Strongman in Sri Lanka

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s convincing victory in the presidential election does not portend well for Sri Lanka’s democracy. A former defence secretary and brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya is widely credited for the government’s victory in the Sri Lankan civil war. His ‘tough man’ image played a big role in his election victory. On April 21 this year, local Islamist extremists carried out a string of terror attacks in Colombo and other cities, killing over 250 people. Not only did Gotabaya’s poll campaign focus on national security, it also projected him as the best candidate to defeat Muslim extremism. This message resonated among Sinhala-Buddhists and contributed to his victory. Gotabaya is a polarising figure. He is revered as a war hero by Sinhala-Buddhists. But ethnic and religious minorities, as well as liberal Sri Lankans, accuse him of atrocities, extra-judicial killings and war crimes. Not surprisingly then, there are major concerns in the island as well as abroad that he will be an authoritarian president who wouldn’t hesitate to silence critics, undermine democratic institutions and violate people’s rights. This is all the more likely should he use illegal and unconstitutional means to appoint Mahinda as his prime minister.

 India will be worried with the return of the Rajapaksas to power in Colombo. Although India’s ties with the Rajapaksa brothers was strong, thanks to the support it extended to the military operations against the LTTE, relations soured as they grew closer to China. With Beijing extending Sri Lanka support in global human rights forums, the Rajapaksas warmed to it. Sri Lanka became one of the most enthusiastic participants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government even allowed Chinese submarines and a warship to dock in Colombo harbour. The Gotabaya government can be expected to tilt towards China again, especially if western nations pressure it on issues such as accountability for war crimes, human rights issues, etc.

China’s strong bond with Sri Lanka in general and with the Rajapaksas, in particular, is worrying. But neither helpless handwringing nor hectoring its leaders and officials will help weaken this bond. Instead, India would do well to speed-up decision-making on investments and implementation of infrastructure projects on the island. Much of India’s involvement in infrastructure development is in the Tamil north. Reaching out to the rest of the island, especially the Sinhalese heartlands, with projects that benefit the masses will help improve India’s image as a neighbour and a partner. Sri Lanka is strategically important. India cannot afford to repeat the mistake of allowing the Rajapaksas to slip into a tightening Chinese embrace. 

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