Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • December 2020
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Archive for December, 2020

Some Trump Administration Foreign Policy Legacies for Sri Lanka

Posted by harimpeiris on December 11, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 11th December 2020)

The politics of any nation, attracts attention beyond its own borders and especially so in the case of global and regional powers. As the outgoing Trump Administration makes little headway in its legal challenges to the various election results in different states of the US, which together comprise their federal presidential election, it will be the Obama Administration’s former vice president and current president elect, Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as the new president of the United States on 20th January 2021. However, the Trump Administration has profoundly impacted the politics of our world and will have implications for Sri Lanka’s own foreign policy, going forward.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy interests and focus is gradually changing and should change from its singular focus of the decades of the civil war era, to the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 realities of the world we live in. Post the war, Sri Lanka’s interests broaden and deepen primarily towards her economic and social interests. Foreign relations deeply impact our nation and her society. Sri Lanka is an island nation, embedded in and an integral part, of the global economy, especially regionally and in some very specific ways. Sri Lanka’s highest net foreign exchange earner is our expatriate work force, mostly in West Asia (Middle East), our highest volume and value of exports, both apparel and tea, both head mostly to the global North (western world), mostly the US and the EU. As our law enforcement focuses on drugs related crime, the origin of most illegal drugs is probably regional, in the Northern parts of our South Asian neighborhood. Pre and post Covid-19, foreign tourism is a key employment generator in our economy.

The Americans in their most recent and generous foreign policy initiative has approved a grant (not a loan) of US Dollars half a million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Rajapaksa administration and the SLPP’s China-instigated rejection of the same has been unwise and looking a gift horse in the mouth. On the contrary we have swallowed high priced Chinese loans with never a whimper. A key aspect in recent Sri Lankan foreign policy, has been the China factor, as Sri Lanka under the previous and present Rajapaksa administrations, play a key role in China’s belt and road initiative. China’s expensive debt driven network of ports, airports and land developments, of which we have our own disproportionate share.

1. Containing China

The US -China relationship is relatively new, in the post second world war era, with formal diplomatic ties being established only in 1979. The more recent China policy of the US, actually begun by the Obama Administration, but sharply escalated by the Trump Administration has been the attempt to curb Chinese influence, internationally and especially in the global south, including in Sri Lanka. The US attempt to curb Chinese influence has also been in tandem with China playing a much more assertive role internationally and especially in the Asia Pacific region. Chief among them have been significant tensions in the South China sea, the inability to contain North Korean nuclear adventurism and other local and regional tensions by proxy. China as a single party, non democratic political system, doesn’t fully understand either democracy or open societies and so has internationally often backed despotic leaders, whose sudden fall from power has caught them by surprise. The US even under a new Biden Administration, will continue with a policy of seeking to contain China and Sri Lanka will need to navigate carefully the competing interests of the US, China and India.

2. Switching Middle Eastern politics from Palestine to Iran

The Trump Administration has during its four-year term, profoundly changed the politics of the Middle East and Arab nationalism from its post second world war focus on Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, to the issue of containing the rise of Shia Iran at the expense of the largely Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. Containing the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran is the key strategic objective now for both Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. The architect of much of this change was President Trump’s son in law and Middle East policy czar Jared Kushner, a young property businessman and savvy political operator. The Trump Administration shifted the US Embassy in Israel from the internationally recognized capital of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and worked hard to normalize relations between several key Arab nations and Israel. Successfully so with both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, both two key Saudi Arabian allies. The Saudi’s though not establishing formal diplomatic relations have relaxed restrictions including airspace for commercial flights and other cooperation. Sri Lanka with key diplomatic and economic relations with all these countries, namely Israel, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kuwait and Bahrain including trade, especially tea and oil and expatriate workers would need to navigate the changing politics of the West Asian, Persian Gulf region.

3. Sanctioning General Shavendra Silva

The US has in the past decade, both under President Obama and under President Trump and likely continuing with the incoming Biden Administration, wielded its domestic powers of sanctions against individuals for violations of humanitarian and international law and targeted people ranging from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, sanctioned after the brutal crackdown on pro democracy protestors and Hong Kong’s new draconian national security law, to Russian businessmen, high officials in the Iranian Government and others. Sri Lanka was also not excluded from this list and current Army Commander General Shavendra Silva has been sanctioned by the United States. The usual implication of a single person sanctioned in a country is that others may follow. When paradoxically the SJB Opposition rather than the government raised this during the late October visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the answer was that it was a judicial rather than a political measure. An answer we ourselves use frequently in Sri Lanka. But the implications are clear. The Trump Administration, as it relinquishes office next month, has made its mark on the world stage and its policies will continue to shape the world we live in, for years to come.


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A Year into Rajapakse Presidency Amidst Covid-19 Pandemic

Posted by harimpeiris on December 3, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 30th November 2020)

The Rajapaksa administration completed its first year in office, a few days ago, with Sri Lanka being in the midst of a raging Covid-19 second wave, which has seen confirmed cases of the virus in the country, pass the 20,000 mark, with the highly populated and economically crucial Western Province, being the new epicentre.

Twelve months, since the historic and momentous victory of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its presidential candidate, have passed quickly. With a year that was dominated by the twenty first century’s first global pandemic, to perhaps the Spanish flu about a century ago. Sri Lanka dealt with the first wave earlier this year, relatively successfully with few infections and single digit Covid-19 related deaths. The newly installed SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration claimed credit for an efficient epidemic management and possibly reaped some political benefit from the same, winning an unexpected and massive two-thirds majority in the general elections to parliament in August this year. Surpassing the seat tally received by a prior Rajapaksa Administration, under the UPFA banner, in the post war euphoria, elections of 2010. Quite a credit then to the current Rajapaksa administration, for surpassing itself.

However, the political year 2019/20, was not without its significant events, which will shape Sri Lankan national life for the next few years. First, it is the absolute implosion of the United National Party and the emergence of young Sajith Premadasa as both the credible runner-up in the presidential race and the new Leader of the Opposition. Replacing long serving UNP leader and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose refusal to concede defeat in his internal political battle with his erstwhile deputy, has resulted in the weakest political opposition in a decade, seriously weakening the checks and balances so essential in a democratic society. But a political transition has taken place, in both government and Opposition from Mahinda to Gotabaya and Ranil to Sajith.

Militarization of civilian space and centralization of political power

Probably, the most defining aspect of the current Rajapaksa administration is the militarisation of civilian space in public administration and governance. While Prime Minister and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended to the apex of national governance through the democratic political process, the path which brought younger sibling and current President Gotabaya Rajapakas to power, lay through a career in the military, culminating in the highest office in the Ministry of Defence. Accordingly, governance under the current Rajapaksa administration has been dominated by the military, either serving or retired. The Covid-19 public health emergency has been placed under the serving Army Commander, rather than the Health Minister or the Health Ministry. Accordingly, there has been criticism of a reduction in health expenditure, lack of any increase in hospital bed capacity and Sri Lanka’s relatively low rate of Covid-19 testing.

Most of the high official positions in the administration including foreign affairs, health, ports and customs among others are occupied by retired or serving senior military men, competent undoubtedly, but not from the civilian Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Other key government functions seem to be allocated to presidential tasks forces, headed and dominated by military and security personnel, rather than relevant line ministries. Accordingly, such objectives as the Eastern Province archeological site preservation and the creation of a disciplined and virtuous society have been entrusted to military task forces.

The centralisation of political power in the executive presidency through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, mostly rolls back the modest democratic gains associated with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and once again establishes Sri Lanka’s executive president as an elected absolute ruler. The administration required the help and support of some breakaway Opposition Muslim MPs to manage and mitigate its own internal dissent on the 20th Amendment.

A Covid-19 influenced economic meltdown

A significant factor in the single term demise of the Sirisena / Wickremesinghe Administration and the return to power of the Rajapaksas was likely the dismal governance performance, the anaemic economic growth and the absence of a peace dividend during the 2015 to 2019 period. Recognising this and that generally good economics is always good politics; the Rajapaksa administration has been keen to try and up its economic management game. This attempt has been seriously stymied by the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect of the lockdowns and the airport shutdown on the tourism and general services sectors. We are headed for a recession in excess of perhaps negative five percent (-5%), though we would have to await the Central Bank reports for the exact figure. The administration doesn’t really seem to have an answer to the serious economic challenges ahead, with their first budget earlier this month, seemingly more wishful than realistic or pragmatic.

A serious foreign policy tilt to China

Also, in the area of foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s decades long and carefully crafted non-aligned and neutral foreign policy, which followed a balance between the competing interests of major powers in the region, including of India, seems to have been jettisoned in favour of a serious pivot towards China, notwithstanding government lip service to the contrary. This is unwise and weakens key relationships with our largest trading partner the United States and, of course, our historical and huge sub continental neighbour India, to the detriment of our own national interests.

The first year of the new Rajapaksa administration would draw mixed reviews, dominated as it has been by the Covid-19 pandemic and its management, but pursuing and implementing policies, which avoid serious scrutiny and debate, precisely because of the pandemic. But those policies and their effects will be keenly felt and should be more closely examined later on in the administration’s term of office.

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