Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said his government will work with both India and China, and does not want to be caught “in between the power struggle of superpowers”. Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary who won the November 16 General Elections by more than 13 lakh votes, made the remarks on Monday in an interview with news agency Strategic News International.
“We understand the importance of Indian concerns so we cannot engage in any activity that will threaten the security of India,” he said. “India is a big power, and a big country. We have to understand the point of view of other countries and act accordingly.”
Rajapaksa, who is considered to be pro-China, said he wants Sri Lanka to be neutral and work with other countries. “We are so small and we cannot survive to get into these balancing acts,” he added.
Rajapaksa noted the significant role played by the Indian Ocean in current geopolitics. He observed that Sri Lanka was positioned in a very strategic place as all the sea lanes were close by. The lanes should be free of control of any one country, the president added.
Rajapaksa said the previous administration of President Maithripala Sirisena had made a mistake by giving away the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year-long lease. The president said he would urge Beijing to renegotiate the deal. “Giving a small loan for investment is a different thing but giving a strategic important economic harbour is not acceptable,” he added.
In 2017, China had acquired the port as part of a debt swap. Beijing has been strengthening its relations with the island country and has expanded the presence of its naval forces in the Indian Ocean, building a logistics base in the east African country of Djibouti, according to PTI.
Rajapaksa said Sri Lanka needs investment to develop, but added that it “will not do anything to get involved in military and geopolitical rivalry”. The president also reacted to allegations that he was authoritarian and racist. “It’s a wrong perception created during the civil war with the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam],” he said. “I am a disciplined person but that doesn’t mean I am racist.”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was charged with human rights offences after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. He has denied the allegations. The president is considered a national hero by the Sinhalese majority for winning the 26-year-long armed conflict with the Tamil separatists. However, he remains deeply unpopular among the Tamil and Muslim communities.