Sri Lanka Express

Regime change in Sri Lanka is not serving US interests -- Gota 

What they’re doing is not reconciliation.  You cannot have reconciliation by alienating the majority community.”   

By Hassina Leelarathna
Photos by Shantha Weerasinghe

Former Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapakse at an informal meeting with Sri Lankan Americans in Los Angeles, June 23.
It’s no secret: the fall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2015 was supported and backed by America and India.  It was yet another “regime change” under Washington’s belt, albeit spearheaded by an electorate said to be tired of corruption, nepotism, and all the villainies that inevitably fertilize the sprouting of an Arab Spring.  In reality, again no secret, the driving factor was the “C” word.   Yes, that “C” word.  

Sri Lanka had drifted much too close to China, threatening, they said US and Indian interests in the region.
So, even as the last ballot was counted against  Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2015 Presidential Election, the western media whooped it up.  Endless opinion pieces were posted, tweeted, and shared about the end of Mahinda and the “spurning” of China.   

Heady days followed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera rushed to Washington, and Secretary of State John Kerry lost no time reciprocating with a visit to Colombo where he famously promised to “stand by your side.”  He also made eloquent speeches about good governance and the dawning of a new era and called on the natives to awaken to a wondrous thing called democracy the US had patented.

But it didn’t take long for Sri Lankans to realize that talk, handshakes, and hugs, and even that kiss (on the cheek) between Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Biswal and Foreign Minister Samaraweera, would  not translate to the hard cash the island desperately needed to meet the new government’s outrageous election promises and other commitments.  In Lankan parlance, the Americans had come “AWW” – atha wana wana.  Empty handed.

And so, a little more than a year after the US gushed about its success ushering in a “new era,” the Sri Lankan economy is in shambles , corruption continues unabated , the executive presidency which was supposed to have been abolished is firmly in place , LTTE militancy is again stirring , and India has made substantial hegemonic i nroads into the island, taking full advantage of the weak and divided government in Colombo.  

And, above all, the Chinese are back !  (Continued below)
Meeting in progress. 
"In Sri Lanka, with USAID elections support, the people went to the polls twice last year to demand dramatic political changes in their government. These elections have completely transformed the U.S.-Sri Lanka relationship, offering an opportunity for a stronger bilateral relationship in the future and leading to greater cooperation on both diplomatic efforts and human development objectives.  " - USAID
These post-regime change developments and their impact on US interests in the Indian Ocean were the topics of discussion when former Secretary of Defense Gothabaya Rajapaksa met with a small group of Sri Lankan Americans in the Los Angeles area, June 23.

“The US supported the change of government purely because they thought Sri Lanka was moving too close to China.  They failed to analyze the situation properly.  They were worried that we were supporting China. But now look at who is supporting China and even more than we did,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

He pointed to the deal struck  to restart the Colombo Port City project as an example of how the Chinese have upped the ante with the new government.   

Within weeks of gaining power, citing irregularities, President Maithripala Sirisena temporarily scrapped the $1.5 billion project, the largest private sector development initiative the country had seen.  Chinese President Xi Jinping had inaugurated the construction of the project in September 2014, seen as part of China's “Maritime Silk Road” ambition to restore historical links along the maritime route through Southeast and South Asia. Sirisena had also once told a foreign reporter that the real estate deal would make the country a colony of China. 

The suspension of the Chinese project was immediately applauded by the western media, with the New York Times even headlining “New President in Sri Lanka Puts China’s Plans in Check.”

But earlier this year, facing a collapsing economy, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered the project to be restarted, only to be slapped with a $125 million penalty by the  Chinese for the losses resulting from the suspension.

Mr. Wickremasinghe made a special trip to China in April to renegotiate.  According to Mr. Rajapakse, as part of an agreement to waive the penalty, Sri Lanka agreed to hand over 1,500 acres in the Hambantota to China for a development project.  “The Chinese had asked President Rajapakse for 1,000 acres in  Hambantota and he refused saying he would agreeable to 500 acres around the port area.  The US and India were worried about our [Rajapakse government] dealings with the Chinese.  But look at what the current government is willing to give, 1000 acres more!” he said, adding “even this government cannot do without Chinese help.”
“If you have two separate groups, it is inevitable that one group will be drawn towards China.   The US needs to think independently on this issue.”

He said the US and India were intransigent in their assessment of the Rajapaksa government’s ties with China.  “The Hambantota Harbor was not built for Chinese to occupy.  This was a purely economic arrangement.  If the US and India were willing to invest in post-war development they would have been as welcome.    We told India that if your companies are willing to invest, please come.  We made it clear, after thirty years of war, without development we can’t move forward.”

Answering questions about the current situation, Mr. Rajapaksa said while there was a great deal of talk about reconciliation, “what they’re doing is not reconciliation.  You cannot have reconciliation by alienating the majority community.”   

The TNA and the Tamil diaspora were continuing with their old agenda of separatism, but, he emphasized in the long run US interests in the Indian Ocean would only be damaged if Sri Lanka were destabilized.  “If you have two separate groups, it is inevitable that one group will be drawn towards China.   That will be a difficult situation and the US needs to think independently on this issue.”

He also called for objective assessment on the achievements of the Rajapakse government.  “Within four years of ending a war, mind you a war that had lasted thirty years, we accomplished a lot, restoring civilian life and even holding local government and provincial council elections in the north for the first time.  But the international community doesn’t talk about our achievements.”

One of the first tasks he undertook at the end of the war was the rehabilitation of LTTE militants and detainees.  “We rehabilitated 13,000 [LTTE cadres] who had surrendered and 5000 who had been detainees for many years, even before we came to power.  After rehabilitation, there were only 270 detainees left, and they could not be released because they were hardcore terrorists.” 

  “Demining, resettlement, rehabilitation, and development, we did a lot in four years.  Of course, our fault was that we didn’t tell these things, didn’t publicize our own achievements.  If someone asks the present government to tell us what exactly they have done for the benefit of normal Tamils, [the answer will be] nothing.”

He added: “It was we who removed every military check point and brought peace to the Tamil community.”

Mr. Rajapaksa called on the expatriate community to make US lawmakers aware of how American interests in the Indian Ocean are being undermined by current developments in Sri Lanka.  “Regime change has not ended the Chinese presence in the country.  On top of that there’s no real development taking place.  Giving in to the demands of the TNA and Tamil diaspora will lead to instability and a divided Sri Lanka.  How will a destablized Sri Lanka help US interests?"