Sri Lanka: US Wooing The Buddhists To Serve Their Geo-political Interests

By Kalinga Seneviratne, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 22, 2015

Singapore -- On January 8th this year when Sri Lanka’s powerful president Mahinda Rajapakse - who has been often dubbed by the western media as a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist -  was defeated in a shock vote propelled by a “peoples’ revolution” focused on endemic political corruption in the country, there was much hope that a ‘100-day’ program which was presented to electorate to rid the country of corruption will bring in an era of clean government.

However, when the ‘100-day’ period expired on April 23rd with most of its promises unfulfilled, and with many of its leaders showing more interest in mending fences with the West in the foreign relations sphere than attending to tackling corruption at the grassroots, many Sri Lankans are now openly expressing fears of their country drifting towards the chaos created in Libya and Syria in recent years.

These fears were further exacerbated after the recent visit of the US Secretary of State John Kerry to the island on May 1st and 2nd, where he was blatantly trying to tell the new government how to run their domestic and foreign affairs. He even let the cat out of bag when he unwittingly said in response to a journalist’s question that Sri Lanka will be holding parliamentary election “in the summer” after which Sri Lanka and the US will develop a close strategic relationship.

When to hold the parliamentary elections is a question of intense debate in the country at the moment and new President Maithripala Sirisena has delayed dissolving parliament, even though he promised during the presidential campaign to dissolve parliament immediately after the 100-day program is over.

Since been elected to office, President Sirisena has been trying to play a very delicate balancing act. He was Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) general-secretary for over 15 years and his Health Minister until his defection to become the common opposition candidate after Rajapakse called for a snap presidential poll in November last year. After his election victory, he came back to the SLFP and successfully claimed its presidency as well, while Rajapakse was moved up as a party patron.

Thus, it created an unprecedented political dilemma in Sri Lanka, where a candidate who defeated the SLFP nominee to the presidency of the country, now comes back to lead that same party. He also elected as Prime Minister the leader of SLFP’s arch rival the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickemasinghe - whose party only commanded 45 seats in the parliament while the SLFP and its allies command 130 seats. As SLFP president he also nominated a SLFP MP Nimal Siripala de Silva as opposition leader. Thus in one go, the president created a government that had no opposition in parliament – or so it seems.

The UNP has traditionally being strong allies of the West, and particularly Wickremasinghe is well known to be very close to the US and Norway, and he is widely seen in Sri Lanka as a politician whose interests are aligned more with the geo-political needs of the West rather than the national interests of Sri Lanka.
During the Rajapakse regime many members of his party defected to the government side accussing Wickremasinghe of working against the national interests. He was often labeled as anti-Buddhist and regularly quoted in the media making statements against the  Rajapakse government’s war against LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) terrorism.

With the SLFP badly divided at the moment between two factions – one backing Sirisena and the other allied to Rajapakse - a parliamentary election now could decimate the SLFP to provide Wickremasinghe’s UNP victory on a platter. A Wickremasinghe led government could see Sri Lanka aligned itself closely with the US and EU, push back Chinese investments and scuttle China’s Maritime Silk Route project, where Sri Lanka’s China-built Hambantota harbor is a crucial lynchpin.

It is interesting how Kerry was trying to woo Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority who are largely suspicious of the West. He visited Sri Lanka on the eve of the Vesak festival, a grand festival in Sri Lanka over 3 days to mark the Buddha’s birth. He attended a widely publicized ceremony at one of the leading Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, where he was given a traditional Buddhist blessing by the chief monk, who placed a Buddhist relic on his head. He also made a public statement expressing understanding of Sri Lanka’s war against LTTE terrorism.

“It is sometimes necessary to go to war, despite the pain it brings. For all of my country's disagreements with the previous government in Sri Lanka over how it fought the LTTE, we clearly understood the necessity of ridding this country of a murderous terrorist group and the fear that it sowed. I believe that you learned in the final, bloody days of that struggle what my country discovered to our own anguish during our civil war” said Kerry in a speech given at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relation, an institute named after Sri Lanka’s former Tamil Foreign Minister killed by the LTTE.

If the US understood Sri Lanka’s need to eliminate the LTTE, one would ask why there was such a witch-hunt against the Rajapakse regime spearheaded by the US at the UN Human Rights Council accusing the government of war crimes and threatening sanctions against the country? The Council’s report recommending sanctions is been withheld until September and one would assume that will be tabled in Geneva if the Sri Lankan voters, by then, haven’t elected a Wickremasinghe-led government. Kerry knows, that to achieve that aim, an election needs to be held soon and a substantial portion of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote needs to drift away from Rajapakse to Wickremasinghe.

However, a movement to bring back Rajapakse to power as SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate at the general elections, has been gathering steam in the past 2 months. Already, 4 mammoth rallies have been held by his supporters from the SLFP and their former governing alliance of United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which have drawn over 500,000 each time. They have been using a well-crafted slogan “panas ata laksha” (5.8 million voters) candidate. This refers to the national vote he garnered in the January 8th presidential elections as opposed to Sirisena’s 6.2 million votes.

Though he hasn’t attended any of these rallies so far, the former president has risen from his unexpected setback and with his trademark street fighter brand of politic, is attracting more attention from the public than Sirisena or Wickremasinghe.

He has been visiting Buddhist temple functions and making speeches, visiting his former ministers detained on bribery allegation in prison giving media interviews at the prison gates, and even had the first direct face-to-face meeting with Sirisena at the parliamentary complex on May 6th during which they are believed to have discussed how the SLFP could be united. Rajapakse has also complained about a police bribery investigation unit that is directly under Wickremasinghe, who is alleged to be using it to get Rajapakse allies arrested.

“Even though the common candidate (Sirisena) won the election the former president (Rajapkase) remains the most discussed personality ever since his defeat,” noted political scientist Dr Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi in a commentary published in the ‘Nation’ this month, adding, “he continues politically to be the most popular politician, ahead of President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe”.

The new regime’s own actions that contradicted its election slogan of heralding a ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) era has played into the hands of Rajapakse and his supporters. The appointment of a Finance Minister tainted with multi-million dollar money laundering allegation involving the disgraced American insider trader (now in US prison) Raj Rajaratnam,  a huge financial scandal centred around the newly appointed Central Bank Governor a close friend of Wickremasinghe and the appointment of another close family friend of the PM as Bribery Commissioner who is accused of carrying on a vendetta against the Rajapakse family members have all dented the Sirisena government’s claim to good clean governance.

Rajapakse and his supporters have latched on to these claiming the January 8th elections was a “regime change” conspiracy hatched by the old imperial powers and India to overthrow a regime that was too close to China. On the eve of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March, Rajapakse gave an interview to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper in which he said that January election result was an outcome of a conspiracy to change regime undertaken by RAW (India’s intelligence agency), the US, Norway and some other EU countries. But, he added that Modi was not involved in it. To the dismay of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe regime, when Modi arrived in Colombo he requested a meeting with Rajapakse and the two leaders met for 15 minutes without aides just before he left Sri Lanka.

The open flirting with the West, particularly by the prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister, have added fuel to Rajapakse’s conspiracy theories. He even claimed earlier this month that the militant Buddhist group Budu Bala Sena (BBS) that many in Sri Lanka blamed for the decline of support from ethnic minority groups for the Rajapakse regime, was funded by Norway and the US.

Under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka was one of the earliest subscribers to China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) project that will challenge the Manila-based US-Japan controlled Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) monopoly on development funding and policy management in the region. Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, after infamously accusing Chinese investors as being corrupt, has been negotiating intensely with ADB and the other US-controlled institution IMF to get development funding.

Karunanayake  and other government leaders have alleged that during the Rajapakse regime  there has been large scale corruption in contracts given to Chinese companies financed by the Exim Bank of China, which were done without competitive tender. They have also alleged that the Chinese have charged high interest rates for loans.

In a statement issued by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka (CCCSL) on April 26th, they rejected Karunanayake’s allegation. They pointed out that while Sri Lanka was raising money in the international bond market at 12 to 14 percent interest, China has provided Sri Lanka with billions of dollars worth of loans, more than half at 2 percent interest.  The CCCSL said “some high ranking official's wrong allegations on interest rates of Chinese loans have damaged the images of Chinese banks in Sri Lanka and demotivated their enthusiasm of offering preferential loans to the country”.

Upon his returned to the island on May 8th after attending an ADB meeting, Karunanayake told the media, that  “the remarkable initiatives adopted by the new Lankan government, with a key focus on good governance, had prompted the ADB to increase its funds-three fold to Sri Lanka”.

Thus it is interesting to see how the geo-political battle between the US and China in Asia is being played out in Sri Lanka, while corruption allegations are used to silence anyone who may not be supportive of the western designs.

The US and the EU hates both Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse because ignored western attempts to interfere in Sri Lanka’s civil war in support of the LTTE. They told the West basically to mind their own business and with help from China and Russia they were able to finish the war. The only instance in the ‘war on terror” era a country has been able to successfully eradicate a terror group. In the aftermath of the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s infrastructure development took off in a frenzy with Chinese aid, and the economy was growing at a healthy 7 percent when Rajapakse was overthrown.

For the West, this cannot be held up as a good example, because it showed that the West could be irrelevant in shaping up the 21st century Asian age. On the other hand, China should also learn from Sri Lanka’s experience that money alone cannot build Chinese influence in the region. They need a well coordinated media and public relations strategy in the region with local media and non-governmental organization (NGO) partner – which the West are best at as seen in Sri Lanka right now.

Veteran Sri Lankan political analyst Dr Dayan Jayatilake in a commentary published in the Colombo Telegraph immediately following Kerry’s departure argued that the coming elections will be the majority Sinhala population’s last chance to protect themselves from their external enemies.

“In the name of justice, equality and autonomy for the minorities, the majority on the island, the Sinhalese, who are the real minority when you consider the massive geopolitical realities just a few kilometers of ocean away, not to mention in the world as a whole, will find themselves politically displaced, distanced from their real friends (ie. China) in the world, and left naked to their existential enemies” he warned.

“Our last chance to prevent this peacefully will be the parliamentary election …  If our electoral choice is wrong, if we don’t generate a tsunami of Sinhala votes which will sweep away the local puppets and defend our natural status in this island home, it will be our last summer as an independent nation, (which) will be followed by a long winter as a dependency of the Empire”.