from Asia Unbound

The Geopolitical Consequences of the Sri Lankan Election

A soldier stands guard at a campaign rally for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at podium, in Bandaragama earlier this month. Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

November 20, 2019

A soldier stands guard at a campaign rally for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at podium, in Bandaragama earlier this month. Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters
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Sri Lankans went to the polls November 16 to elect a president, and former Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared the winner on November 17. Sri Lanka faces significant national security challenges, and has become a focus of geopolitical competition. Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, a retired career member of the U.S. Foreign Service, was U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka (1992-1995), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, the first woman director of the Foreign Service Institute, and the author or co-author of three books about South Asia. She has been involved with U.S.-Sri Lankan relations for decades. I asked her about the geopolitical implications of this election. A discussion focused on the human rights issues at stake in this election appears here.

Who were Sri Lankans choosing for president?

The incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena, chose not to run, and his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who presided over the end of the country’s long civil war, faced term limits. Both were originally from the left-leaning Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPF), but Sirisena had governed in a turbulent alliance with the traditionally right-of-center United National Front (UNF).

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Uncharacteristically for Sri Lanka, there were some thirty-five candidates contesting this election. The two most prominent were from these same two parties: SLPF, now called the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), and UNF. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, SLPP’s candidate, is the brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and was defense chief in his brother’s administration. Sajith Premadasa, the UNF standard-bearer, served as housing minister in the Sirisena government. He was a young student when his father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated in 1993.

What were the most significant campaign issues?

The most important issues for the country are security, ethnic peace, and the economy. Sri Lanka’s long civil war ended in a victory for the army, but reconciliation among the ethnic groups has not made much progress, and the “Easter bombings” that shook the island in April opened up new wounds in the country’s ethnic tapestry.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigned on security, focusing on his experience as defense chief. He and his family are canny politicians with an especially strong base along the south coast. His primary opponent, Sajith Premadasa, ran on “kitchen table issues,” promising concrete benefits. He has been in politics for a couple of decades, but this was his first high-profile election.

What are U.S. national interests in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka is located at a critical spot for Indian Ocean security. The United States also has a strong interest in preventing a recurrence of the civil war that raged for decades in Sri Lanka, and especially in preventing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam from resuming their campaign of terrorism. Sri Lanka has been a good commercial partner, though it is a relatively small market.

How does Sri Lanka fit into the U.S. “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy?

Both the emerging U.S.-Sri Lankan security relationship and the country’s relatively successful economy make it a natural partner in the Indo-Pacific region. It boasts virtually universal literacy and an educated labor force, and has been trying to position its ports as gateways for its South Asian neighbors.

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Sri Lanka’s politicians are split on the Indo-Pacific strategy. During the Rajapaksas’ previous time in power from 2005 to 2015, U.S. military cooperation with Sri Lanka was limited, largely due to U.S. human rights concerns. In the past few years, some left-of-center parties expressed skepticism of security ties with the United States, which they saw as undercutting their traditional nonalignment. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said little on that subject, however. The coalition in power for the past four years saw a benefit in the kind of balance offered by the strategy, as it worked in close cooperation with the United States and India.

Sri Lanka has two important relationships in the region: India and China. Both have deep roots. India’s ethnic ties with Sri Lanka’s 21 percent Tamil population have been both a bond and a complication. Some of India’s Tamil political parties supported the Tamil separatism that fueled Sri Lanka’s civil war. On the other hand, the current Indian government, and several of its predecessors, have worked hard to build up strategic ties with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s ties with China go back to the early 1950s, when a rice-rubber barter deal resolved an economic crisis for both, while running Sri Lanka afoul of the anti-China legislation then in force in the United States. Ties with Beijing are likely to remain important.

There’s been a lot of U.S. media coverage of Sri Lanka as the prime example of the potential costs to sovereignty of China’s Belt and Road projects. What does this portend for Sri Lanka-China ties?

China pumped massive infrastructure into Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war in 2009, building roads, electricity generating plants, and most famously, a new port at Hambantota, a town in the southwest corner of the island that has important constituencies for both the leading presidential contenders. This assistance has been popular, despite some criticism of the quality of what the Chinese built, and despite concerns about the level of debt Sri Lanka has incurred.

China has always provided some level of military equipment to Sri Lanka. In recent years it has moved more strongly into naval equipment.

What are the stakes for the United States in this election?

The United States had difficult relations with the Rajapaksas when they were previously in power, primarily on account of human rights problems at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The key question for the United States is now whether the two countries can reset their dialogue on the Indo-Pacific and regional peace and capitalize on the interests they share.

The Rajapaksas are close to China, but any Sri Lankan government (as seen with the Sirisena government) would consider China a reliable friend and seek warm ties accordingly. Gotabaya Rajapaksa saw relatively little benefit in traditional peace-building policies when he was defense secretary, and he instead argued that economic development would solve the problems of ethnic relationships. There are deep concerns in Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim communities that a Rajapaksa government will deal harshly with them.

Disclosure: Ambassador Schaffer serves as a part-time advisor to McLarty Associates, as do I.

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