Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s landmark victory in the recent Sri Lankan Presidential elections have sparked mixed reactions in the region. While Pakistan considers it an opportunity to further boost Pak-Lankan ties, India may have reasons to be concerned; this, despite a felicitation message and invitation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gotabaya joined Sri Lanka Army in 1971 and was commissioned into the Corps of Signals. He completed basic officer training at Military Academy Diyatalawa then proceeded to Pakistan to complete Young Officers’ Course at Signals School Rawalpindi (presently Military College of Signals) and later Mid-Career Course at Command & Staff College, Quetta. He then acquired advanced training in counter insurgency and jungle warfare in Assam (India). Despite his Signals training, Gotabaya was selected for Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Benning, US and again went to India for higher learning. His last assignment before premature retirement for active service was Deputy Commandant of Sir John Kotelawala Defence University in 1991.
Gotabaya may have a military service record of only two decades but he was awarded for distinguished achievements with the President’s Commendation letter by former President J.R. Jayewardene and medals for valour such as Rana Wickrama Padakkama (RWP) Rana Sura Padakkama (RSP) by former Presidents R. Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunga. Moreover, this military background proved immensely resourceful to play a decisive role as Defence Secretary during his brother Mahinda’s previous tenure which led to the successful end of a deadly 25-year civil war against the Sri Lankan state waged by terrorists belonging to Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or ‘LTTE‘ in 2009. This resounding success helped the Rajapaksa brothers achieve new heights of glory and mainstream popularity.
Mahinda, not Gotabaya, would have contested for elections were it not for the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution Act in 2015 which reduced presidential term in office to five years (previously six) and barring candidates twice elected from contesting any further (only two terms); a fact admitted by none other but Gotabaya in an interview to a Lankan daily earlier this year.
Gotabaya’s fundamental responsibility at least during his first year in office would be to carefully balance relations between New Delhi and Beijing
Pakistan’s role in supporting Sri Lankan government’s operations against LTTE underpin the dynamics of time-tested friendship, although some analysts tend to exaggerate the nature of this relationship. Although India had refused selling weapons during their critical military operations, Pakistan and China proved as reliable partners. With foreign support and increased internal confidence, Gotabaya was able to increase his Armed Forces strength by almost 160,000 soldiers.
Despite the snub by New Delhi, Gotabaya maintained exceptionally cordial relations with the Indian security establishment during the premiership of Dr Manmohan Singh/Congress through both his esteemed NSAs M.K. Narayanan and his successor Shivshankar Menon. Gotabaya, or “Gota“, as Menon referred to him, has been an ardent admirer of Menon’s ability to understand Sri Lanka’s security concerns in the larger geostrategic context during his term in office. In fact, Menon devoted a whole chapter of his memoirs “Choices” to Gotabaya.
In spite of fluctuating Indian cooperation, Gotabaya acknowledged the influence New Delhi wields over the island nation through its ethnic Tamil community. After what he called his brother’s firm leadership, Gotabaya said that working with India was the “second decisive factor in winning” (tenure of NSA Narayanan). For Gotabaya, the support by the West or China “wasn’t crucial“.
Prior to his victory, Gotabaya attempted to clarify what he considered misperceptions regarding Chinese commercial projects meant to revive the Lankan economy, which were shared on two separate occasions by the incumbent Indian NSA Ajit Doval. Apparently, he tried to dissuade concerns about reports speculating that Hambantota port might be used as a strategic base of operations for China in the Indian Ocean Region in the following words:-
“We got assistance from China mainly on infrastructure development. We never forgot about the national security issues and our relationship with India; we categorically said that we will not allow any country to have military presence in Sri Lanka and that we will not do anything that will [cause] any security concerns for India.”
These statements are perhaps insufficient to dissuade concerns expressed by Indian strategic commentators such as Brahma Chellaney, who claims that the return of Rajapaksas to the Sri Lankan executive is “welcome news for China“. It remains to be seen whether or not the pre-election Gotabaya who expressed open reservations on Chinese investments in Hambantota port would shelve them altogether upon assumption of office. Gotabaya’s fundamental responsibility at least during his first year in office would be to carefully balance relations between New Delhi and Beijing
With regard to terrorism, Gotabaya has a clear-cut policy of zero-tolerance for extremist preachers. In fact, he revealed that during his tenure as Defence Secretary well before the conduct of any ‘jihadi’ attacks, senior Sri Lankan intelligence officers were sent for training in the US with a particular focus on cyberspace for online monitoring of what he calls ‘radical Islamic preachers’. This hard-hitting approach isn’t a new characteristic in his personality; it is a continuation of similar ‘shoot-and-kill’ policies adopted toward militant Tamils, even those who reportedly agreed to surrender.
Gotabaya’s affinity for India, however deep it may be, does not imply his lack of awareness about the hardliner BJP’s long-term vested interests. He mentioned the incumbent Indian NSA Ajit Doval’s obsession with China which prompted covert regime change efforts in Sri Lanka in 2014 as a consequence of which R&AW’s station chief in Colombo was expelled in early 2015 for reportedly strengthening opposition parties against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Needless to say, he has been observing ambitious and adventurous regional incursions by Modi 2.0 against Pakistan and other smaller countries nearby.
Pakistan is not expected to feature any more prominently in the new Sri Lankan cabinet’s foreign policy equation than it traditionally has, excepting occasional references under the Chinese umbrella through the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), sports diplomacy viz cricket or traditional channels of military diplomacy. In the current circumstances, meaningful traction on the latter aspect can be impacted because of the controversial appointment of Major General (Retired) Saad Khattak as High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.
Pakistan’s efforts for the preservation and promotion of Buddhist heritage supported by Thailand could be upgraded to a trilateral forum status involving Sri Lanka which could complement Islamabad’s own soft power ventures and sustain Pak-Lankan ties beyond the defence and security realms. Unless Islamabad is satisfied with its existing passive diplomacy, that is.