Colombo Telegraph

Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency: Some Negatives, Positives & Challenges

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

For all intent and purposes, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s (GR) recently concluded state visit to India, his first as Head of State is considered a success. A one on one meeting scheduled for 15 minutes had lasted one hour. During this time, both leaders have supposedly found common ground and established a personal rapport, so essential in relations between countries, especially between countries with a history of thorny periods.

The newly elected Sri Lankan President, in his inaugural speech stated, “we want to be neutral and stay out of conflicts amongst the world powers.” 

While in India, he reiterated his intention to renegotiate the 99-year lease with state-controlled China Merchants Port Holdings which would have no doubt pleased his hosts.

The Editor of The Hindu, Ms Suhasini Haider, sought clarification on the issue of Hambantota Port. GR stated “I believe the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. After all, these are not like hotels or a terminal, but to give control of a port or an airport or our harbors is different.” 

It is heartening to note, the new President does recognize the need for Sri Lanka to be in control of its Ports, Airports and other strategically important assets. It must apply across the board to all such projects awarded not only to the Chinese but also to Indians, Americans and any others. The Sri Lanka Navy manages the security inside the Hambantota port. 

Not too long ago, Petroleum Corporation officials visiting the Trincomalee oil storage tank farm to survey the 15 or so tanks leased out to Lanka IOC Plc, Indian Oil Corporation’s subsidiary in Sri Lanka. They were chased away by LIOC officials, the reason being approval was required from their Delhi Head Office. GR must make sure, such mistakes are rectified and never repeated.

The recent public announcement by GR of the 99-year Hambantota Port lease agreement being a mistake on the eve of his departure to India to say the least was a blunder. Firstly, it negates his announcement at Ruwanwelisaya “we want to be neutral.” Secondly, China is the world’s second most powerful nation in the world with a population of over 1.4 billion. A public démarche of the intention to further renegotiate an already renegotiated agreement by a leader of a country of 21 million souls is an affront to China. If necessary, the way around the issue would have been to discreetly take up the issue with the Chinese leaders during a visit to China. Such a visit to the nation’s largest investor, highest creditor and all-weather friend is due sooner than later in the name of being neutral. 

The President may not be aware of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s demand during a political rally for the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) forthwith. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who felt slighted stubbornly refused to comply during his term of office. To comply with Ranasinghe’s demand would have been political suicide for Gandhi. 

Furthermore, the new government is virtually begging for investments. Demanding the revision of already finalized investment projects sends all the wrong signals to prospective investors. Sri Lanka’s reputation as an investment-friendly country was tarnished since the trashing of the agreement with Emirate Airlines in 2008, all the way through Colombo Port City and the initial Hambantota Port agreement.  

Prime Minister Modi has offered a credit line of USD 400 million for infrastructure development and a further USD 50 million to deal with terrorism challenges. Monies drawn down from a credit line must be paid back, often with interest. The terms of the credit line are not known. However, what it means is, Sri Lanka can draw down up to the specified amounts for capital goods, Consulting, Advisory Services, Report Preparations etc. It is customary to restrict the facility to Indian firms. They will determine Suppliers, Contractors, Prices etc. Sri Lanka must eventually repay the full amount. 

The Indian credit line is no comparison to the USD 480 million American Millennium Challenge Corporation grant requiring no repayment. 

The rapport established by the two leaders during their first meeting is a good start. It now needs to be followed up with more positive progress. 

GR’s gesture of announcing the release of Tamil Nadu fishing boats apprehended by the Navy as a goodwill gesture received no reciprocity. Modi made a two-sentence reference to the issue during his state banquet speech. He spoke of the issue “affecting the livelihood of fishermen” and the need for a “humanitarian approach.” Meanwhile, the direct and indirect loss incurred by Sri Lanka due to poaching by Indian trawlers was estimated in 2015 at USD 61.5 million, 2% of the GDP of the Northern Province and still climbing.      

The Yahapalana government initially attempted to repair relations with India damaged by the previous Rajapaksa administration, with numerous appeasing gestures. Nevertheless, it did not take long to realize India’s limitations, China’s economic strengths and deep pockets. Sri Lanka ended up signing the 99 years Hambantota Port lease agreement to the utter consternation of the Indians. 

Despite all the current back-slapping, bonhomie and congratulations all around, Sri Lanka must take a realistic long-term view on how best to manage its foreign relations.

Since Independence, Sri Lanka has not encountered disputes with any country in the region other than with India. It will be no different in the future.  

Sri Lanka must consider the day when Narendra Modi is not the Prime Minister. Also, to be considered is a day when a weak government in the center is in a coalition arrangement with a political party from Tamil Nadu. Priorities and many other considerations could change in such an eventuality. 

Never again must she find itself with no friends especially in the UN Security Council as it once did in 1987 after the infamous food drop.

During the interview with the Editor of The Hindu, asked if the Troika (three-man coordination team) concept to manage Indo – Sri Lanka relations as done during the 2010-2015 Mahinda Rajapaksa regime would be revived, he responded in the negative. “Well, at that time there was a necessity because of the conflict. But now I don’t think it is necessary as we can work through the Foreign Ministries” was his response.

Compliments are due to President Rajapaksa for his decision. Between 2010 and 2015, the management of foreign relations was two centered. One center was the Foreign Ministry headed by an incompetent Minister and a Monitor alien to the subject. The other was the President himself and his Secretary at the President’s office. 

Matters became worse in the next four years with three Ministers holding office in four years.  

It was compounded by a Foreign Secretary with questionable loyalties pursuing his private agenda till October 2018. The Prime Minister was also making decisions, and at times, the former Finance Minister. The former President made occasional statements more often than not craftily claiming ignorance.  The Speaker, having appointed the former Foreign Secretary as Foreign Relations Advisor too waded into foreign affairs. The appointment was a historical first.  

One hopes, GR’s decision will succeed in ensuring Foreign Relations is handled strictly by the subject ministry under his direction. The Foreign Office currently headed by an able Foreign Secretary and with 58% of our foreign missions headed by career officers is well poised to execute the new President’s agenda keeping interlopers at bay. 

One of the upcoming foreign affairs challenges is the UNHRC periodic review meeting in March 2020. A decision on requesting a revision of Resolution 30/1 would be required soon. Will the Indian warmth and goodwill shown during GR’s recent visit extend to supporting Sri Lanka in such an initiative? 

Back at home, GR has made the following positive remarks, well received by the general public.

“But I am clear that we have to find ways to directly benefit people there through jobs and to promote fisheries and agriculture. We can discuss political issues, but for 70 odd years, successive leaders have promised one single thing: devolution, devolution, devolution. But ultimately nothing happened.”

He said the full devolution of powers as promised by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987 could not be implemented “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.”

With these few words, GR has spoken more sense than both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe have spoken in the last decade. He is spot on in saying, the Sinhalese community will not object to developing the North and giving Tamil people employment.

GR’s simplicity and lack of ostentatiousness have earned him many plaudits. Simplicity does have a charm of its own. That said, certain occasions such as formal welcome ceremonies with a guard of honor and state banquets do call for a certain degree of formality. Both the Indian bureaucracy and the military lay great emphasis on customs, traditions, etiquette, norms and forms on such occasions. The attire of both Indian President and Prime Minister reflected their conformity. 

The public is full of praise for GR’s decision to continue living in his house outside Colombo. He supposedly travels in a convoy of fewer than five vehicles and stops at signal lights. These are populist but dangerous gestures. As he implements unpopular yet badly needed reforms, he will earn the wrath of many. SWRD Bandaranaike was felled by a member of the Saffron brigade, a group that played a decisive role in his revolution. The last thing this country needs is a Presidential assassination.  If the convoy stops at signal lights, the President is unnecessarily exposed to danger. If it travels daily at high speed with sirens blaring, he becomes a public nuisance. 

The more practical and pragmatic option for our President would be to move into the President’s House after converting a small area as private quarters as done by his Indian counterpart. It will also have necessary security equipment and save the state of unnecessary expenditure.      

The Indian President’s official residence Rashtrapati Bhawan is in a 130-hectare premises in Delhi and consists of 340 rooms. President’s residential quarters consist of a small section consisting of a few rooms.  

Indeed, a concept worthy of emulation.

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