Donald comes up Trumps over Hillary | Sunday Observer

Donald comes up Trumps over Hillary

“There turn out to be a huge number of people - white people, living mainly in rural areas - who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy. And there were many other people who might not share those anti-democratic values, but who nonetheless were willing to vote for anyone bearing the Republican label” - Paul Krugman, the New York Times

Republican Party candidate Donald J Trump’s victory at the US Presidential election throws the world politics into an era of uncertainty.

In his run up to the election, Trump, a successful businessman and a reality show host who has no experience in politics, delivered almost unimaginable promises, including draconian policies on Muslims and immigrants. The core of his campaign was to strengthen the country’s national economy and national interests, while making ‘America great again’ – a slogan that resonated well with the nationalist bloc.

It is important to examine how Trump’s quest for making ‘America great again’ could affect national politics of Sri Lanka – a country located nearly 15,000 km away from the US.

Clinton’s Lankan support base

It was no secret that Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign had a strong fan-base in Sri Lanka. Clinton’s biggest supporters in Sri Lanka were Tamil and human rights groups that relied on the US to exert pressure on the Sri Lankan government to ensure ethnic reconciliation and post-war accountability.

A few days before the US election, a Tamil group in Jaffna said they would break 1,000 coconuts to bless Hillary Clinton, who seemed to be the hot favourite, at the outset. Former TNA MP and a relative of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, M.K. Sivajilingam led this group. Shivajilingam now serves as a member of the Northern Provincial Council, supporting the province’s Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran.

The event took place at Jaffna’s historic Kandsamy Kovil, in Nallur. They also lit 1,008 candles at the Jaffna Cathedral to invoke blessings on the Democratic Party candidate.

Several Tamil groups in the west even went on to form an organization called ‘Tamils for Clinton’ to support her election campaign. In its official website, Tamils for Clinton has made its policy crystal clear.

“We need her leadership at this juncture to bring justice to millions of people around the world, including Tamils in Sri Lanka, who faced mass killings and rape by Sri Lankan security forces” said the organization, in a statement issued soon after Clinton accepting nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate.

“We saw first-hand her passion and effectiveness to fight for those abused, when US under her leadership took steps at the UN to bring the Sri Lankan government to face International Justice for having committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and Genocide against Tamil people in Sri Lanka.”

“After she left as Secretary of State, the world felt a vacuum in the US leadership and US started to back pedal its efforts to save people around the world, including Tamils in Sri Lanka”.

They extended their support to Clinton with the hope that the Democratic Party candidate and the former US Secretary of State would exert pressure on Sri Lanka, systematically, to meet their demands.

When she was at the helm of the state department, the US, along with several other member nations, sponsored resolutions against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), forcing the former government to embark on a credible accountability process, with the involvement of international partners.

This made Clinton a heroic figure for some Tamil Diaspora groups in the west.

Fear of Trump’s policies

On the other hand, they feared Trump’s stern policy on foreigners living in the US. The US has a sizable Tamil community and they feared that the Republican candidate’s ascension to power would make their life harder.

Therefore, as every ethnic minority group in the US, Tamils too were left with the sole option of supporting Clinton.

There was another aspect to this problem that surfaced after Britain’s decision to walk away from the European Union. With the outcome of the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom made it clear that it was more interested in tackling issues at home than interfering with affairs concerning other states.

In the absence of the UK, the US was one of the biggest hopes for Tamil Diaspora groups and many other parties that had interests in Sri Lanka’s national issue. Against this backdrop, Trump’s unexpected victory this week suddenly shattered all their hopes.

Civil society’s disappointment

On November 9, the US Embassy in Colombo hosted an election watch party at ‘Lincoln House’, Colombo, close to Nelum Pokuna Theatre.

Several civil society activists, political activists and journalists who have links with the Embassy were invited for the party.

While watching the election results, they also held a ‘mock election’, with those who attended the party as eligible voters. Interestingly, 80 of 106 participants who cast their votes preferred Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States. Only 26 voted for Donald Trump, who actually won the election. Therefore, when Trump was declared the winner, the majority of participants, including some embassy officials, were in a state of shock. For them, Trump’s unexpected election victory was a bitter pill to swallow. It was the same with top brass figures in the country’s political sphere. They all believed that Clinton was the front-runner at the election as Trump had many issues to deal with, including sexual scandals and allegations of racial slur.

Although Clinton’s popularity eroded towards the end of the election, they thought the former US Secretary of state, a seasoned campaigner in politics, would pull off a last minute victory. Many other world leaders too were of the same view as they believed Trump was not in a position to win the election, without the support of women and minority groups who form a large section of America’s voters.

But it all turned topsy-turvy when Trump emerged victorious after a keen contest with Clinton.

President writes to Trump

Soon after Trump was elected, President Maithripala Sirisena sent him a congratulatory letter.

“The Government and the people of Sri Lanka join me in congratulating you on your victory on November 8, 2016 in a historic Presidential Election that received wide global attention,” the President’s letter said.

“The United States is the adopted home for a significant number of Sri Lankans. They serve as important agents to forge stronger people-to-people bonds, contributing in no small measure to the bilateral relationship between our two countries. “Sri Lanka and the United States are bound by deeply rooted and longstanding democratic traditions and common values. Relations between our two countries have been strengthened since my election as President in January 2015 and the formation of a National Unity Government in Sri Lanka. My Government and I take pride that the bonds between our two countries have grown stronger, and I am confident that your election will help build on this existing close partnership to further expand our cooperation. I look forward to working with you closely upon your assumption of Office as the 45th President of the United States of America in January, to elevate the relationship between our two countries to even further heights.”

PM congratulates

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too congratulated America’s President-elect, showing his willingness to work with the Trump administration in the coming years.

“Despite geographic distance, the bilateral relationship between Sri Lanka and the United States of America span approximately 70 years of formal diplomatic relations, and over 200 years of close people-to-people ties. Today, our partnership is stronger and more robust than it has ever been in history and we value deeply, our engagement and longstanding friendship with the United States of America.

“I am confident that under your leadership and guidance, the United States of America and Sri Lanka will expand and deepen engagement between our two countries and our peoples, exploring progressive avenues for cooperation for mutual benefit. I look forward very much to working with you and your administration towards this objective, in the years ahead. “Please accept my best wishes for a very successful term of office as the 45th President of the United States of America,” the Prime Minister’s congratulatory note said. The congratulatory letters by the President and the Prime Minister were no different from the messages the US President-elect received from other world leaders.

Despite serious policy differences, the world leaders who congratulated Trump stressed the need for collaboration and engagement, based on shared values. It was clear that they wanted to Trump to move away – at least to some degree – from his election rhetoric and examine ways to strengthen collaboration with the rest of the world. It was the underlying message of many congratulatory letters and notes issued by world leaders, after the US Presidential election.

MR’s take on Trump

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa too was quick to respond to Trump’s victory. However, the former Sri Lankan President’s message to Trump had a different tone.

“Your presidential election campaign was followed closely throughout the world because the issues you fought the election on resonated far beyond the borders of the USA. With your election as President of the United States, we look forward to a new world order based on the principles of the sovereign equality of all nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of nation states. “It is with gratitude that I recall the cooperation extended to Sri Lanka by the previous Republican administration especially in the spheres of diplomacy and intelligence which helped my government to conclusively defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which in 2008 had been designated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation as the deadliest terrorist organization in the world outranking even Al Qaeda. I wish you every success during your tenure as the President of the United States of America.”

Careful examination of Rajapaksa’s letter to Trump shows that the Sri Lankan President has attempted to draw parallels between his political rhetoric with that of the Republican Party candidate. Rajapaksa, a politician who heavily panders to chauvinistic sentiments of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, wanted Trump to take initiative to establish a new world order.

It does not require a lot of wisdom to understand that Trump is a maverick who loathes international scrutiny and transparency. He hid behind rhetoric such as ‘strengthening sovereignty and non-interference’ to justify his policies of anti-establishment, which will swing the US away from the rest of the world. Many fear that Trump administration will call off America’s trade agreements with China, South Korea and Philippines, its key economic partners in the Asian region.

On the other hand, it can be assumed that the US, under Trump, will have a lesser engagement with global bodies such as the UN and other international stakeholders looking into key areas affecting the world. He has already claimed climate change a hoax. Trump has already vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency ‘in almost every form’ and to ‘cancel’ last year’s Paris climate agreement, which commits more than 190 countries to reduce their emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena too signed the Paris agreement, during his three-day visit to France, last year.

So, with his letter, Rajapaksa becomes one of the handful of politicians who wholeheartedly endorsed Trump’s questionable policies and remarks, which came under severe criticism from many right-thinking nations, across the world.

Trump’s impact on Sri Lanka

Trump, during his long career as a businessman, had very limited interactions with Sri Lanka.

The US President-elect’s only notable engagement with Sri Lanka was his appearance in a movie coproduced by Sri Lankan film-maker Chandran Rutnam along with Hollywood actress Bo Derek, in 1989.

In this film, titled ‘Ghosts Can’t Do It’, Bo Derek appeared as Katie Scott, Antony Quinn as Scott, Julie Newmar as Angel, Leo Damien as Fausto, and Donald Trump as himself. Sri Lankan actor Henry Jayasena, also appeared in the film. The film was shot in Galle in Southern Sri Lanka, Thoddu in the Maldives, and the states of Wyoming and New York in the US. Aside from that, Trump has never made any public statement on Sri Lanka in his run up to the US Presidency. Therefore, one has every reason to believe that Trump will not have a keen interest in political matters concerning Sri Lanka, including the adaptation of US sponsored human rights resolutions on Sri Lanka and pledges on post-war accountability.

It can also be argued that under Trump’s presidency, the US government’s focus will shift from political interests to business interests, when it comes to matters involving Sri Lanka. The US will look for ways to enhance their business interests in Sri Lanka, at various levels, without worrying too much about the North and East question and ethnic reconciliation.

This will lessen their interest in hybrid courts, war crimes investigation mechanism and the government’s measures towards good governance and transparency. Instead, the country will look for ways to expand its presence in business and investment sectors of Sri Lanka. It is somewhat similar to the role played by China, in Sri Lanka, over the past 15 years.

For a long period, one of the strongest criticisms against nationalism was that it could isolate a nation, in a gloablised world. Many experts opined that nationalism could insulate states, not only politically, but also economically.

With the Brexit and now Trump’s victory, this argument has been emphatically challenged. Two of the world’s most powerful nations have opted to ‘go solo’, turning their back on the rest of the world.

In Sri Lanka too, this trend could embolden nationalist elements in the country’s politics, who may interpret it as a grand opening for nationalism in a global context. Trump’s victory could encourage ultra-nationalist groups, such as the Rajapaksa camp, to rely heavily on chauvinistic rhetoric for their political survival.

They may further resort to racism and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy, with little regard for rights of ethnic and religious minorities. This trend will give the likes of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila an open license to resort to racism, casting dark shadows over the government’s grand plans for reconciliation. On the other hand, this trend may push relatively moderate parties such as the SLFP to adopt nationalist and ultra-nationalist slogans. After the defeat of the Presidential election, last year, the SLFP feared that gravitation towards nationalism could isolate the party, as it failed to draw the support of ethnic and religious minorities. This was the key factor contributing to the success of President Sirisena, who contested as the Common Candidate of the opposition.

The election compelled the party’s decision-making bodies to adopt more minority-friendly policies, under President Sirisena’s fresh leadership.

Trump’s victory and the racist cards played by ultra-nationalists in the Rajapaksa camp may, at some point, push the top-brass members of the SLFP to revisit their strategy. Then it could pose a fresh challenge to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, especially when trying to meet the demands of minority groups. 

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