The constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka over the removal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a hastily-convened official ceremony on October 26 has sparked off violent protests in the island country, besides prompting concerns from rights activist over the fate of country’s 11% Tamils under the new leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Even as the replaced government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Rajapaksa, double down on their decision, which has been equated to a “constitutional coup”, local media reported that the stage for confrontation has been set between the rival protestors. Earlier this week, Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga was arrested after his bodyguards fired shots, killing at least one as they did so, to disperse Rajapaksa’s protestors demanding the stepping down of Wickremesinghe.
Rights groups, meanwhile, fear the return of undermining of human rights and a renewed clampdown of dissent under the new leader Rajapaksa, who presided over country’s 10-year civil war (2005-2015) against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While his decisive actions are credited for degrading the LTTE, he is both loathed and feared for turning a blind eye as thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils became victims of Sri Lankan military bullets in the war.
“Human rights must not become a casualty of Sri Lanka’s political crisis. The authorities must ensure that key freedoms are respected and protected at this time. People should be allowed to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” Amnesty International reacted to Rajapaksa’s return as Prime Minister.
An island nation with an economy that’s mainly reliant on tourism and tea exports, Sri Lanka’s blessed geography puts it at a crucial juncture of the busy shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean.
Besides domestic politics, strategic experts view the political developments in Sri Lanka as the playing out of geostrategic rivalry between India and China. While India has enjoyed the status of being Sri Lanka’s main economic partner for most part of its independent history and shares strong cultural and historical bonds, China is fast catching up and even overtook New Delhi as Colombo’s largest trading partner in 2017.
The most famous (or notorious) symbol of the burgeoning Sri Lanka-China cooperation is the port of Hambantota at the island’s south, viewed as an important cog in the wheel of Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, or a part of “String of Pearls” that Beijing seeks to create around its neighbour India in fight for regional, and ultimately, global dominance.
Negotiated during the tenure of Rajapaksa as President, the repayments for the port are said to have pushed Sri Lanka into a debt-trap. According to unofficial estimates, approximately $12.3 billion of the $14.8 billion that Hambantota would generate in revenues in 2018 is set to go in debt-repayment. That, however, doesn’t negate the strategic and military significance of the port to China, with Sri Lankan officials claiming in private to Western journalists that strategic calculus featured prominently during the negotiation process for the port.
“Rajapaksa is known only for two things, the brutal quelling of the Tamil insurgency and outright support to China in a manner that goes against the interest of the country and negates its historic relationship with India,” remarked Colonel Jaibans Singh (retired), a strategic affairs expert and Indian Army veteran.
While reaction from India has been nuanced, with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) calling on all political parties to respect the “democratic values” and “constitutional process,” China has kept no secret about its admiration of old ally Rajapaksa, becoming the first country to dispatch its envoy to the Buddhist nationalist leader in the wake of the “anti-democratic coup.”
However, voices from India’s strategic community have expressed concern at the return of 72-year-old leader at the helm of country’s affairs. “I look upon the development in Sri Lanka as an unconstitutional coup carried out at the behest of an outside power (China) that has an interest in maintaining its influence vis-à-vis India,” said Colonel Jaibans Singh.
He added, “India now needs to exert pressure to get the constitutionally elected government reinstated to not only ensure stability of the south Asian region, but also sovereignty and prosperity of the country.”
New Delhi is believed to have played a major role in stitching a coalition between Wickremesinghe’s UNP and Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the time of the 2015 Presidential elections, which resulted in the defeat of Rajapaksa, who, on his part, is said to have been financially backed by Beijing at the time.
The opinion seems divided, with comparisons being made to ousted leader Wickremesinghe’s pro-India stand that he had been accused of taking by the President in the immediate lead-up to his removal. A cabinet spat between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena over India’s involvement in the development of a new terminal at Colombo Port became a political hot potato, as did Sirisena’s claim that Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was plotting to assassinate him.
Both the arguments are disputed by Wickremesinghe, who was on a visit to India barely a week after his unceremonious removal.
Veteran defence expert Qamar Agha, however, points out towards the dilly-dallying of Sri Lankan leaders over their relations with India and China. Noting that Rajapaksa enjoyed a pro-India image in the early years of his presidency, Agha believes that “exploiting the differences between India and China” to their own advantage has been a tested strategy of Sri Lanka.
“The problem in Sri Lanka is that their leaders have been vacillating between favouring India and China. Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had in recent past made several pro-China statements,” says Agha.
At the outset, no. Political analysts said Sirisena’s move to install Rajapaksa as the prime minister could lead to a constitutional crisis as the 19th amendment to the Constitution, passed in 2015, had taken away the president’s power to sack the prime minister.
Besides, Rajapaksa and Sirisena don’t seem to have the numbers to prove their majority in the 225-member Parliament. UNP, on the other hand, had 106 MPs at the time of his removal, with Rajapaksa loyalists claiming that 21 UNP MPs are ready to “defect” to the new ruling alliance.
While Wickremesinghe, backed in his call by the US, has appealed for reconvening of Parliament and holding a floor test at the earliest, Rajapaksa and Sirisena have set the date for November 16.
Observers fear the extended period would give Rajapaksa time to stitch together a majority.