Sri Lanka’s Homegrown Crisis
The constitutional chaos is rooted in domestic politics, not geopolitical machinations.
Sri Lanka is a country in crisis. The coalition government has fallen apart. President Maithripala Sirisena has dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena also suspended Parliament until Nov. 16. Coup supporters took control of state media too.
In a recent Foreign Policy piece, Bharath Gopalaswamy says that Rajapaksa’s “resurgence means a second chance for China’s attempts to play a dominant role in the island’s politics and development, and it serves as a significant impediment to U.S. efforts for greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific.” He also asserts that “Rajapaksa’s appointment illustrates the limitations of U.S. economic diplomacy and development finance policy in the Indo-Pacific.” That’s been typical of a genre of analysis that sees the island more as a pawn in a great power game than as a real place, with real politics. Sri Lanka’s problems are ultimately of the country’s own making—and generally require Sri Lankan solutions, though others could still help.
Chinese investment and influence in Sri Lanka are certainly worth examining. But looking at the country through this lens don’t come close to fully encapsulating the current state of play. After all, Colombo maintained cordial ties with Beijing on Sirisena’s watch, and Beijing has continued to play a significant role in the country. Furthermore, an emerging Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance doesn’t necessarily portend a stark strategic reorientation toward Beijing.
What’s more, U.S. foreign-policy miscalculations go well beyond economic diplomacy, Rajapaksa’s appointment as prime minister is not legally valid, and—most importantly—Sri Lanka’s difficult domestic politics lie at the heart of the current crisis.
Despite some good intentions, U.S. foreign policy has certainly not encouraged meaningful reform in Sri Lanka. The Obama administration moved too quickly to reset the bilateral relationship after Sirisena, who had been a cabinet member in Rajapaksa’s administration, defeated Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential election. The United States seemed to celebrate the coalition government’s every move—before Sri Lanka proved that it was serious about meaningful democratic and political reform.
By taking this approach, Washington and others discouraged reform and unwittingly abetted a Rajapaksa resurgence.
But the real cause of the crisis is domestic politics. For the past several years, Sirisena has led a coalition that’s become increasingly unpopular and wildly dysfunctional. Sirisena’s political support has been leaking away. He’s an inept leader who has been unwilling or unable to tackle key reforms pertaining to anti-corruption, improved governance, constitutional reform and economic affairs, all major parts of his campaign platform. He was never able to establish a solid working relationship with Wickremesinghe. During his tenure, there’s been much more space for dissent than there was during Rajapaksa’s reign. But people are largely fed up with the current administration and the little that has been done has not been properly conveyed to the public. In short, he’s an unpopular man with no political base who wouldn’t stand a chance of winning another presidential election if he didn’t align with Rajapaksa—which clearly comes with inherent risk given the history between the two men. Sirisena, who was elected president largely as a result of support from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, has his eye on political survival and forthcoming national elections in 2019 or 2020. There’s also reason to believe that an alleged assassination plot really rattled Sirisena, who is also obviously tired of trying to work with Wickremesinghe.
In contrast, Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism resonates with much of the majority community. (About three-quarters of Sri Lankans are ethnic Sinhalese, and most of them are Buddhist.) A charismatic and savvy politician, he’s still venerated by many Sinhalese for winning a brutal civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.
As president, Rajapaksa took the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. His return to power could foment a new wave of oppression, particularly for ethnic and religious minorities. And, clearly, political violence over the next few weeks is a major concern. In the heavily militarized Northern Province (which is Tamil-dominated), the civilian population is especially vulnerable to rights violations committed by state security personnel.
In grasping for a lifeline by appointing Rajapaksa, Sirisena is being criticized like never before—both at home and abroad. The move is being heavily contested; protests and public demonstrations are expected to continue. While things are certainly headed in the wrong direction, it’s simply inaccurate to frame it as a done deal, as much of the coverage has done.
There are now two people who claim to be prime minister of Sri Lanka, but only one of those men is making a legitimate case, and it isn’t Rajapaksa. A range of respected constitutional authorities, scholars, analysts, and commentators have reiterated that Wickremesinghe is still the prime minister.
According to the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which Sirisena helped pass in April 2015, there are specific ways in which a prime minister can be removed, such as if they resign, stop being a member of parliament, or die. Short of such extremes, there are a few other scenarios—like if a prime minister were to lose a vote of no confidence in Parliament. An arbitrary presidential dismissal isn’t on that list. And the new cabinet that Sirisena has formed isn’t legitimate either, because proper procedures have not been followed.
There had been speculation that the issue might be brought before the Supreme Court, although it looks increasingly likely that the matter will be decided in Parliament. Many quite reasonably believe that Sirisena has suspended Parliament simply because Wickremesinghe still has a parliamentary majority, as Wickremesinghe himself recently pointed out. It’s widely believed that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa coalition is trying to persuade, cajole, or even bribe various politicians to join their camp before they have to prove that they have the numbers, thereby providing a veneer of legitimacy to a de facto coup. Rajapaksa probably doesn’t have a parliamentary majority now, though he’s likely getting closer with each passing day.
However, even if Rajapaksa had the support of a majority of parliamentarians (or proves that he has such a majority in the coming days), his appointment would still be deeply flawed. In short, it’s still a coup of sorts. And if he fails to pull off this illegal power grab, he’s undoubtedly in a weaker position than he was before this crisis.
Sirisena has come under intense pressure to reconvene Parliament before Nov. 16. Recent reporting had indicated that that would happen on Nov. 5 and then Nov. 7, but subsequent reporting has contradicted that. This is a very fluid situation. Karu Jayasuriya, the Speaker, has the power to reconvene parliament, but he’s refusing to do so. On Nov. 4, Sirisena asked Parliament to reconvene on Nov. 14; that certainly isn’t encouraging.
If Rajapaksa, for example, were to lose a no-confidence vote once Parliament returns, Wickremesinghe would prevail (assuming Rajapaksa doesn’t subsequently try to stay in power through force).
But the delay clearly favors Rajapaksa. And the obvious concern is that Parliament might only reopen when he has secured a majority.
The United States recently put out a press statement urging Sirisena “to immediately reconvene parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfill their responsibility to affirm who will lead their government.” However, as an absolute minimum, the United States and others could be more explicit about the incontrovertible illegitimacy of what Sirisena and Rajapaksa have done, and the potential consequences if they do pull this coup off. Curtailing aid and immediately rethinking bilateral military cooperation would be good places to start. The European Union has already mentioned that Sri Lanka could lose trade concessions.
If the United States were to call Rajapaksa’s ascension a coup, that would shake up the bilateral relationship and, according to Section 508 the of U.S. Foreign Assistance Act, necessitate cutting aid. (Though even in cases more egregious—for now anyway—than Sri Lanka’s, that hasn’t happened, including in Egypt in 2013.)
The next several weeks are bound to be very chaotic, but at least some things are clear. Now isn’t the time to conclude that the United States has lost Sri Lanka to China. The current crisis has major implications for the future of democracy in the country. Finally, Sirisena and Rajapaksa have already done a lot of damage. Yet, as bad as things are right now, they could get so much worse.