A Longtime President’s Departure Gives US ‘an Opportunity,’ Gopalaswamy Says

The defeat of Sri Lanka’s long-serving president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, presents an opportunity for the United States to deepen its ties with the South Asian island nation, which has grown closer to China over the past decade, says Atlantic Council analyst Bharath Gopalaswamy. Rajapaksa, who was in office since 2005, amended Sri Lanka’s Constitution to expand the powers of the presidency and was seeking an unprecedented third term in office.

Maithripala Sirisena, who served as health minister until defecting in November, won the presidential election on January 9 riding a wave of pubic anger against Rajapaksa’s authoritarian style.

“While [Rajapaksa’s defeat] presents the US with an opportunity to reevaluate its strategic interests, priorities, and engagements in Sri Lanka, it also provides an opportunity for the US and other Western powers to work together to address the human rights concerns,” said Gopalaswamy, acting director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s twenty-six-year civil war, defeating the Tamil separatists in May of 2009, but faced accusations that the army was involved in the mass murder of Tamil civilians in the final days of the war. A United Nations panel of experts found in 2011 that “multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out” as the toll from that final phase of the battle.

Under pressure from the United States to address these human rights abuses, Rajapaksa forged a close relationship with China.

Few expected Rajapaksa to concede defeat. The fact that he quickly stepped aside shows “Sri Lanka can handle democratic transitions,” Gopalaswamy said in an interview.

But Gopalaswamy doesn’t expect Sirisena to break from many of Rajapaksa’s policies, including his reluctance to reconcile with the island’s Tamil minority.

“Until November, Sirisena was one of Rajapaksa’s men. … His own vote bank is also from the [majority] Sinhalese population. So there is not a lot where he can deviate from Rajapaksa’s policies, at least not immediately,” Gopalaswamy said.

Here are excerpts from Gopalaswamy’s interview with Atlantic Council editor Ashish Kumar Sen.

Q: This election is seen as one of the most significant in Sri Lanka in decades. Why is it significant?

Gopalaswamy: Rajapaksa ended the civil war and assumed power on the end of the civil war. While he was credited, he was increasingly perceived as authoritarian and corrupt. His popularity plummeted when he removed presidential term limits.

Importantly, the election is a win for Sri Lankan democracy where power has successfully transitioned and now Maithripala Sirisena faces the complex task of managing a coalition.

Finally, it also has implications for Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States, India, and China.

Q: What opportunity does Sirisena’s election provide to the US?

Gopalaswamy: Irrespective of who is at the helm in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka presents itself as an extremely important strategic partner for the US primarily because of its geography, because of where it is situated. It has the potential to be a maritime hub.

Irrespective of who is in power, Sri Lanka will be a key partner for the United States. While this democratic change presents the US with an opportunity to reevaluate its strategic interests, priorities, and engagements in Sri Lanka, it also provides an opportunity for the US and other Western powers to work together to address the human rights concerns.

Q: How should the US handle this change in Sri Lanka?

Gopalaswamy: The US should be quick to congratulate the democratic transition in Sri Lanka. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has already congratulated the incoming President Sirisena. This is a welcome step.

Q: In the face of US-led inquiries into human rights abuses committed during the decades-long war against Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa forged a close relationship with China. Does his defeat put at risk China’s efforts to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean?

Gopalaswamy: I think what you will see is a recalibration of Sri Lanka’s relationship with the United States and China. If I were the Sri Lankans my strategy would be to leverage Chinese and other investments to boost my own industry such as tourism, textiles, garments, and tea. To what extent the recalibration will take place remains to be seen.

Sri Lanka will be a key partner courted by countries such as China and the United States because of the relevance of the Indian Ocean. The US because of its rebalance to Asia, while China will see Sri Lanka as a counter to the US rebalance. If the Sri Lankans play their cards right they will be able to leverage both the powers in boosting their own domestic infrastructure and industry.

Q: Is Sirisena likely to depart from Rajapksa’s hard line on reconciliation with the Tamil minority?

Gopalaswamy: Until November, Sirisena was one of Rajapaksa’s men. He very recently defected. He has said that one of his core priorities will be national security and that he will not remove troops from northern Sri Lanka [where much of the minority Tamils are based]. So my best guess would be to wait and watch, but he would be ill advised to continue on some of Rajapaksa’s policies such as authoritarianism, nepotism, and corruption.

One of his promises is to abolish the controversial 18th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution — which gives sweeping powers to the president in addition to removing the two-term limit on presidency.

Q: What other priorities will he have?

Gopalaswamy: Curb inflation, reduce cost of living, address human rights concerns, and manage Sri Lanka’s key relationships with India, China, and the United States.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen and Bharath Gopalaswamy