By Jehan Perera –
Along with the change of government that took place after the November 16 presidential election there is a sense of strong government and an uncertainty about what the parameters of free space will be. So far the new government’s approach has been to continue to give space to political and civil society actors as it existed prior to the change of government. A test case was whether the government would permit the commemoration of LTTE Heroes Day on November 26. Defence Secretary, Retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne explained the government’s position by saying “This is a democratic country, a country where people have freedom to do anything that does not affect the national security. Ours is not an oppressive government”. He also said that the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not allow hate speech against any community or racist comments to spread.
Recent pronouncements by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa are also providing an indication of what some of the parameters will be. Sri Lankans who are looking for political leadership that would bring change would be pleased with many of the decisions that President Rajapaksa has made in the first two weeks of assuming power. He has made executive directions by himself that show him as a leader who is different. The reduction in presidential staff and the small entourage of less than ten who accompanied him on his state visit to India could be seen as cost cutting measures that correspond to the absence of an ostentatious lifestyle and simple manner of dress. His direction that all appointments to be made to state corporations and statutory bodies should be vetted by an independent high level committee appointed by him have also obtained widespread public approval. It is a sign that appointments will be made on merit rather than on political patronage alone.
President Rajapaksa’s initial foray into international relations has also proved to be a success. He obtained USD 450 million from the Indian government as a soft loan to be used for economic development and national security activities. This amount is equal to that of the USD 450 million grant offered by the US government in terms of the Millennium Challenge Corporation project to develop the transport and land registration systems. The parity in the money that is offered by India suggests that it wants to be considered to be Sri Lanka’s closest development partner. While the Indian assistance is in the form of a loan, it is money that can be used to boost the country’s economy and if used for development purposes can strengthen the economy so that repayment is not problematic. Transparency about how this money is to be spent would send a reassuring message about accountability.
There is unlikely to be controversy generated in Sri Lanka about the Indian offer of monetary assistance unlike in the case of the MCC grant. This could be due to Sri Lanka having been the recipient of previous Indian assistance, such as the 60,000 houses that have been built or are in the process of being built in the North and East for displaced persons and in the hill country for plantation workers. It could also be due to the trust placed by the people in the present political leadership led by President Rajapaksa. By way of contrast the US assistance has been fraught with controversy over American intentions. Previous Chinese assistance which has lacked transparency has been dogged by the concern that it has placed Sri Lanka in a debt situation where it will be compelled to give in to Chinese demands that may even take the form of satisfying China’s military objectives.
The president’s visit to India and the speeches and interviews he gave there provide a first indication of what some of the parameters might be. During his visit to India, President Rajapaksa spoke straightforwardly that Sri Lanka under him would not permit its territory to be used for military purposes by any country. He said he would renegotiate with China regarding the Chinese-built Hambantota port which was leased for 99 years to China by the previous government. In stating this in India, the president lay down the parameters of Sri Lankan foreign policy with regard to crucial national assets, such as ports which could have national security implications, as against leasing out or selling land to foreign entities for purely commercial purposes.
The president’s statements on the Hambantota port appear to have caught the Chinese by surprise as they have made haste to point out the distinction between private commercial agreements and state-to-state agreements. They have said that any revision calls for mutual agreement and not unilateral decision making by one side. They have also sent a delegation to Sri Lanka. In the light of Indian generosity, there will be pressure on China to be generous without seeking to capitalize on the negotiating errors made by previous governments. There are media reports that they agreed finally to renegotiate the lease agreement without jeopardising the long-standing friendship between China and Sri Lanka. In order to make this a win-win solution both sides decided to revisit some of the projects signed in the past but were not implemented by the former government. The Colombo-Ratnapura expressway is one among them.
Another issue on which President Rajapaksa spoke his mind in India was with regard to the ethnic conflict. Even prior to visiting India he had made his approach to that problem known. He said that development was the way to push forward the reconciliation process with the minorities and that in the past Sinhala and Tamil political leaders had continuously fooled people by making unrealistic promises. He said that Sri Lanka should focus on what it could do first and he would focus on giving people the opportunity to live with dignity by improving their living standard. Crucially he said that “Everybody is a Sri Lankan citizen if they are born in Sri Lanka. They have equal rights, everybody, but they should not do certain things. They have to understand the reality.”
In India, President Rajapaksa went further in explaining his position. He said that he intends to focus on development of the Northern and Eastern regions and not political issues. Development needs to take into account the needs of the people of each area, and there cannot be a blanket prescription for all parts of the country. In an interview to the Indian media he said, “We can discuss political issues, but for 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened. I also believe that you can’t do anything against the wishes and feeling of the majority community. Anyone who is promising something against the majority’s will is untrue. No Sinhala will say, don’t develop the area, or don’t give jobs, but political issues are different. I would say, judge me by my record on development [of North and East] after five years.” Development and devolution of power need not be looked at as opponents but as complementary as the development needs of different areas are unique.
It is likely that economic development as envisaged by President Rajapaksa will make the ethnic conflict easier to resolve. Prosperous and well employed people are less likely to agitate violently for political change. But they will still want political change. Catalonia in Spain, Scotland in the United Kingdom and Quebec in Canada are all prosperous territories, but they continue to agitate for self-rule. So while the problem may become easier to resolve it will not go away on its own through economic development alone. With political leadership they trust, the Sinhalese majority may be willing to concede more on political issues and the Tamil minority may be willing to demand less. The crux of the ethnic problem is that what the Sinhalese majority is opposed to is what the Tamil minority has been demanding for the past seventy years. As in the case of the Chinese lease of Hambantota port, there will need to be mutual accommodation on this.