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Sri Lanka voters hand Rajapaksa strength to face India and China

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Washington tweets its
concern of the strategic island’s indebtedness to Beijing

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother have a difficult economic path ahead of them but can count on financial favors as China, India, the U.S. and Japan vie for influence.

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR,

Asia regional correspondent , Nikkei Asian Review

BANGKOK — Sri Lankan voters have already detected a whiff of what the electoral landslide won by the country’s most influential political clan earlier this week means to the international community, or at least what it means to India, the U.S. and Japan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone by going on a charm blitz. He called and tweeted at his counterpart, caretaker Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, part of that political clan, even before the final results were in, giving the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a Rajapaksa political vehicle, 146 seats in the 225-member legislature.

“We will work together to further advance all areas of bilateral cooperation and to take our special ties to ever new heights,” Modi tweeted on Thursday, one day after the general elections.

Hours later, the U.S. embassy in Colombo, the island’s commercial capital, reached out, also on Twitter. “As the new parliament convenes,” the tweet says, “we hope the government will renew its commitments to building an inclusive economic recovery, upholding human rights and the rule of law, and protecting the country’s sovereignty.”

That “sovereignty” nudge was a reminder of the massive amount of loans Sri Lanka has taken from China for infrastructure projects, one of which two years ago prompted The New York Times to write this headline: “How China Got Sri Lanka To Cough Up A Port.” That was a dig at the $1.5 billion southern port in Hambantota, built with Chinese loans, that the debt-strapped Sri Lankan government gave to the Chinese on a 99-year lease as part of a $1.1 billion debt swap.

The Sri Lankan public was not privy, however, to the mood inside the Chinese embassy on Friday, following the pro-China Rajapaksas’ triumph. They are “so happy,” was the sentiment making the rounds within some Colombo-based diplomatic circles.

Foreign policy insiders in the country regard these rhetorical cues as a hint of the “diplomatic balancing act” that looms for the new government in Sri Lanka, increasingly wooed by China, India, the U.S. and Japan, all covetous of the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean.

Yet, the foreign policy insiders are sanguine. The decisive electoral mandate won by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, or SLPP, will afford the Rajapaksas enough political stability to chart a firmer diplomatic course.

“One thing out of the way with the general elections is we will not have partisan quarrels over foreign policy,” said a veteran Sri Lankan diplomat, referring to the previous coalition government, one marked by disunity when it came to foreign relations with China, India and the U.S. “The people’s mandate gives the government a stable domestic platform to deal with foreign powers.”

The elections cemented the Rajapaksas’ political comeback after a five-year lapse. In November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s younger brother, won a sweeping mandate in the presidential election. The brothers had risen to dominate the country for a decade during Mahinda’s two terms as president, which came to an end in January 2015.

It was during Mahinda’s presidency that Sri Lanka tilted

toward China, ending decades of influence that India had enjoyed. Beijing poured in military assets that enabled the Rajapaksas to end Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war and followed it up with billions of dollars worth of infrastructure loans to help revive the war-shattered economy.

The general elections also serve as a reminder: Foreign-funded infrastructure projects and foreign assistance have become political fodder and will pose an early foreign policy challenge for the Rajapaksa brothers’ new administration.

On the eve of the elections, a Colombo port trade union with ties to the Rajapaksa camp launched a protest to stop the development of a container terminal that India, Japan and Sri Lanka agreed to build last year.

Likewise, speakers on SLPP platforms during the campaign opposed Sri Lanka signing a deal for a $480 million grant from the U.S. government under its so-called Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is aimed at improving logistics and transportation on the island. Anti-U.S. sentiment was also stoked by Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which mentions Sri Lanka and a need to counter China’s presence in the nation.

According to Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan foreign secretary, it will be difficult to ignore the national mood laid bare during the elections. “There is pressure on the government not to hand over the terminal to Japan and India … and the political mood is entirely against the MCC,” Kohona said. “It is also a reaction that you cannot conduct foreign policy by giving out bits and pieces of our real estate.”

Seasoned geopolitical observers reckon that New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington recognize the edge China will enjoy under a Rajapaksa administration. “India, Japan and the U.S. have long been concerned that Sri Lanka may go down Pakistan’s path: become another country in South Asia that is heavily indebted to China,” said Aparna Pande, director for the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.

“[But] what Delhi-Tokyo-Washington will need to understand is that Colombo has access to a constant tap of dollars from Beijing,” Pande added, “and that they will need to be willing to disburse more money if they want to play the game.”

Well-placed sources within Sri Lanka’s financial sector point to the country’s need for a financial lifeline as the $88 billion economy teeters on the brink of a worsening crisis. The island’s international reserves have shrunk to $6.5 billion, and growth is forecast to contract by 1.3% this year, a further drop from the 2.5% in 2019, the worst in 18 years.

Gotabaya has already made desperate appeals to India and China for relief from mounting external debt payments that will average over $4 billion a year until 2024. China has already stepped forward with a $500 million loan. India has pledged $450 million.

“We need every dollar we can lay our hands on,” said the head of a Colombo-based financial sector company. “The Rajapaksas cannot antagonize our allies — they need foreign friends, not foreign enemies, to tap funds.”

Japan, which holds 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt, a share matched by China, will matter in this equation. It appears not to have been lost in Tokyo’s tweet to congratulate the new Rajapaksa administration.

“Japan, as a long-standing friend of Sri Lanka, will continue to support Sri Lanka’s effort towards further development as a hub of the Indian Ocean region,” it said.

 



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Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’

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By Norman Palihawadane and Ifham Nizam

The Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) yesterday arrested six suspects in the Sapugaskanda Rathgahawatta area with more than 100 kilos of Crystal Methamphetamine also known as Ice.

Police Media Spokesman, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ajith Rohana told the media that the PNB sleuths, acting on information elicited from a suspect in custody had found 91 packets of Ice.

A man in possession of 100 kilos of heroin was arrested in Modera during the weekend and revealed that a haul of Ice had been packed in plastic boxes.

The PNB seized more than 114 kilos of Ice from the possession of a single drug network.

According to the information elicited from the suspects, more than 100 kilos of Ice were found.

The PNB also arrested six persons including two women with 13 kilos of Ice, during an operation carried out in the Niwandama area in Ja-Ela on Sunday.

DIG Rohana said the ice had been packed in small plastic boxes and hidden in two school bags.

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PM intervenes to iron out differences among coalition partners

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By Norman Palihawadane

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday said that he was confident that differences among the constituents of the SLPP coalition as regards the May Day celebrations and the next Provincial Council elections could be ironed out soon.

Leaders of all SLPP allied parties have been invited to a special meeting to be held at Temple Trees with the PM presiding on April 19.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa said it was natural for members of a political alliance to have their own standpoints and views on matters of national importance. “This is due to the different political ideologies and identities. It is not something new when it comes to political alliances world over. In a way, it shows that there is internal democracy within our alliance.

The PM said: “As a result of that the allied parties may express their own views on issues, but that does not mean there is a threat to the unity of the alliance. An alliance is more vibrant and stronger not when all the parties think on the same lines but when the member parties have different ideologies.”

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Thilo Hoffman remembered

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A copy of the book “Politics of a Rainforest: Battles to save Sinharaja” was handed over to Dominik Furgler, the Swiss Ambassador in Sri Lanka by the author of the book, Dr. Prasanna Cooray at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo last Tuesday, to be sent to the family of the late Thilo Hoffman in Switzerland.

Hoffman, a Swiss national, who made Sri Lanka his second home for six decades, was a pioneering environmental activist who led the battles to save Sinharaja from the front in the early 1970s, abreast with the likes of Iranganie Serasinghe, Kamanie Vitharana, Lynn De Alwis and Nihal Fernando of the “Ruk Rekaganno” fame. That was the era when the trees of Sinharaja were felled for the production of plywood by the then government. Hoffman was also a livewire of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) for a long time. Hoffman died in 2014 at the age of 92.

The book includes a chapter on Thilo Hoffman.

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