In 2019, the Rajapaksa family returned back into the political limelight in Sri Lanka, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. After Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Prime Minister, the first foreign trip that he made was to India. Rajapaksa’s visit presents a fantastic panorama of how, just as happens in music, consonance & dissonance can also be introduced in international diplomacy for forming a structural dichotomy in which they define one another by mutual exclusion.
Though Rajapaksa’s trip highlighted a few areas for collaboration between Delhi and Colombo, it has left the Indian foreign policy makers on tenterhooks with several broader questions lingering on the future direction of ties.
But, why such illation on Rajapaksa’s return to power? What had happened in the past that are making the policy makers jittery? Well, to understand this fidgetiness, we have to recollect the events happened in the last decade. Back in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as the President of Sri Lanka, who was again re-elected in 2010 and continued to be the President till 2015 before Maithripala Sirisena took over the chair. During the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the president, several hiccups had arisen in the India-Sri Lanka relations. It began in 2008 with Sri Lanka entering into an agreement with China on building the Hambantota Port, a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. India was apprehensive about the growing Chinese presence in the island which would be used for Chinese naval vessels.
Then in May 2009, the three decade long armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan armed forces was completely brought to an end by the Rajapaksa’s government. During this course of conflict, different reports started to come to limelight. These reports highlighted how inhumanly the Tamilians were treated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Several reputed human right commissions and news channels like BBC had also reported on the barbaric acts carried out over the Tamilians by the forces in the name of vanquishing LTTE. Such acts continued even the death of LTTE’s commander Velupillai Prabhakaran. A video had went viral showing that after Prabhakaran was killed by Sri Lankan soldiers, his ten year son was kept in a LTTE camp that was captured by the soldiers where he was also killed eventually. The boy was killed after the end of conflict only because he was the son of Velupillai Prabhakaran. During the course of the conflict, India had supported the right of the Sri Lankan government to act against terrorist forces. However, at the same time, it also conveyed its deep concern at the plight of the Tamil civilian population, by emphasizing that their rights & welfare should not be enmeshed in hostilities against the LTTE. As soon as the conflict ended, India was the first to send support to the Sri Lankan government in the form of humanitarian aid. The main developmental assistance post civil war from India included assistance in constructing 50,000 housing units in the affected areas, rehabilitation of Northern Railway lines, establishment of Vocational Training Centres, wreck-removal & rehabilitation of the KKS Harbour, reconstruction and rehabilitation of a hospital in Jaffna peninsula, construction of a Cultural Centre at Jaffna, establishing an Agricultural Research Institute in the Northern Province, restoration of Thiruketheeswaram Temple, establishing Centres for English Language Training, expanding scholarship programs for Sri Lankan students to pursue their higher studies in India and providing technical assistance for National Action Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka. In other words, India had forwarded a helping hand to Sri Lanka in every possible way to counter the loss.
The problems for Sri Lanka however did not end after the conflict. The news of barbaric acts reached to the UN Human Right Commission. At international level, in the backdrop of this LTTE conflict and barbaric acts carried out by the Sri Lankan forces, Mahinda Rajapaksa fell out with the West over violation of human rights & allegations of war crimes at the end of the civil war. Having no other choice, India was also forced to vote against Sri Lanka. China meanwhile took this as an opportunity to extend the hands of friendship to Sri Lanka. China was among the few countries that supplied arms & defence equipment to the Sri Lankan forces during its war against LTTE. Beijing also had taken the Sri Lankan side and prevented the issue of genocide & killing of Tamil Civilians being taken up by international organizations. To further strengthen the bilateral ties and relation with Mahinda Rajapaksa, China gave an $8 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka. Also, apart from Hambantota port, China started another project of constructing ‘Colombo Port City’ that will develop into a financial, entertainment and residential hub within 25 years in the Indian Ocean region. However, Chinese investments were not only limited to these major projects. Apart from these, during the previous Rajapaksa government, multiple contracts of various infrastructural projects were also given to the Chinese government. The decades old civil war had left Sri Lanka in need of growth assistance, which the Chinese investments promised to meet. Hence, these Chinese investments were welcomed by the then Sri Lankan government as it was in the dire need of developmental aids and loans. Through such contracts and billion dollar investments, the relationship between the Rajapaksa’s family and Chinese government intensified more and more.
In 2010, amid increasing Chinese footprints, a Chinese destroyer submarine was docked in Sri Lankan port. This raised the concerns for the Indian policy makers. Consequently, in 2011, in the backdrop of rising Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka, India called upon then defence minister of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss the Chinese issue. India was concerned about the increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka and in the India Ocean because of massive geo-political significance of Sri Lanka for India. The distance between India and Sri Lanka through Palk Strait is approximately 80kms. The distance is even less, around 48kms, through Adam’s bridge that connects Rameshwaram island in India at Dhanushkodi to Mannar island of Sri Lanka at Talaimannar. The distance between these two nations being so less, Sri Lankan island can be very easily accessed for military purposes or sponsor terrorism activities in India. Thus, importance of Sri Lanka is very vital for India – strategically as well as for safeguarding internal security for India. Due to such importance, the relationship between India and Sri Lanka is often termed as ‘sensitive relation’. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa seemed to be least interested in maintaining the robust relationship. Just after a few couple months from Gotabaya’s return from Delhi, one warship and another attack submarine from China were docked again Hambatota port. By this time, it became very clear for India that Rajapaksa’s were getting more and more inclined towards their Chinese counterpart which is menace to India’s security. The effect was seen in the bilateral relationship between India and Sri Lanka which rapidly dwindled during Rajapaksa’s previous tenure.
The bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka again started improving after 2015 with Mahinda Rajapaksa being defeated by Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential election. Ranil Wickremesinghe also got elected as the prime minister in the same year. Rumours were aired that the Research and Analysis (RAW) wing of India has played their part behind Rajapaksa’s defeat. Whatsoever, the relationship between India and Sri Lanka again started regaining its momentum and at the same time Sri Lanka-China relationship dwindled under Maithripala’s and Ranil’s regime. This became much advantageous for India. By the end of 2018, the bilateral trade between the two nations reached to $4.93 billion. Additionally, Government of India had also given $5 billion credit to Sri Lanka for various developmental purposes. This money were to be used against capital goods, consultancy services & food items. consumer durables, purchase of petroleum products, rehabilitation of Colombo-Matara railway, fishing equipment for fishermen in eastern Sri Lanka, solar energy aided computer education for rural schools in Eastern sri Lanka, upgrading the Trincomalee city and construction of Trincomalee port, water supply projects, a joint venture to revive loss making Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota, thermal power plant projects, building tourism establishing hospitals, supply of medical equipment etc.
In October 2018, all of a sudden, a report came out in Sri Lankan newspaper where President Maithripala Sirisena mentioned that India is keen in removing him from power. Though on the spur of the moment it was believed to be a fake news but later on in the same month when then Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe visited and spoke against Sri Lankan president’s efficiency in a press conference, there was a slight change in people thought. Ranil Wickremesinghe had visited India on a three day tour for signing a few two deals, one on the loss making airport and other for buying a nuclear power plant. Political scenario of Sri Lanka worsened after Ranil Wickremesinghe went back to Sri Lanka. He was suddenly removed from the post of prime Minister by the President himself. Though according to the Sri Lankan constitution, President cannot remove prime minister from his office unless there surfaces an instability in the parliament, yet Maithripala Sirisena had done it and brought Mahinda Rajapaksa back as the prime minister of Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa was given each and every possible facility. Massive protests against the government were initiated by the opposition parties which eventually lead to dissolution of Sri Lankan parliament. Ultimately, Supreme Court of Sri Lanka had to intervene into the issue and asked Mahinda Rajapaksa to prove his majority when failed to prove it but still he remained in his office. The court then asked the opposition parties to prove their majority. Opposition parties were successful in proving their majority but Rajapaksa still did not vacate his office. A situation of constitutional crisis started prevailing in Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan Supreme Court was forced to give orders to government employees to not to obey orders from Mahinda Rajapaksa. After this Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign and Ranil Wickremesinghe was back in his office.
Meanwhile, in April 2019 a tragic incident took place on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. Three Churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamic terrorist suicide bombings. These bombings had claimed Two hundred and fifty lives beside injuring more than five hundred people. Shockingly, the three terrorist who carried out the bombings were later found to be from Kerala in India. India was blamed by the President of Sri Lanka, also the head of Sri Lankan defence ministry, against no sharing intelligence information on terrorist attack. However, every information about these three terrorists, details about their training in Nepal and possibility of carrying out nefarious activities in Sri Lanka was handed over to Sri Lankan defence ministry beforehand by the Indian intelligence agencies, but no steps or precautions were taken which resulted to high casualties. Ranil Wickremesinghe had admitted that India did shared the information but President had failed to take necessary actions and as defence ministry comes under supervision of the President, hence the Prime Minister also couldn’t act upon. Thus we can see a tussle was going on between the President and the Prime minister. The Prime Minister was more inclined to India whereas the President was more tilted towards Rajapaksa.
In 2019, the Rajapaksas have again returned to power who can be said from the above discussion about the past that they are far more pro-Chinese than being inclined towards India. Mahinda Rajapaksha was largely responsible for opening up Sri Lanka to massive strategic Chinese investments in the past. The Hambantota Port and 15000 acres of land have been conceded to China on a 99 year lease. This had caused considerable concentration in New Delhi in the past, which apprehends that there are possibilities of using this deep sea port for military purposes and not just trade. During Ranil Wickremesinghe regime this deal was put on a hold but present dispensation want it to be restored. This axis between Sri Lanka and China was the main reason why India was reported to have helped the opposition of Rajapaksa’s before 2015 election and after Rajapaksa’s defeat, he had accused India to have engineered his defeat.
Coming to present, Rajpaksa’s India visit appears to have been a successful one. In line with “Neighborhood First” policy and ‘Sagar’ doctrine, New Delhi has given ‘a special priority’ to Colombo and Sri Lanka also appears to be satisfied with the comfort level existing between PM Modi and Rajapaksa and the pace of relationship. But there still remain some disagreements. For instance, Sri Lanka wants to see cooperation and progress in SAARC while India believes all efforts to strengthen regional cooperation must be channelled to the BIMSTEC. Additionally, Sri Lanka have shown interest in some infrastructural projects on bilateral agenda but at the same time Rajapaksa also said that Sri Lanka will no longer grant important project like Mattala airport to other countries. He further went on saying that those projects already approved by PM Ranil Wickremesinghe will be stopped. Simultaneously, in December 2019, Gotabaya also warned India & Western nations that Colombo would have no other alternative than seeking more finance from Beijing if they do not invest in the island. However, Rajapaksa seemed positive about the LNG project and the Eastern Container Terminal in Colombo that will have joint investment by India & Japan.
The present relation between India and Sri Lanka remains in a state of procrastination and surrounded by several tricky issues, Rajpaksa’s statement while in visit to India – India is a “relation” where others are friends – shows a ray of hope in the bilateral relation. New Delhi, instead of remaining rigid, should focus on finding a balance between Lanka’s interest in SAARC and India’s preference for BIMSTEC. From India’s point of view, BIMSTEC makes sense for India because of its larger footprints across Indio-Pacific region and India’s Act East Policy, but Sri Lanka is not keen at all. Additionally, Rajapaksa had also appealed India to assist Sri Lanka in dealing with the debt crisis where Sri Lanka nearly has $60 billion outstanding in foreign & domestic and about $5 million a year in repayments. Accepting his request for a three year moratorium just like New Delhi extended the helping hands by sending medical assistance to Sri Lanka during COVID-19 pandemic despite domestic challenges could possibly help in restricting any further damage as well as enhance the bilateral ties between the two nations. India must remember from its past experience when India had rejected the deal of developing Hambatota which was later grabbed by China as an opportunity of further increasing their footprints in the island nation.
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