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease because it couldn’t repay the massive debts incurred on building it — it still attracts very few ships. China’s also involved in a $1.4-billion project to build a new Colombo Port City on reclaimed land in the capital. Largely to counter Chinese influence, India and Japan signed a deal in May to build a deep-sea container port in Colombo. About 70 per cent of the existing port’s trans-shipment business is India-related. The US has also offered aid to Sri Lanka, but that triggered a protest fast by an influential Buddhist monk. The Chinese have been working hard to build their power in the Indian Ocean region and Sri Lanka’s crucial to their strategy. India must also move smartly to ensure it doesn’t lose ground in a country so strategically vital for us.

Published on November 17, 2019

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