On Tuesday 18 August, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat in his bid to become Prime Minister. To LSE’s Dr Rajesh Venugopal, who specialises in ethnic conflict and South Asia, this defeat marks a definitive end to the nation’s civil war.
The following interview with Nikhil Lakshman (originally published on Rediff.com) discusses Rajapaksa’s future in Sri Lankan politics, the island’s relationship with India and China under the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration, and a possible reconciliation with the Tamil minority.
You told the BBC on Tuesday night that the Sri Lanka parliamentary election result was the real end of the country’s civil war. What did you mean by that? What did this result achieve for the island that the military triumph in May 2009 did not? What damage did the Rajapaksa years inflict on Sri Lanka? How can these be reversed?
The civil war ended in 2009, but in many ways the war mentality carried on under Rajapaksa through the rest of his term in office. There continued to be a heavy military presence in the north-east, high levels of monitoring and control, and a culture of authoritarian impunity. The Rajapaksa government also failed to engage in any serious process of political engagement or reconciliation with the Tamils.
For all these reasons, Sri Lanka was never able to move on while the war-related government was still in charge.
Rajapaksa himself was such a polarising figure, and so deeply unpopular with the minorities that the simple fact of his election defeat has itself helped to dissipate tensions and significantly improve the atmosphere.
Going forward, there is a need for the government of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe to actually move beyond the war – and this will happen if they demilitarise the north-east, restore full civil liberties in practice in those areas, engage in a meaningful process to address the ethnic conflict, ensure accountability for abuses, and effect reconciliation.
Were you surprised by the election result? Did you think Mr Rajapaksa had a real chance of victory given the fact that he is still popular in many parts of the country and seems to dominate the landscape – literally and metaphorically – in a way that his successor has been unable to do? Why do you think he lost, in January and this week?
The election result was not particularly surprising, although it was definitely not a foregone conclusion. The real surprise was in January when Rajapaksa called a snap presidential election, and then lost it.
This time, Rajapaksa suffered a further 5% loss of his vote share since January, so the downward trend has continued.
His steady loss of support since the high point in the 2010 election has been for three reasons. First, his popularity in 2010 was largely a result of euphoria over the recently won war. That effect has dissipated over time.
Secondly, he has very low levels of support from the ethnic and religious minorities, who amount to almost one third of the population. This means that in order to win elections, he needed to win almost two-thirds of the Sinhala Buddhist vote, whereas this share has steadily gone down since 2010.
Thirdly, his government gained a reputation as corrupt and deeply authoritarian, with power concentrated excessively in his own family.
Were the Sri Lankan people willing to put aside the economic gains the country seems to have made in the Rajapaksa years for a truly democratic alternative, where fear didn’t dominate the discourse? Were ordinary Sri Lankans in your assessment fed up of the Rajapaksa family, their alleged corruption, and their contempt for democratic process?
Yes, there were economic gains made in the Rajapaksa years, but some of this has been the bounce-back effect of the end of the war, and the result of a debt-fueled infrastructure spending boom.
There has been a lot of economic growth and reconstruction under his regime, but this has also created economic costs that the future government will have to face. But economic issues were not that significant in this election.
There has been broad support for ‘yahapalanaya‘ or good governance reforms that has been the central agenda item and slogan of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.
Since January, this has included reducing the powers of the president, re-imposing a two-term limit for the presidency, improving transparency and accountability, and re-establishing constitutionally empowered independent oversight commissions for areas such as finance, police, and human rights.
Do you believe this is truly the end of the Rajapaksa era in Sri Lankan politics? You mentioned in your interview to the BBC that by the time the next election comes along he will be 75. Would his age really be an issue given the fact that we have likely never seen someone like him in Sri Lankan politics, someone who neither President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seem to match in charisma and political machinations?
In spite of his double election defeat, Rajapaksa is unlikely to depart the political stage. He remains a very popular politician, particularly among the majority community. He has a strong brand-name and legacy as the man who won the war.
He won over 50% of the Sinhalese majority vote. He will remain the significant Opposition figure going forward, although it is not clear if he himself will contest the next elections in 2020, by which time he will be in his mid-70s.
In his place, we could see another family member, such as his son Namal emerge to claim the mantle.
What are the major immediate challenges confronting the current president and prime minister and how do you think they can overcome them?
There are four main challenges for the new government: Firstly, continuing the agenda of internal governance reform and strengthening institutions; secondly, implementing economic reform to deal with the debt crisis and improve economic growth; thirdly, improving ethnic relations and effecting a permanent solution that includes power-sharing and reconciliation with the Tamils; fourthly, international relations, and restoring ties with India, the US, and Europe.
The international media framed the parliamentary election in geopolitical terms – as a contest between China’s and India’s surrogate candidates. Would you contest this interpretation or would you agree with it?
The geopolitical context to the elections was real, but it was overplayed by the media, particularly the Indian media, which became quite alarmist at times.
This election definitely has geopolitical consequences, but it was in reality all about internal issues.
Rajapaksa used the China card as a way to defuse pressure from New Delhi and the Western powers over the Tamil issue, and also as a way to access Chinese investment and infrastructure funding.
In doing so, he played a dangerous and high-stakes game that worked in the short-run, but had serious longer-term consequences in terms of Sri Lanka’s relations with its neighbourhood regional power.
Do you think China has suffered an unusual setback in Sri Lanka with Mr Rajapaksa’s political eclipse? Why do you think the Chinese erred in putting all its eggs in the Rajapaksa basket? How do you think the Chinese will get back in the reckoning in a nation whose strategic significance it appears to value greatly? Do you think the Sirisena administration will carve a middle path between the competing Asian giants, like fellow SAARC nations like Nepal and Bangladesh has done? Or will Colombo move closer to New Delhi, fearful of robust Chinese influence and more secure about India’s current intentions?
I would not say that China has overplayed its hand or has placed all its eggs in the Rajapaksa basket, because to a large extent, it was Rajapaksa who initiated and pursued the relationship.
Rajapaksa needed China much more than China needs Sri Lanka. Now that he has gone, there will inevitably be a tilt back towards the India-US-Europe axis, but this is not a zero sum game, and Sri Lanka has nothing to gain by antagonising China.
By all accounts, the existing Chinese mega-projects, such as the controversial Port City Project in Colombo, will continue.
Why do you think the Indians lost the Sri Lankan plot in the Rajapaksa years? Was the Manmohan Singh government reluctant for some reason to engage with the Rajapaksa government? Despite the pressure from the political parties in Tamil Nadu, it nevertheless backed the Sri Lankan military’s final offensive against the LTTE.
India’s relationship with Sri Lanka balances four competing interests: Domestic security, regional security, the Tamil issue and economic cooperation.
Of these, the Rajapaksa government and the Manmohan Singh government were in close cooperation on domestic security issues, and on commercial-economic issues, but were at loggerheads on the Tamil issue and on regional geo-politics — particularly on China.
The Manmohan Singh government struggled to deal with Rajapaksa and his repeated failure to maintain the promises he made to them on power-sharing with the Tamils. Eventually, they became exhausted of trying, and in 2012 and 2013 punitively voted against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council.
There was, of course, also a Tamil Nadu factor in this, but the depth of frustration with Sri Lanka by that time already ran high in South Bloc and the PMO.
The election of a new BJP government in India in April 2014 briefly improved relations, but this came to a crashing end in November 2014 when the visit of a Chinese naval ship and submarine to Colombo infuriated India.
Can the Tamils hope to get a better deal during this administration’s tenure? There is the possibility of the Tamil parties being part of Mr Wickramasinghe’s government. Can that alter the landscape for the Tamils, give them more power in the Northern and Eastern provinces? Or do you think that will remain a pipe dream given the Sinhala majority’s suspicions about Tamil self-determination? What is the best that the Tamils can hope for in the next five years?
The prospects for a political solution to the ethnic conflict are better now than ever before for three reasons. Firstly, and most fundamentally, this is because both Tamil and Sinhalese voters have elected more moderate and conciliatory parties into power with strong mandates.
Secondly, with the departure of Rajapaksa, the atmospherics and mutual trust levels are also much better and more conducive to arriving at a quick resolution.
Thirdly, there are no geopolitical rivalries or patrons blocking the way: Both the Tamil National Alliance, TNA, and the ruling UNP-led coalition enjoy close relations with India and US-Europe.
China has benefited from Rajapaksa, but they have nothing to gain by disturbing ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Ranil Wickremesinghe may well invite and incorporate the TNA and its 16 MPs into his governing coalition, although cross-over MPs from Rajapaksa’s party may already give him the parliamentary majority he needs.
But if the TNA joins the government, it would be the first time that the Tamils of the north-east have this much representation in government since 1965.
Beyond that, the possibilities for a resolution are good because the TNA itself has overcome opposition from more nationalist Tamil parties to win a very impressive mandate from the north-east Tamils.
In most constituencies, they won 60% to 65% of the vote so have greater authority to negotiate a permanent resolution.
Having said that, the path to a resolution of the ethnic conflict is likely to be complicated and controversial with the majority Sinhalese community, and will become less likely if delayed.
It will certainly give Rajapaksa fresh political oxygen with which to revive himself and rally the opposition.
One of the unfortunate events that transpired in the final quarter of the Rajapaksa years was the anti-Muslim riots. Do you see this administration muzzling hardline Buddhist groups like the BBS which have been accused of leading the anti-Muslim riots?
Or will this government, unsure about its support among the Sinhalas, be cautious about taking on the Buddhist hardliners? Do you fear that groups like the BBS can grow stronger and cause serious damage to Sri Lanka’s pluralism, however tentative it may be?
Tackling the BBS is not the hard part. The BBS is a fringe group with little support that gained publicity only because they appeared to have total impunity to carry out inflammatory and violent acts and were politically untouchable.
They won only 0.2% of the vote in Monday’s election — which they incidentally contested under the acronym BJP.
I doubt that the future government will hesitate to deal firmly with them if the need arises, and can do so simply by allowing the police to deal with them under the normal provision of the law.
The harder part will be for the next government to take the Sinhalese people into confidence, and to convince them of the necessity of striking a new political deal to share power with the Tamils.
This will be a hard and testing process, and it is not entirely suited to the technocratic political style of the new prime minister. but it is a crucial one.
If this doesn’t happen, then we will be back to square one, and Sinhalese fears will catalyse a wider mobilisation to prevent necessary concessions and keep Sri Lanka in the past.
- Rajesh Venugopal, “Decoding Sri Lanka’s election results: What the future holds for President Maithripala Sirisena”