• Abhay Gupta

China, India, and the Sri Lankan Turmoil

Fmr. President of Sri Lanka Mahindra Rajapaksa (right) with President Xi Jinping of China (left).

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena finally named a 30-member cabinet on December 20, ending a seven-week constitutional crisis by reinstating PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. Let us take a deeper look into the causes of the crisis, the ensuing country-wide turmoil and what it all means for the country’s political future.

Constitutional Crisis

The Sri Lankan Parliament descended into chaos on 26 October 2018 when President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Member of Parliament and former president (2005-15) Mahindra Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, formally dismissing the incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Despite Mr. Wickremesinghe’s insistence that he was still Prime Minister, and a virtual sit-in organized by him at the PM’s residence, M/s Sirisena and Rajapaksa went on to form a cabinet and issued notifications to remove his security. Days before the Parliament was supposed to reconvene, amidst clear indications that Mr. Rajapaksa would not survive a no-confidence motion, the President summarily dismissed the Parliament and called for fresh elections, refusing to dismiss Mr. Rajapaksa in the interim. The resultant constitutional crisis instigated political turmoil in the country and drew international criticism. Notably though, Mr. Rajapaksa’s pro-Beijing views ensured him of Chinese support. China was the first country to recognize his appointment, followed closely by Pakistan, and Burundi.

While Wickremesinghe and the United National Party (UNP) viewed the appointment as unconstitutional, Sirisena ignored all calls to reconvene parliament. The next few weeks witnessed rallies and protests across the country, against Sirisena’s illegal power grab. However, after the Supreme Court declared the dissolution of the Parliament and call for an early election as a constitutional violation, Sirisena had no choice but to let the Parliament reconvene. On November 14, the restored Parliament immediately passed two no-confidence motions against Rajapaksa, forcing him to step down from the position. Sirisena, humiliated by court interventions and nation-wide protests, reluctantly reinstated the deposed Prime Minister. While the return of a constitutionally sanctioned government and a tactical retreat by Sirisena and Rajapaksa is considered a major victory for the country’s democracy, Sri Lanka’s struggles are far from over – and a grim reminder of foreign meddling and fragility of democracy in South Asia.

The conflict between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena

Even though Sirisena invited the deposed leader to form the government, his opinion on Mr. Wickremesinghe has not changed. It is clearly evident that the functioning of this government is going to be chaotic and paralyzed. Relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have not always been this way. Infact, until October 26, they ran a unity government at the Centre when the President’s United People’s Freedom Alliance officially left the Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party led coalition. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe conflict can be explained on 3 major bases:

The ideological incompatibility between SLFP and UNP

Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – which is the leading partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance, led by President Sirisena – and Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) have been rival for sixty years. While both parties were able to broker a coalition to oust Rajapaksa, victory led to the leadership of both parties immediately consolidating their constituencies and preparing for future electoral battles. As a result, the promises made by the coalition, of cracking down on corruption and ensuring justice for wartime atrocities, did not materialize adequately.

President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Rajapaksa (left).

The working style of the Prime Minister

Sirisena has continued to regularly express concerns about Wickremesinghe’s manner of working when it comes to crucial policy decisions. Decision making was no longer consensual – as is necessary in states with directly elected Presidents and Prime Ministers – with Sirisena alleging that,

“Mr. Wickremesinghe arrogantly and stubbornly avoided collective decisions and tended to take individual decisions.”

Tension heightened further with Sirisena also blaming the Prime Minister for not investigating assassination conspiracies against the President. These included an alleged plot involving the collaboration of the Director of Terrorism Intelligence Division of the Sri Lankan Police. The Hindu, in October 2018, reported that Mr. Sirisena had told Cabinet members that he anticipated the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) – India’s Intelligence Agency – was plotting to assassinate him, as India favored PM Wickremesinghe’s government over Mr. Rajapaksa. Later on, the office of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a statement elucidating that President Sirisena had called up Mr. Modi to clarify that these reports were incorrect and that he valued the relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

International Pressure

Pressure from the international community, with the US, EK and the EU pushing the government to establish accountability for the military action against LTTE under Rajapaksa that led to severe human rights violations in 2009, also played a role. The killing of thousands of innocent Tamils, hundreds of disappearances, and countless acts of repression, continue to be a scar on Sri Lanka’s polity. Both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have been soft on implementing any action as they are afraid of hurting sentiments of the Sinhala-majority or offend the army – which were both involved in the alleged persecution of innocent Tamils, as they fought the insurgency.

The conflicts between the two leaders have been visible for quite some time now. In January 2017, Sirisena appointed a presidential commission to investigate the Central Bank Bond scam, which implicated the Prime Minister. In April 2018, Sirisena promised to support a vote of no-confidence against the Prime Minster moved by the Joint Opposition led by Rajapaksa, only to back out at the last minute.

Sirisena and Rajapaksa

In order to understand Sirisena’s coalition with the very political leader that he dismissed in the previous elections, we must acknowledge the character of leadership embodied by President Sirisena. As a politician, he always felt cheated of his due share. In 2010, he was disappointed when then President Rajapaksa backed down on his promise to make him Prime Minister in 2010. These hidden ambitions surfaced again when Opposition leaders, Chandrika and Wickremesinghe, invited him to be their common Presidential candidate, to lead the anti-Rajapaksa coalition in 2015. But soon after, the falling approval ratings of the Wickremesinghe Government and the PM’s attitude towards governance, made him suspicious of his ability to win a second term in the coalition. With Rajapaksa’s SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) securing a resurgent victory in several elections in February 2018, Sirisena began to explore the possibility of an alliance with his former adversary, in the hopes of securing a second presidency.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of Sri Lanka (left) with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi (right).

However, it continues to baffle analysts as to why Sirisena would choose to jump into this rabbit hole with Rajapaksa, who bears an enormous grudge against the President and whose henchmen have a reputation for vengeance and violence. With the Unity party losing popularity and predicted to die a natural death by the 2020 elections, it is difficult to explain why Sirisena or Rajapaksa would risk a constitutional crisis when they could have easily sat back and won the Presidency with a little patience, fair and square.

International Strategy

This is where the dark explanations, premised on foreign meddling take center stage. Sri Lanka has become home to a deepening strategic competition between China and India, owing to its geographical position. China’s expanding economic presence due to the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative in Sri Lanka, has sparked concerns for not just India but the entire Southeast Asian bloc. Several Indian projects have faced clearance delays and slow implementation – at a time when Sri Lanka struggles under the debt taken during President Rajapaksa’s tenure. It was due to this Chinese debt, that Sri Lanka had to cede control of the Hambantota port to Beijing, much to the angst and chagrin of India, earlier this year. China made its stance on the political turmoil crystal clear with Chinese President Xi Jinping emerging as one of the first world leaders who recognized Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa for his appointment. Rajapaksa is visibly known for his pro-Beijing stance.

Prior to the crisis, India – with far less economic leverage than China – also sent camouflaged messages to the incumbents in Sri Lanka. It continued to engage with other political actors in the country at the highest level, attempting to hedge its bets, and keeping its options open. When Rajapaksa was on a private visit to India on the invitation of BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy, PM Modi broke protocol to meet him, spending over an hour and almost treated him like a serving Head of Government. A similar strategy can also be deciphered from India’s conduct towards Nepal, where PM Modi ensured similar treatment to former Prime Minster of Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Prachanda, who visited India from 7-12 September 2018. Mr. Prachanda is himself embroiled in a terse political war in Nepal. How well this strategy plays out for India is yet to be seen.

President Sirisena with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With the crisis far from over, the entire international community watches as Sirisena and Wickremesinghe come back to a broken government. Rajapaksa’s resignation should not be understood as anything more than a tactical retreat, he is going to go back to politics as usual. Their strategy until the next general elections in 2020 will most likely be to simply create chaos and paralyze the UNP Government further. With the lack of a two-thirds majority support, UNP will be unable to push through its economic and constitutional reforms. If the party wishes to retain its popularity ahead of the 2020 elections, it must take major steps to reduce economic burden on the country’s poorest, crackdown on corruption and allow reparations to victims of war and conflict. A lot remains to be seen as Sri Lanka enters a new phase of political developments awfully similar to the old days, complete with hostile crackdowns, shifting alliances, and mounting international pressure to exploit its strategic location – at the heart of the Indian Ocean. The pearl is not as pristine as it looks.

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About the Author

Abhay Gupta is currently pursuing his Bachelor's in Commerce from Hansraj College, Delhi University. He is an avid reader and is usually found in debate rooms over the weekend. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in music and cinema. He is very passionate about animal rights and works with organisations to rescue indie dogs.

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