Navigating troubled waters

Faced with domestic woes and intensifying regional rivalries, Sri Lanka must play a skilful diplomatic game, writes Neville De Silva

Even as the acrid smell of exploded bombs polluted Colombo’s seaside air on Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka’s coalition government was doing what it does best – going for each other’s throats.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who was in Singapore at the time, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo were denying any knowledge of the several intelligence alerts that India had passed on to Sri Lankan authorities, warning them of impending terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists.

As it happened, those warnings went unheeded. On Easter Sunday jihadi suicide bombers attacked two Christian churches in provincial towns, along with two other churches and three luxury hotels in the capital Colombo, killing almost 260 locals and foreigners, and wounding several hundred more.

With the bitter political blame game being played out and the intelligence services busy explaining their terrible faux pas that caused Sri Lanka’s worst multiple suicide attack, the public outcry for the resignation of government leaders was shrill and implacable.

Sri Lankans, who had enjoyed a decade of relative peace after nearly 30 years of war with the secessionist Tamil Tigers (LTTE), were preparing to commemorate the country’s military victory in May 2009 when they were struck by a catastrophe that shattered their complacency.

FIGHTING TALK: President Maithripala Sirisena (l) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
FIGHTING TALK: President Maithripala Sirisena (l) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Perhaps the greatest surprise to many was the existence of so many Islamic extremist cells among Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, which make up around 10 per cent of the 22 million population. As investigators dug deeper into the spread of Wahabi and Salafi ideologies and hate speech preached by some Muslim clerics who belatedly were found to be among the suicide bombers, they unearthed other interesting facts. Not only did many of these radicalised Muslims belong to economically well-to-do and educated families, but also women had begun to play frontline roles.

All this has had a chilling effect, and not just on domestic politics. It concerns, too, Sri Lanka’s geopolitics at a crucial time. Major powers in the Indo-Pacific region have been jostling to get a foothold in the country at a time when big-power rivalry in the Indian Ocean has become more intense, with heightened naval activity around Sri Lanka.

The Easter attacks were a crushing blow to President Sirisena, whose volte-face on an earlier pledge not to contest a second presidential term has undermined public faith in him.

Moreover, his machinations to undermine and oust his own prime minister, whose United National Party was hugely responsible for bringing Sirisena to power in 2015, has destroyed what little public confidence people had in him.

The public outcry for the resignation of government leaders was implacable

With the presidential election only six months or so away, Sirisena’s chances of a comeback appear slender. His efforts to strike a deal with former president and arch enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa seem doomed, unless a miracle happens.

Rajapaksa’s younger brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary under Mahinda during the anti-LTTE war, announced within a few days of the jihadi attack that he would be a presidential candidate and promised to defeat Islamic terrorism as he had once crushed the LTTE.

With some Buddhist monks, Sinhala nationalists, retired military officers and even a general public, tired of Sirisena’s vacillatory governance, encouraging Gotabaya to enter politics, it now appears he will be the front-runner in the presidential race.

While the former defence secretary’s tough, no-nonsense approach to governance attracts those who call for strongrule, the media, journalists and sections of the moderate, liberal public feel civil liberties would be at risk if peppered with a dash of Rajapaksa authoritarianism.

But, with parliamentary elections also due in mid-2020, it is not only the Sri Lankan people who voted in 2015 to defeat the Rajapaksa ‘conglomerate’ who need to worry about the future.It must surely also concern major Indo-Pacific powers such as India, Japan, the US and Australia, which have begun to recognise Sri Lanka as a nation of great relevance to big powers jostling to gain a significant presence in what will arguably be one of the most strategically contested regions in this century.

Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean has turned this island nation into one of the most sought-after pieces of real estate in the region; particularly so with the vital Hambantota Port, just 12 nautical miles or so from the international sea lanes carrying trade and energy supplies crucial to major powers in the East.

It was during the Rajapaksa years (2005-2015) that Sri Lanka-China relations grew dramatically – and not without cause. In the latter years of the anti-LTTE war and after the defeat of the separatists, the West, especially the US, stopped arms supplies and financial assistance to Sri Lanka.

The Obama administration, spurred on by Hillary Clinton’s human rights agenda, was pressing for Sri Lanka to be dragged before the UN Human Rights Council to be held accountable for alleged war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. This drove Sri Lanka further into China’s orbit, with Beijing now having control of the vital Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease.

If the US is concerned, India should be more so, and not only because the Chinese navy is in India’s backyard. During Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Colombo in August 2014, a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo, raising serious Indian concerns which were officially conveyed to Colombo.

Last year China against requested a port call by a Chinese submarine but, given New Delhi’s sensitivities, Colombo politely turned down the request.

And India has another problem. Some of the suicide bombers involved in the Easter tragedy have reportedly visited India and made contacts in the south of the country. This could spell trouble for India, with its substantial Muslim population and proximity to Sri Lanka.

With the foreign policy portfolio in the UNP’s hands, the US has the opportunity to get a military foothold in Sri Lanka

While India has promised closer co-operation on security and trade, it is obviously peeved at the cavalier manner in which Colombo treated the intelligence passed on about the imminent bombings.

Speaking on Indo-Lanka relations last month, Indian envoy in Colombo Taranjit Singh Sandhu fired some barbs which were obviously aimed at China. ‘Greater connectivity and economic integration are our promise for a better tomorrow. When I say this, let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind, we do not covet your markets, your assets or your land.’

Meanwhile Robert Blake, American Ambassador to Sri Lanka during the last years of the anti-LTTE war when Washington stopped arms supplies to the Rajapaksa administration, was in Colombo last month after Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his political intentions.

Although Gotabaya is a dual citizen which excludes him from holding public office according to a 2015 constitutional amendment, he has said he has renounced his US citizenship. So any hold the US had on him earlier would have little validity now. With the political tide turning against Sirisena, Blake, now retired from the diplomatic service, told a Colombo audience that the US followed a misguided  policy vis-à-vis Sri Lanka. Anticipating a major political change here, Blake is already pleading mea culpa, hoping that Gotabaya as president would forgive the US, a country of which he was so recently a citizen.

The problem for the west is that foreign policy was largely managed by the pro-western, particularly pro- US United National Party, led by the prime minister and the very pro-US foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera.

So there was a foreign policy tug-of-war, with the UNP pulling in one direction and the Sirisena faction leaning towards China. With the foreign policy portfolio in the UNP’s hands, the US has the opportunity to get a military foothold in Sri Lanka. It now has a logistics hub in Colombo and military-to-military agreements that allow the US  to operate out of Sri Lanka on matters of maritime security and disaster management, and engage in joint military exercises.

The current US ambassador in Colombo denies that Washington has a base in Sri Lanka. But America is building a relationship that it hopes will provide some counterweight to China’s Hambantota and Colombo port facilities. Washington maybe concerned that the return of the Rajapaksas will undo this burgeoning relationship under the pro-western UNP.

Hence Robert Blake’s conciliatory speech to court the Rajapaksas, pleading that emphasis on human rights resulted in an anti-Colombo policy including stopping arms supplies and financial resources to the Rajapaksa government.

On the other side of the world, as it were, China’s President Xi Jinping was expressing his concern to President Sirisena in Beijing about the presence of several western intelligence and forensic experts investigating the suicide bombings. China probably feared that western experts would discover Chinese communications or other technological devices they were not supposed to know of.

In the face of escalating Indo-Asia-Pacific rivalry, Sri Lanka will have to play a deft diplomatic game to steer its way through, or stay out of,the troubled waters around it.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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