Colombo: Sri Lanka will work with India and it won’t do anything that will harm its interests, newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said ahead of his visit to New Delhi on November 29. Gotabaya, who is considered pro-China, said he wanted Sri Lanka to be a “neutral country” and work with all the countries. “We will work with India as a friendly country and won’t do anything that will harm India’s interests,” said Gotabaya.
“We want to be a neutral country,” Gotabaya, who was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s president last said in an interview. “We don’t want to get in between the power struggles of superpowers... We are so small and we can’t survive to get into this balancing acts,” he said.
Gotabaya said he wanted to work very closely with both India and China. “We want to work with all the countries and we don’t want to do anything which will harm any other country for that matter, we understand the importance of Indian concerns, so we can’t engage in any activity which will threaten the security of India,” he added.
Asserting that Sri Lanka’s involvement with China during the presidency of his brother Mahinda (from 2005-20-15) was “purely commercial”, he said: “I invite India, Singapore, Japan and Australia to come and invest here. Don’t allow only China to invest.” Gotabaya also said that giving away the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease was a mistake by the previous government headed by President Sirisena. “The deal has to be renegotiated. Giving a small loan for investment is a different thing but giving a strategic important economic harbour is not acceptable. That we should have controlled.”
China, which acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in 2017 as a debt swap, has been ramping up its ties with the island nation and expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean with an established logistics base in Djibouti. On allegations of him being “authoritarian” and “racist”, the president said, “It’s a wrong perception created during the civil war with the LTTE. I am a disciplined person but that doesn’t mean I am racist.” The two brothers - Mahinda and Gotabhaya - led a decisive campaign that helped end the long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eela m (LTTE). However, the brothers were accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings allegedly by Lankan security forces.
Brothers take major portfolios
Gotabaya appointed a 16-member interim Cabinet, including two of his brothers, and gave the major portfolios of defence, finance and trade to them while inducting two Tamils as a sign of reaching out to the minority community. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, 74, got the key portfolios of defence and finance while the President's eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa, 77, got trade and food security ministries. "This is an interim government," Gotabaya, who took over as the country's President, said during the swearing-in ceremony of the ministers. Earlier, Mahinda was sworn in as prime minister after incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe formally tendered his resignation.
The Cabinet appointment is seen as interim until the President dissolves the current parliament and go for a fresh parliamentary election. The next parliamentary poll is scheduled only after August 2020. Soon after he was sworn in as the president, Gotabaya thanked the powerful Buddhist clergy for backing his presidential bid and vowed to protect all communities, while giving foremost priority to Buddhism. He also thanked the Sinhala-majority people for electing him. Gotabaya stormed to victory in the presidential election, trouncing his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa by a margin of over 13,00,000 votes.