Sri Lanka plunged into unchartered territory when President Maithripala Sirisena made a surprise announcement to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Even more alarming was the fact that the President appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksha to take on the role of Prime Minister. Rajapaksha is a controversial figure in the international community who has been accused of war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Tamil tigers that ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka is a relatively prosperous country in South Asia. The island has held a democratic system of governance since independence from the British in 1948 and has upheld freedom of expression and other basic human rights for a majority of its history. It was the decline of these values under the increasingly authoritarian, family governed structure during Rajapaksha’s government that eventually caused his decline in public support and ushered in the government of President Sirisena.
President Sirisena came in to office in January 2015, promising a new era of “good governance” (Yaha Palanaya – යහපාලනය). Promised reforms of the good governance era included the restoration of the rule of law, an end to corruption and abuse of power, a new constitution and post war reconciliation. While the government came in to office on a wave of popular support for change, progress has been painfully slow, much to the frustration of many Sri Lankans. Sirisena promised a new constitution with reduced powers to the President, which never fully materialised. The previous regime was known for its’ rampant corruption and over the top projects, such as the multi million-dollar ghost airport in Hambantota, yet no charges were brought forward.
In light of the recent dismissal, the general public took to the streets. Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that his dismissal was unconstitutional and that as such, he remains the legitimate Prime Minister. A massive rally was organized near the official residence of the Prime Minister, demanding that the President reconvene parliament and accept the unconstitutional nature of the rushed move. Loyalists of Rajapaksha celebrated the move on the streets and stormed two television networks they considered to be loyal to the outgoing government. Under increasing domestic and international pressure, President Sirisena summoned the parliament to reconvene on November 14th to vote on the new appointment.
The revival of Rajapaksha’s grip on the island is troubling for several reasons. First, the country has found itself divided once again in to several factions. Many ethnic Sinhalese revere Rajapaksha as a national hero for ending the 30-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers. A UN report of the Secretary-General’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka, however, concluded that the Rajapaksha government was guilty of killing civilians through widespread shelling, shelling of hospitals, denial of humanitarian assistance, and human rights violations during the war. Loyalists of Mr. Rajapaksha have rallied around this announcement, while those of Mr. Wickremesinghe emphasize the unconstitutional nature of the move. Most, however, have lost faith in the democratic political system – a troubling theme across the country. This fragmentation can easily be exploited by extremist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena, a party that emphasises Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.
Secondly, Rajapaksha relied heavily on Chinese investments during his period in government, which is a trend that could continue as he holds little sway with the West. Since the initiation of the Belt and Road initiative by President Xi Jinping, China has increased financial investments across Asia. Sri Lanka was no exception. As Chinese investment in the country sky rocketed, so did its trade relationship. China overtook India as Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner in 2017, straining India’s close relationship with the island formed from their geographic proximity and overlapping history.
China’s increased involvement in the island stemmed from political necessity, since Rajapaksha found himself increasingly isolated from the West following allegations of war crimes. During the Rajapaksha government, Sri Lanka was under immense international pressure to account for the crimes committed during the final stages of its civil war. With the deterioration of relations with the West, however, came into being a new ally in the form of China, whose financial assistance to the country did not come with stringent strings for accountability. The recent political turmoil in the country offers a similar experience. According to Wickremesinghe, the US has frozen close to $500 million in aid to develop highways and land administration since his illegitimate sacking, and Japan has put on hold plans to extend a soft loan of $1.4 billion for railroad development. China, on the other hand, has no such plans, as it stated that it would instead refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries.
The peril of obtaining Chinese loans is that many question whether the loan is provided as part of China’s larger vision to develop Asia, or whether it is to gain access to resources abroad. The current Sri Lankan government agreed to lease its Hambantota port, to repay part of its debt obligations to China – not quite the act of an unconditional supporter who would rather not be involved in the domestic affairs of other nations, as China claims to be. As such, whether China’s One Belt One Road is genuinely for the development of Asia is yet to be seen. In such an environment, domestic actors must be vigilant in their dealings to prevent the country from falling prey to predatory lending practices.
As the island nation faces an uncertain future, domestic actors need to stay true to their traditional values so as not to be engulfed by another ethnic conflict. The four Bo leaves of the Sri Lankan flag stand for the four virtues of Buddhism, by which conduct towards others is guided: Kindness (Metta – මෙත්තා), compassion (Karuna – කරුණා), equanimity (Upeksha – උපේක්ෂා) and happiness (Muditha – මුදිතා). While democracy will likely prevail, in an island where democratic values have strong roots, resorting to a peaceful, legitimate end to the turmoil would benefit all.
Featured image: The Parliament of Sri Lanka by Kolitha de Silva via Wikimedia commons. CC2.0
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