India, China and MR’s new political project

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya (Daily Mirror)

With the Maithri-Ranil ‘unity government’ approaching the end of its second year in office in an increasingly acrimonious co-habitation, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is gearing up for a come-back. 

He’s in combative mode, claiming that the ‘real SLFP’ is with him, that he opposes the government’s ongoing privatization and hopes to restore to the party the values of its founders. Engaging Colombo-based foreign correspondents in a wide-ranging discussion at his official residence on Thursday he seemed to relish the encounter, starting off by urging reporters to fire away.

MR, the Kurunegala District MP set the tone of the discussion with his smiling response to the very first question, remarking that he would ‘topple the government’ in the New Year. When it was pointed out that he could not be the leader of the country (owing to term limits on the presidency introduced with the 19th amendment) he indicated that he didn’t need to, when he could wield influence by other means (presumably referring to the prime ministerial post).

Cartoon added by TW from Ceylon Today

Not surprisingly Hambantota featured prominently during the forum. The southern district is his home base and has become the locus of both domestic and international attention these days. An ‘intermestic’ issue perhaps.

MR expressed strong opposition to the Hambantota Port deal under which the government is to give a 80% controlling stake to a Chinese company, and allocate 15,000 acres to the Chinese for an industrial zone. “How can you give 15,000 acres?” he asked, hotly rejecting the suggestion that the present government’s project is a ‘continuation’ of what he started. 

Cartoon added by TW from Ceylon Today

“We wanted to give 750 acres for an industrial park. They asked for 1000, I said no. It’s the people’s land!” he asserted. He was not against ‘the Chinese or Indians or Americans coming here for investment,’ but against agricultural land being given and the privatization involved, he said. His priority was the country’s development.

He also rejected the suggestion that it was his ‘mistake’ to invite China. “I invited the Indians first. I invited India to come and build a port there … But they didn’t want to do that. Then I had to look for somebody else. Then the Chinese came” he said. Under the previous business plan the Sri Lanka Ports Authority had control but now the Sri Lanka government has no control over the project, not even over security, said Prof. G. L. Pieris, Chairman of MR’s newly formed party – Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna – who was present at the briefing.

The former President who has been faulted in some quarters for his ‘pro-China tilt’ in foreign relations, described his recent trip to China as a goodwill visit. Asked about reports that he met the Chinese investor company during his trip he said “I met everyone.” He had told them ‘the way they are doing it is wrong.’ Prof. Peiris added that China Merchants and Port Holdings Company was sensitive to the land issues faced by people and the need for social stability.

The Hambantota Port has been in the eye of the storm from its inception – firstly with concerns on the part of India. The regional power, alarmed at China’s maritime expansion in general, became more so with China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean region.

The docking of a Chinese submarine in Colombo Port in September 2014 was a tipping point in the Indo-Lanka relationship during MR’s second term. He could not resist taking a dig at India over its silence regarding the even greater Chinese presence envisaged under the current investment programs.

“Those days the Indian friends were shouting at me – when submarines came to Colombo Port they were very worried … the High Commissioner and all these people. Now they are like mice he said. Asked how he knew that they were not worried now, he said they were not saying so openly as they did before. In a further broadside he added the Indians may be also ‘getting something,’ like Trincomalee harbour or Palaly (airbase) or KKS (Kankasanturai port).

Regarding India’s displeasure, apparently over not being informed of the submarine visit, he said Beijing always informed India when they came into the Indian Ocean. “Without that they won’t come.”

Asked how India, which had helped him defeat the LTTE, shifted to backing his political opponents MR said it was all a misunderstanding. “I think the Americans influenced them” he said. At another point in the discussion he said he could not understand India’s role.

Ever since the last election which saw his own Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena break away to contest the presidency as a ‘joint candidate,’ with opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe standing down, analysts have been speculating on the role of India and Western powers in the unprecedented turn of events during that transition.

In hindsight, that election would seem to show how easily Sri Lanka’s internal political tensions can be exploited by external forces bent on achieving their own strategic ends. However, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” as the saying goes, and with the new government having realized that the Chinese have deep pockets unlike their western friends, ironically today we see Chinese influence becoming stronger than before.

MR, asked to comment on the main factors contributing to his defeat in 2015 said it was “their campaign,” suggesting that the MS campaign was influenced by the Americans, the Indians and RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, the India’s spy agency). “That was too much for us. We did not know what was going on inside (the party). Our own crowd worked against me. They were inside the party and working against me.”

When it was put to him that although he succeeded in ending a 30-year war, he had failed to unify the country, the former strongman admitted that there was some truth in that. “I thought people must first have their basic facilities. In Jaffna they didn’t have anything – no electricity, no roads, no water, no hospitals, no schools. So I thought I must give them those things first.” Asked if he had perhaps misjudged the need for reassurances after war’s end, and that there was a feeling (in the North) of being suppressed by the military, MR said he did not accept that. “After a war – tell me a country that has developed like that?”