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Sri Lanka’s Great Crisis And Presidential Election – OpEd

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Finally, Sri Lanka’s eighth executive president Gotabaya Nandasena Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022. It would not be fallacious to say that the Sri Lankan masses chased him out. The GotaGoHome campaign, or the aragalaya (struggle), resumed on July 9 as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s maneuvers to mitigate the pressure failed. The ratama colombata (whole nation to Colombo) campaign invited everyone to convene in Colombo to force Rajapaksa to resign. The government-imposed curfew or the fuel shortage did not deter people from joining the aragalaya on July 9. A large crowd gathered and breached the presidential palace built during the colonial era. In response, Rajapaksa announced his intention to resign on July 13. 

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Why July 13? Why not resign on July 9 itself? He had two problems. First, he would have become an ordinary citizen without adequate state protection after the resignation. His brother, former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is still living underground due to the fear of people’s retaliation. Former minister Rajitha Senaratne was physically attacked by some protesters on July 9. Therefore, the fear of physical violence was real for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Second, leaving the country after resigning without the presidential powers and immunity could have been a problem. His two brothers, Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa, are barred from leaving the country until July 28 by the Courts. Hence, he needed time to make arrangements. 

First, he left for the Maldives by military jet and traveled to Singapore. Then, he sent in the resignation letter from Singapore. He is still believed to be in Singapore. He cannot return to Sri Lanka immediately or return to the United States. Gotabaya Rajapaksa renounced his American citizenship to contest the 2019 presidential election, and reportedly, the U.S embassy in Colombo has refused visas. Therefore, at least in the short run, he is in limbo. 

Sinhala Lives Tamil Lives 

One of the significant aspects of his resignation was that the protesters only used soft violence. For example, they entered the presidential palace and damaged a few ornaments. There were no structural damages. Otherwise, the protesters “enjoyed” the “trip” to the presidential palace. They took a dip in the pool. They watched TV. They cooked in the kitchen. They wrestled on the president’s bed. Consequently, Gotabaya Rajapaksa budged and resigned. 

However, the man was credited for finishing off the LTTE, one of the world’s most lethal non-state armed groups. What is the difference? For him, Sinhala lives mattered more. On July 17, Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times reported, “President Rajapaksa wished that the crowds could be dispersed using tear gas and water cannons. However, the security top brass was very cautious and did not want to precipitate a situation that could lead to bloodshed and a resultant uncontrollable situation…President Rajapaksa heeded the advice of the security chiefs to make a quick getaway and thus prevent a bloodbath.” 

No such regard for Tamil lives during the last phase of the war, which was one reason why the Tamil rebellion was quelled effectively. One of the government’s most effective weapons against the LTTE (and the Tamils) was the Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers, which pounded village after village until the LTTE gave up. Thousands of Tamil civilians were killed on the battlefield. Here is an excerpt from my 2019 book titled, Post-war Dilemmas of Sri Lanka: Democracy and Reconciliation (London: Routledge). 

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What made the difference this time around was the persistent use of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) against LTTE positions, regardless of the civilian casualties. Sri Lanka used the Czechoslovakian-made RM-70 MBRLs which have a maximum firing range of 20 kilometers and could fire 40 rockets in 20 seconds. During the last phase of the war, the Sri Lankan army pounded village after village with MBRLs until the LTTE evacuated from the targeted area. LTTE cadres had no answer to MBRLs which, in a way, explained the collapse of the LTTE positions one after another. The way MBRLs were used in the Eastern Province made it clear that the North would fall sooner rather than later. It is even possible to argue that Sri Lanka could not have won the war in 2009 without the MBRLs (pp. 34-35).  

Post-Gotabaya Scenario

Some over-enthusiastic Sri Lankan commentators have already described the prevailing Sri Lankan reality as the post-Rajapaksa era. However, members of the Rajapaksa family have thick skin, and according to some reports, they have already started plotting their comeback. Moreover, Sri Lankan people have short memories, and they are nationalists. This combination could be the formula for a Rajapaksa comeback. When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election in 2015, the Rajapaksa hate was such that many people believed the Rajapaksa era was over. However, they came back stronger in 2019. Therefore, this author would not rule out a Rajapaksa comeback sooner or later.   

Nevertheless, as soon as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa resignation news came out, a hitherto unknown aspect of the aragalaya was exposed. A segment of the aragalaya with a leftist socialist orientation believed that the “revolution” succeeded, and they had taken over the state. Some people forcibly entered the national television station, interrupted the program, and “ordered” the authorities to telecast only aragalaya news. Another announced that in the future, all heads of state departments and bodies should be approved by the aragalaya. There was also an argument that the aragalaya proposed “people’s council” should be consulted on all state affairs. The so-called people’s council also refused to negotiate with lawmakers because it would only provide instructions to parliament. 

The basic premise was that the Constitution should be set aside, and the so-called people’s council should be allowed to rule. These actions were illegal, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and dangerous. The demands and the trend frightened many people. Interim president Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to have understood the nature and involvement of the radical socialists in the aragalaya and has already issued a warning.  

The Presidential Election

According to Article 40 (1) (a) of the (1978) constitution, “if the office of President shall become vacant prior to the expiration of his term of office, Parliament shall elect as President one of its Members who is qualified to be elected to the office of President.” Therefore, the president will be elected by parliament from within the national legislature. The election is scheduled for July 20. 

This provision played a significant role in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa exit strategy. Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country before resigning, Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed acting president, a lawful act. Once Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation was confirmed, Ranil Wickremesinghe became the interim president according to Article 40 (1) (c). Therefore, Wickremesinghe has an edge in the election on July 20 as the sitting interim president. Rajapaksa wanted him to succeed as president because he would protect the Rajapaksa clan. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could have appointed someone from his own party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), if he did not have the confidence in Wickremesinghe to protect Rajapaksa’s interest. 

Along with Wickremesinghe, three others are also in the race. They are: (1) SLPP’s Dullas Alahapperuma, (2) Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s Sajith Premadasa, and (3) Janatha Vimukthi Preramuna’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Premadasa and Dissanayake do not have the parliamentary votes to win the election. Therefore, the competition is between Wickremesinghe and Alahapperuma. Wickremesinghe’s party, the United National Party, has only one seat in the national legislation. Consequently, he is fully dependent on the SLPP for necessary votes. Since Alahapperuma is from the SLPP, his candidacy makes Wickremesinghe’s victory slightly uncertain. Since Wickremesinghe has the Rajapaksa family’s support and presumably they still have control over the SLPP, the SLPP may eventually vote to make Wickremesinghe the president. This author wouldn’t be surprised if Alahapperuma withdrew from the contest at the eleventh hour. It is possible that Alahapperuma is in the contest for a consolation prize, the prime minister position. On the other hand, the SLPP’s overwhelming endorsement of Alahapperuma would signal the end or weakening of the Rajapaksa’s control over the SLPP.                  

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

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