Politics

Sri Lanka: constitutional crisis triggers fears of ‘bloodbath’

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Written by: Andreas Johansson, Director of Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET), Lund University

A constitutional crisis has erupted in Sri Lanka, prompting fears of a “bloodbath”. The crisis was triggered when the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, sacked the prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, and appointed the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as his replacement.

Wickramasinghe and his supporters claim that Sirisena’s move is unconstitutional. Indeed, Wickramasinghe still considers himself to be prime minister and refuses to step down, leaving Sri Lanka with two prime ministers. Wickramasinghe also has prominent supporters, including finance and media minister, Mangala Samaraweera, who wrote on Facebook that Sirisena’s action amounted to a coup:

Sirisena initially claimed that he had the constitutional right to fire Wickramasinghe. But he subsequently admitted that Sri Lanka was in a political crisis and suspended parliament.

On October 28, there were reports of gunshots fired against an angry mob following an attack on another of Wickramasinghe’s supporters, the former petroleum minister, Arjuna Ranatunga. One member of the mob was killed and two were injured.

Sirisena has been strongly criticised over the last few days. The speaker of parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, questioned Sirisena’s action in a statement issued on October 28. He then reportedly told journalists the next day:

We should settle this through parliament, but if we take it out to the streets, there will be a huge bloodbath.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa, the new prime minister, has called for fresh parliamentary elections, and “a new democratic beginning and the rejection of the politics of hate”.

Chaos reigns

This political chaos has a long back story. Rajapaksa’s appointment by Sirisena came as a surprise to many as the two former allies had become rivals during the 2015 presidential election. Rajapaksa had been president since 2005, but was narrowly defeated by Sirisena in 2015. Rajapaksa was also accused of corruption and nepotism during his time as president.

Nevertheless, it’s not entirely surprising that Sirisena has chosen Rajapaksa as his prime minister over Wickramasinghe. Even though they were political allies in Sri Lanka’s unity government, the relationship between Sirisena and Wickramasinghe was beset by problems. During the last few years, they had been unable to agree on economic policy or how to run the country in general. In fact, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, recently quit the unity government of Wickramasinghe as a result.

Another reason why Sirisena has turned to Rajapaksa is that the latter has proved that he still has enough power to garner votes. In February 2018, Sri Lanka held local elections – during which Rajapaksa and his newly formed political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, won a major victory, which shook Sirisena’s presidency.

Local elections in Sri Lanka do not have the same impact as the parliamentary or presidential elections, but Rajapaksa’s win showed that he is still politically attractive to the majority Sinhala community. Even though he was defeated by Sirisena in the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksa clearly has no intention of giving up his desire to become a key political figure.

With the next presidential election scheduled for 2020, Sirisena’s appointment of the popular Rajapaksa may well be a way for the former to bolster his presidency when voters go to the polls.

The role of China and India

Another consideration is the role of China – or rather the proxy power struggle between India and China over Sri Lanka.

During Rajapaksa’s presidency, China invested heavily in infrastructure projects around the country and Rajapaksa continues to have strong ties with the emerging superpower. Wickramasinghe’s government, on the other hand, had set its sights on India, which promised to invest in the country’s infrastructure. Wickramasinghe’s recent visit to India was a clear indication of where his priorities lay, possibly putting at risk China’s investment in the country.

To complicate matters further, a police officer was recently arrested and charged with planning to assassinate president Sirisena. A newspaper in India also stated that Sirisena had accused the Indian intelligence services of being behind this plot. Sirisena has not confirmed this, but it could explain why he’d favour closer ties with Rajapaksa (and China) over Wickramasinghe (and India).

India made an official statement on October 28 saying that it hoped that “democratic values would be respected”. China’s ambassador in Sri Lanka, meanwhile, congratulated Rajapaksa on his new appointment:

What now?

When Sirisena was elected president in 2015 he promised to look into the war crimes that Sri Lanka was accused of by the international community following the end of the country’s bloody civil war in 2009. This was something that Rajapaksa had avoided doing during his presidency.

A UNHCR report accused both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers of war crimes. But three years into Sirisena’s presidency and he has now clearly sided with the Sri Lankan armed forces, claiming that no war crimes were committed by the government. In this sense, Sirisena and Rajapaksa have another thing in common.

But could this spark a whole new wave of violence? Certainly, the political situation is worrying for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil and Muslim communities. With the government in crisis, there are also now murmurs of a new wave of Sinhala nationalism – and inflammatory exchanges between the two sides will do nothing to stem it. The fire has been laid, it seems; the question now is when it will be lit.

Andreas Johansson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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