“Trade Agreements Will Strengthen Ties with India” – Rajapaksaby Opinion Express September 18, 2018 0 comments
There are a few leaders in contemporary global polity who have successfully changed a war-torn country to a vibrant progressive democracy in their lifetime. Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a charismatic leader, accelerated the pace of development in nationalistic spirit by pushing various infrastructure projects that transformed the growth rate and the GDP of the country from 2009. He served as the sixth President of the island nation from November 19, 2005, to January 9, 2015. A lawyer by profession, he was first elected to the Parliament in 1970 and served as the Prime Minister from April 6, 2004, until his victory in the 2005 presidential election. He was re-elected for a second term on January 27, 2010.
However, due to international and domestic imperatives, he was defeated in his bid for a third term in the 2015 presidential election by Maithripala Sirisena. An ex-aide, Sirisena had been the Minister of Health in Rajapaksa’s Government and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) before defecting to the Opposition coalition. Later, Rajapaksa unsuccessfully sought to become the Prime Minister in the 2015 parliamentary election, where the United People’s Freedom Alliance was defeated. Many had attributed the shocking loss to his authoritarianism, nepotism, poor governance and corruption but the fact of the matter was that the anti-incumbency factor and his strident desire to break new ground was the reason for his defeat. He was, however, elected as the Member of Parliament from Kurunegala district.
In 2005, Rajapaksa reshuffled the Cabinet and took charge of the Defence and Finance portfolios. He extended the term of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, Sarath Fonseka, less than a month before he was scheduled to retire. Over the next three and a half years, Fonseka and Rajapaksa’s brother and the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, led the country’s Armed Forces in their battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ultimately defeating them and killing their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. It was one of the most gruelling battles that the world has witnessed in recent times. It made Rajapaksa a national hero and an international leader of repute.
The most challenging phase of Rajapaksa’s political career came after he took over the presidency. A series of mine blasts blamed on the LTTE claimed the lives of many off-duty servicemen and civilians, pushing the country back to the brink of war. However, on May 19, 2009, Rajapaksa delivered a victory address to the Parliament and declared that the country had been liberated from terrorism. It was a near miracle achieved by the Rajapaksa-led team.
After ending the civil war in 2009, Rajapaksa’s Government is known for undertaking large scale infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka also made it into the ‘high’ category of the Human Development Index during this time. Initiation, completion, and development of many highways and roads, the Colombo beautification project, the rural infrastructure development projects and so on are some of the several highlights. However, the roadways are known for high costs and are suspected to have been the hotbeds of corruption. A large sum of Chinese loans tripled the country’s foreign debt, creating an economic crisis. But Rajapaksa insisted that under him Sri Lanka experienced rapid economic growth; the GDP growth rate reached over seven percent.
In a move that was widely seen as solidifying his control over the Supreme Court, Rajapaksa removed the Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, from office in January 2013, allowing him to appoint an ally and legal adviser, former Attorney-General Mohan Peiris, as Chief Justice.
Domestic imperatives with regard to Tamil Nadu compelled New Delhi to keep an arm’s distance from Rajapaksa, forcing him to tilt towards China during his second term of presidency. In fact, the Sri Lanka Government offered preferential infra-projects to India but received a lukewarm response from the Indian side. It was alleged that Rajapaksa, during the 2015 presidential campaign and elections, received large payments from the Chinese port construction fund that flowed directly into the campaign and related activities. The perception was created that Rajapaksa had agreed to Chinese terms and was seen as an important ally in China’s efforts to tilt influence away from India in South Asia. It is after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2015 that Rajapaksa adopted a more skeptical China policy, opposing major development projects such as the Southern Economic Development Zone in which China had planned to invest over five billion dollars. He spoke to The Pioneer in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Q: The presidential election in 2010 saw the Sri Lankan electorate freely participating after more than two decades of turbulence, unrest, and war; you are responsible for liberating the country from terrorism and set it on the path to peace. What went wrong in 2015?
It was an international conspiracy against my Government that was successfully implemented by certain political opponents to capture power. I will not reveal the names of the countries involved but I will be cautious in the future. Opponents have successfully alienated minority communities from SLFP to facilitate consolidation against us. However, everyone has realised the current bad governance. I am sure the trends of the local elections clearly indicate that SLFP is on its way back to power in the next general elections.
The criticism that can be made out of your political career is that you promoted nepotism, appointing three brothers to run important ministries and assigning other political positions for relatives, regardless of their merit. How would you react to it?
I think the built narrative is completely false. All the position-holders were elected by popular votes in their respective constituencies and all candidates had won the elections by large margins in various elections. If the people like them, how can they be ignored? However, I had appointed Gotabhaya Rajapaksa by executive order because I thought he was the right person to deliver what we wanted at that time. And my stand is vindicated when he displayed tremendous skills to eliminate terrorism during our arm struggle against LTTE.
You won the presidency on a wide-ranging, people-oriented policy as laid out in the “Mahinda Chinthana”. How satisfying was your experience of governance?
Mahinda Chinthana means good governance for all. We drafted it to incorporate the desires of every section of the society in the political mainstream. Our concept is rooted in the soil; the governance that springs from the bottom of the pyramid. Yes, we have achieved most of our promises but we have to travel miles ahead to fulfill the aspirations of our native people.
Please narrate the experience of dealing with international communities in emergency situations so that other countries battling with terrorism can be inspired by your story.
We knew that wiping out terror would cost tremendous pain and stress but we were determined to live in peace permanently. The main issue was India because Tamil Nadu is an important State for the country and the sentiments were stoked by certain interests against the probable action. We created the TRIOKA plan wherein three high officials of each side were deputed for regular exchange of information to facilitate proper coordination. It worked as it removed the chances of dissemination of wrong information on either side. Finally, we offered a choice between peace and war to the LTTE and they opted for the later. We faced tremendous pressure from all UN organisations, certain pockets of Tamil-influence countries and other local pressure but we were resolute to solve the terror issue. Many European countries and their leaders visited us to mediate in the war but I stuck to my original decision. Today, we are one of the most peaceful democratic countries in the world and I take immense pride to say that I was always right in the conflict that was forced on us by the LTTE.
The remarkable transition from a war-torn country to a peaceful nation was achieved by you in no time. We have seen many Middle Eastern countries going through similar trauma but have ended up as a failed state after the war. How did you achieve this?
We have taken huge risks in the process like releasing 12,000 prisoners in 2009 immediately after the war. It could have gone wrong but we fought the war with a humanitarian approach. We realised that though the people fighting were misguided by vested interests, they remained our own. The defence forces must be commended for the remarkable job in the recent war history worldwide. They cleaned up the landmines in the north within one year after the war to facilitate immediate popular election process. This instilled confidence in the native population reminding them of our humanitarian sentiment and belief in the rule of law. We invested over a billion dollars in the northern part of the country to develop infrastructure and better living conditions for our countrymen so their affection could be reciprocated in the next presidential election of 2010, which I won by huge margins.
How do you assess the present state of the India-Sri Lanka relationship?
All is good but we have to strengthen it further. We have to continue the dialogue with the Indian Government on a regular basis on the economy, fisheries, free trade agreements and so on to build a more focused mutual relationship. I appreciate the efforts made in the individual capacity by few to improve the bilateral relationship between the two friendly countries. Effort must be made from both G2G and P2P level in consolidating the relationship.
Writer: Prashant Tewari ( He is Editor-in-Chief of Opinion Express Group & independent writer of repute, contact – email@example.com or twitter @ prashanttewari11 )
Courtesy: The Pioneer – The interview is published on 18 Sep 2019