Monday, December 22, 2014

Elections in Sri Lanka and Evolving Relationship with India

Brig Vinod Anand, 
Senior Fellow, VIF

The coming elections for the Presidency in Sri Lanka have heightened the political activity. President Mahinda Rajapakse is seeking a third term based on the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (carried out in 2010 to overcome the two-term limitation for a President) that had been objected to by the Opposition parties. The Opposition parties have thrown up a joint candidate Maithripala Sirisena (who was General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and has now defected to the opposing side) to present a unified front in order to defeat Rajapakse. Two other cabinet ministers have also joined the opposition. This only shows the level of resentment even within the ruling party to the present dispensation which to all accounts is being controlled by one family. Rajapakse government has been termed as corrupt and authoritarian by the opposition.

In a recent online survey carried out 52% of the respondents selected corruption while 21% selected the economy, 19% selected constitutional reform and balance chose human rights as the major issues in elections. The survey also opined that if the Presidential election is to be held tomorrow, majority of respondents believed that Maithripala Sirisena would win. Only 23.94% believe that President Rajapakse would win. Many of the political leaders from the ruling party and the opposition have crossed over to the other side but the opinion-poll says that the opposition’s common candidate has benefited the most.

Srisena has also promised cleaning up government corruption and full implementation of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations as suggested by the UN Human Rights Commission besides repealing the 18th Amendment. By all accounts, there is a viable opposition even while Rajapakse remains confident that he will come out as a winner. However, it is expected to be a close contest. There is also the question of executive Presidency which the opposition parties have resolved to abolish. But then the question of whether executive Presidency should continue or not has been part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s politics for long with both sides favouring it or going against it as is politically expedient to them at a given point of time. The possibilities of violence and fraud during elections cannot be ruled out given the total control on the polity and power by the present government. Rajapakse had used money and muscle power and the government machinery and distributed favours to defeat Sarath Fonseka in the 2009 presidential election.

India would be naturally interested in a free and fair poll that reflects the wishes of Tamil majority areas in North and East of Sri Lanka. The possibilities of Bodu Bala Sena (a radical Buddhist outfit) being utilized by the current dispensation to improve its electoral prospects in certain areas cannot be ruled out. There are also apprehensions that Rajapakse government may indulge in malpractices in Tamil majority areas because of their antipathy to the current government and concomitant lack of support. Devolution of powers to Tamil areas had been promised by Rajapakse but he has not delivered. India has been insisting on Rajapakse that he should implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution which mandates devolution of powers to the provinces. There is also the question of human rights violations in the closing phase of civil war in 2009. There is a view that an opposition victory might be able to address these issues positively.

Ethnic issue has been one of the contentious issues in the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. India has indeed been the most important external actor in the Sri Lankan ethnic issue that was determined by its geo-strategic interests, internal political factor and as a regional power, apart from its desire to find a permanent settlement to the ethnic conflict in its neighbourhood. India has been caught in a ‘dilemma’ of finding a solution meeting the sentiments and rights of the aggrieved Tamil community, but without affecting the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. New Delhi has been encouraging Sri Lanka to reach an accommodation with the main Sri Lanka Tamil political group, the Tamil National Alliance on the issue of devolution of power to Tamil majority areas in North and East.
With the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 that put an end to the three decade long conflict, conditions were created to work towards peace and prosperity. Presently, New Delhi’s broad concerns are resettlement and development of and bringing a lasting political settlement of the ethnic issue in the long run. India has been implementing developmental assistance projects for the Internally Displaced Persons and disadvantaged sections of the population in Sri Lanka. Despite ups and downs in relations on the ethnic issue, cooperation in economic and cultural fields improved tremendously over the years. Economic relations especially received big boost after entry into force of a bilateral Indo-Lanka Free Trade Agreement in March 2000. In few years, India became Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner, and Sri Lanka, India’s largest trading partner in South Asia. Sri Lanka has also been a priority destination for India’s Foreign Direct Investment. The estimates are that bilateral trade could be doubled to 10 billion USD from the current levels of 5 billion in three years or so. The question of Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) has been pending since 2009 as Sri Lanka feels that existing FTA needs to become more effective before progressing to CEPA.

The aspect of increasing presence of extra-regional powers like China with strategic objectives has created some complications in the evolving Indo-Sri Lankan relations.

The docking of Chinese submarines in September and October this year in Colombo (the second one Changzheng 2 is nuclear powered), despite some reasoning offered by the Chinese, have created strategic concerns for India. Chinese naval ships have also docked at the container terminal of Colombo raising apprehensions. While Sri Lanka has readily joined China’s New Maritime Silk Route initiative because of possible commercial benefits, India is still weighing the benefits or otherwise of this new initiative and its strategic connotations.

Response from Sri Lankan side has been that their government was fully aware of India’s security concerns and it will not do anything to undermine India’s security concerns. Seemingly intractable issues over many decades have been solved through negotiations between the two countries. Sri Lanka’s leadership feels that their security and prosperity is tied with that of India. Although the three decades conflict has been brought to an end in 2009, yet Sri Lanka’s security concerns regarding residual elements of LTTE and its supporters (Tamil diaspora and Tamils of Tamil Nadu) remain because they still have some foothold inside and outside Sri Lanka. Thus, according to Colombo, their security also gets impacted in the same manner as on India. They also feel that with a strong Modi government at the Centre, the problem of coalition compulsions could be overcome and India’s approach towards Sri Lanka would not get affected by domestic politics. However, looking at the issue from New Delhi’s perspective, no Indian government can ignore the sentiments of Tamils both in Tamil Nadu and in North East areas of Sri Lanka.

Further, in so far as China’s activities in Indian Ocean are concerned, the Sri Lankan interlocutors emphasise the point that Beijing also needs to secure its SLOCs against piracy. Location of Sri Lanka makes it a hub of communications in the Indian Ocean and it is inevitable that ships from different countries would use its ports. However, it is incumbent on Sri Lanka to ensure that such activities do not affect India’s security. Further, the balance of power has shifted to Asia and both China and India will play a major role in the Indian Ocean. Thus, in Sri Lanka’s perspective, China will use Indian Ocean more frequently and this can’t be avoided in the same manner as India would need to expand its activities in South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. No single country can meet the threats to maritime security and this is reflected in a number of joint naval exercises being held in Indian and Pacific Oceans.

On the other hand, Indian interlocutors feel that sending of submarines is not necessary for anti-piracy or any other connected maritime security operations; submarine operations are meant for projection of power into Indian Ocean.

Further, despite India’s presence in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure, the Chinese investments have triggered India’s security threat perceptions. Balancing a larger neighbour by inviting outside help is a game that is played by the smaller neighbour. It is happening all across SAARC and it is no wonder that Sri Lanka is also doing it. Colombo was also in favour of granting full membership to China in SAARC. Obviously, such a step would have affected the centrality of India in this regional multilateral organization.

It also needs to be remembered that during the civil war that ended in 2009, China and Pakistan had provided weapons and other defence equipment to Sri Lankan armed forces while India had only given defensive systems to them in their struggle against the LTTE.

Further, while China has been voting against UNHCR resolution against investigation of human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan armed forces in the last stages of the civil war, India has voted twice in favour and has once absented itself during the UN vote. Though China and India might have their own logic for such action, nevertheless this has had an impact on India-Sri Lanka and China dynamics.

In so far as US and European Union are concerned, they account for two-thirds of Sri Lankan exports. However, Rajapakse’s stance on human rights issues and accountability etc. are not helpful in strengthening their relationship. The US and EU continue to sponsor UNHCR resolutions against Sri Lanka and have called for investigations and holding of war crime trials. In fact, Sri Lanka’s relations with Western powers have deteriorated over the years.

Notwithstanding the likely results of forthcoming Presidential elections in Sri Lanka, India needs to strengthen its defence and economic relationship with Sri Lanka. India’s record in implementing projects in Sri Lanka has not been good; as pointed out by Sri Lankan interlocutors in a recent interaction. New Delhi needs to be nimble and agile while executing infrastructure projects, they felt.
(This is largely based on interaction with experts and scholars from Pathfinder Foundation, Sri Lanka with VIF Faculty and additional independent inputs)

Published Date: 22nd December 2014, Image source:

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