Against the backdrop of growing Chinese hegemony in the region, the return of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka with a massive mandate in the recently-held Parliament elections provides a big diplomatic challenge to India. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has firmly consolidated his power as President while the two-thirds majority in the parliamentary polls now brings back his brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. They are widely seen as pro-China in their policies.
Since the island nation’s engagement and partnership with Beijing are set to grow in the coming days, India needs to engage with the regime more vigorously and underline its concerns. Along with the Sinhala majoritarianism that characterises the rise of Rajapaksas, the growing tilt towards China is a cause for concern.
As interim Prime Minister, Mahinda had endorsed the announcement made by Gotabaya that the government would review a port deal worth millions of dollars signed between the previous government and New Delhi. India and Japan were to jointly develop the new East Container Terminal as part of the agreement. The Rajapaksa brothers have also distanced themselves from the funding offered by the ‘Quad’, a grouping comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia trying to counter China’s growing geopolitical influence in the region.
China’s deep pockets are evident in the number of economic and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, including investments in Colombo International Financial Center, Colombo-Kandy highway, oil refineries and a $1.4-billion port city next to the Colombo port.
The ruling Sri Lanka People’s Party has been steering the country towards an exclusive Sinhalese state as Rajapaksa brothers have cemented their position as slayers of Tamil Tigers, ending the ethnic war. It is feared that the present regime would be more oppressive and discriminatory, thereby further diminishing the prospects for reconciliation, justice, and powers to the minorities. Emboldened by the mandate, the Rajapaksa family is expected to centralise authority, trample institutional checks and chip away at the democratic liberties.
The Gotabaya-Mahinda regime is unapologetic about displaying muscular Sinhala Buddhism, particularly in the wake of last year’s Easter killings carried out by Islamist radicals. The plight of Tamil minorities remains an unhealed wound. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka withdrew from Resolution 30/1 of the UN Human Rights Council, under which it had committed to fix accountability for war crimes and provide justice and reparations to the Tamil minority. Now that the Tamil National Alliance has lost its ground in this election, the Sinhala majoritarianism will gain momentum. Already, Mahinda had ignored India’s advice that more powers be devolved to Tamil areas. The Rajapaksas are less likely to pay attention to such concerns now.
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