BY Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.
In a stunning blow to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan voters opted for his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena to end a decade-long regime that has been increasingly marked by allegations of nepotism, corruption and authoritarianism.
Rajapaksa, after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), had won an overwhelming mandate for himself and his party in the 2010 elections.
The LTTE had been fighting since 1983 for an independent homeland for minority ethnic Tamils after decades of discrimination at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.
Though the civil war in Sri Lanka, which lasted for more than 25 years and claimed more than 100,000 lives, ended in 2009, the country remains bitterly divided as reconciliation efforts have faltered. When the war ended in 2009, there was an opportunity for the ethnic communities to reconcile, and the government was expected to implement measures to address the problems faced by the country’s minorities, particularly Tamils. That did not happen.
It was Rajapaksa who had called for elections this January, a full 16 months ahead of schedule. His confidence stemmed from the fact that it was under his leadership that the civil war ended in 2009, term limits for the presidency were removed in 2010, there was a wave of infrastructure investment, and the country’s economy experienced a still-rising peace dividend.
The Sri Lankan economy has seen robust annual growth of 6.4 percent over the course of 2003 to 2012, well above that of its regional peers.
Following the end of the civil conflict in May 2009, growth rose initially to 8 percent, largely reflecting a peace dividend underpinned by strong private consumption and investment. While growth was mostly private-sector driven, public investment also contributed through large infrastructure investment, including postwar reconstruction efforts in the northern and eastern provinces.
Growth was around 7 percent in 2013, driven by a rebound in the service sector, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of GDP. Economic prosperity has been broadly shared. Sri Lanka experienced a big decline in poverty between 2002 and 2009 — from 23 percent to 9 percent of the population.
It is anticipated that Sri Lanka per capita income will increase sufficiently in the next two to three years to prompt the World Bank to categorize the country as “middle income.”
Yet, despite an end to the violent conflict with the LTTE in 2009, social tensions persist. A predominantly militarized development process imposes a top-down strategy at the expense of incorporating local voices and ideas.
Though more discrete than was previously the case, military forces are involved in all levels of civilian administration in the north, and development projects must be military-approved. The International Crisis Group has argued that instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent, occupying presence.’
Sri Lanka has also been witnessing religious tensions between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims. The anti-Muslim campaign has been triggered by Bodu Bala Sena’s push to abolish the Halal certification process and ban the niqab.
Bodu Bala Sena, which means Buddhist Power Force, was formed in July 2012. Since its formations it has taken up various anti-Muslim activities such as asking people not to shop from the Muslim shops.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the minority Tamils and Muslims appear to have voted heavily against Rajapaksa.
As a new era begins in Sri Lanka, both China and India will be looking closely at how the new regime will change its priorities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already called up Sirisena to congratulate him on his victory in the Sri Lankan polls and to assure him of India’s continued support for the country’s peace and development. It has been speculated in New Delhi that the ouster of Rajapaksa means a greater role for India in the island.
The government of Rajapaksa had become ever more confident of disregarding Indian concerns. India has been emphasizing the need to resettle internally displaced people, urging that Sri Lankan authorities expedite rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in northern and eastern Sri Lanka especially.
India has underlined the need for a meaningful devolution package, building on the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution that would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement. The outgoing Rajapaksa government was largely noncommittal on most of India’s demands.
At the same time, China’s footprint has been expanding in Sri Lanka. Chinese military supplies to Sri Lanka are estimated at $100 million per year, with China supporting Sri Lankan defense forces in its capabilities for high-technology aerial warfare, and restructuring and reorienting the military.
China emerged as the largest foreign finance partner of Sri Lanka in 2010, overtaking India and Japan, and as its third largest trading partner in 2012.
Sri Lanka is also committed to joining the Maritime Silk Road Initiative of Beijing, which is a vital strategic project for China in the Indian Ocean.
For China, Sri Lanka is a gateway port off the coast of India, and from Iran, further west, an important oil exporter. China’s support was crucial for Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war against the LTTE. Chinese support was also invaluable as Sri Lanka was confronted by United States-backed resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council. As a result, the two nations now have a declared strategic cooperation partnership.
For China, its ties with Sri Lanka give it a foothold near crucial sea lanes in the Indian Ocean plus entry into what India considers its sphere of influence.
China is financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities.
Indian policymakers are mistaken if they think a change of regime in Colombo will damp Sino-Sri Lanka ties. China’s role is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka — economically as well as geopolitically. India will have to up its game if it wants to retain leverage in Colombo. Rajapaksa or Sirisena, China’s role is only going to grow in the island nation. After all, it is the great game in the Indian Ocean that is at stake.
Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.