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Sri Lanka: Fear and Chaos


News Analysis |

President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday, October 26, 2018, sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe; plunging Sri Lanka into political crisis. He was replaced with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who ruled the country from 2005 to 2014. President Sirisena also unilaterally suspended Parliament and the cabinet.

On Sunday, October 28, 2018; Sirisena accused Prime Minister Wickremesinghe of collaborating in an alleged assassination plot against leadership. In his address to the nation, Sirisena said the conspiracy targeted himself and a former defense secretary.

Rajapaksa, a populist leader, who is often credited for bringing an end to the 25-year long civil war with Tamil rebels; is considered close to Beijing.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not only refuted these allegations but has also refused to cede office; terming presidential action ‘unconstitutional’. As the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, I call upon all parties to assemble in parliament to regain our country’s peace, stability, and to vehemently defend the fundamental rights of our citizens. My expectation is that the Speaker [of Parliament] will exercise his constitutional rights and summon parliament within the next 2 days.” He said in a message posted on social media.

Speaker of the house Karu Jayasuriya has called for immediate resolution of the constitutional crisis through parliamentary floor test. He was echoing the fears that this constitutional issue can turn violent. He was referring to the death of President Sirisena’s supporter outside state-owned petroleum company by the hands of minister Arjuna Ranatunga’s bodyguard.

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The bodyguards of oil minister, Arjuna Ranatunga, opened fire on a number of Sirisena supporters who had been blocking his access into a government building. One person was killed and three others injured. Police momentarily arrested Ranatunga, before being released on bail. Analysts fear more violence and bloodshed if the matter is not resolved immediately.

Sirisena who was health minister under Rajapaksa, created an unlikely alliance in 2015, with Wickremesinghe to defeat his former president. Since its inception, the alliance was nothing more than the marriage of convenience; so, no one was really surprised by break up in their relations. What surprised many observers and his own supporters was his decision to appoint a man, he rallied against, not very long ago.

What analysts fear is break out of violence in the capital, where deposed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s supporters are gathering to protest. 

Apart from domestic problems, this crisis is of utmost geo-strategic importance; with India and China, both vying for influence in this tiny South Asian island nation. Rajapaksa, a populist leader, who is often credited for bringing an end to the 25-year long civil war with Tamil rebels; is considered close to Beijing. He even blamed Indian interference for his loss in 2015 presidential elections.

It was in Rajapaksa’s tenure that Sri Lanka signed that infamous Hambantota port deal; which eventually paved the way for eventual Chinese takeover of a strategically important port. However, in recent time, he has visited India and met Prime Minister Modi, where he highlighted the importance of building trust; assured Indian government of not holding anything against them.

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In this political chaos, New Delhi has decided to remain on the sidelines, at least for now. The Indian government is still weighting their options, deciding not to engage with Rajapaksa; for the fear of legitimizing his actions. On the other hand, Chinese authorities have congratulated Mr. Rajapaksa.

Prime Minister himself tweeted a photo with Chinese ambassador with the caption; “China’s Ambassador to #SriLanka Cheng Xueyuan called on newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier today to convey congratulatory wishes from Chinese President Xi Jinping”.

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This is a developing story, which will keep on evolving until the parliamentary floor test. What analysts fear is break out of violence in the capital, where deposed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s supporters are gathering to protest.