Viewpoint by Kalinga Seneviratne
SINGAPORE (IDN) – International news reports about former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s rise to power in Sri Lanka project him as a human rights violator who detests democracy. But, there is an untold story behind his path to the country’s presidency that would have lessons for Asian countries in particular, who are in the crossfire of the geo-political battle for supremacy between the world’s two super powers U.S. and China in what is now called the ‘Indo-Pacific’.
In September the Yale-NUS college in Singapore cancelled a week long course on training young people to express dissent and organize resistance after the Singapore government expressed concern about it encouraging insurgencies. However, in Sri Lanka such training has been done by western funded NGOs (non-governmental organizations) for some years.
In January 2015, Maitripala Sirisena won the presidency defeating Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa on the back of a classic ‘velvet revolution’. The campaign to oust the Rajapaksa regime, which was seen to be tilting too much towards China, was spearheaded by pro-democracy and human rights campaigners trained mainly by western NGOs. They were able to paint the Rajapaksa regime as corrupt and undemocratic who repress freedom of speech.
The campaign was able to sway the votes of many of the youth voting for the first time, and also the minority groups such as Tamils and Muslims, along with urban Buddhist liberals.
“The civil society grouping played a significant role in the high profile 2014 project to defeat the Rajapaksas. It was an American funded operation,” noted Island newspaper’s editor Shamindra Ferdinando in a commentary last week. “The result (of November 16 election) clearly proved that the grouping was only some people’s civil society and its backing didn’t make any difference or even worked to the disadvantage of (government candidate) Sajith Premadasa because of the general perceived feeling in the south that they were only motivated by outside interests and funding.”
The NGO campaign of 2014 was based on heralding a new era called ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) of democracy, freedom of speech and accountability. This all sounded good liberal principles coming from the West. But, today the word ‘yahapalanaya’ has become a joke in Sri Lanka.
The yahapalanaya government came to power with the promise of creating such a liberal utopia within 100 days. When the new government took over, many of the western-funded NGO operatives were given positions in government agencies, some of which were established as part of the a UN campaign for the government to account for alleged war crimes.
Instead, during this time they breached their own principles by first, Sirisena appointing a Prime Minister – the pro-Western Ranil Wickremasinghe – who commanded the support of only 45 MPs in a 225 member parliament. Rajapaksa’s MPs shocked by the election verdict were intimidated into silence. Sirisena even appointed the head of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — a pro-LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) political party — as the leader of the opposition. He had only 14 MPs in parliament while the Rajapaksa’s party had over 100 MPs.
The biggest blow to the credibility of the ‘yahapalana’ revolution came in February 2015, about 50 days into 100-day program when the newly appointed Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, a Sri Lankan born Singapore citizen and an old school friend of Wickremasinghe, was involved in a multi-million dollar bond scam that benefited his son-in-law. Rajapaksa allies were quick to pounce on this, and with Mahendran fleeing to Singapore months later and the government’s unwillingness to bring him to book, has haunted the government ever since and was a major reason for the revival of the Rajapaksa fortunes.
However, a major issue that has riled the Sinhala Buddhist majority was the government’s surrender to western human rights lobbies and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in particular.
In September 2015, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera even went to the extent of signing a co-sponsorship (with the U.S.) of a resolution at UNHRC calling for the Sri Lankan government to account for alleged war crimes, when one of the most feared terror groups, the LTTE was finally crushed in May 2009.
For most Sinhalese, this smacks of pure hypocrisy on the part of the UNHRC when the U.S. and NATO have been involved in far worse war crimes in their war against terrorism, and no such accountability is asked from them. There have been calls by Sinhala nationalists for Samaraweera to be charged for treason (Sirisena has said repeatedly that he was not aware of him signing the resolution) and these could intensify in coming months.
Under this resolution there have been charges laid against army personnel with some jailed. Most Sinhalese see them as war heroes (Ranaviru) and Gotabaya indicated during his election campaign that most of them will be released when he assumes the presidency. He also told a press conference during the campaign that his government would not recognize the UNHRC resolution.
With President Rajapaksa vising India this week, it will be crucial for him to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for India to withdraw its sponsorship of this resolution.
In the past 12 months there have been much debate and controversy in the country over two deals Wickremasinghe was suspected to be negotiating behind the back of Sirisena with the U.S.
On May 25 this year, opposition lawmaker Bimal Ratnayake reading from a leaked copy of a letter the U.S. embassy has sent to the government on a proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), stated that it has asked Sri Lanka to allow free access to American soldiers, military officers and their contractors to the country without even a passport and they be held responsible only to the U.S. laws.
The leaked letter further points out that while in Sri Lanka, U.S. warships and military aircrafts be allowed to enter and leave the country without any inspections, and also no American military personnel be subjected to customs checks while entering or leaving the country.
Ever since the Easter Sunday bombings shocked the nation this year, there has been heightened concern that terrorism is being used as a pretext for the U.S. to use Sri Lankan soil for them to fight a geo-political war with China, especially because of the island’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
Wickremasinghe repeatedly told parliament and Sri Lankan media that with U.S. help they could fight Islamic terrorism. But, Rajapaksa supporters argues that the government’s subservience to UNHRC resolution had weakened the armed forces and the intelligence apparatus that Gotabaya has built up as Defense Secretary, and made the attack possible. His election campaign was focused on strengthening these to give protection to the community.
However, during the yahapalanaya government democratic rights, media freedom and freedom of the judiciary have been strengthened with the 19th amendment to the constitution. Sirisena in his farewell address to the nation immediately after the polls closed on November 16 said: “During my tenure, full democracy and freedom were restored in the country. I believe I could ensure full media freedom and democracy to an extent never enjoyed by the people before.”
It is hoped that President Rajapaksa will not tamper with these freedoms, but ensure these freedoms will lead to economic empowerment. He has indicated repeatedly that his economic model would be similar to that Singapore took where individual human rights will take lower priority to economic development that would benefit the community as a whole. He will also follow a more Asia-focused foreign and economic policy.
Switching to English, President Rajapaksa said in his inauguration speech that his government will practice a neutral foreign policy and will try to steer away from geo-political power games. “We request all nations to respect the unitary nature and sovereignty of the country, when maintaining relations with us” he urged.
Rajapaksas are known to be close to China, but, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first to congratulate Gotabaya. He tweeted a congratulation message even before the Election Commission officially announced the results on Saturday and was quick to extend an invitation for the newly elected President to visit Delhi. President Rajapaksa in a Tweet to Modi pointed out that “our two nations are bound by history and common heritage”.
There are two areas that the Rajapaksa regime could work closely with India. One is on confronting the Islamic terror threat and the other is on Modi’s “IndicBuddhist’ civilizational movement to stamp the Asian identity of the 21st century. Rajapaksa’s Buddhist nationalism will fit very well into that. While at the same time, Sri Lanka would also have close economic relations with China especially in developing the belt and road initiative with Hambantota harbor as a lynchpin.
Chinese leader Xi Jingping in his congratulatory message said he looked forward to “docking our development visions and deepen our practical cooperation within the framework of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, to start a new chapter of China-Sri Lanka Strategic Cooperative Partnership”.
Such cooperation will offer exciting possibilities for closer cooperation between Asian nations in building the trade and economic relations across the region in the 21st century to ensure it is Asia’s century. But, don’t expect the western media to cover these from such a positive perspective.
* Kalinga Seneviratne is the author of the just published book by SAGE titled ‘Myth of Free Media and Fake News in the Post-Truth Era”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 November 2019]
Photo: Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being received by External Affairs Minister V.K. Singh in New Delhi on November 28, 2019. | Credit: V.V. Krishnan. Source: The Hindu
[COMMENT: With reference to the second paragraph, we would like to clarify that the “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” project, part of Yale-NUS College’s Learning Across Boundaries programme, was neither meant to train young people to express dissent and organise resistance nor did the Singapore government interfere in the programme.
Yale-NUS College made an internal decision to cancel the “Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore” project on intellectual and pedagogical grounds, as it did not meet our academic standards. The project was meant to be an examination or study of protest that would expose students to the wide range of perspectives in Singapore, something essential for an academic consideration of the topic. However, the project in question did not adequately cover the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the political, social and ethical issues that surround dissent. The entire episode had nothing to do with efforts to promote any form of protest or revolution. Yale University’s independent report also concluded that the College’s decision to cancel the project “was made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the College. — Yale-NUS College Public Affairs ]
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/Ineptness