Distress Signals from Colombo


Sri Lanka has landed itself in an unexpected, unprecedented crisis with the President Maithripala Sirisena taking decisions having tricky political implications. Citing differences over a host of issues, Sirisena cast out Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, dismissed the cabinet and suspended Parliament.  President’s extraordinary move to suspend Parliament and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as new Prime Minister raised many eyebrows in Sri Lanka as well as in other countries in the region. While Wickremesinghe refused to step down, calling the action of President ‘anti-constitutional,’ the Speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, warned that unless order is established, Sri Lanka would witness ‘bloodbath’ with the unfolding political crisis  assuming a dangerous dimension. What surprised many was the installation of Rajapaksa who ruled Sri Lanka for a decade since 2005, but eventually earned widespread criticism and global condemnation for human rights violations. Curiously, he issued a statement pledging that he “eschew the politics of hate and set up an interim government that will protect the human rights of all citizens that will protect the independence of the judiciary and establish law and order.”

There were reports of protests in the Island which even took a life in police firing. Reports also indicated that Sri Lankan state media has been captured by Rajapaksa’s followers. They are also apparently blocking access to ministers who belonged to Wickremesinghe’s party.   Meanwhile the differing postures of Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa have created a feeling that there would be contesting claims of majority in Parliament which would enable one or the other to run the Government. Even as uncertainty continued, Rajapaksa announced that he would appoint a new cabinet without any delay.

In an address to the nation on 29 October, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that in January 2015 all the political parties and the forces got together and made Sirisena the President of the country. He said he was appointed as the Prime Minister with the confidence of the majority of the Parliament. While functioning as a National Government, President Sirisena resorted to measures that violated the provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution. He said that the powers of the President are curtailed under the 19th amendment of the Constitution. As per Article 42(4) of the Constitution, the member of the Parliament who commands the confidence of the house should be appointed as the Prime Minister. However, in his address to the nation, President Sirisena said that “in view of the political crisis, economic crisis and assassination plot against him the only option left to him was nominating former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.” But, Article 42(4) of the Constitution is clear that only a Member of the Parliament who commands the confidence of the house could be appointed as Prime Minister. Accordingly, President’s action declaring that he nominated the Prime Minister (who has no command of the majority of the House) is “an illegal, anti-constitutional and opportunistic act.”

President Sirisena, on the other hand, argued that there were acute differences with Wickremesinghe for more than three years. He even cited Wickremesinghe’s role in the controversial Central Bank bond sale, which was alleged to have resulted in a huge loss. He accused a cabinet minister of having a hand in a plot to assassinate him. Hence, under these circumstances, the ‘only alternative’ was to bring Rajapaksa back as prime minister, according to the President.

Interestingly, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were together to pull down Rajapaksa in the 2015 Presidential election. But they could not pull together over many issues—from the mismanagement of the economy to relations with China and India. It may be noted that the Sri Lankan economy has already been facing a crisis with the declining value of its currency, the rise in oil prices and the burgeoning debt which Colombo owes to China. It was also reported that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had serious differences over the government’s plan to lease a port to India.

The Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP) came to power promising accountability for alleged atrocities committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war and during Rajapaksa’s a decade-old rule. Curiously, Sirisena himself was a minister under the Rajapaksa Government before turning against him.  Rajapaksa continued to make a claim that he brought the country back to order and stability with the ending of the civil war in 2009. But he had to encounter world-wide criticism for the means by which he registered victory – as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were reported to have been killed by the government forces in the last stage of the fighting. In less than three decades, nearly 100,000 people were killed with both sides alleged to have perpetrated war crimes. However, Rajapaksa was reported to be responsible for mass killings and widespread displacement of innocent Tamil civilians. International human rights agencies even sought to book him for war crimes against civilians.

Though India has high stakes in Sri Lanka, it faces multiple challenges. For example, China has put in high financial investment in the Island, especially in infrastructure projects. Moreover, China has been considered as a strong supporter of Rajapaksa. Beijing has already congratulated him on his coming back as prime minister.  On the other side, those who backed Wickremesinghe (who seek to have strategic ties with India) saw a Chinese role in his attempted replacement – albeit dismissed by Beijing.

India has obvious concerns in Rajapaksa’s return. It was he who facilitated Sri Lanka’s main port to Chinese naval submarines which caused irritants in New Delhi. Naturally, Rajapaksa’s another innings would generate further concerns in India that China would hold sway over the Island that lies along the strategic circuits.  South Block officials reported to have indicated that they were willing to do business with the new leader so long as his appointment was in line with the country’s constitution. A spokesman of the MEA said that “India will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the people of Sri Lanka.” However, the Tamil political parties in India view the situation with considerable anxiety. There are even fears that if the uncertainty continues, it would trigger civil war leading to further displacement, casualties and cross border migration. Eventually, the Tamil population will have to bear the burden of any political stability in the Island, for several historical reasons.

Sri Lanka entered an era of political instability when depression has already set in the country.  Various studies say that Sri Lanka’s national output had declined from its peak of 9.1 per cent in 2012 and reached at 3.1 per cent by 2017. During the first quarter of 2018, the country’s national output was at a level as low as 2 per cent. Annual reports of the Central Bank recorded this trend of the economy and the challenging role of the government in maneuvering the trends.  These reports confirmed that the national output has been drastically declining and the economy as a whole performing very badly. Whoever is emerging ‘victorious’ in the current political bargain has a daunting task to put the economy back on track, besides facilitating the safe return of  thousands of internally displaced Tamils living in several camps for almost a decade.

The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.  The details of his profile are available @ http://kmseethi.com/ Prof Seethi can be reached at [email protected]


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