By Kalinga Seneviratne
For the past two months Sri Lanka’s deeply divided political community has been fighting to protect democracy in one of the oldest democracies in Asia. One side wants a general election to elect a new parliament claiming the current one is corrupt and wants to divide the country. The other is fighting to evade going for a general election before it is due in mid-2020.
Interestingly the U.S. and its European allies have been openly supporting the latter – the camp that does not want an election. They claim this is to “restore” democracy in the country!
The latest political battle was precipitated on October 26, 2018 when President Maitripala Sirisena sacked his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe – after officially withdrawing his party from a ‘National Government’ formed in 2015 – and appointed his recent fierce rival but before that, a long-term fellow party ally and former president Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister.
While the latter seems unable to muster the required simple majority in parliament, he dissolved the parliament and called for a general election on January 5 which Rajapkse and his allies were favoured to win comfortablly.
Wickremasinghe and his allies went to the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution of parliament citing the 19th amendment to the constitution – which they have passed – restricting the president of doing so until a parliament has served four and a half years. The current parliament was elected in July 2015.
The president cited another clause in the constitution that allows him to dissolve parliament if the country is facing a political deadlock or chaos. The Supreme Court in an unanimous decision given on December 13 agreed with the petitioners that made the president to backtrack and reinstall Wickremeasinghe as PM, though it was not a requirement in the judgment.
Throughout the almost eight weeks of political dispute the U.S., some EU and Australian ambassadors were blatantly fraying the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by making public statements on domestic politics, even issuing veiled threats of sanctions and being present in the parliamentary gallery when the speaker Karu Jayasuriya controversially accepted a no-confidence motion on the newly elected PM Rajapakse.
A local TV channel broadcast images of the ambassadors cheering when the vote count – in favour of Wickremasinghe – was announced by the speaker.
“Having ‘invested’ heavily in Sri Lanka to install an administration (in 2015) free of Chinese influence, the U.S. reacted angrily to President Sirisena’s October 26 move” noted the Island’s news editor Shamindra Ferdinando. “The U.S. along with its allies strongly opposed Rajapaksa’s reappointment as Premier. A section of the Colombo based diplomatic community openly sided with the UNP (Wickremasinghe’s party) led grouping in its battle both in and outside parliament”.
During the dispute the Wickemasinghe allies also played to the western gallery. When the parliament reconvened after the Rajapakse appointment, rather than following the normal parliamentary procedures of allowing the new government to make its policy statement and present its accounts, the speaker accepted a no-confidence motion presented by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and supported by UNP. He immediately put it to a vote garnering a narrow majority, while MPs supportive of Rajapakse pointed out that certain parliamentary procedures were not followed.
When they moved such a no-confidence motion against Wickremasinghe earlier this year, it took the speaker a month to present it to parliament because he had to send it through a number of parliamentary committees.
When the President refused to accept this vote, the speaker called for another vote and came to parliament with police escort – to protect himself from hostile MPs from the Rajapakse camp – which ended up in an ugly clash in parliament, with images flashed across the world.
Jayasuriya’s actions were cleverly choreographed by the UNP camp to provide ammunition to the western media to paint Rajapakse as an “illegal” PM and that democracy is threatened in Sri Lanka. Because of the strong tilt towards China during the Rajapakse presidency, most sections of the western media are hostile to him.
Colombo’s middle-class that is pro-UNP came to the streets to demonstrate for “restoration of democracy” – in fact they were demonstrating against the holding of a general election because the president has already announced an election for January 2019.
However, they achieved their aims by providing western media with images to painting Rajapakse as an “illegitimate” PM in the eyes of the international community, and helped to reinstate Wickremasinghe.
“Karu (Jayasuriya) created the parliamentary crisis mainly for external consumption. He wanted to keep Ranil (Wickremasinghe) in Temple Trees (PM’s official residence),” argued former Rajapakse regime senior minster DEW Gunasekare in an interview on local TV, adding that it helped to create international headlines that Wickremasinghe is PM.
If Jayasuriya allowed the usual parliamentary procedures to take place and Rajapakse government’s interim budget was voted out by parliament, Sirisena would have got the legal authority to dissolve parliament and call a general election. This was thwarted by the speaker, who did not practice the neutrality that is required in the post.
After Sirisena took the decision to reluctantly reappoint his former ally Wickremasinghe to the PM’s post after the court verdict, immediately after the swearing in, he summoned all the senior members of the UNP to a roundtable and gave an unprecedented shelling to Wickremasinghe claiming that he has corrupt people in his Cabinet that was supposed to promote good governance (as they promised to the people in 2015). His 30-minute talk was video taped and released on YouTube by the presidential secretariat that has gone viral. It was also broadcast by some TV stations.
“Mahinda Rajapkse was voted out in 2015 because of a perception of corruption in his government, but within 3 months you were involved in the Central Bank scam that destroyed the trust people put on us,” Sirisena said, claiming that over 1000 billion rupees (about USD 5 billion) have been robbed.
Attempts to trace the money have been unsuccessful because officials assigned to investigate were harassed by Wickremasinghe’s allies accusing them of tapping into MPs and Ministers’ phones. The president accused Wickremsinghe of protecting his friend, the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.
“You went to court opposing election but there were peoples even within your party that believe an election is needed to stamp out this (corruption),” Sirisena said further. “We had an opportunity to get rid of this corrupt parliament and appoint a new (hopefully) clean parliament. This (court) judgment destroyed this opportunity… peopl says the courts took away their democratic rights, this is the view I get from people from all walks of life.”
“It would not be a smooth sailing for the UNP to run the Government under a President who is now even more hostile towards it,” warns Daily Mirror’s political analyst Kelum Bandara. He argues that with the UNP reduced to 106 seats, thus becoming a minority government, they will have to depend on the TNA to govern, whose demands for federalism and release of former LTTE cadres in jail on terrorism charges will be a sticking point.
“Giving into the demands put forward by the TNA will be an unpopular move in the Sinhala majority electorates of the country,” notes Bandara.
Sirisena made clear in his dressing down to the UNP MPs that he will not agree to any release of Tamil prisoners while soldiers who fought for the country to eliminate terrorism are in jail. The latter is due to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government caving into demands of the UN Human Rights Commission resolution that the government controversy co-sponsored in September 2015 on war crimes. Sirisena now claims that it was signed in Geneva without his knowledge.
Meanwhile, Ferdinando warned in a commentary published in the Island on December 19 that the U.S. is quickly moving in to strengthen its military cooperation with the Sri Lankan navy particularly to support their new Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China. In the first week of December, the U.S. Navy announced the setting up of what it calls a logistic hub in Sri Lanka to secure support, supplies and services at sea.
He points out that the U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, addressing a gathering at the top U.S. think tank Hudson Institute in early October has alleged: “Just ask Sri Lanka, which took on massive debt to let Chinese state companies build a port with questionable commercial value. Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue water navy.”
But, Ferdinando notes that perhaps Pence was unaware or he simply ignored the fact that the Sri Lanka government has granted logistic hub status to the U.S. navy in August 2018. Rajapakse has warned in an address to his supporters on December 16 of the danger of Sri Lanka allowing U.S. navy access to the Trincomalee harbor in the east and getting entangled in super-power rivalry in the region.
Before the split, Sirisena and Wickremasinghe clashed over the latter’s plan to give U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific venture – India – to form a public-private partnership to run a container terminal at Colombo Port, according to Fedinando.
U.S. has accused China of massively funding Rajapakse’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2015. Sirisena said in an interview with Daily Mirror last month that Rajapkse was unable to master the votes in parliament to survive a no-confidence motion because UNP MPs (who wanted to defect) were asking for sums as high as 500 million rupees to cross-over which Rajapakse could not afford.
This also should raise the question whether they were paid to remain with Wickremasinghe – even though many resent his dictatorial attitudes – and who provided the money?
Since 2015 and even before that, the U..S through USAID and other channels have spent millions in Sri Lanka funding non-governmental organization (NGOs) with projects such as ‘Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability’, ‘Coherent, Open, Responsive and Effective (CORE) Justice’ and ‘Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka (MEND)’.
Thus, with an election season looming in Sri Lanka through 2019 to 2020, it is interesting to note if these projects would be able to defeat Rajapakse (who has wide rural grassroots support) again with social media campaigns.
US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz welcoming Wickremasinghe’s reappointment said that “Sri Lanka is a valued partner in the IndoPacific and we look forward to continuing to develop our relationship with the government and people of this country”. The Australian High Commission also stated that Australia welcomed the resolution of Sri Lanka’s political uncertainty “through constitutional means”.
With a hostile president co-existing with a minority government, many political analysts in Colombo predict continuing instability, infighting and clashes on policy between president and prime minister. How China responds to this regional issue is another crucial battle to watch. Throughout the dispute both regional powers India and China took a neutral stance and refrained from making any comments that will add fuel to the fire.