MIDWEEK REVIEW

Prez poll: External factors and Maldivian leader’s dilemma

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INS Karanj enters Colombo Port on Feb 3, 2024, the day before Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebrations. The attack submarine departed on Feb 5. The Hindustan Times declared that the latest visit was a huge diplomatic victory for India over China in Sri Lanka. HT reported that the Indian submarine was sent to one of Lanka’s main ports to convey a message to Beijing and Male as Chinese spy ship Xiang Yang Hong 3 continues to sail towards the Maldives. The move was aimed at highlighting India’s role as the primary security provider in the Indian Ocean Region (pic courtesy SLN)

President Mohamed Muizzu

India steps up pressure on the Maldives with unprecedented harassment of Maldivian fishers within the Maldivian economic zone. Obviously, the nuclear power piqued by the Maldivian request to withdraw its military contingent by March 15, this year wants to intimidate the much smaller neighbour. The international community shouldn’t turn a blind eye to such bullying tactics. Now that the Maldives asked for an explanation from India why its Coast Guard personnel boarded three Maldivian fishing vessels operating in Maldivian waters, it would be Delhi’s responsibility to address the neighbour’s concerns. Regardless of New Delhi’s response, the Indian Coast Guard wouldn’t have boarded Maldivian vessels unless they were directed to do so. Perhaps the Indian Coast Guard should deploy some of its assets to thwart hundreds of their fishing craft crossing the Indo-Lanka maritime boundary as Indian poaching threatens the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Maldives wants Indian military personnel out of its soil by 15th of March this year. India is determined to continue the deployment, though new Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu, 45, appears to be firm in his decision to oust foreign military personnel, announced on January 14, immediately after his return from China.

Muizzu’s move reminded us of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s demand for speedy withdrawal of the Indian Army, deployed in North and East of Sri Lanka. India eventually pulled out its troops by March 1990 although Premadasa’s deadline was ignored.

Compared to the Indian deployment in Sri Lanka, the Indian military presence in the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago nation is insignificant. The total deployment consisted of altogether 77 personnel assigned for the operation of two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters (ALHs) and one Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft.

Subsequent reports indicated that India may withdraw its military contingent by May 10, this year.

The Maldives took delivery of two ALHs in 2010 and 2017 during the tenure of President Mohamed Nasheed, whereas the Dornier was positioned there in late 2020, the year the US and the Maldives signed, what they called, a framework for U.S. Department of Defence-Maldives Ministry of Defence to have a Defence and Security Relationship.

Rezaul H. Laskar, the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times, in an online report, dealt with the latest deployment. Laskar quoted those familiar with the developments as having said the Indian move was meant to maintain a closer watch on Chinese naval movements.

There cannot be absolutely no doubt regarding Indian intentions in line with its overall strategy to meet the Chinese challenge. The leasing of two Dornier aircraft to the Sri Lanka Air Force by India, after the change of government here in July 2022, is of significant importance.

The placement of Dornier took place during the tenure of President Ibrahim Solih, whose pro-Indian policy boomeranged on him as China backed Muizzu, of the People’s National Congress, who campaigned to end the Indian military presence in his country. The much touted ‘India out’ campaign attracted the majority of the Maldivians.

Muizzu won the Sept 2023 presidential election in the Maldives after a second-round run-off against Solih.

In spite of Muizzu offering to visit New Delhi, in Dec 2023, following his Nov 17 inauguration, the Modi administration turned its back on him. Our President Ranil Wickremesinghe and First Lady Maithree attended the inauguration. Having been snubbed by India, Muizzu undertook his first official visit to Turkey and then the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where he attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) in Dec 2023, before flying to Beijing, the following month.

The Maldivian media declared that Wickremesinghe was the highest-ranking state official at the event whereas India was represented by a Minister. It would be pertinent to mention that no less a person than Narendra Modi attended the inauguration of Solih in Nov 2018, while Sri Lanka was represented by Dr. Sarath Amunugama, the then Foreign Affairs Minister of the 52-day Maithree-Mahinda government, subsequently dismissed by the Supreme Court.

The simmering India-Maldives dispute, over the latter’s demand for the withdrawal of the Indian military contingent, has obviously promoted Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar to suggest to his countrymen and women, “My first advice to you, the next time you want to take a holiday, go to Sri Lanka. I’m serious. Please go to Sri Lanka. I say this to all of you.”

This declaration was made late last month and should be examined against the backdrop of the diplomatic row caused by Premier Modi just ahead of Muizzu’s State visit to Beijing. Modi’s unprecedented move to promote Indian islands of Lakshadweep as a tourist destination, at the expense of the Maldives, heavily dependent on tourism, triggered an angry reaction from the smaller country. Muizzu has had no option but to sack three State Ministers who have been critical of Modi.

India actively encouraged boycotting of the Maldives while the latter expressed confidence the crisis could be addressed by Chinese tourists. The Indian reaction proved one thing that even tourism can be weaponized against a smaller nation.

The stakes are so high and the situation moving rapidly, it is not so difficult to realize the Maldivian Opposition wants to impeach Muizzu. Sri Lanka shouldn’t respond indifferently as the country faced the same predicament as the Maldives.

The attempt by Indian-trained Sri Lanka terrorists to assassinate the Maldivian President Gayoom, in Nov 1988, underscored how the Indian terrorism project undermined regional peace.

Lessons for Lanka

Indian HC Santosh Jha visits INS Karanj, the third of the Kalveri class submarines, commissioned into the Indian Navy on 10 March 2021.

With the local presidential election just a couple of months away, let us examine how China and the US-led group pressure Colombo as regards its foreign policy. Modi’s India remains a staunch US ally though New Delhi wouldn’t support Washington in its kind of proxy war in Ukraine. Therefore, the US and India policy vis a vis Sri Lanka is certain to be common and their approach in respect of Chinese ‘presence’ here, too, is compatible.

The joint US-India opposition to Chinese research vessel’s visits to Sri Lankan ports is a case in point. Their pressure is such the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government was literally forced to suspend Chinese research vessel’s visits this year. Like in the Maldives, US-India vs China battle is certain to be a major issue in the run-up to the presidential poll with none of the major contenders, UNP (United National Party) leader Wickremesinghe, SJB (Samagi Jana Balawegaya) leader Sajith Premadasa and JJB (Jathika Jana Balawegaya) very much likely to refrain from anti US-India or anti-China rhetoric.

The recent unprecedented five-day visit undertaken by JVP and JJB leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake to New Delhi should be examined against the backdrop of AKD’s tour of the US a couple of months ago.

Sri Lanka is in such a precarious situation, economically, no party/coalition can antagonise China or the US-India grouping. Whoever wins the next presidential poll will have to tread cautiously or face the consequences. Sri Lanka is indebted to both China and India with the latter often reminding Sri Lanka how it saved the country during the 2022 economic-political-social crisis after Washington and Delhi possibly hatched it, clandestinely, as alleged by National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, especially with the ‘peaceful’ protest movement that catapulted into a deadly force, overnight, on May 09, last year, torching houses of governmentt politicians, across the country, with meticulous intelligence, in a matter of few hours, as the security forces and police watched in silence. That is the ground reality.

China taught Sri Lanka a bitter lesson after the then Premier suspended the flagship China-funded Colombo Port City project immediately after the 2015 presidential election. China also reacted angrily, in late 2016, after the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake falsely accused Beijing of providing costly loans to the Rajapaksas.

Finally, China secured the strategic Hambantota Port in 2017, with 85% stake, thereby consolidating its position in the port sector. As to how many palms were oiled for its success we may never know. The Chinese influence cannot be examined without taking into consideration Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT) Limited, a joint venture between SLPA and China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd, a listed blue chip company in the Hong Kong stock exchange.

Let me stress that the CICT agreement is valid for a period of 35 years, the Hambantota contract is nothing but a sellout as it is on a 99-year lease.

Over the years China expanded its operations and influence – both during the conflict and after as the Communist Party enhanced its hold on the then Sri Lankan political leadership. But China has been a steady friend, who has always stood by us, especially in our fight to overcome terrorism here. It never wavered and was a friend in need.

Shiv Shankar Menon, one-time Indian Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor, in ‘Choices’, extensively dealt with the Chinese influence on Sri Lanka’s relations with India. Unfortunately, Menon, like so many others, tends to discuss the issues at hand, quite conveniently forgetting how India created an opening for China, in Sri Lanka, by launching a terrorist war. China ended up being Sri Lanka’s primary weapons supplier, including state-of-the-art radar installed at the height of the war against the LTTE.

However, one shouldn’t forget at that time India considered US and Israeli support for Sri Lanka a serious threat to their security. A few decades later, the US and Israel are perhaps India’s closest allies, with political and military ties at the highest level. The US refusal, in March 2005, to issue a diplomatic visa for the then Gujarat Chief Minister Modi over his alleged complicity in anti-Muslim violence in his State, three years before, is a thing of the past.

US advice

At the forthcoming presidential election, followed by parliamentary polls here, the US-India combine will seek to consolidate gains they made in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster in July 2022. But Modi should not forget how fickle the Western pale faces are as at one time, in the Kissinger era, Beijing was their darling, in order to even scores with Moscow.

Such are the vagaries of world politics – no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests!

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena never bothered to challenge National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s declaration (first made in April 2023) that US Ambassador Julie Chung personally intervened on July 09, 2022, to arrange transfer of executive powers to Abeywardena. They seemed to be comfortable with the incumbent administration and may push the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to align with President Wickremesinghe, who is now certain to secure the backing of a significant number of SLPP lawmakers unless that party officially backed him. Many SLPPers are still having jitters they got on the night of May 09 last year when some of their life possessions were torched in a matter of few hours and that is the hard truth.

CWC leader Jeewan Thondaman, in spite of being elected on the SLPP ticket at the last general election, had no qualms in declaring his intention to throw his party’s weight behind Wickremesinghe at the forthcoming presidential contest. Both the TNA and the CWC are sure to be influenced by India as they did on many previous occasions.

The 2010 US bid to have war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka elected as the President underscored the extent to which foreign powers can interfere in smaller countries’ national elections. The US bid failed due to the South rallying around the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa though Fonseka comfortably won all predominantly Tamil speaking districts in the Northern and Eastern regions. Rajapaksa polled over 1.8 mn votes more than Fonseka whose side (the alliance that fielded Fonseka consisted of UNP, JVP, TNA and SLMC) foolishly accused the winner of computer jilmaat.

Recently, US Ambassador Julie Chung commented on the forthcoming presidential election. The comment was made at Amcham CXO Forum “75 years and Beyond: U.S.–Sri Lankan Business Relations in 2024.”

Emphasizing the need for proper political leadership to overcome daunting challenges faced by Sri Lanka, Ambassador Chung underscored the responsibility on their part to stabilize, what she called, the business environment as Sri Lanka heads for national elections.

A statement issued by the US mission here quoted Chung as having said: “Both of our countries will have elections this year. We need to do all we can to stabilize the business environment. As leaders, we need to think about both the medium-term and the long-term. In the medium-term, we need to create an environment that’s conducive to trade, investment, and business expansion. One with transparent governance, where corruption is no longer tolerated. In the long-term, we need to raise up a generation of leaders to take our place.”

Recent US investment in the Colombo Port, also referred to in Ambassador Chung’s speech at the Amcham CXO Forum, emphasized their unwavering commitment here, in line with its Indo-Pacific strategy.

More than half a billion-dollar investment in support of a deep-water shipping container terminal (Western Container Terminal at the Colombo Port) involves John Keells Holdings and the Adani Group. The project will rival China-led CICT.

Ambassador Chung told the Amcham CXO Forum: “Just a few months ago, we were proud to announce the International Development Finance Corporation’s investment of $553 million in the Western Container Terminal at the Port of Colombo. Why was this so incredibly important? Beyond the large dollar amount, which is DFC’s second largest exposure in the entire Indo Pacific region; beyond the critical injection of private sector financing this country needs; beyond the confidence building signal it sends to potential investors and financiers that we believe in Sri Lanka’s future, it demonstrates the United States’ continuing commitment to the prosperity of Sri Lanka.”

Competition for strategic assets

Two months before public protests erupted in Colombo, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, his government entered into a fresh agreement with India to develop the Trincomalee oil tank farm.

The agreement covers a period of 50 years. The Indo-Lanka accord that was forced on Sri Lanka in July 1987, under threat of Indian invasion, dealt with the lower and upper tank farms, spread over 827 acres. They consisted of 99 tanks each with a capacity to store 10,000 tonnes of fuel.

It was followed by a second agreement, finalized on Feb 7, 2003, and a MoU in 2017 that covered several sectors. China has now followed India to set up its own fuel distribution network here while two more companies – one each from US and Australia are expected to enter the market.

India greatly enhanced its role in Sri Lanka in the wake of the economic crisis that dealt a debilitating blow to Sri Lanka’s independence, most possibly hatched from abroad with the help of our gullible politicians, like how our trusting ancestors trusted the Portuguese, the Dutch and British in turn to enslave us for over 300 years. With the country in debt to India to the tune of USD 4 bn, the current political leadership or whoever wins the next presidential election, would be beholden to New Delhi. Whatever the criticism, if not for Indian assistance during 2022, Sri Lanka could have ended up in flames.

India and China are also fighting for a stake in Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) as President Wickremesinghe proceeds with his controversial strategy to privatize state assets in the run-up to the forthcoming presidential election. Can he do that before the nominations for the presidential poll?

Sri Lanka’s deal with the IMF for a USD 2.9 bn bailout package, too, is nothing but added pressure on the country struggling to meet its international financial commitments. IMF does not carry a magic wand, though foolish ordinary folks were hoodwinked into believing that by going to the Fund everything will be sorted out.

Unfortunately, the government and the Opposition seem to be blind to the developing crisis. They haven’t been able to address the challenges faced by the country or at least making genuine efforts to do so. Their pathetic failure has facilitated sordid operations of foreign powers, bent on completely bringing bankrupt Sri Lanka under their dominance.

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