By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Life is gradually getting myopic…” – Joseph Brodsky (Allenby Road)
Why would Lankan military need a war gaming centre?
Why did Sri Lanka refuse to sign the resolution condemning nuclear weapons-use, for the second consecutive year?
The war with the LTTE is over. Sri Lanka has no land border, nor any external enemies. Given these fortuitous circumstances, war games should have been the last thing on Colombo’s agenda.
But a state of the art Joint War Gaming Centre was recently opened by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Sapugaskanda. According to the Defence Ministry website, this War Gaming Centre “was a long felt need for the apex military training establishment in the country…. (It has) six syndicate rooms, two state of the art auditoriums, two model rooms and an office complex for directing staff”. The participants in the current politico-military simulation course include Lankan military officers, an SLAF officer and “16 international officers from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Nepal, Oman, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal and Vietnam”[i].
Is this just an expensive toy to keep the massive military happily occupied? Or is this another indication of the dangerous course Sri Lanka is on, under Rajapaksa rule?
As the Friday Forum pointed out in its recent statement, Colombo’s refusal to sign the annual resolution against nuclear weapons (presented to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly) marks a radical departure from traditional Lankan positions. The resolution is not against the peaceful use of nuclear energy but against nuclear weapons. Why would Sri Lanka not support such a resolution?
The Rajapaksa project is a transformative one. It is premised on a new worldview, a new commonsense which is anti-democratic and anti-pluralist. Just as the Rajapaksas build alliances internally with like-minded forces and entities, they are doing so regionally and internationally as well. The appointment of Rajapaksa kith and kin to every embassy and high commission is attention-grabbing, but it is not the real story. The real story is how Lankan foreign policy is being transformed to dovetail with Rajapaksa interests.
The Rajapaksa foreign policy is an adjunct of the Rajapaksa agenda of familial rule and dynastic succession. Its main aim is to create an international support structure not for Sri Lanka but for the Rajapaksa regime, using the country’s strategic position as a bargaining counter. And to gain their objectives Rajapaksas are willing to use the sort of methods and run the kind of risks which less unscrupulous/more rational administrations would be unwilling even to contemplate.
For instance, in January/February 2013, Australian media revealed that “A SENIOR Sri Lankan government official is suspected by Australian authorities of being personally “complicit” in the people-smuggling trade … Australia’s intelligence agencies have identified the official, who has a high profile and is known to be close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The agencies believe he is responsible for authorising numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka…”[ii] This tactic seemed to have worked. The new right-wing government of Tony Abbot adopted a policy of unconditional support for the Rajapaksas, obviously in return for a pledge to actually clamp down on ‘boat people’.
Building an international safety-net for familial rule is one key objective of Rajapaksa foreign policy. The other key objective is to gain international recognition, to become somebodies on the global stage. Rajapaksa megalomania does not stop on the shores of Sri Lanka; the Siblings crave to become regional and international players as well. That is why the regime offers to host as many international political and sports events as possible, even if doing so bring little or no benefit to Sri Lanka as a country.
It is not for nothing that a favourite official accolade for Mahinda Rajapaksa is ‘The Leader who conquered the World’.
Sri Lanka’s spurious ‘entry’ to the ‘club of satellite owning nations’ is a manifestation of this megalomania. So is the abiding Rajapaksa desire to have its own peaceful nuclear programme. During the Ahmadinejad years, Iran reportedly offered Sri Lanka uranium-enrichment technology to set up a peaceful nuclear programme. This offer seems to have fallen by the wayside with the ascension of the more moderate President Rouhani. India made an offer of help, under the previous Congress administration, but the Siblings were uninterested. Perhaps they felt that Delhi cannot be trusted, or will have too many conditions.
The Rajapaksas are believers in unlimited power; might is their god. Their need to go nuclear is at least partly motivated by their desire to acquire regional and international muscle. Given this outlook, they may prefer to go nuclear with the help of a like-minded friend, someone with a similar disregard for democratic freedoms and human rights, such as Pakistan or China. With such a friend, the Rajapaksas will not have to bother overmuch about parliamentary oversight, media investigations or laws.
Nuclear power and impunity – what an unbeatable combination!
A new row is brewing between India and Sri Lanka over the second docking of a Chinese attack-submarine in Colombo.
The first docking happened in September, when the Indian president was visiting Vietnam. “In a recent report, Wall Street Journal described the Chinese submarine fleet as Beijing’s most significant military challenge in the region. And for them to surface at Lankan ports brings alive some of New Delhi’s worst fears of China’s expanding presence in India’s neighbourhood.”[iii]
India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval reportedly warned Gotabaya Rajapaksa “that any presence of a Chinese submarine in Sri Lanka would be unacceptable to India”[iv].
Just a month later, the Rajapaksas permitted a second Chinese submarine, Changzheng 2 and accompanying warship Chang Xing Dao, to dock in Colombo.
One does not need Sibylline-capacities to surmise that the Modi administration must be outraged and insulted. Delhi will feel the need to do something, so that it does not seem utterly powerless: “The government is now left with no option but to look upon Lanka’s defiance as ‘inimical’ to India’s interest”[v]. China’s dismissal of Indian concern with the argument that the visit was a normal one[vi] may have made matters worse for Sri Lanka.
China has said that it is not building any military bases in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it does not have to. Beijing’s modus operandi might be otherwise – lending money to build/expand ports in return for controlling stakes. For instance China has been granted operating rights to four berths in Hambantota, outside tender procedure[vii]. Thus the ports will remain civilian installations, used by China as military service stations and for other military purposes.
The new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, set up under Chinese aegis, will cement this relationship still further. The bank will ensure “easy access to unconditional credit but at a higher interest rate”[viii]. A more effective way to obtain Rajapaksa compliance cannot be imagined.
The Rajapaksas regard the world beyond Sri Lanka with growing trepidation, feeling menaced by Western insistence on human rights. They might believe that the safety of their rule lies in acquiring capacities and friends which can keep Western pressure at bay. A more militarised foreign policy might help Rajapaksa rule, but for Sri Lanka it can be the road to unnecessary enmities and avoidable conflicts.