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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2612

Sri Lankan Presidential election; Foreign policy implications of a Sirisena Presidency

By Raj Gonsalkorale

To state that the common Opposition is short on substance and loud on rhetoric is an understatement. The substance attributed to the common candidacy is based on the MOUs signed by Mr Sirisena with the UNP and the JHU respectively, which are not the same. The JHU MOU appears to appease their constituency, the nationalist Sinhala Buddhists, while, it is likely to irk the TNA and lead to a separate MOU with them if and when the common candidate signs an MOU with them.

Besides this, should the SLMC decide to support Mr Sirisena, then there is bound to be an MOU with them as well and very likely, different to the others.

This leads one to wonder which of these MOUs will be honoured by Mr Sirisena should he win. The coalition stitched up by Mr Ranil Wickremasighe and Mrs Chandrika Kumaratuna is bound to be fissured when different MOUs begin competing with each other, and Mr Sirisena, who enjoys very little electoral support on his own steam, finds himself pulled from all directions with no political base to anchor himself to.

For those who would welcome a strong Opposition and a credible candidacy to oppose President Rajapaksa, this lame effort on the part of a failed leader and others who a taxi driver recently mentioned to the writer as ‘avalangu kasi” or expired currency (a reference to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga), and this facile show of unity and purpose, has been an absolute let down.

Those who are able to think and discern what direction the country should take, should there be a regime change, and who are capable of seeing the woods for the trees, have been left with a wish list of promises contained in MOUs with no details and the voters unable to distinguish what would be different if the common candidate wins, if indeed it is a change that the common opposition is seeking.

Cracks in this so called common objective and in the common front are well evident now with the incumbent team securing a prize scalp from the UNP, the largest segment in the common front, the general secretary of the UNP Tissa attanayake. Mr Attanayake is now the Health minister, a portfolio that the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, former general secretary of the SLFP, vacated when he left the UPFA. A fitting quid pro quo to settle scores.

The common Opposition is spearheaded by a former president who failed to end LTTE terrorism although armed with a powerful presidency which she held for 12 years. She would find it difficult to come face to face with families who lost a father, mother, son or daughter to LTTE terrorism and war, and who no longer fear losing any loved one thanks to President Rajapaksa.

Chandrika Kumaratunga should know that many families in the rural sector, which is the predominant segment of the electorate, and who have lost someone from their families over the 30 years period, would wish to ask her why she could not prevent these deaths during her 12 year rule. It is a legitimate question.

The other kingmaker Mr Ranil Wickremasighe, who subjugated his party to an outsider in the previous presidential election has done it again as he very likely calculated that he would be safe and able to continue as the UNP leader, and the Leader of the Opposition, should his Common candidate choice this time, Mr Sirisena loses.

Sri Lankans also will be reminded about the ill-conceived ceasefire agreement Mr Wickremasighe signed with the LTTE leader Prabakaran and which led to the escalation of the hostilities culminating in the final brutal war that defeated the LTTE militarily in 2009. The LTTE viewed this agreement as a precursor to the legitimization of a separate State in the North and East of the country and Mr Wickremasighe displayed his political immaturity in entering into an agreement with an organization that had no intention of honouring it.

Despite these shortcomings, Mr Wickremasinghe has remained the UN P leader and many in the UNP are probably wondering why their leader has no guts to stand up to President Rajapaksa and rally his party to defeat the President. They are probably wondering why Mr Wickremasighe is not the candidate supported by Mr Sirisena , Chandrika Kumaratunga and others in the coalition. They must all be quizzical as to who the real leader is although the one in front is Mr Sirisena. It would not be surprising if they are considering this to be a sinister move on the part of Chandrika Kumaratunga to regroup sections of the SLFP and the UNP and oust Mr Wickremasinghe from the UNP party leadership. Very legitimate observations.

This fragile coalition of disparate individuals, all having the common thread of hating President Rajapaksa for some reason or the other, have focused primarily on a single change to the constitution, the abolition of the Executive Presidency.

There are contradictions in this as well as Mr Sirisena is on record saying he will retain executive powers applicable to provincial councils, meaning, all that is arising from the 13th Amendment, should he win the election. He has also stated that he will implement the 13th Amendment in full and confer substantial powers to the provincial councils. The implication of this is the retention of enhanced executive powers in the Presidency, and not the national Parliament, as far as the fully devolved provinces are concerned.

This is in stark contradiction to the statement by Mr Sirisena that he will “abolish” the executive Presidency within 100 days of winning the election. Either Mr Sirisena is dishonest about his intentions, or he is displaying his political immaturity and inability to think strategically, a quality indispensable in a national leader.

His credibility as a political leader has been dealt with in earlier articles and the fact that he had the dishonesty to nominate President Rajapaksa as the SLFP candidate for this election, state openly that he supported him and went to the extent of enjoying a meal of hoppers with the President one day, and then stabbing him in the back the very next day, does not demonstrate even a semblance of credibility.

Not the qualities expected of a national leader and an aspiring President.

The impact on many of the domestic issues in a Sirisena Presidency has been dealt with elsewhere and in several other journals and newspapers. However, little has been said about the foreign policy implications arising from a Sirisena Presidency.

Firstly, Mr Sirisena has no political base of his own, and therefore does not have the ability to forge a foreign policy of his choice. He is dependent on the views of a multiple number of partners bearing opposing views in his coalition for all his policies including foreign policy and defense policy.

Looking at the disparate array of partners, it is well known that the principle partner, the UNP and its leader Rani Wickremasinghe is a darling of the USA and the West in general, and likely to dictate Mr Sirisena’s foreign policy. Former President J R Jayewardene and Mr Ranil Wickremasighe as former Prime Minister, are the only Sri Lankan leaders invited to meet a US President in the White House and this says a lot about the closeness the UNP leadership, and presently Mr Wickremasighe is to the US administration.

Even if he manages to scramble some votes from the SLFP with the assistance of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mr Sirisena knows that the SLFP and the Bandaranaike’s have been traditionally friends of China, and he would be dictated by Chandrika Kumaratunga to make sure his foreign policy is friendly towards China. A totally inexperienced person like Mr Sirisena would find it impossible to do a balancing act between the fading empire of the USA, supported by Ranil Wickremasinghe and the emerging empire of China, supported by Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Then there is India, and Russia and Japan. How would Mr Sirisena keep the equilibrium Vis a Vis India and China? How would be do that with China and Japan, and USA and Russia?

It is common knowledge that the USA has a left a train of instability and destruction in the countries they have meddled in, and one should not forget that the beginning of LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka was due to the foreign policy of Mr Wickremasinghe’s uncle and mentor, former president J R Jayewardene whose attempt to permit a significant presence in Sri Lanka for the USA, commencing with the positioning of a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka, led to then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a friend of Soviet Russia at the time, deciding to misuse a domestic issue in Sri Lanka and provide arms and military training to the fledgling LTTE in order to destabilize Sri Lanka. The rest is history.

The worst aspect of a Sirisena Presidency is the underlying lack of a foundation for it and a man with no experience in foreign policy, defense and economics, being at the helm of an increasingly complex regional political and an economic environment.

The economic momentum that has been generated over the last 5 years in particular, lauded by many independent economic analysts, the fine balancing act in foreign policy, and the augmentation of defense strategies in several countries through Sri Lanka’s successful experience in defeating terrorism, Sri Lanka’s place within SAARC and in other regions and increasingly improving relationship with India, have been the envy of some western nations leading some to surreptitiously engineer a regime change in Sri Lanka to veer the country back towards the USA and western nation orbit.

Despite his faults, President Rajapaksa has been in the driving seat chartering this defense, economic and foreign policy. There may be shortcomings in these areas as well. However, none could say he has not done his best to give Sri Lanka its own identity and a sense of pride in being able to stand up to many who have been attempting to maneuver Sri Lanka to be pawns of the west and to make Sri Lanka a thorn in China’s flesh and destabilize the country as well as the region.

President Rajapaksa now has to take steps to arrest the decline in law and order felt by many, the brazen disregard of decency and misuse of their positions by some of his ministers and their progeny, perceptions surrounding corruption at all levels and the seeming legitimisation of corrupt activities by some as well as the inordinate centralization of power in the hands of a few individuals. The fabric of Sri Lankan society has got affected as a consequence of some of these negatives of the Rajapaksa administration and this need to be addressed if the decline is to be arrested. It is none other than President Rajapaksa himself who could take the lead and make sure others follow him.

If the voters elect him for another term, they would expect him to consolidate and build on his many gains, but equally, they would expect him to address the real and perceived negatives of his administration.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lankan Presidential election; Foreign policy implications of a Sirisena Presidency
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