What’s Behind the Sri Lankan Political Crisis?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Tai Wei Lim

What’s Behind the Sri Lankan Political Crisis?

Nov. 21, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who won the popular elections in 2015, was fired as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on October 26, 2018. Shortly before sacking Wickremesinghe, the current President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and suspended the Sri Lankan Parliament. The Sri Lankan President’s Office and the government of Sri Lanka now recognize Rajapaksa as the sole Prime Minister of Sri Lanka but Wickremesinghe has the legitimacy of popular vote. This was the origin and source of the current political, legal and constitutional crisis.


This was a constitutional coup from within pulled off by the Sri Lankan President that caught everyone by surprise, especially since Sirisena was the embodiment of democratization and liberalism while Rajapaksa was a strongman character known to his critics for heavy handed methods in dealing with dissent and opposition. Wrapped into this unfolding drama are unproven conspiracy theories of Indian assassination plans of the President.


Such theories should not be taken seriously at the moment. The fact was that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had not gotten along well since their political partnership in toppling a common enemy in Rajapaksa was probably a more compelling reason for the political schism between them. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe clashed on a number of issues, including economic policies, foreign affairs and diplomacy and the management of accountability of atrocities committed during the civil war against the Tamil Tigers.


The bloody Sri Lankan civil war had lasted 26 years and it was the subject of much scrutiny by international and domestic human rights groups and genocide investigators. It is also a North-South divide issue. The south is populated by Sinhalese who are traditionally concerned with the restoration of national strength through sound economic policies and tackling poverty by taming rampant corruption. The Sinhalese are the majority in Sri Lanka. The Northeast consists mainly of Tamils who are keen to seek justice for their brothers killed by government forces in the almost three decades-long civil war. Both factions saw delays and foot-dragging by the government in power in pursuing their preferred agendas.


The political significance of the political coup reverberated beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. At stake was China’s most important foreign economic diplomacy policy the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Previously, Sri Lanka was seen as a showcase model for China’s BRI strategy, powered by a Beijing-friendly Rajapaksa government. Rajapaksa was a strongman, much like Chinese President Xi Jinping who came into power almost contemporaneously.


Rajapaksa was eventually toppled by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe team-up in the 2015 elections. Upon the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe victory, things started to go south for Beijing’s projects in Sri Lanka until the then newly-elected President Sirisena went to Beijing. He managed to smoothen out Sino-Sri Lankan relations to a certain extent, but the relationship never got back to the golden era. And Sri Lanka quickly became a textbook showcase example of things gone wrong with the BRI, along with the political changes in Malaysia and Myanmar that appeared to showcase how local politics could change the destiny of the BRI. The BRI was seen as vulnerable to local politics that were beyond the control of Beijing.

Rajapaksa’s return was widely seen as a tipping point for the return of pro-Beijing policies. Western diplomats had been meeting with the deposed Wickremesinghe.

Accusations were also made by critics of the BRI that Sri Lanka was an example of the debt trap diplomacy by Beijing. Unable to pay off debts accumulated under the BRI, Sri Lanka leased Hambantota port to the Chinese for 99 years. For Beijing critics, this was seen as an unequal treaty which China also suffered and endured in the aftermath of the Opium Wars when they had to cede Hong Kong Island and lease Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories to the British. Beijing characterized this event as a source of national humiliation. For pro-Beijing forces, the port and infrastructure were a legitimate expression of Beijing’s contribution to the economic development of Sri Lanka which had suffered from poor connectivity leading to low levels of economic development.


Big and middle powers started to weigh in on the crisis. Australia urged for calm to return and for Sri Lanka to follow democratic constitutional procedures to resolve the crisis. Sri Lanka is part of the British Commonwealth and considered one of the world’s oldest democracies. For the Commonwealth states, there is genuine concern for the fate and state of democracy in Sri Lanka. Chinese diplomats and the Chinese ambassador had officially congratulated Rajapaksa on his return to power and sought an audience with him. Rajapaksa’s return was widely seen as a tipping point for the return of pro-Beijing policies. Western diplomats had been meeting with the deposed Wickremesinghe. India, previously perceived as being close to Sirisena, was also trying to reach out to Rajapaksa.


The political coup had begun to stir up political activism on the streets. The nationalists and extremists amongst the Buddhist population might scapegoat the Muslim population for the political troubles. If internal problems get out of hand, Rajapaksa may re-impose his strongman rule over the country and this scares the liberals, democrats and minorities. For these groups, they fear the return of alleged tortures that took place during Rajapaksa’s rule. For anti-Tamil Tiger Sri Lankans, abuses may be seen as collateral or inconvenient truths because the Tamil Tigers fought with equal tenacity. Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the organization deployed an array of suicide bombers, guerrilla warfare, and 15,000 dedicated fighters near its end days. Pushed to the coast at Mullaittivu, Rajapaksa’s 100,000-strong forces shelled, fired and bombed the beach to the last man standing. That was the bloody end to the civil war.


Lurking in the background is another powerful Rajapaksa Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Rajapaksa and Minister of Defense during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers. Human rights groups disdain him because of his alleged association with war deaths. Nicknamed “Gota,” Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as the real architect behind the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, a strategist genius who is perceived as merciless by his critics in eliminating the Tigers. Gota stands in sharp contrast to his well-received brother with a soft touch. Their third brother Basil was put in charge of economic development during the Rajapaksa regime. Critics pointed out that Rajapaksa was building a dynastic regime as his son was being groomed as heir apparent, before they were taken down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe tag team in the elections.


Rajapaksa is at one point a human rights activist who has fought for the accountability of people who disappeared in Sri Lanka. To his hardcore supporters, Rajapaksa is a Sinhala war hero who defeated the Tamil Tigers insurgency. He is viewed as an iconic figure and is compared with ancient kings that fought magnificent battles. The United Nations at the height of Rajapaksa’s popularity cited his regime as well as the rebel Tamil Tigers of committing atrocities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *