Gotabaya Rajapakse won Sri Lanka’s Presidential Elections on November 16. This is not the first time Sri Lanka has had a Rajapakse as president. Mahinda Rajapakse, Gotabaya’s brother, also served as president from 2005 to 2015. Under the presidency of Rajapakse, Sri Lanka became the recipient of significant Chinese capital to fuel a range of infrastructure projects designed into China’s Silk Road initiative. Yet, the country lost the ownership of some territories, taken as evidence of the Chinese debt trap diplomacy’s narrative. The victory of Gothabaya Rajapakse might again head the country in the same direction. The former ambassador of India in France, Mohan Kumar, and Amarnath Amarasingam, an expert on Sri Lankan politics, give their insights on this landmark national election while taking into consideration China’s geostrategic intentions.
Is this election decisive for Chinese BRI projects in Sri Lanka?
AMBASSADOR MOHAN KUMAR
For the Chinese BRI, Sri Lanka’s elections were important but not decisive. It is true that Sri Lanka is part of BRI and two projects are important in this regard. One is the Hambantota port project which, if anything, has attracted negative publicity because of Sri Lanka’s inability to pay back the debt and its subsequent leasing of the port to China for reportedly 99 years. The expression “debt trap” therefore applies to this case. The second one, the Colombo financial city, appears to be progressing well. But BRI has now become so vast and big that this election, in the larger scheme of things, will not be “decisive”. Important yes, but decisive, perhaps not!
It is not entirely clear how decisive it will be. The election of Gotabaya and now the installation of his older brother Mahinda as the Prime Minister once again put the entire country in the hands of the Rajapakse family, which has historically been very pro-Chinese investment. However, they did get criticized for not really seeing the true intention behind Chinese investment, which was basically to push countries into perpetual dependency and debt. We will have to wait and see whether the brothers take the country once again down this road.
What influence has the international community had on the presidential campaign?
AMBASSADOR MOHAN KUMAR
This election, at the end of the day, was determined largely by local factors. And these were: the April Easter bombings and the consequent impact on the economy, the in-fighting between the President and the Prime Minister in the previous regime and last but not least, the desire of the people for a strong leader. The Sinhalas, in particular, feared that Sri Lanka would go back to the bad old days of terrorism. Hence the vote for Gotabaya Rajapakse who is remembered mostly for vanquishing the LTTE, is another reason why a large number of Tamils and Muslims did not vote for Gothabaya. Not at all sure that the international community had much impact on these elections.
On the one hand, there was of course a lot of activism around the world by the Tamil diaspora who, for painfully real reasons, were worried about another Rajapakse presidency. Western governments around the world were also worried about what it might mean for minority rights, increased violence, and even their economic relations with the country. Most of this clearly seems to have little impact on at least 7 million or so voters who decided that Gotabaya was the best candidate. (Montaigne)