Sri Lanka will be celebrating its 75th Independence Day on February 4, 2023. As a Republic the country has come a long way from the dominion it was at the time of independence. The shaky step with which President Ranil Wickremesinghe steps into the 75th year of independence, tells that his job to mend the fractured country left in disarray by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is far from over. His government has to survive at least one more year to ensure the economic recovery process is started as per IMF norms.
The former president Gotabaya's flight to safety from the country to escape from the wrath of the people has a lesson for all political leaders. They cannot afford to take popular support for granted. That includes President Wickremesinghe, though he is not elected President by popular mandate. Embers of Aragalaya struggle are still smouldering; a small number of vested interests, nihilists and ultra-left wingers are trying hard to keep alive the protest movement. They have been indirectly helped by the government’s continued lack of accountability. People cannot afford the resurgence of another Aragalaya upsurge as it would shift the national focus from economic recovery. It is the government responsibility to get its act together to ensure the popular discontent is handled with sympathy, sensitivity and fair play.
Apparently, the government has shown signs of getting its act together. It has just released Wasantha Mudalige, Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation and one of the leaders of the Aragalaya protests, after holding him in custody under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for nearly nine months. But much more needs to be done by the government to gain public confidence. It is in this backdrop that events in the month need to be understood.
The seamless connectivity between external relations and the economic recovery of the country came into full play during the month. Early in the month, President Wickremesinghe addressing businessmen in Colombo, briefed them on the state of economic recovery. He had said Japan and the Paris Club, two of Sri Lanka’s major creditors, had expressed their willingness to assist. Talks had begun with India and China. “We discussed with China’s EXIM Bank and are currently debating on how to restructure our debt. The Chinese side has agreed to move quickly” he added. Japan’s State Minister of the Cabinet office Satoshi Fujimaru, China’s Vice Minister of the International Department of the CCP’s Central Committee Chen Zhou and India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar visited Colombo in that order. The US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs is currently visiting Sri Lanka to “offer continued support for Sri Lanka’s efforts to stabilize the economy, protect human rights and promise reconciliation” according to the State Department.
The Paris Club is said to have proposed a 10-year debt moratorium and a 15-year debt restructuring programme. Japan’s minister Fujimaru came with a delegation of Japanese businessmen and his discussions with the President focused on investment opportunities available in Sri Lanka in hospitality and tourism, mining and training of Sri Lanka’s workforce. Chinese Vice Minister Chen led a delegation with the avowed aim to meet leaders of the government and political parties to brief them “on the CPC National Congress decisions and enhance cooperation with friendly developing countries under President Xi Jinping’s policies.” On debt restructuring, he assured PM Dinesh Gunawardena that “several ministries and financial institutes of China are working closely on this issue for quite a long period. I’m confident that Sri Lanka will have good news very soon.” But “the good news” that China’s EXIM Bank agreeing to a two-year moratorium on Sri Lanka’s debts may not satisfy the IMF programme.
In contrast to China, India – the third largest creditor - validated its “neighbourhood first policy” by writing to the IMF Chief of its support to restructuring of Sri Lanka’s debts on the eve of EAM Jaishankar's visit to Colombo. In its letter to IMF, India has said it will support medium to long term treatment of debts through maturity extension and interest rate reduction or any other financial operations that would deliver similar relief. India also said that it expects Sri Lanka to seek equitable debt treatments from all commercial creditors and other official bilateral creditors.
After bilateral talks, EAM Jaishankar addressed a joint press conference at the Presidential Secretariat along with President Wickremesinghe and Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry. He said in Colombo that India will stand by Sri Lanka in its hour of need and expressed confidence in overcoming challenges. His words that India “felt strongly that Sri Lanka’s creditors must take proactive steps to facilitate its recovery” and extended financial assurances to the IMF to clear the way for Sri Lanka to move forward. Our expectation is that this will not only strengthen Sri Lanka’s position but ensure that all bilateral creditors are dealt with equally,” must be heart-warming to the beleaguered President.
He also said India will encourage greater investments in the Sri Lankan economy, especially in the core areas like energy, tourism and infrastructure. Apart from the use of rupee settlement for trade, he also suggested strengthening connectivity, encouraging Indian tourists to make RuPay payments and the use of UPI payment as helpful to Sri Lanka.
Implementing 13th Amendment
The Indian EAM’s talks with Sri Lankan leaders in Colombo seem to have nudged President Wickremesinghe to walk the talk on unfulfilled promises on ethnic reconciliation and implementing 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution in full.
The President informed an all-party leaders conference on reconciliation that the Cabinet was agreeable to fully implement 13A. In a statement issued by his secretariat, he said “The 13th Amendment has been in existence for over 30 years. I must implement it. If anyone is opposed, they can bring in a constitutional amendment to change it, or abolish it.” Explaining his stand, he said he was working according to a supreme court decision on 13A. “We are still in the bounds of a unitary state. I am against a Federal state but I support the devolution of power to provinces. The provincial councils don’t even have the powers enjoyed by the City of London. So, we can’t call this a federal state,” he said.
It is clear that the President has left the decision to implement or scrap the 13A on political leaders from all parties. it might be a political ploy to tide over a tricky political issue for a short time. But, his credibility as President is likely to be tested when he attempts to implement 13A. His statement has already received negative reaction from Tamil National Alliance as well as Sinhala right. And we can expect more political flak on this issue across parties.
This adds yet another rider to the political stability of the government, which does appear to be clear about conducting the local government elections(LG) in March. Already, the uneasy ruling coalition of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is divided over the conduct of LG elections in March. Lack of clarity on the issue is causing scepticism about the government's intentions among the public . In the face of a brewing political turbulence, it will be a tough call on the President to take decisive action even at the best of times. Now, when the country is trying to save itself, it is going to be tougher.
Tailpiece: Sri Lanka’s annual bilateral naval exercise ‘CARAT’ (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) was held on land and at sea in Colombo, Trincomalee and Mullikulam for a week from January 19. The exercise aims to promote regional cooperation, maritime partnerships, enhance maritime interoperability and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. These aims coincide with that of the four-nation Quadrilateral framework. The Japan Self Defence Force (SDF) and the Maldives National Defence Force joined the Sri Lanka armed forces in the last leg of the exercise. These details reflect the changes taking place in the strategic narrative of Indo-Pacific theatre after the Quad. China is sure to take note of the strong strategic message CARAT is sending.
[Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia and terrorism, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: https://col.hariharan.info]