Change of guard in Sri Lanka

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Mohammad Jamil

PRIME Minister Imran Khan telephoned the newly-elected President of Sri Lanka
Gotabaya Rajapaksa the other day to felicitate him on his election as the 7th President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister said that the election reflected the trust reposed by the Sri Lankan people in the leadership and vision of President Rajapaksa. He hoped that the country and its people would achieve greater success and prosperity under President Gotabaya’s stewardship. The excellent Pakistan-Sri Lanka bilateral relations were also discussed. The two leaders reciprocated each other’s desire to further fortify bilateral cooperation in diverse areas. The Prime Minister extended an invitation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to visit Pakistan at his earliest convenience, which he accepted. In 2009, former lieutenant colonel in the Sri Lankan army and later the country’s Defence Secretary, it was Gotabaya who decimated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE.
The founder and leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran was shot dead, and body of his twelve-year-old son Balachandran was riddled with bullets. Complaints of cold-blooded murder of unarmed Tamil civil population in the final stages of the civil war were made to the United Nations, but as his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa later became the country’s president, Sri Lanka successfully stalled the proceedings in the UN body. Even India did not press for inquiry into the human rights violations, realizing that India could be blamed for its support to Tamil Tigers. Primarily, it was due to the unrelenting efforts and sheer determination of Sri Lankan leadership that it could decimate Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE), the world’s most feared guerrilla army. Thus ending the decades-old civil war and frustrating the efforts for carving out an independent Tamil ethnic homeland supported and funded by India.
Indeed, Sri Lanka had the backing of the Pakistanis and the Chinese that they had victory which ensured its sovereignty and independence. Lanka had bought arms and small speedboats from Pakistan and China which according to Lankan Navy were invaluable. According to Rupees News report “Islamabad delivered arms directly to the areas affected where Lankan army was fighting the rebels during the attack on the Jaffna Peninsula. And the Pakistani Air Force dropped arms right to the battlefield. That was a big turning point in the war against the Indian sponsored terrorists”. Reportedly, Pakistan had provided the satellite surveillance and a lot of intelligence to Sri Lanka; the trail of terror was tracked and monitored. India had once nurtured and provided a safe haven to Prabhakaran founder of the LTTE, treating him as a freedom fighter battling oppression of minority Tamils by a majority Sinhalese government.
But when he was suspected of assassination of former Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi who in 1987 had ordered Indian troops to disarm the Tigers and ended up fighting them for 32 months, he was wanted by the Indian government. Since visiting New Delhi in 1987, Prabhakaran was not known to have left Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran was not having many friends overseas. At that time, the Tigers were banned across Europe, Australia and the United States; hence, the only safe haven was India because there were warrants for him from Interpol for having killed 190 people in a blast in Sri Lanka. A journalist Neena Gopal, who had interviewed former PM Rajiv Gandhi moments before he was assassinated in 1991 in her book ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’ (Penguin), had revealed Indian penetration in the LTTE.
In her book, she wrote: “An LTTE leader, who was once a deputy to the banned terrorist outfit’s chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, was a RAW agent, recruited as early as 1989. The man was cultivated and positioned by RAW as their mole inside Prabhakaran’s hitherto impenetrable ranks as early as 1989. He would become their deep asset, the one who would subvert the insurgent movement from the inside, and had been tasked with eliminating Prabhakaran and taking over the LTTE.” Anyhow, Maithripala Sirisena’s assuming office as President in 2015 as president in 2014 was a severe setback to Beijing, as Sirisena brought his country’s foreign policy back on an even keel, giving up the pronouncedly pro-Chinese tilt of the Rajapaksas. However, the Sinhala vote, the decisive factor, went in favor of Gotabaya, which enabled Gotabaya to win. But Gotabaya has to be sensitive to the people living in the north and the east to have smooth sailing.
The election of Maithripala Sirisena as President in 2015 had signified India’s diplomatic victory over China. In a diplomatic see-saw battle, China has now effectively turned the tables on India, with the change of guard in Sri Lanka, and change in the contours of its foreign policy is indeed a great setback for India. Even before his election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had assured Beijing that if he won, he would further strengthen his country’s relations with China. After his victory, how Sino-Sri Lanka relations develop will be a matter of concern to India. With the Chinese Navy increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka’s importance has increased.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.

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