Current Situation in Sri Lanka and Bilateral Relations with India
Team VIF
Current Political Situation

It will be now over a year (April 01, 2022) since public protests gripped Sri Lanka against deteriorating economic situation in the country leading to a nation-wide emergency. It took three “long fought” months “Aragalaya” uprising to oust President Gotabaya Rajapasksa (GR) and forced him into exile (July 22, 2022). In the past eight months President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) has initiated a course correction putting Sri Lanka on path to economic recovery. He is now busy putting together plans to deal with serious political governance issues, address the ethnic problems and create an environment of peace, trust and confidence in the country.

However, political analysts point to the existence of a “deficit trust” in the government and generally that President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) “does not enjoy the confidence “of the people who want elections to local self-governments as early as possible”. Going by present indications, major elections are unlikely for some more time. Sri Lanka is not fully out of the woods, the situation has been brought under control by initiating several austerity measures, raising taxes and ensuring that law and order despite strikes by trade unions and legal challenges.

The split within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP) respectively in the last few years has ceded political space to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP) and its other faction. The NPP had hopes to make a big splash in elections to the local bodies or to the provincial councils. RW has denied NPP the opportunity to test its opportunity by refusing to hold elections. RW’s priority is to move ahead with his economic recovery agenda, governance reforms and counter challenges to his administration both in the parliament and judiciary. He is confident that the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) will continue to support him in parliament. The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) appears to in the throes of a leadership crisis on several major issues both political and economic. The ethnic issue has remained on the discussion table without tangible results. RW has to therefore come up with a bouquet of solutions that have a wider appeal among all sections of the community.

IMF Approves Extended Fund Facility

The decision (March 20, 2023) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to approve Sri Lanka’s Program under the Extended Fund Facility (EFF), though belated, is a major boost to RW. He had assumed the presidency of Sri Lanka in July 2022 under extraneous circumstances. RW must be counting the several takeaways from the IMF decision. The unprecedented economic crisis, the political instability, worrisome law and order situation brought about by President Gotabaya’s Rajapaksa’s (GR) questionable decisions and consequently leading to his resignation from office was a major political challenge to RW. The credit must certainly go to RW and his team for staying the course throughout 2022. Importantly, the situation has eased to a large extent. It will require however RW’s political acumen to navigate the many challenges that will be encountered in meeting the expectations of the domestic constituency and the international community to the commitments made to the IMF.

The IMF decision has no-doubt helped RW to a large extent. There are headwinds that require serious attention. The IMF has laid down yardsticks to measure implementation of the action plan committed to it by the Sri Lankan government. The IMF chief of Mission for Sri Lanka Masahiro Nozaki has listed six areas such as fiscal governance, financial sector oversight, Central Bank governance, market regulations, rule of law and anti-money laundering and combatting terrorism financing. A report is expected to be published by September 2023.

The first Instalment worth USD 320 million has been released and Sri Lanka will have access to USD 7 billion funding in 2023-2024 to meet its several commitments. All this has come at a cost. It is pertinent to note that the IMF has underlined the importance of tackling corruption and commencement of governance reforms as a central pillar of its programme. Further, it commended Sri Lanka “for already implementing challenging policy actions” and that “it is essential to continue the reform momentum under strong ownership by the authorities and the Sri Lankan people more broadly”. In return RW has committed Sri Lanka to full transparency in our efforts to achieve sustainable levels of debt and reforms agenda.

Sri Lanka will be the first Asian country where such detailed examination will be carried out. The Sri Lankan government has begun a series of exercises to give effect to commitments made to the IMF. Likewise, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) has too created a groundswell for governance reforms in Sri Lanka.

India-Sri Lanka Relations

Politically speaking the value of India-Sri Lanka bilateral relations has been of a very high quality. EAM Jaishankar’s articulation of “blood is thicker than water” at the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue has left no-doubt about thepositive state of relationship. President Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW’s) and Foreign Ministry Ali Sabry are on record both in Parliament and outside giving India full marks for its support to SL at its worst moment. However, the fact that RW has not visited India even after 9 months of assuming Presidency has left many questions unanswered not only in Sri Lanka and India but also in other countries especially the USA. It has not gone unnoticed. The delay is unprecedented in recent bilateral history.

India has extended a formal invitation to RW which was conveyed by EAM Jaishankar personally during his visit to Colombo in January 2023. RW’s four overseas tours are to London, Tokyo, Philippines and Cairo respectively since taking office as 8th President of Sri Lanka. At Tokyo, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi for ten minutes as they were attending the funeral ceremony of late Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan.

Ranil Factor in India-Sri Lanka Relations

Unlike the Rajapaksa clan which veered away from India in the aftermath of the military victory over LTTE in May 2009 and entered the Chinese camp, RW has displayed no such inclination. Mahinda’s appointment as PM (April 2004) and subsequent election as President of Sri Lanka (Oct 2005) are owing to steadfast support from India. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) and MR made serious miscalculations about choosing China over India and paid the prize for it. Despite this, India kept its links open to the Rajapaksa family.

RW’s brief tenure as Prime Minister, Dec 2001-April 2004, provides ample evidence of a strategic mind and clever employer of tactics. The cease fire with LTTE, brokered by Indian and Norwegian assistance, weakened the insurgent organization to a very large extent and ultimately created conditions for its demise. The credit for the military victory is attributed to MR-GR duo. RW had many pro-India plans especially aimed to safeguard India’s interests in Sri Lanka. They were lost in the battle between then Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunge (CBK) and RW. CBK later regretted the decision to sack RW and dissolve Parliament in April 2004. RW lost the parliamentary elections and CBK lost control of her party and presidency to MR in 2005! CBK and her then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar used China and Pakistan to “keep India in check”.

India’s assistance and support in this period to RW will be invaluable in safe guarding its interests. The challenge to India will come from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP). Anura Dissanayake, leader of the dissident JVP faction has an approval rating of 42%. Wimal Weerawansa and his left extremist fringe elements come next. Expectations are that if local self-government elections or parliamentary elections are held today, JVP factions are likely to give traditional parties a tough fight. RW does not trust JVP or the extreme left fringe parties.

It is to state the obvious that anti-India feelings run deep among certain sections of the Sri Lankan society and this needs careful examination from policymakers and other stakeholders in India and Sri Lanka. A section among them is believed to be propagating that the JVP tops the favourite list of the Indian agencies.

The opposition parties are in a disarray. The Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) are currently the major parties in parliament. The SLPP is on better footing by backing RW for its political survival and will continue to make efforts to remain as a potent force and BR is already drawing up plans for it. The same cannot be said to be true in case of SJB. It suffers from a leadership crisis and lack of trust in its ineffective leader Sajith Premadasa. If push comes to shove, it is possible that many of SJB MPs may switch sides to support RW. The fact that several SJB members have openly expressed satisfaction over the economy recovery plans of RW signals migration of a large number of SJB Parliamentarians to RW’s side. As is publicly known RW has received “support” of MR for his policies. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) a giant of yesteryears is victim of infighting and does not have appeal among the public. The May-day rally will be the cynosure of attention of the stakeholders in Sri Lanka.

Fault Lines Needing Attention

From an Indian perspective, the Tamil issue remains unresolved. It requires political patronage which is largely missing due to lack of consensus among the majoritarian Buddhist political forces and the clergy. The blame for the divided house has to be laid at the door of the Tamil parties and other Tamil speaking minorities. These parties have to put their houses in order. They are split on ideological, political and religious lines and seem unable to sink their differences for resolution of the outstanding issues.

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was the spokesperson during LTTE’s rule more out of fear than anything else. It has outlived its utility. It is not pro-India either. A review of TNA’s utility may be worthwhile. India has to figure a way to deal with TNA and its adherents especially once R. Sampanthan leaves the scene.

13th Amendment and the full implementation of provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord-1987 (ISLA-87) remains a casualty. The ISLA-87 is one of the finest documents crafted by India for securing its national interests. There are two sticking points namely, devolving police powers and revenue powers to the provinces. There is a lobby in the majority community comprising of heavy weight politicians, civil servants, diplomats, the military and above all the powerful clergy who have questioned the need for provincial councils and also the13th Amendment. Is the TNA being influenced by the USA? Is the Tamil diaspora in Canada, UK and Australia preventing a rapprochement within the Tamil community on the one hand and between the majority and minority in Sri Lanka? Is there a US hand? These questions require to be addressed by policy makers in India. The role of US in Sri Lankan affairs and its effects on India-Sri Lanka relations may need to be studied in detail. There are other emotive issues that require “Out of Box Solutions”.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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