Sri Lanka’s newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena leaves the opposition leader’s office in Colombo on Friday

AFP
The election of Pallawatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena, 63, as the president of Sri Lanka in an election called by his defeated predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, ahead of the end of his second six-year term, has demonstrated the democratic maturity of the Sri Lankan electorate. The expectation of most observers, possibly because of the natural human tendency toexaggerate the chances of the incumbent, was that Rajapaksa was going to get a third term, for which he amended the constitutional limit of two terms. Let us look at the prospects of Indo-Sri Lanka relations with Sirisena as President. Prime Minister Modi has promptly congratulated Sirisena, as is customary. We should not expect an abrupt reversal of Rajapaksa’s rather explicit pro-China policy and a suddenimprovement in relations with India. But, we could expect a calibrated and gradual correction in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy that was based on a closer and closer relationship with China, without taking serious note of India’s concerns. For example, Rajapaksa had concluded a $1.34-billion contract for the Colombo Port City Project with China. The project calls for the reclamation of 580 acres of land, out of which China was to get ownership of one-third. There are valid environmental concerns that were ignored by Rajapaksa. Sirisena had promised during the campaign he will cancel the contract. Let us wait and watch. Yet another concern by those who opposed Rajapaksa is that, under him, Sri Lanka has taken huge loans from China at high interest rates, and, consequently, the cost of living had gone up. We, in India, are generally sceptical of India’s ability to implement projects in other countries. It is heartening to note that Sirisena’s supporters had pointed out that while India’s IRCON was laying rails at $2.5 million per km in the north of the island, a Chinese firm was charging $10.5 million for the same work in the south. In short, Sirisena is likely to correct the imbalance between China and India in the economic relations of Sri Lanka. China has been sending submarines for refuelling toColombo, ostensibly for undertaking anti-piracy operations elsewhere. Rajapaksa has been dismissive of India’s concerns in this regard. Let us wait and watch. Apart from security and economic relations, the major concern for India is the Tamil political and civil rights for a degree of autonomy without infringing on the territorialintegrity of Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa had a golden chance to reach out to the Tamils and implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution enacted in 1987. But he preferred to take a hard line and made sure that the Tamil chief minister in the north will not be able to function by denying him powers due to him. Will Sirisena reverse the wrong course? Rajapaksa had inundated the north with the army .Sirisena, as a candidate, did say that he would not withdraw the army from the north. He comes from Polannurawa, a centre of rather narrow-minded Sinhalese nationalism, and was defence minister for a while during the war against LTTE when needless atrocities were committed by the armyand the LTTE. The Tamils did not exactly vote for Sirisena, they voted against Rajapaksa. From a rational point of view, it is possible to respect the rights of the Tamils without damaging the interests of the Sinhalese. For that, Sri Lanka needs a president with vision who can lead. Will Sirisena rise to the occasion? From India, we can only wish him well and extend all support and goodwill if and when he makes it clear that he will be the president of all Sri Lankans and that he is determined to render justice to the Tamil minority. It will make good sense for Prime Minister Modi to make an early visit to Sri Lanka.The writer is a former high commissioner to Sri Lanka

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Rajapaksa is out. Advantage India?