Lankans vote for stability
After all, a clear mandate for an apparently pro-China Rajapaksa — in the backdrop of the parliament having ratified the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution to vest the power of government in the premier in April this year — would have triggered a bitter personality clash at the top of Sri Lanka’s executive structure, resulting in deep political instability. Besides, a Sri Lanka with Rajapaksa as premier would not have suited New Delhi’s broader geopolitical objective, especially because China was allowed the much-needed strategic space by the former Sri Lankan president, credited with demolishing the dreaded Tamil guerrillas, which enabled Beijing to breathe down India’s neck in her own backyard.
This despite the fact that the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 makes it obligatory on the signatory states to ensure that forces inimical to each other’s national interests cannot use their territory and even ports. New Delhi feared Rajapaksa’s return from political oblivion would not only give Beijing an unhindered access to India’s strategic sphere in the Indian Ocean after a brief lull, but also drag Sri Lanka’s moribund economy into Chinese fold. A top government source had confirmed that India did manipulate the players in the electoral field after the former president created a flutter by throwing his hat in the ring at the last moment.
Evidently, Rajapaksa’s desperation to stage a dramatic comeback, despite being defeated by a loose coalition of opposition parties led by former colleague Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential elections last January, had touched raw nerves in New Delhi. What intrigued observers was the fact that Rajapaksa was even willing to become prime minister, one position lower in protocol than the same presidency, which he made omnipotent during his tenure.
However, a strategic intelligence expert, conversant with Sri Lanka’s political dynamics says, “Rajapaksa’s bid to attain a constitutional post is not surprising.” In fact the gentleman believes there was discreet support for Rajapaksa from within Sri Lanka’s political system and that includes his bête noir Sirisena. “Without the backing of an influential section of the political class, a cornered Rajapaksa would not have dared to contest and could not have managed to retain his core support base,” asserted the expert.
Indeed, Rajapaksa gave a tough fight to Ranil Wickremasinghe despite the fact that his vote share has plummeted since last January’s presidential polls. But the big question is why did Rajapaksa desperately wanted to return to a position of power, which would have given him constitutional immunity? And most importantly, why was President Sirisena a bit lenient initially as he cleared the former president’s nomination? Indian government sources confirms that it was because of New Delhi’s intense behind-the-scenes pressure that Sirisena had second thoughts about appointing Rajapaksa as prime minister, in case he managed to secure a majority.
In all probability the Rajapaksa-episode has something to do with the United Nations report on human rights abuse by the Lankan army in the final phase of the military campaign against the Tamil guerrillas. Interestingly, the timing of the inauguration of the newly-elected parliament in end-September coincides with that of the tabling of the report in Geneva. Not many knows, the manufactured split in Rajapaksa’s Freedom Party to push a widely accepted and amiable Sirisena to the top slot was part of a strategic ploy to cushion the impact of an anticipated adverse war crimes report that some believe may pin the concerned political executive too.
In March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to investigate war crimes, including cold-blooded massacre of approximately 40,000 Tamil civilians, in Sri Lanka, saying the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had failed to take action against the perpetrators who disregarded all international norms in their zeal to wipe off one of the deadliest militant separatist organizations from the face of the earth. The UN inquiry team, advised by a committee of three experts led by former Nobel Peace Prize winning Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, was due to place the much-awaited report in March 2015. But then, almost all democratic countries across the globe, which welcomed Rajapaksa’s defeat and provided full support to the newly-elected Sirisena government, helped Colombo to get the tabling of the report postponed till the onset of autumn.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein had confessed that he recommended deferral of the inquiry report until September because of “the changing context in Sri Lanka and the possibility that important new information may emerge, which will strengthen the report.” Now that Sri Lankans have wholeheartedly rejected authoritarian politics and voted for peace, the Sirisena regime has its task cut out. So far, even the reformist government has failed to take tangible steps toward bringing those guilty of war crimes to justice, ensure greater devolution of power or hasten the process of reconciliation.
Instead of buying time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the allegations of human rights abuse, both Sirisena and Wickremasinghe must walk that extra mile to fulfill minorities’ aspirations without hurting the sentiments of the majorities. Sri Lanka, one must remember, will ultimately prosper only when all ethnic groups are permitted to bloom in the warmth of amity and goodwill.
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