Sri Lanka’s former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stormed to power in Sri Lanka winning the Presidential polls with 52.25 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Premadasa secured 41.99 per cent vote, as Rajapaksa won the Presidential polls by a huge margin of 13 lakh votes. Nicknamed “Terminator” by his family, retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the top defence ministry official during the days of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime which was in power from 2005 to 2015.
Spearheading the Sri Lankan forces against the LTTE during his tenure as the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is credited for effectively combating the Tamil Tigers and ending the 37-year long civil war. His success in ending the civil war made him a “war hero” within Sri Lanka. 40,000 people died in the war, and the Sri Lankan government was accused of carrying out gross human rights violations.
However, Gotabaya’s credentials as a “war hero” and his nationalist approach seems to have led to his election as the President of the island country. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka faced a major threat to its internal security after the island country witnessed the devastating Easter Sunday attacks carried out by Islamic extremists. The bomb blasts claimed 269 lives. Gotabaya’s historic election is perceived to be a result of the rising public sentiment towards ensuring national security.
The terror attacks not only resulted in widespread loss of human lives, but also brought into focus the level of Islamic extremism in Sri Lanka. It must be noted that National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local radicalised group had carried out the terror attacks. This breakaway faction of the Islamist organisation Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath had links with the Islamic State. At least one of the bombers, identified as Jameel Mohammed Abdul Latheef, is said to have visited the ISIS recruiters in Syria in 2014. This shows the level of Islamic extremism within the island country. And this is not a new issue that has cropped up in Sri Lanka. The spread of Salafist Islam started spreading in Sri Lanka way back in the 1980s. It is a version of Salafist Islam only, which is believed to support violent extremism. Initially, its followers has intra-faith tensions with the Sufis. In 2006, an ugly episode of persecution of Sufis came to light when houses of more than 100 Sufis were burnt down.
Sri Lanka, which was completely engaged in tackling the LTTE, Sri Lanka was not able to properly address the issue of growing Islamic extremism over the years. Now, the Easter attacks came at a time when a sense of peace and security was gradually setting in within Sri Lanka. The island country once again faced an imminent security threat. And this is where Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign was able to capture the imagination of Sri Lanka’s electorate. Already hailed as a “war hero”, Gotabaya conducted a nationalist campaign and vowed to crush religious extremism, something that resonated instantly with the voters in Sri Lanka.
The Wickremesinghe administration in the island country had faced widespread criticism for failing to foil the terror bid despite an intelligence inputs from India, as revealed by the findings of a Parliamentary investigation. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm of affairs, we can expect Sri Lanka to curb Islamic extremism and not to ignore any such intelligence warnings.
Infact, Indian government sources told the Indian Express, “With the current (Wickremesinghe) government, India imagined that its interests will be protected. But it failed to protect Sri Lanka’s interests and did nothing for India. A strong president in Sri Lanka will make sure that India is the closest friend while protecting the independence and autonomy of his own country,” sources said.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s efforts to improve the security situation in the island country could therefore also be the point of better relations and closer cooperation between India and Sri Lanka. It is only natural that the Rajapaksa regime will look towards India in its efforts to curb Islamic extremism. As per a tweet from the PMO India, official Twitter handle, PM Modi telephoned the President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa, congratulating him on his election victory.
His camp was itself quick to reach out to India to convey that while China will be a “trade partner”, India remains “our relative”. The Indian government has had its own apprehensions with respect to the Rajapaksa brothers, as Mahinda Rajapaksa had earlier driven Sri Lanka closer to China and eventually led to the lease of Hambantota port to China. However, in the recent past New Delhi seems to have laid the ground for re-testing the strongman’s commitment to better relations with India.
Rajapaksa also expressed his readiness to work with India very closely to ensure development and security. Therefore, the two countries already seem to be thinking in the direction of closer co-operation in security and counter-terrorism. PM Modi is also said to have invited the President-elect, Rajapaksa to visit India at a time of his convenience. The invitation has also been by Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) November 17, 2019
#BREAKING: Prime Minister @narendramodi telephoned the President-elect of Sri Lanka, @GotabayaR and congratulated him on his electoral victory in the Presidential elections held in Sri Lanka yesterday. PM invited him to visit India at a time of convenience. Invite was accepted.
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) November 17, 2019
What also makes the idea of Indo-Sri Lanka co-operation on security and counter-terrorism that much more probable is the meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Sri Lanka President and elder brother of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and PM Modi earlier this year. PM Modi had then tweeted, “We discussed the need for close collaboration between India and Sri Lanka in the fields of counter-terrorism, security and economic development.”
Had an extensive meeting with the Leader of Opposition, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 9, 2019
It is clear that with Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the helm of affairs, Sri Lanka is going to combat Islamic extremism. India has already proven how it can be of immense help to Sri Lanka and had Sri Lanka not ignored India’s intelligence warnings, Easter terror attacks could have been prevented. Now, with a stronger nationalist regime at the helm of affairs, the two countries that share traditionally close relations have an opportunity to come together on the issues of security and counter-terrorism.