Sri Lanka’s New Leader Faces Deep Fissures

Sri Lanka’s different domestic ethnic communities could shape the nation’s future.
Source Getty

By Amy Kazmin 27 November 2019

Why you should care

Winning the election was the easy part. For Sri Lanka’s new leader, the real battle starts now.

The ancient Buddhist stupa where Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s president on Monday is rich in symbolism: The structure was built by the first Sinhalese king to unify the island under his rule after the defeat of a Tamil dynasty.

But Rajapaksa’s choice of the site following his election win on Sunday highlights the challenge the country faces in reconciling the expectations of his core base of hard-line Sinhalese nationalists with his pledge to serve and protect all of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, including minority Tamils and Muslims.

Tilting too much toward one side or the other can be very damaging.

Rajesh Venugopal, London School of Economics

How he juggles these competing constituencies will also affect Sri Lanka’s international relations as the United States, India and China vie for influence in the Indian Ocean.

“Sri Lanka always has to play a complicated game of balancing between India, China and, to some extent, Washington,” says Rajesh Venugopal, an associate professor at London School of Economics who closely follows Sri Lanka. “Tilting too much toward one side or the other can be very damaging.”

Rajapaksa’s older brother Mahinda, who as president from 2005 to 2015 presided over the brutal crushing of Sri Lanka’s long-running Tamil insurgency, was at odds with Western powers and India over the crackdown — in which the new president, defense secretary at the time, played a critical role.

The U.S. and Europe fiercely criticized the final violent campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels, while the country’s ties with India, which has a large Tamil population, were strained.

Sri Lanka turned instead to China, borrowing heavily from Beijing for ambitious infrastructure projects, many of them white elephants. Beijing also sent two nuclear submarines to dock at the Colombo port, riling New Delhi.

The Rajapaksa family believes the pro-China orientation contributed to Mahinda’s loss of power, with the former president blaming his defeat in 2015 on India’s intelligence agency and the U.S., which he claimed had conspired with his rivals to oust him because of his ties with Beijing.

The new president is therefore expected to pursue “a more balanced approach” to foreign policy, says Ganeshan Wignaraja, executive director of Colombo’s Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies.

“We live in a very different world than in 2010,” Wignaraja says. “Before, we were coming out of a war and there was increased nationalist sentiment. Ten years on, people expect [the president] to deliver the goods on trade, the economy and prosperity.”

Sri Lanka’s economic growth has slowed sharply in the past few years as it has undertaken a $1.5 billion structural adjustment program. The country’s total public debt is about $72 billion, accounting for around 82 percent of gross domestic product, while its two biggest industries, tourism and garment exports, rely heavily on foreign markets.

Economists say the country will have to retain the favor of the International Monetary Fund, and international capital markets, to ensure continued servicing of its debt.

“I don’t see any major threat coming from foreign powers,” says Murtaza Jafferjee, CEO of JB Securities. “The real threat is economic mismanagement, especially the debt.”

Beijing may also be less willing to provide Sri Lanka with financial support now than in the past given the country’s fragile finances and China’s own challenges stemming from the trade dispute with the U.S., says Wignaraja.

“China is wounded,” he says. “China’s growth is slowing down very fast — much faster than expected. Sri Lanka presents some sort of risk in the portfolio. I don’t think that they are going to just open the taps and that Sri Lanka can snub the West.”

Basil Rajapaksa, another of the new president’s brothers and his main election campaign strategist, has said Gotabaya would strive to maintain balanced relationships with Sri Lanka’s partners but would focus on forging strong security ties with India.

“India will definitely be one of the highest priorities politically and militarily,” he said before the vote. “We will be closer to India. They are the big brother.”

Even before the election, the Rajapaksa family had reached out to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repair ties. Last year, the former president and his son Namal traveled to New Delhi to meet Modi, who this week invited Sri Lanka’s new leader to visit him.

Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (center) at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. Source ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP via Getty

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also thought to be keen to maintain good ties with the U.S., where he lived from the late 1990s until 2005 and where he obtained citizenship.

“We will invite [the U.S. and Western countries] to be partners in development,” Basil Rajapaksa said.

But Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director of the International Crisis Group, says many Western countries would closely scrutinize how the new president moved to fulfill his campaign pledge to free soldiers and police prosecuted for wartime rights abuses. Such a move could put him on a collision course with European countries and hit the country’s garment trade. “We really don’t know the balance of forces on his team between the hard-liners who want to more aggressively assert Sri Lankan sovereignty and nationalist ideals and the pragmatic, diplomatic, crafty elements who think it’s probably wiser not to pick fights,” Keenan says.