By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“Hail the Great Leader of the Commonwealth” – The wording on hoardings celebrating the Rajapaksa Commonwealth-Chairmanship
In 2012, Mahinda Rajapaksa asked India to send the Kapilawastu relics to Sri Lanka for a public exposition. A new round of provincial elections was being planned and the regime wanted to use the relics to bolster its Sinhala-Buddhist credentials.
After the 1995 exposition in Thailand, India had decided not to send the Kapilawastu relics out again, because of their ‘delicate nature’. But when Colombo made its request, Delhi complied: “making an exception, the Government of India decided to send them to Sri Lanka”[i].
The ‘Tamil issue’ is an irremovable factor in Indo-Lanka relations but its importance is not a constant. Publicly, Delhi will always pay lip service to ‘Tamil interests’. But in actuality, the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ becomes significant only during election seasons. In between, Delhi tends to accord more priority to appeasing Colombo (to keep it out of Beijing’s orbit and to promote Indian business interests) than to satisfying Tamil Nadu.
But such variations and nuances are beyond the comprehension of the Rajapaksas. Thus they turned PM Singh’s presence at the Colombo Commonwealth into a public tug-of-war between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. They failed to appreciate that given the proximity of elections and the challenge posed by the Modi-factor, the Congress Party would not want to take any risks with the Tamil Nadu votes.
In today’s world even the sole super power cannot ignore global public opinion or expect uncritical and unconditional support, ad infinitum. The Rajapaksas, lacking in both material and moral force, think that they can ignore global opinion and have their way, with impunity. They regard international relations through the same distorting ‘us vs. them’ prism they use in national politics. Either you support us unconditionally under all circumstances or you are our enemy is becoming the Siblings’ approach even in the international arena.
An independent and sovereign country cannot permit the world to decide its agenda. However a rational government, in fashioning its agenda, cannot ignore the concerns of the international community nor act totally at variance with these concerns. If a country is financially dependent on external sources, as Sri Lanka is, political autarky becomes even more unaffordable. Such a country should try to take a sober view of its problems, prospects and options and come up with the most optimum compromise possible, by balancing varying and conflicting interests, instead of allowing the megalomania of its leaders to chart not just its national but also its international course.
The Chinese Card
‘The Leader who conquered the World’ is one of the accolades bestowed upon President Rajapaksa by his acolytes. The President is not content with lording it over Sri Lanka; he desires to cut a dash internationally and especially in the West.
Thus the priority accorded to hosing the Commonwealth Summit.
Under Rajapaksa rule, Lankan foreign policy seems to be structured around President Rajapaksa’s vainglorious need of to gain Western and international entrée. Rajapaksa mood-changes have a decisive impact on the shape and direction of Lanka’s international relations; Lankan attitude to foreign countries can turn friendly and accommodating or petulant and wrathful depending on the Presidential mood. The regime’s policy is to reward its international friends and punish its international enemies, irrespective of the cost to the nation.
In the run up to the Commonwealth, the British media revealed that “Sri Lankan High Commission in London has privately boasted that it now has 14 MPs prepared to publicly defend the regime… One Conservative MP has told…how he has been offered ‘whatever he wants’ from the Sri Lankan government, including luxury holidays…. Another Conservative MP said that he had an ‘open invitation’ and that the Sri Lankan government had said ‘You can have whatever you want’”.[ii]
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… Australia’s intelligence agencies believe it would be impossible for so many asylum-seeker boats to leave the island’s shores without the individual’s direct involvement”.[iii]
Then came Australian elections; the new PM’s ‘asylum policy’ of immediately deporting all illegal arrivals depended on Colombo’s total cooperation.
Mr. Abbot got it. The alleged mastermind of the ‘human trafficking racket’, “a decorated naval officer who briefed Australia’s border protection chief and its high commissioner to Sri Lanka on how to stop human trafficking”[iv], was arrested during the run up to the Commonwealth. A memorandum of understanding was signed between Australian and Lankan navies to tackle people smuggling during the Commonwealth[v].
Is there a quid-pro-quo correlation between Canberra’s uncritical backing for the Rajapaksas and Colombo’s sudden interest-cum-success in stopping the ‘boat people’?
Was there a similar correlation between the ‘milk powder issue’ and the New Zealand’s uncritical support for the Rajapaksas[vi]?
After the regime banned and un-banned Fonterra-imports, with equally inexplicable suddenness, New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister and Fonterra Chairman met with Minister Basil Rajapaksa “to iron out the details of a Dairy Sector Cooperation Agreement between the two countries. The meeting followed a difficult few weeks for New Zealand-based dairy cooperative Fonterra in Sri Lanka.”[vii] The agreement was duly signed during the Commonwealth; the once-reviled Fonterra was an honoured participant at the Commonwealth Business Forum.
Sri Lanka lacks the capacity to generalise this carrot-and-stick policy globally or to use it to appease its Western critics and escape a thrashing in Geneva in March 2014. That summit will not produce a dénouement but it will be an important step towards a showdown in New York, someday.
It is in that context that the unprecedented Chinese comments about human rights in Sri Lanka should be considered. Those comments, mild to the point of insignificance in general, have a huge import given that they were made by Beijing, publicly. The Chinese seem to be hinting, both to Colombo and the world, that their political backing for the Rajapaksas is neither unconditional nor endless. If the Lankan issue ends up on the Security Council agenda, the Rajapaksas may not be able to depend on the Chinese veto, permanently. China would not want to waste any of her politico-economic capital with the West, to bail out Sri Lanka.
China is becoming Sri Lanka’s world. But for China, Sri Lanka is not worth a tiff with the West or even India. China needs Western cooperation, as much as the West needs China. And China is one of India’s biggest trading partners[viii]. In the end, Sri Lanka, totally dependent on China politically and economically, might be bartered by Beijing at the Security Council, in return for some Western favour. China will be able to do so, sans cost, because the Rajapaksas, having burnt all their regional/international bridges, would have no choice but to accept any treatment accorded by Beijing, however painful or demeaning, with a show of resignation.
[i] The Hindu – 19.8.2012
[vi] In March 2013, the milk powder scare burst forth literally out of nowhere. The government claimed that milk powder imported from New Zealand contained DCD, a hazardous agro-chemical. Imports were banned. The New Zealand companies and government protested and explained. Just a week later, the entire issue vanished in a puff of smoke. The milk powder was given a clean bill of health by the government and the ban lifted.
[viii] Both countries plan to increase bilateral trade to US$100 billion by 2015 from the current US$68 billion.