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Rajapaksa didn’t trust India, tilted towards China

“Instability in Sri Lanka can revive terrorism which can impact India’s southern border when it already has concerns on its northern border,” Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, the well-known Sri Lankan geopolitical commentator, tells‘s Archana Masih in the second part of a telephone interview from Washington, DC where he is senior fellow at the Millennium Project.

Abeyagoonasekera — whose father Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, a well-known Sri Lankan MP, was assassinated by the LTTE in 1994 — was founding director-general of a national security think-tank at Sri Lanka’s ministry of defence till 2020 and before that served on a foreign policy think-tank.

How do you reckon the political situation will emerge in Sri Lanka in the next few days?

The interim government needs to have a close discussion with the protesters. The government needs to listen to them and fresh elections should be called in the next few months.

People have identified the corrupt politicians and want new faces. There is going to be huge systemic change in Sri Lanka.

My fear is that the interim government might bring about some structural and constitutional changes which could deepen the crisis.

An anarchic situation is prevailing in Sri Lanka — three cabinets have been appointed in four months and a fourth one will be formed when a new prime minister is appointed.

Sri Lanka needs a functioning stable government to receive funds from donors and funding agencies. Economic stability is only possible if there is political stability.

Sri Lanka needs political maturity; if that doesn’t happen, the country will descend into a humanitarian crisis.

A fragile Sri Lanka will have a serious impact on the security of India and the entire region.

How will the crisis in Sri Lanka impact India, its closest neighbour?

Sri Lanka lost its balanced foreign policy under the Rajapaksa regime and tilted towards China.

A military officer was appointed foreign secretary. He even supported China on their human rights record in Xinjiang, something Sri Lanka has never done.

Twenty-four hours before Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Colombo [January 2022], we even paid China for contaminated fertiliser shipment.

All this shows the agency China had built with the Rajapaksa regime. They were warned about the dangers of this exercise multiple times, but they did not listen, thinking that China would come to the rescue, but that did not happen.

China said they would give more loans to settle the previous ones, but were unwilling to restructure the loans.

The debt percentage for both China and Japan is 10%, but Japan’s interest rates are much lower (below 1%). I have studied the Chinese loans and one particular loan for the Hambantota port is at 6.4%.

These loans have to be continued by the next leader. Nobody has seen the agreement documents for the projects.

The term widely used has been debt trap diplomacy, but I say this is a ‘strategic trap’ than a ‘debt trap’ which could have an immediate impact on India’s southern periphery.

Terrorism or extremism can mushroom in an unstable political situation.

There are pockets, people and proxies who can take advantage of the situation.

Instability in Sri Lanka can revive terrorism which can impact India’s southern border when it already has concerns on its northern border.

They are trying a hybrid civilian-military model which can be dangerous.

Before the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, Indian intelligence gave multiple warnings, but Sri Lankan authorities didn’t act upon it.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential commission report says the Indian intelligence was just information. This was completely incorrect because those intelligence inputs were accurate information.

In spite of his rhetoric, Rajapaksa did not trust India.

They did the same with the United States when a commission was appointed to evaluate the Millennium Challenge Corporation Fund, MCC. They said the MCC would impact the national security of the country.

The foreign policy pursued by the regime did not have any rationale. There was a disconnect and Sri Lanka lost its balanced foreign policy because of the Rajapaksas.

Do you think the next political establishment will seek a better relationship with India?

Whoever forms the next government will have to establish a strong relationship with India and see that our foreign policy is non aligned and balanced.

We need a serious resetting of the foreign ministry.

The relationship with India is paramount. We need to have the strongest relation with our closest neighbour and work on regional security and multiple areas like sharing intelligence.

The neighbourhood first policy can play a huge role because Sri Lanka is a geostrategic hotspot in the Indian Ocean.

It will be a few months before the IMF assistance materialises and until then India has provided bridging finance, essential goods etc. Why do you think other countries have been more forthcoming in providing help?

The US also has given around $20 million for poverty alleviation for children. Others countries have also extended help, but faced with global inflation, countries have to deal with their own interests first.

That’s why I said India has been very generous. India knows that the dysfunctionality in Sri Lanka is a serious issue.

Rajapaksa was expecting more help from China, but that did not happen which was an eye opener for Sri Lankan policymakers.

It shows the folly of putting all your eggs in one basket.

I had written about the need to rebalance foreign policy, but the problem was that there were 27 military appointments in the Rajapaksa regime.

Sri Lanka was more militarised than Pakistan. Even the archaeology department was given to a military person!

There were multiple task forces run by the military.

Public servants, bureaucrats, teachers, university professors, doctors, judiciary — there was interference in all sectors and people were angry.

The use of military was dangerous because the minority community, Muslims and Tamilians, were already having issues in Sri Lanka after the Easter Sunday attacks.

Gotabaya had an ultra-nationalist, inward policy prescription to satisfy the majority. But it was the majority that overthrew the president at the end. They understood he is not fit to rule the country.

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