Sri Lanka’s presidential election, held on 16 November, was a noteworthy event in the Indo-Pacific. It was the focus of attention in nations that happen to be the key participants of the political game being played in the region. And their reasons are obvious.
Along with a number of other island nations in the Indian Ocean (such as the Maldives), Sri Lanka occupies a strategically important position along one of the largest maritime trade routes linking the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa to India, Southeast Asian countries, China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And the battle for control over this shipping lane, the leading world players are engaged in, has been getting more and more noticeable in recent years. Moreover, this confrontation is becoming a key component of the global “Big Game”.
The New Eastern Outlook has reported on various manifestations of this rivalry, for instance, the political crisis in the Maldives at the start of 2018 () and the issues linked to the lease of the Hambantota Port (on the southern tip of Sri Lanka) to China.
In India (Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor) and China, the presidential campaign on the island was followed very closely. This was due to the fact (among others) that, within the political framework of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, the president is endowed with substantial powers and serves as the head of government and the armed forces.
The nation is among the (overwhelming) majority of countries whose actions on the international arena are primarily guided by the “moves chosen by the stars sitting behind the global chess board”. Still, just as for the other states, its head does have a role to play in the country’s story, and so does the political movement, which this particular individual heads or represents.
There are many parties on the island, but the most influential ones are the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the more right-wing United National Party, (UNP). During the recent presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of the latter, won the majority (52%) of the votes. Sajith Premadasa, who represented SLFP (which had been in power earlier for almost 15 years), received 42% of the votes.
He admitted defeat, and on 18 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as President at a Buddhist temple.
We would also like to highlight the internal tensions that accompanied the recent election. But then again, the situation in the country has never truly been calm. More specifically, in 1983, the Tamil minority (which accounts for approximately 10% of the total population) began their armed fight for independence.
The conflict, interspersed with some truces, lasted for 26 years and ended in the defeat of key Tamil forces. Still, even after the hostilities had ended, tensions between the ethnic groups remained. One of the more successful commanders of the government forces during the civil war became the newly elected President.
Shockingly, religion appeared to become a source of conflict in Sri Lanka for the first time from 21 to 22 April of this year, when a number of bloody terrorist attacks targeted Easter services in Catholic churches and hotels where primarily foreigners had been staying. Up until now, it is yet unclear who planned this undoubtedly complex and rare (even by world-wide standards) terrorist act and what its aims were. Supposedly, one religious minority (Muslims) decided to attack another minority (Christians) in a “third world” country with its primarily Buddhist population.
If the violence was a “response” to the mass shooting in two mosques in New Zealand (with its predominantly Christian population of various denominations) a month earlier, then why was it perpetrated against Catholics in a nation where most of the residents have little to do with Christianity as such? After all, Muslims already have plenty of problems with Myanmar’s Buddhists and Hindus (with their similar beliefs system to that of the latter) in one of the two Asian giants.
The reaction of the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka was not difficult to predict. Right before the start of the tourist season, in a country that has very little to do with the conflict between Muslims and Christians and where the service sector accounts for at least half of the GDP, the (somewhat problematic) security situation became even worse.
It is not surprising that the latest developments led to attacks on regions with a high Muslim population, and the government was forced to adopt special measures to protect them. Still, they did not prevent a convoy of 20 buses transporting Muslims to voting stations from being shot at.
The first thing that commentators of Sri Lanka’s election results have focused on is the sharp difference in voting preferences between the North and the South of the country. Mainly Tamils and Muslims, i.e. Sajith Premadasa’s primary support base, reside in the North, while the Singhalese majority that predominantly voted for winner Gotabaya Rajapaksa lives in the central and southern districts of the island.
Hence, Sri Lanka currently faces a serious internal problem: the division of the nation along ethnic and religious lines. So the possibility that a conflict due to these differences (a potentially armed one) erupts still remains.
However, the calm atmosphere during the presidential transition period may reflect the hope of both aforementioned groups of voters that the former commander (who had, not too long ago, managed to resolve Sri Lanka’s long-term conflict) could actually solve the issue at hand and bring “law and order” to the country.
External leading players also need the island to remain a relatively peaceful place since they have their own plans to cooperate with this extremely important nation (as mentioned before) for them. Such aims could only be realized if there are no needless troubles in Sri Lanka.
As for predictions regarding the new leadership’s preferred foreign policy direction, the respected news outlet, Bloomberg was one of the first to report that Gotabaya Rajapaksa belonged to the pro-Chinese clan.
It is true that the strategy entailing broad economic cooperation with the PRC had been formulated as far back as 2005-2015, when the new president’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (who, incidentally has already been appointed as the new Prime Minister) was Sri Lanka’s leader. The nation’s cooperation with China certainly contributed to the serious modernization efforts undertaken to improve the infrastructure and port facilities on the island.
However, the “side effect” (common to the majority of other nations with a similar global standing) of economic collaboration with the PRC is the increase in national debt, which actually exceeded 80% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. It is true that Beijing does offer assistance but it is not free.
This particular subject is being actively publicized by the propaganda campaign initiated by China’s Western “well-wishers”, but it does not seem to truly worry Colombo. After all, the infrastructure is something tangible (and its construction can be readily observed), and the debts can wait until later. The Hambantota Port had to be leased to the PRC for a period of 99 years. But, so what? There is no harm in modernizing port facilities that were barely there before. In accordance with existing agreements, Sri Lanka ensured that China would not use the port for military purposes, hence no one should worry about a thing.
These are probably the arguments being used in the capital of Sri Lanka to justify the possible expenditures associated with following the pro-Chine strategy. And “no one”, first and foremost, refers to Sri Lanka’s neighbor, India. And even if any mentions of the Hambantota Port elicit frowns in the United States, by all accounts, this foreign policy issue is probably the least of Washington’s concerns right now. After all, the USA needs to deal with its internal problems first.
Still, it is not worthwhile annoying the (generally good-natured) Indian elephant. Hence, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first foreign trip, scheduled for 29 November, will be to New Delhi. The announcement came during the high-level visit to Colombo by Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Minister of External Affairs, who arrived in the capital of Sri Lanka the day after Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been sworn in as President.
During a warm meeting, the minister conveyed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the new President to visit India. The message also expressed confidence that under the new leadership, India-Sri Lanka relations would reach even greater heights.
During a routine press briefing on 18 November, PRC’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that China felt “happy for Sri Lanka on smoothly holding the presidential election” and extended “heart-felt congratulations to Gotabaya Rajapaksa on winning presidency.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a similar statement about the latest developments in the island nation.
Overall, all three leading world players are happy with the outcomes of the presidential election in Sri Lanka for now. In the meantime, the only task left for us is to continue observing what will stem from these “satisfactory” election results within and outside the island nation.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.