Sri Lanka has descended into political crisis after President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, claiming that he was involved in an assassination plot. He has been replaced by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is trying to muster a parliamentary majority. Much rides on the outcome of this struggle: Wickremesinghe and Rajapaska have opposing views of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical orientation.
Sirisena was elected president in January 2015, defeating Rajapaska, the incumbent who had held office for a decade. Sirisena was a former member of the ruling coalition. He broke with his ally, asserting that country was devolving into corrupt, “one-family” rule. After winning the January vote, he introduced reforms that focused on good governance and he and his supporters prevailed in a parliamentary vote later that year.
Sirisena appointed Wickremesinghe, who had served as prime minister before Rajapaksa took power in 2005, to his former post. His government promoted economic reform and the rule of law, along with national reconciliation following a bloody 25-year civil war against Tamil separatists that Rajapaksa had waged and won.
There were tensions between the president and prime minister from the start of their alliance. While the new government promoted democratic reforms and Rajapaksa’s nepotism ended and his grip on the economy was broken, there was little if any accounting for crimes — economic or war-related — committed by the former government. There were reports that the new president did not endorse investigations into human-rights abuses committed during the civil war. Moreover, growth slowed, which contributed to the erosion of public support for the government. Reportedly, Wickremesinghe’s decision to give a port development project to India — a move that Sirisena opposed, ended their partnership.
Sirisena claimed that he had to dismiss Wickremesinghe because of an assassination plot against the president. Rumors of a plot had been whispered for some time, but there had been no official comment. Last weekend, Sirisena said that the prime minister’s involvement required his removal; after the new prime minister was sworn in, the president suspended parliament until Nov. 16, a move that Wickremesinghe’s supporters say is intended to give Rajapaksa time to construct a majority in the legislature. That effort is being aided, those supporters allege, by multimillion-dollar bribes.
Wickremesinghe called his removal unconstitutional and insists that he is still the rightful prime minister — the constitution provides specific reasons to dismiss the premier and they have not been met — but Rajapaska’s allies have blocked him and his ministers from doing their jobs. One minister’s bodyguards fired into a mob blocking their way, killing one person and wounding two others. Supporters of the new prime minister also allegedly took over state media, which has not reported Wickremesinghe’s objections to his replacement.
Many governments have condemned events. The secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, called on the Sri Lankan government to respect democratic values and constitutional provisions and process, uphold the rule of law and ensure the safety and security of all Sri Lankans.
Events in Sri Lanka have assumed geopolitical significance in recent years. One complaint leveled against Rajapaska was that he was too close to China: Reliance on loans from that country contributed to corruption and a tilt in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy toward Beijing. One infrastructure deal was so onerous that the Sri Lanka government was forced to give up control of Hambantota port to a Chinese company to lighten the debt burden.
That orientation has alarmed governments in India, Japan and elsewhere. Japan has long provided aid and low-interest loans to Sri Lanka and has been instrumental in transforming Colombo into a regional trans-shipment center. In January, Taro Kono made the first visit to the country by a Japanese foreign minister in 16 years and Sirisena visited Tokyo in March for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A month ago, the Kaga helicopter carrier visited Colombo, to show the flag and signal Japan’s strategic interest in the island.
For its part, China insists that its aid is not intended to indebt or influence Sri Lanka. When asked about recent developments, a Chinese diplomat said that Beijing “is against all this interference from any foreign country.” China has also congratulated Rajapaska on his new job.
The Sri Lanka parliament must convene soon to establish who the rightful prime minister is. The constitution must be respected and if Wickremesinghe commands a majority then he must be reinstated. If Rajapaska instead prevails in a free and fair vote, then he should be allowed to take office — but confirmation is not a blank check. He must continue to respect the rule of law and honor the rights of all Sri Lankans.