Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • September 2018
    M T W T F S S


Posted by harimpeiris on September 22, 2018

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News on 22nd September 2018)

Looking back after the dust had settled on the Janabala Colombata attempted mass protest earlier this month, in the overall context of the SLPP / Joint Opposition politics, several factors become clear. Firstly, with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa throwing his hat into the ring as it were to be the political heir apparent of term limit barred Mahinda Rajapaksa, this was the reminder by the eldest offspring, that there is age limit barred sons also waiting in the wings. For young Namal Rajapaksa, this was his first foray into an attempted mass mobilization, he seemingly being more familiar with the more youthful forums of social media. Accordingly, in retrospect, the most charitable conclusion we can come to is that he just about made a simple pass, or a C, if one uses the American grading system.

Despite the grandiose claims of bringing about a hundred thousand supporters to Colombo and toppling the government, in some Sri Lankan version of the Arab Spring, ultimately the real count was five hundred and fifty hired buses, which even at an average of about eighty persons per bus, would put the headcount at around forty-five thousand people. Many buses did not come very full either. Not bad, but quite a bit less than what a major political party and even the SLPP would muster at its May Day rally. The multi-ethnic, multi-religious residents of the greater Colombo area, no particular fans of the Rajapaksas, did not join the Janabala event. Protestors were bussed into the city and bussed out. Further, it was clear, that there was no cohesively articulated political message of protest and mercifully no widespread anger or hostility at the government either. The “protestors” seemed more to have come for a day outing as it were, with liquor and entertainment if not food provided freely. The organisers seemed more versed in organising big match style revelry than mass agitation.

The more glaring weakness of the Janabala event was clearly young Namal’s inability to have sufficiently coalesced the entire Joint Opposition (JO) behind the move, let alone himself. Uncle Basil was in his dual nationality, the second home of the United States, rather indifferent to the whole exercise and while Uncle Gotabhaya made his mandatory appearance, it was both less than the full-blooded support that could have been expected. The elitist organisations backing Gotabhaya, in particular, played no part in the protest, no doubt more at home in their newer environments of five-star hotels than among the constituency whose interests they claim to want to represent and lead. Various JO stalwarts and front benches were critical of the exercise and the rather open drunkenness of the crowd and other logistical and organisational weaknesses couldn’t allow them to be otherwise.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ndia visit and Hindu interview

From mass agitation to international relations, former President Rajapaksa found himself in New Delhi, ostensibly to deliver a lecture and secured a high-profile meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The most interesting feature of the visit to India was who the former President choose to accompany him, not his brother but rather eldest offspring Namal. Now, Namal was associated in the discussions with the Indian Premier and featured prominently in the photo ops. Reportedly the Premier was his genial self, telling the young Rajapaksa to consider India his second home.

The high profile Rajapaksa visit to India, though referred to as surprising by some political commentators in Colombo, is on the contrary unsurprising and necessary for the Rajapaksa’s as they focus on the elections due in 2020. Post-war, the Rajapaksa Administration in its second term, seemingly completely ignored India’s permeant geo-strategic interests in Sri Lanka and also forgot about India’s support for the war effort including the significant Indian intelligence and even operational assistance provided to sink the LTTE arms resupply vessels, which effectively brought about the end of the war. Instead, the Rajapaksa’s in the second term, swung Sri Lanka’s foreign policy from its decades-long, post-independence delicate balance between the two giants of India and China, firmly in China’s direction. The reverberations of those policy decisions are still being felt in both Sri Lanka’s polity and especially the economy, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe having to deny, persistent reports that Sri Lanka was in a high-interest Chinese debt trap. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Mahinda Rajapaksa was to claim in 2015, that Indian state actors had played a role in his defeat. If that was the case, rebuilding bridges in the relationship is clearly in his political interest. However, the substantive issues for the Rajapaksa camp would be more problematic. They cannot undertake for instance to do what Mahathir Mohamad recently did in Malaysia and put a stop to a couple of billion dollars of Chinese projects and related high-interest debt.

The obvious counterweight to China’s belt and road initiative in the Indian Ocean would be naval and maritime security cooperation with India as well as the Western nations. The obvious interlocutor for such a dialogue from the Rajapaksa camp would be former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, but he was not included in the Rajapaksa family delegation to India.

Kumara Welgama opposes family bandyism

The other highlight of former President Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi was the interview he gave to the prestigious Indian newspaper The Hindu. In that interview, asked about the SLPP / JO nominee for the next presidential election, in the context of himself being barred by term limits, the former president conceded that his brother is a contender and that his son Namal would still be constitutionally underage in 2020, the Sri Lankan constitution mandating that a presidential candidate be at least thirty-five years of age at the time of nomination.

Interestingly Mahinda did not mention the name of the brother who is a contender and seemingly considers the fact of being a Rajapaksa family member the pre-eminent requisite for securing the SLPP nomination. This was to result in a very public rebuke, via a radio interview by JO senior frontbencher and himself a distant contender for a top post, Kalutara District MP Kumara Welgama. Parliamentarian and former minister Welgama was scathing in his comments, that family bandyism led to Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015. This was also not the first time that Welgama has taken such a stance and is seemingly opposed to a Gotabhaya candidacy.

Analysts also focus on the former president’s contention that a future SLPP candidate should be broadly acceptable to the people. It is generally recognized that while Gotabhaya is perhaps popular with the majority community, he is anathema to Muslims and Tamils. A few photo ops with minority non-entities is unlikely to eliminate that dynamic. Either way, September witnessed heightened Rajapaksa political activities, which nonetheless did not really patch up the cracks, fissures and differences within its camp.


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