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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2859

Mahinda Rajapakse pays the ultimate prize for defying Indian interests? A response to Malladi Rama Rao

By Raj Gonsalkorale

It may be too early to write of Mahinda Rajapakse’s legacy. However, if one attempts to do that based on his performance to date, one could say he does have a mixed legacy, and is remembered principally for ending 30 years of terrorism and war, for launching an economic revival unparalleled in the history of Sri Lanka, and for giving Sri Lankans a sense of pride and hope, and belonging, after the leaders prior to him had given up hope in Sri Lanka’s ability to defeat the LTTE.

It may be too early to write of Mahinda Rajapakse’s legacy. However, if one attempts to do that based on his performance to date, one could say he does have a mixed legacy, and is remembered principally for ending 30 years of terrorism and war, for launching an economic revival unparalleled in the history of Sri Lanka, and for giving Sri Lankans a sense of pride and hope, and belonging, after the leaders prior to him had given up hope in Sri Lanka’s ability to defeat the LTTE.

Unfortunately he will also be remembered for the many allegations made against him and the perceptions surrounding him about corruption, his style of governance which had been labeled as authoritarian, and his association with many dregs of the society for political purposes, and the level of nepotism which had risen to new heights.

To date, none of the allegations about his corrupt activity have been brought before a court of law, let alone proving any of these allegations. Until this is done, he has to be presumed innocent of any offense. It is not right to judge him on perceptions. On the other hand, he will have to pay a high price if any of the allegations are proven in a court of law.

India will do well to resist the temptation of writing off Mahinda Rajapakse. Both the January and the August ballots show he is not a spent force. He secured 42.4% of popular vote. The UNP is ahead by a small margin with its tally of the vote put at 45.7%. His electoral defeat is only a self-inflicted wound that awaits authoritarian rulers anywhere –Malladi Rama Rao

His style of governance may have been seen as authoritarian at times, particularly the period before 2009 when there was a war to be won. While many would have understood and excused such a perception during that period, any such tendency after 2010 would not have been necessary or excusable.

However, considering that all major policy and as well as operational decisions were based on cabinet and Parliamentary decisions, the fact that he had a majority of more than 2/3 in the Parliament had given him a sense of unparalleled power, and even cabinet/parliament approved decisions left one with the impression of him being authoritarian.

In this context, as Rao has mentioned, the voters of Sri Lanka have made it a point on this occasion not to bestow such power to any political party nor an individual.

Mahinda Rajapakse clearly had a few dregs of the society as his political associates, and they misused his friendship. This certainly has left a bad taste and a bad smell. One hopes that Sirisena and Wickremasinghe have their olfactory and optical nerves in place and doesn’t follow their predecessors, all of whom at one stage or the other associated with dubious political friends.

In regard to nepotism and at times misuse of his position to favour friends and relatives, the widespread notion that he did this is more than a perception.

It is hoped that the people of Sri Lanka will remember Mahinda Rajapakse for his positives rather than his negatives and he will have his place in history as the leader who relieved the country from 30 years of LTTE tyranny and preserved its sovereignty, and who led a colossal post war infrastructure renaissance.

Rama Rao’ article is not about Sri Lankan desires or objectives. It is about India’s foreign policy objective towards Sri Lanka, and that is the prism from which he is looking at the Sri Lankan election, looking at Mahinda Rajapakse and his policies. As a senior and respected Indian journalist, it is understandable that he looks at Sri Lanka from the perspective of Indian objectives.

Sri Lankans however must look at the election as well as its own foreign policy from its own objectives and not India’s, or for that matter, from any other country’s perspective.

Mahinda Rajapakse administration’s foreign policy may be considered from different perspectives. Some, like Rama Rao might view it as a China centric policy. The new Sri Lankan government led by the United National Party might also think so, and so would the US administration. Others might view it differently.

They would viewed it as aligning Sri Lanka towards greater Non Alignment, shifting Sri Lanka away from an India centric policy, more or less forced on Sri Lanka by India. Proponents of this thinking would argue that since the time of Indira Gandhi, Sri Lanka has had to behave like a well behaved younger sibling to big brother India or face the wrath of the big brother and the consequences for bad behavior.

The arming and training of Sri Lankan Northern terrorists in India during Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership as retribution for Sri Lanka’s overtures to the US in 1977 when India was in the Soviet orbit, the 1987 Accord forced on Sri Lanka by her son and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the possible indirect or indirect involvement by Indian interests in the murder of President Premadasa who was instrumental in the removal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from Sri Lanka , and some would say, the ultimate for India, orchestrating the defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse who dared to move Sri Lanka from the Indian orbit, were all acts of retribution for defying the big brother India.

As Rama Rao has said in his article, although in a different context, this desire of India for Sri Lanka to comply with Indian interests has no room for sentiment. Very true. India has not shown any sentiment when it comes to dealing with those who cross them.

Rama Rao could say anything he wishes to about Sri Lankan politics. His homilies would ring true with the converted who were part of the regime change planning and execution process. It is known in political circles in Sri Lanka that India, along with some Western countries, were part of that process. It would be incorrect and injudicious to say that Mahinda Rajapakse, the hero of Eelam War, and the man who set Sri Lanka on a course of economic revival, did not provide reasons for his own ouster, but, it is also true that those very self-inflicted wounds were made use of and exploited to the hilt by the regime change planners for the eventual defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse in two elections.

Rao’s commentary on why 45.7% of the voters rejected him needs some response. He says “clearly and unambiguously, there are no takers for MR’s new war cry that defeat could mean new trouble for him at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for Eelam War crimes”. Rao obviously does not know Mahinda Rajapakse and neither the Sri Lankans.

He doesn’t know that the ALL Sri Lankans are concerned about the possible revival of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and that Sri Lankans en masse would defend Mahinda Rajapakse against any international attempt to haul him before any War Crimes tribunal simply because they know he did not commit any war crime when defeating the LTTE.

Sri Lankans understand the environment in which the last battle was fought, the fact that Sri Lankan Forces did not commit any war crimes during that ferocious war, and as it now appears, as does the United States of America.

Rao is correct when he says “Why did the electorate deliver a split verdict? Well, they have seen how absolute majority has given way to authoritarianism. Once bitten twice shy. Naturally”. In peace time, the voters have chosen not to give any party too much power, and signaled that economic development is now the priority, and for that to happen, there should be a national cooperative effort. The MOU signed by the UNP and the SLFP, albeit section of it, needs to be looked at in this context.

Rao echoes the standard message used by Mahinda Rajapakse’s detractors during the two election campaigns that “Rajapakse’s ten-year rule was marked by favoritism for a chosen few and high handedness and brutalities against his opponents”. He also says “Sirisena has openly accused him of displaying “hatred, abhorrence, animosity and an over-brimming egoism” in his quest to regain power”. Many friends of Rajapakse would say he never forgot his friends, but many of them would also say, he went beyond a chosen few when it came to dishing out favours. No doubt, assisting friends and circumventing rules and procedures was a weakness for which Rajapakse paid a price. It would be foolish of Rao to say this is a practice just of Rajapakse, when he knows it is quite common place in his own country. However, two wrongs do not make a right.

Rao then says that “Corruption in kickbacks particularly in China funded projects was phenomenal. One estimate prepared by the Sirisena government is that it could be anywhere near $ 18 billion. The Rajapaksas have denied the charge but the allegation that he had stocked the ill-gotten wealth in tax havens abroad refuses to go away”.

This again was a catchphrase used by the regime changers during the two campaigns to discredit Rajapakse although to date, no evidence of this “colossal’ kickbacks have been found.

The likes of Rao have not mentioned what the Rajapakse government said in order to place the $ 18 Billion canard in perspective, that the total foreign investment in Sri Lanka, including loans, during their tenure had been a total $ 12 billion! How one could pocket $18 billion out of $12 Billion, and still leave enough funds for the infrastructure projects is a mystery!

A senior responsible journalist like Rao should have known better than to parrot the regime changers without checking his information unless he was also part of that exercise.

Rao’s main thrust comes out in his assertion that “Dragon diplomacy takes a hit” and that “in a manner of speaking, the Chinese diplomacy has been defeated at the altar of Sri Lankan democracy”.

This writer would hazard to say rather, that not Chinese diplomacy, but Sri Lanka’s quest to assert its independence from the Indian orbit has been defeated in the alter of the national and international regime change plotters.

Rao probably knows but would not have thought it necessary to state that the Rajapakse government had first offered the Hambantota port development to India and had sought Chinese involvement only after India had declined the offer. Rao has also not mentioned the assistance that the Rajapakse government had obtained from India for the development of the KKS port, the Sampur oil tanks, the development of the rail tracks to the North and the East, the construction of some 50,000 dwellings for the war displaced, and several other projects.

He has also not mentioned the investments that Indian business houses are making in the real estate sector in Sri Lanka.

If anything, one can say Rajapakse was prudent in seeking investments both from India and China, although obviously, India wished for exclusivity.

Rao goes onto say “in the verdict there is a message to Sirisena and Ranil too. And it is that in their choice of friends and projects they cannot afford to go the Rajapakse way, and turn Sri Lanka into a pivot of China’s new Maritime Silk Road. They cannot afford to be China centric in their FDI quest as well”.

Yes of course there is a message. However, the message that both Sirisena and Wickremasinghe and the people of Sri Lanka should take is that they should choose what is in Sri Lanka’s interest, and not India’s or China’s or the US. They must decide what is best for Sri Lanka, not India.

The Maritime Silk Road is a strategic development that would be in Sri Lanka’s interest. It should really be in India’s interest too, although their traditional enmity with China prevents them from seeing it that way. Global upsurge in economic development is shifting eastwards from India, and the power houses will be India, Vietnam, China and Japan. Other countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia , to name a few, are set to benefit from this upsurge, and the Maritime Silk Road is of critical importance for the new power houses as well as those who stand to benefit from the shift.

It would be imprudent and foolish for any country in this route to not align themselves with this development simply because the US sees this shift, and China being in the centre of this shift, as a threat to them.

If the new Sri Lankan government is wise, they should canvass India and China to develop a Maritime Silk Route economic cooperation organization, and secure benefits of the economic shift for countries in the route.

Sri Lanka has not been China centric as mentioned by Rao. As stated earlier, under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka was trying to move away from being India centric, politically and commercially, and evidence shows that Sri Lanka has not sought Chinese assistance at the expense of India or Indian interests.

Rao is right when he says “The Chinese are known to do business with whoever is in power as long as their business and strategic interests are met. For them the colour of money doesn’t matter. The turn of events during the past eight months show that they are getting ready to do business with the Sirisena-Ranil dispensation”.

This writer would say, rightfully so.

Rao overshoots his right to lecture Sri Lanka saying “While there is no gain saying the fact that China has deep pockets, Sirisena and Ranil will have to rebalance Sri Lanka’s relations, “patching up ties with India and the west”, as the Financial Times said, “after a decade in which Rajapakse cozied up to Beijing”. In essence, this could mean that some dilution in the terms of contract for the $1.4 billion port city project off Colombo, which has raised hackles beyond the shores of Sri Lanka”.

Sirisena and Wickremasinghe should be telling India that it should mind its own business although that would not be a prudent way of saying it in diplomacy. The Port City project is a matter for Sri Lanka. Its entire feasibility, its terms and conditions and its priority for Sri Lanka is a matter for Sri Lanka. It should not matter to Sri Lanka if it raises anyone’s hackles, except that of Sri Lankans.

Contrary to Rao’s statement that “Rajapakse’s track record on the fishermen issue and on the question of devolution of more powers to the Tamil North showed that he firmly believed in his dictum” , many Sri Lankans viewed this as a positive sign of true Sri Lankan leadership. After all, it is widely known that the fishermen’s issue went beyond the shores of Tamil Nadu, to the Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers personal domain, and the importance of Tamil Nadu for the survival of the Union Congress government had made the fishermen’s issue a national political issue in Delhi.

Rao should ask himself why its intensity withered after Narendra Modi and the BJP were elected to govern India on their own accord without the need for Tamil Nadu support.

Rao should also realize that the 13th amendment created under the Rajiv/Jayewardene accord, was like what is termed a shotgun marriage, an Accord signed by Jayewardene under duress when India had made it known they would take stern measures had it not been signed. Rao does not mention that the LTTE, which was the Tamil voice at the time, had rejected the Accord and the 13th Amendment and all Tamil political parties had been powerless to do anything about the 13th Amendment until the LTTE was defeated in 2009.

He also does not give any credit to Rajapakse for holding elections to the Northern Provincial Council in 2013 after the war torn North was stabilized to some degree.

Rao’s statement that “Sirisena-Ranil combine have a vested interest in keeping the present anti-Rajapakse momentum. They must deliver on their pledge of “good functional parliamentary system, democracy with transparency, balanced economic growth to create new jobs and to boost agriculture, and restoring human values, human rights, and rule of law”, is a belittling a Sri Lankan leader who also wants nothing but the same for Sri Lanka.

India hand in the regime change is made very clear by Rao in two of the statements he makes. Firstly he says “ Both (Sirisena and Wickremasinghe) have shown that they are willing to walk the talk on what matters for the Tamils with the caveat that the South (Sinhala belt) should not be perturbed in any manner by whatever has been on offer in the North. The way they have made the army vacate the ‘occupied’ Tamil lands gives hope that they will deliver on the promise”. Although Rao’s statement that “occupied “Tamil lands have been vacated by the Army, this is not so, and the Army is very much in place where they should be in order to ensure the security of the people and the country, while as part of the process begun by the Rajapakse administration, lands that are not considered essential for security have been handed back to the original owners. As to why the likes of Rao informs his readers of only half the story lends him to be a considered a very partial and biased journalist doing the bidding of his masters in India.

Secondly he says “Another reason for entertaining such a hope is the perception in Colombo that India encouraged the coming together of Sirisena and Ranil with some help from Chandrika Kumaratunga”. Rao is being coy here because he knows very well that this is not just a perception, and it is a fact well known in Colombo.

Rao states that it is possible Wickremasinghe may give a fresh lease to the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) that has remained a paper under consideration (PUC) for years. He does not mention that it had remained a PUC because the CEPA draft had been a document almost entirely benefitting India and not Sri Lanka and the Rajapakse administration had resisted signing it for this reason. It would be good to revive it should it be a more equitable document.

The article written by Malladi Rama Rao is very likely a reflection of India’s thinking and not an unbiased opinion on Sri Lankans politics or even the thinking of Sri Lankans. Rao’s quotation citing Lord Buddha may well apply to anyone, and it could apply to a country as well. Its well for Rao and India to dwell on it and consider that what Sri Lanka was trying to do was to tread a middle path, moving away from the influence and stranglehold India had on Sri Lanka.

Obviously, it appears that national and international forces have moved Sri Lanka back to where it had been, and into the ambit of Indian influence. The man who stood in the way of balancing Sri Lankan foreign policy between the two super powers in the region has been removed under Indian instigation. India seems to have had the last laugh. Rao seems to be saying that.

- Asian Tribune -

Mahinda Rajapakse pays the ultimate prize for defying Indian interests? A response to Malladi Rama Rao
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