By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States on Friday (February 20). His government is taking shape as the appointees for the cabinet and other high raking administrative positions have been announced. For better or worse, Donald Trump will be a historic figure, who will have a major impact internationally. It is likely that every country, if not person, will be in one way or the other be affected by Trump policies. Some may benefit while others may lose. Sri Lanka is no exception. There will be implications.
As soon the American presidential election results were confirmed some began to apply the American realities to Sri Lanka. Former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa also stated that Trump won because the American people are wary of career politicians and suggested that Sri Lankans should also consider the leaders from outside of the political establishments. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a career politician. In one of his tweets, Gotabaya also congratulated Trump’s message, “we will regain our nation.” Both these messages have deep meaning.
Some Sri Lankan politicians may be tempted to experiment with the Trump style of extreme nationalism in Sri Lanka. Trump strategically insulted and offended almost all minority groups in the United States and handsomely won. It is doubtful whether the formula will work in Sri Lanka given the demographic composition of the country. An extreme nationalist could win a presidential election only with Sinhala votes, as minorities will react with high levels of hostility. In Sri Lanka, one party or a charismatic leader getting about 70 percent of Sinhala votes in a presidential election is almost impossible. To a certain extent, Sri Lanka tried the Trump formula in 2015. It did not work.
In fact, the Trump formula did not work in the U.S either. He lost the popular vote at national level by about three million votes. So, he won on a technicality. Sri Lankan presidents are elected by popular vote at the national level. Fortunately, Sri Lanka has no electoral college.
The immediate major impact of Trumps election probably will be on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution, which originally demanded an international investigation on the human rights violation allegedly committed during the last phase of the war.
Originally, the U.S supported the Rajapaksa government’s (final) war with the LTTE and turned a blind eye to the civilian casualties. Unexpectedly, Rajapaksa turned to China completely sidelining Washington. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka gain added significance due to the Obama administration’s desire to pivot to Asia. The United States sponsored Geneva (UNHRC) resolution on (against?) Sri Lanka helped the U.S to retain some control over Sri Lanka. Moreover, Hillary Clinton also played a pivotal role in the resolution due to her interest in human rights issues.
Now, the Obama administration is gone and Hillary is also gone. The end of the Obama era means that added significance offered to Asia in the American foreign policy will wean. America will pivot back to the Middle East and Europe. Trump does not have a broad worldview. As the president, he may expand his interest to Europe and the Middle East. American foreign policy, to a large extent, has already been “oil centric.” The oil factor in the foreign policy has been further compounded by the appointment of Rex Tillerson, former chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil oil and gas company. Therefore, Sri Lanka, a small and non-oil producing country is unlikely to figure anywhere in the Trump foreign policy schemes. In Asia, China and India will attract more attention.
Unlike Hillary, Trump is no big fan of good governance and human rights. He believes in torture, which is fashionably referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the American foreign policy and media lexicon. Trump has demonstrated consistent resolve against “terrorism” and stated that he wants to bomb ISIS to the stone-age. So far, he has not expressed any concern for civilian safety in war zones. Therefore, Trump will not view what happened in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war as unacceptable. The Geneva resolution, or the demand for an international investigation, will not have the Trump administration’s backing. On the other hand, European states which worked with the U.S on the resolution believe in collaboration with the Sri Lankan government rather than using heavy handed tactics.
Trump also has an affinity for strong leaders. He has constantly criticized President Obama as a weak leader and praised President Puttin and Kim Jong Un. Hence, President Rajapaksa’s politics and policies may be attractive rather than something that disserves criticism. I am sure the present U.S government, while criticizing Rajapaksa government, would have tried to learn how it finished the LTTE off. Some of the tactics may be useful to Western governments to deal with difficult situations in the Middle East. Trump might drop the pretention and embrace the Sri Lanka model of conflict resolution openly.
Therefore, the probabilities are that the ascendancy of Trump means the death of the Geneva resolution and international investigation. What does this mean for the constitutional reform process currently in place?
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have reiterated the importance of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict through constitutional reform. However, it would be naive to assume that there was no nexus between the Geneva resolution and the constitutional reform process. One of the unstated objectives of the reform process has been to mitigate the demand for an international investigation. The government has no leeway on this issue. The strategy worked. We witnessed the watering down of the Geneva resolution since this government came to power in 2015.
Now, since the Geneva process (or demand) will completely die away, one of the compulsions of the reform process will also disappear. In other words, the government does not need an effective reform program to ward of international pressure. The government also does not have any serious pressure domestically, especially from the Tamil polity. Hence, the success of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka depends entirely on the good will of the government and the Sinhala people. Are there benevolent majorities in this world?
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.