A PAIR of prime ministers, an embattled president, and a brewing constitutional crisis: the scenario that has been unfolding in one of Asia’s oldest democracies over the past three weeks occasions a mixture of fascination and alarm.
Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history has been peppered with bouts of instability and bloodletting. It came as a pleasant surprise when Maithripala Sirisena defeated his former boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the 2015 presidential election with the backing of the United National Party (UNP)-led opposition, although the subsequent government of national unity perhaps inevitably proved to be a shaky coalition.
Late last month Sirisena sought to dismiss veteran UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, replacing him with none other than Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe has thus far refused to budge, and his allies as well as constitutional experts have questioned Sirisena’s right to fire him after having ceded most of the presidency’s executive powers early on in his tenure.
China’s economic incursions are causing anxiety in South Asia.
In keeping with democratic norms, the dispute ought to have been resolved in parliament, but Sirisena, aware that Wickremesinghe still commanded a majority, suspended the legislature, while hectic efforts ensued to win over legislators, reportedly with substantial bribes. When that tactic did not sufficiently pay off, Sirisena decided to dissolve parliament and schedule a snap election for Jan 5, actions struck down yesterday by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court.
The Rajapaksa government is yet to be widely recognised internationally, although Beijing was quick to do so. It is useful to remember in this context that during Rajapaksa’s decade long tenure as president (2005-15), China rarely turned down a request for investment, provided its conditions were met. It was happy to advance loans for infrastructure as long as the construction project was entrusted to Chinese firms.
As a consequence, Sri Lanka was saddled with debt worth billions of dollars plus at least a couple of white elephants. One of these, the gleaming Mattala Rajapaksa international airport, lost its only daily commercial flight when FlyDubai airline dropped it from its schedule. The same southern district, which just happens to be the Rajapaksa family’s ancestral homeland, also boasts a cricket stadium with a seating capacity greater than the population of its largest town.
Even grander, and more controversial, is Hambantota Port, which was handed over to China last December, alongside 15,000 acres of surrounding land, for 99 years in lieu of loan repayments that Sri Lanka could no longer afford. The agreement stipulates that Chinese naval vessels cannot visit the underused port without explicit permission from the Sri Lankan government. Would that be much more than a formality were Rajapaksa and his brothers — who controlled the key ministries less than a decade ago — to regain control of national affairs?
India is not alone in viewing with anxiety Chinese economic incursions in its neighbourhood and suspecting that long-term strategic aims are woven into Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. It isn’t just in geopolitical terms, though, that the idea of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-ascendancy provides cause for consternation. His domestic record too was devastating. Any credit for crushing the long-running Tamil separatist insurgency must be weighed against the huge cost in civilian lives, but besides the credible allegations of war crimes there were routine violations of human rights elsewhere alongside curbs on the freedom of expression.
These, alongside widespread claims of corruption, have gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished since 2015, despite official promises to the contrary.
There can be little doubt that, despite everything, Rajapaksa has managed to retain substantial support among the Sinhalese majority, and his party performed exceptionally well in last February’s municipal elections. He was, in fact, among the first of the 21st century’s popular strongmen to throw his weight about, and the phenomenon has gathered steam in recent years. (Sirisena, too, wasn’t exactly immune to its attractions, indicating back in July that he was willing to lift a moratorium on executions that has been in place since 1976, in order to emulate the Philippines’ exceptionally brutal method of combating drug crime.)
For the moment Rajapaksa lacks a democratic mandate. Unfortunately, though, it seems likely he will acquire one soon enough. This week he formally switched from the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — previously associated for around five decades with the Bandaranaike family — to his own Sri Lanka People’s Party alongside 44 SLFP legislators in the suspended/ dissolved parliament.
Regardless of whether the present crisis festers or is rapidly resolved, it points to a period of gloom for the island nation. But you can safely bet at least a few sunny smiles will bloom in Beijing as soon as Rajapaksa is unequivocally back in charge.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2018