In Bangladesh Sri Lanka became a matter of great interest as parallels were drawn between the economic crisis it faced- its worst ever- and the difficulties Bangladesh also faced after spike in energy price and consequent overall price rise.
But what made the public image of Sri Lanka more arresting to many was the militant crowd on the streets forcing resignations of the PM and others and the ultimate routing of the Presidential palace. It was a symbol of power of the Rajapakses which fell to the crowd and the Prez had to flee the country. He was soon replaced by Ranil, actually a Rajapakse ally but the stranglehold was broken.
The crowds looked mighty powerful but two facts were less noticed. One, the attack though a great sign of street power made the entire ruling class and state agencies very uncomfortable and the reaction was tough. Both the police and the army went on a counter-attack and strong arm tactics pushed back the street force.
The "anarchy" seemed like state agencies were disabled but the reality is that they never left with the fleeing President and once they moved in, the crowds had little chance. That phase is over now and the scene may return again but several factors will have to be present for that to happen.
It's not just that the average Sri Lankan wanted the Rajapakses to go but so did the Chinese who were backing the crowd. Obviously, Rajapakses, once their firm allies, were not needed by them so the crowd came in handy for removing them. But the Family was tinged with the China brand so India made a move and has become a major factor in the island again.
Chinese loans were about 10% of the total Sri Lankan debt but came with a high interest of around 6%, while the Japanese charged only 1%. Nobody mentioned that almost 50% of the debts were from the open market. The Chinese did but it has an image problem which was effectively used by both the West and India.
The spy ship and the energy company
Meanwhile, two decisions made by the Sri Lankans government shows the post Rajapakse tensions that have arisen out of the newly activated Sino-Indian rivalry.
The Chinese ship, "Yuan Wang 5" has been dubbed a spy ship and India had protested against its docking but it was given permission on the condition it was to do research. It will be around till 22 August. Reuters says it's one of the advanced space-tracking ships to monitor satellite, rocket and ICBM launches. Reuters added that India had lodged a verbal protest with the Sri Lankan government. Earlier, Sri Lanka had put the permission on hold but in the end gave in.
Sri Lanka had gone "pro-Chinese " for a while under the Rajapaksess', in reaction to India's support for the Tamils but after the economic crisis hit Sri Lanka, this situation changed. India has made inroads not only by sending aid to Sri Lanka but also through critical and strategic investments. Last week Sri Lanka granted provisional approval to Adani Green Energy for an investment of over $500 million in two wind projects in the country.
The project had been snagged by controversy for long including allegations by Sri Lankan officials that Indian PM Modi was personally pushing for the Adanis. A letter was published by Indian media written by a Sri Lankan official to the Lanka Finance Ministry asking for quick approval to the energy project citing "directions by the (Lankan) Prime Minister" to consider it as a government to government deal.
The official later had to resign but it had become a politically tinged investment and Indian prestige became involved. Sri Lanka's signing will make India feel much better about the clout it wants to have for a firmer foot in the island's terra firma.
Balance dancing once more?
Many in Delhi's diplomatic circles are wondering if the new administration in Colombo is again trying to find that elusive balance between India and China. This is natural given that Sri Lanka wants to be free of such pressures from both but always can't afford to. This applies to Bangladesh too as it tries to play with both China and India.
But Bangladesh has one major advantage which is its lack of strategic importance. Its geography is not located like it is of Sri Lanka which both China and India want to take advantage of in the Indian Ocean. It gives Sri Lanka advantages which it has exploited but has often come back to bite also. After a month or so of chaos, Sri Lanka is back to playing ping pong with two players , hoping to use that to its advantage and get out of the mess.
Slowly, Sri Lanka is returning to normalcy with the help of its old and new friends. It's in their interest to see a healthy Sri Lanka. In this process, SL is also using it to gain some foothold itself. By granting permission to the Adani project and China's spy ship simultaneously, Sri Lanka is showing that it has the skill to play this balancing dance well.
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