The people of Sri Lanka have spoken. An election, hailed widely by observers from around the world as free and fair, concluded setting a powerful precedent for other small developing countries. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the preference of the majority. Their choice was Ranil Wickremesinghe who had previously occupied the PM position three [...]

Sunday Times 2

Vox populi Vox dei : What’s next?


The people of Sri Lanka have spoken. An election, hailed widely by observers from around the world as free and fair, concluded setting a powerful precedent for other small developing countries. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the preference of the majority. Their choice was Ranil Wickremesinghe who had previously occupied the PM position three times. His tenure of office will be crucial for the country’s future.

Wickremesinghe can build on Rajapaksa’s development foundation

Much has been written, especially in the international media, of Sri Lanka veering to the right. But the question is whether the election resulted in a turn to the right or simply a deflection in that general direction. Undoubtedly Mahinda Rajapaksa will occupy a preeminent position in Sri Lanka’s history. He gave firm leadership to the country’s military and to his team that resulted in the complete defeat of a ruthless terrorist group considered invincible, especially by the Western diplomatic community.

Rajapaksa ended the conflict which was threatening to tear the island apart. He also, demanded, inter alia, without much fanfare, on a humane approach to this brutal conflict, insisting that he would not like to see dead or injured women and children as the military advanced. Consequently, the military sustained more casualties than it should have.

He agreed (some would say yielded to pressure) to declare the no-fire zones, accept medical facilities from France and India to deal with the sick and the injured being evacuated from the conflict zone and to let the ICRC transfer the sick and the wounded from this area by sea in the final phase of the war.

Rajapaksa was also supportive of the Coordinating Committee for Humanitarian Assistance overseeing the delivery of relief supplies to the conflict area and the CCHA included the ambassadors of the US, the EU, Japan and Norway, the ICRC and the Resident Representative of the UN. The immense sense of peace and security which Rajapaksa brought to the long traumatised country as a whole by defeating the LTTE’s terrorist threat should be his ever lasting legacy.

His place in the nation’s history alongside the national icons, Gemunu, Gajaba, Vijayaba, Perakumba and Keppitipola is assured. Rajapaksa will not have to do anything more to embellish his image as legend and myth take over. The successor government of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe enjoys the advantage of inheriting a country at peace and not having to deal with a ruthless terrorist group as it identifies and addresses the question of minority concerns. The political space created by the end of the conflict will give his government an unprecedented degree of manoeuverability.

The Government now includes the 95 parliamentarians from the coalition which backed Rajapaksa further strengthening the hand of the Prime Minister. Still the challenge would be to deftly carry the majority community with him, given that over 42.3% of the electorate voted for the opposition. (Only 45.6% voted for the winner).

Demands for accountability, whether from the Tamil National Alliance or the international community, for alleged excesses committed during the last stages of the war with the LTTE, not addressed to the satisfaction of some by the previous regime, are unlikely to generate sympathy among the hundreds of thousands of service personnel and their dependents.

More than 21,000 young men and women sacrificed their lives and more were permanently incapacitated as they successfully battled the LTTE which had terrorised the whole country for over 27 years. Given the volatile nature of Sri Lanka’s divisive ethnic politics, the new Government’s success in this area would depend on the sensitivity demonstrated by all parties, including the Tamil parties. The Government has already stated, as the Rajapaksa regime did for the past five years, that any inquiry in to alleged excesses will be domestic with technical assistance from the UN.

The Prime Minister, drawing a clear line in the sand, has categorically stated that a future solution will not affect the unitary nature of Sri Lanka. He has also stated that the major question remaining concerns the division of the concurrent powers under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Serious uncertainties continue to exist on the extent to which land and police powers should be devolved while responding to the concerns of all communities.

The government of President Rajapaksa began an unprecedented programme of infrastructure development, as a parallel means of addressing the ethnic issue by providing massive economic opportunities for all. Partly as a consequence, the economy began to surge impressively, at times outperforming other more fancied Asian countries.

The economic achievements of the Rajapaksa government were inadequately articulated and did not filter down to grassroots level in important parts of the country, especially in the North and the East. Statistics count for little if they do not translate to tangible benefits at individual level. A strategy that was meant to provide the minorities with the economic incentive to let go of perceptions of ethnic marginalization did not really work. In addition, the highly publicised and inadequately addressed irritations to the Muslim community cost the Rajapaksa government dearly. Importantly, the economic gains tended to be submerged by the allegations relating to the end of the conflict and to corruption, abuse of power and nepotism.

Despite the endless allegations, the economic direction and achievements of the Rajapaksa era are plain to see. The new Government simply needs to continue building upon these. The road transport network of the country received an unprecedented boost during the Rajapaksa era. Highways linking the airport to Colombo and to the deep South were completed. Excellent roads now exist in the East and the North, including in the remotest parts. The resulting boost to communications and economic activity are clear.

The Rajapaksa regime also set in motion a programme for the augmentation of the power supply of the country with its positive implications for the economy. Sri Lanka now enjoys adequate power for its needs. The plant in Sampur, when completed, will further boost the national grid. The uninterrupted supply of power is a luxury that South Asia, including India, is a long way from realising. Equal or greater attention should also have been paid to aggressively adopting alternative sustainable power generating options. Sri Lanka is blessed with ample sun light and wind. UNEP has estimated that 40% of Sri Lanka is suitable for wind power generation.

The fisheries harbours completed by the Rajapaksa government and inland fisheries have helped to significantly boost the fish production of the country. Sri Lanka’s massive potential, with proper conservation and environmental safeguards, to become the hub of a modern fishing industry targeting the vast Indian Ocean was identified by the Rajapaksa government. The Ruhuna Magampura Port, located within sight of one of the busiest sea lanes of the world, could be developed to become the key port of the South Asian region.

Similarly, Colombo port, as envisaged by the Rajapaksa government, was going to serve Sri Lanka’s needs and the requirements of the wider region. As the Economist commented not too long ago, Sri Lanka’s ports have the potential to become the key distribution points for the fast developing Indian sub region. The continuation of the Rajapaksa maritime vision would be for the benefit of the country.

The emphasis placed by the previous regime on tourism as a relatively low input high return investment has begun to produce substantial results. New markets opened up with larger numbers of Chinese and Russians visiting Sri Lanka. The number of well-heeled Chinese tourists visiting Sri Lanka has has reached 92,000 so far this year. Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has begun to boom and the overflowing spice gardens of Matale bear witness to this phenomenon.

With the ending of the conflict, upmarket Conde Nast, the Lonely Planet, the National Geographic and the New York Times, all recommended Sri Lanka as a must visit destination. Bridge groups, history buffs and yoga practitioners and others have opted to visit Sri Lanka. Investments poured in to the tourist industry. It is an industry that has considerable potential and must continue to be further developed. The new Government needs only to build on what the Rajapaksa regime started, preserving Sri Lanka’s pristine environment, the incomparable natural sites and the fabulous heritage with which it has been endowed.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s vision for a Western Province megapolis and an array of new industries fired the imagination of many, in particular of the youth. It sits well with the aspirations of an increasingly prosperous populace seeking more. This goal, which is not substantially different from the Rajapaksa vision, will need elaboration on the sources of funding, the socio-economic consequences, the environmental impact and the relationship with international commitments undertaken by the country.

The funding and investments for implementing such a grand vision are unlikely to come from Western sources, including the private sector, or from the cash strapped international financial institutions. The ready source of investments in today’s world is China. The Rajapaksa regime effectively tapped funding from China, the emerging financier of the world.

The Rajapaksa goal of making Sri Lanka the regional hub for maritime affairs, banking, IT and aviation are eminently achievable. The measures taken to improve the level of education and healthcare throughout the country, the improvements in agricultural output and the ostensible higher prosperity level of the people are successes of the previous regime.

The Rajapaksa foreign policy had gaps but not for want of trying. The multilateral arena attracted him. He had a respectful relationship with the UN Secretary-General who was beginning to indicate interest in visiting Sri Lanka again. Gradually Sri Lanka fell off the UN headquarters radar for unacceptable behaviour and the interest in hounding us diminished. He was an annual visitor to the UN General Assembly which brought him in to close contact with a range of national leaders, some of whom began to treat him as a friend.

A group of New York based ambassadors, led by the Japanese, visited Sri Lanka and even provided a report which assisted the Secretary-General in adopting a more positive attitude towards Sri Lanka. Recognising that we had to scratch many backs in order to get them to scratch ours, Sri Lanka cultivated the NAM and the G77 and China assiduously, attending their summits, as these groups were useful vehicles in its efforts to extend its reach despite its small size and financial limitations.

Similarly, at the UN, recognising the value of being proactive and helpful with global issues, the Rajapaksa regime was active in formulating the sustainable development goals, developments in the law of the sea, debt restructuring initiatives, etc. Historically, Sri Lanka had been prominent in these areas in the past also and, as a small developing country, continued association with such global activity would bring tangible benefits.

Rajapaksa also sought better relations with the centres of power in the West. He visited Prime Minister Tony Blair at Chequers on a Sunday morning and had a positive meeting. Blair visited Sri Lanka recently. Rajapaksa’s first visit to Oxford went without a hitch.

But ignoring that diplomacy is the art of the possible, the regime mistakenly decided to take on the combined might of the West, led by the US, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. This led to resolutions against Sri Lanka being adopted at the Council and openly hostile exchanges with, inter alia, the US, the UK and Canada. Though not directly linked, economic measures were also beginning to be taken against Sri Lanka. The new government has been successful in establishing a more positive framework for relations with the West which should help to relieve some of the pressures, especially in Geneva.

With the increasing chill affecting relations with the West, the Rajapaksa regime instinctively turned to the East. Assistance from China and also from Pakistan was crucial in defeating the LTTE. Russia was cultivated intensely. It was also successful in keeping funding levels for development high, from Japan and increasingly from China, at a time when Western development assistance was shrinking. It also ensured that Sri Lanka’s friends remained loyal, especially at the UN.

The Rajapaksa regime did not ignore India whose assistance was also vital in defeating the LTTE. However, given India’s own regional concerns a continuing close engagement needed to be maintained. The Rajapaksa regime belatedly began reaching out to important African and Latin American countries. These contacts could be further developed.

The Middle East was also an area that received much attention from the Rajapaksa regime. A difficult but successful balance was achieved between Israel and Palestine and the rest of the Middle East which resulted in significant benefits, including political. The success of the relations with Australia and New Zealand must rank high on the Rajapaksa regime’s foreign policy achievements.

The change of Government in January brought about immediate positive responses from the West. The West needed a way out of the difficult situation it had reached in relations with Sri Lanka. The change, including in the rhetoric, provided the opening. The threat of Western led action in the HRC remains. A carefully developed escape route both for Sri Lanka and the West is necessary.

However, there is no guarantee that the Western friends, so assiduously courted, would remain constant in a world full of uncertainties and competing domestic pressures. There is no certainty of funding for the development dream marketed so eloquently to the voter, from a cash-strapped West. A balance in relations, which will ensure continued sympathy of possible sources of investment and funding for our development dreams will need to be maintained.

(The writer is Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations)

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