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EFSAS Commentary

Political and constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka unveils Beijing’s presumptuous appetite for control


Recently, South Asia’s oldest democratic country, Sri Lanka, has been fraught with numerous political controversies and turnovers, ranging from the overthrow of the Prime Minister and his subsequent replacement with a civil war autocrat, through widespread public unrest and violence, to the ousted politician’s extraordinary reinstatement as a Prime Minister once again.

On 26 October 2018, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with the former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. These abrupt political developments came as a huge blow to the Indian Ocean nation, not only since they were widely perceived as unconstitutional, but primarily because Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were previously allies, who joined forces in 2015 to overpower the then President Rajapaksa.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition made commitments on introducing economy-building reforms, distancing the country from China’s pervasive influence, cracking down on corruption and instigate accountability for alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed under Rajapaksa's rule during the last years of Sri Lanka's bloodstained Civil War.

The Sri Lankan Civil War was an armed conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), which wanted to establish an independent state in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. The war continued for 26 years, beginning July 1983, and ending May 2009, with the Sri Lankan military establishment, under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeating the insurgency. Particularly with regard to this historical episode, besides the already existing allegations of corruption and nepotism, Rajapaksa has been accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and systematic human rights violations. Some of the alleged war crimes included targeting and torturing civilians, the use of civilians as human shields, prevention of civilians from fleeing hostilities, the execution of surrendered fighters and prisoners, and the enforced disappearances of civilians by the Sri Lankan military and paramilitary groups. Allegations, which the government has outrightly denied. As the then President Rajapaksa stated during an anniversary victory parade: “Our troops carried a gun in one hand and a copy of the human rights' charter in the other”, repudiating any extrajudicial killings on behalf of the army.

Yet, such assertions appear at great odds with numerous independent sources. For instance, the Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, a 2011 Report issued under the then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which examined any perpetrated human rights violations during the final stages of the Sri Lankan Civil War, argued that as many as 40,000 civilian deaths have taken place during the final months of the conflict, most of them resulting from the indiscriminate shelling on behalf of the Sri Lankan Army.

Hence, Rajapaksa’s return to office has sparked serious apprehensions among the international community, which has been concerned that such a step could slide Sri Lanka back to an era of violence, especially since one of Sirisena’s major slogans to run for office was to make the Rajapaksa’s government accountable for the alleged atrocities. 

As Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch has argued: "Sirisena made that promise to the victims of the war, to the Tamil people. And now in this surprise move, he has brought back the very person he ran against. This is very concerning for victims of human rights violations, especially those who have come out and spoken out against Rajapaksa's government. Now they are going to be very worried about their own security".

In addition, Sirisena’s agenda was strongly saturated with anti-Chinese sentiments, since Rajapaksa’s governance, which was manifestly pro-Chinese, was responsible for making numerous ‘white elephant’ deals with Beijing, which eventually left the country in a serious debt-trap situation. In December 2017, Sri Lanka had to formally hand over its southern sea port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease, after being unable to repay its loans. Although Rajapaksa was voted out of office in 2015, the deal was stipulated under his ruling, the consequences of which, his successors Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had to confront and endure.

Therefore, one could question why Sirisena decided to sack Wickremesinghe and appoint Rajapaksa, considering their serious opposing views. As Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of the South Asia Democratic Forum, an EFSAS partner, has explained:

“It doesn't much have to do with Sirisena and Rajapaksa and should be looked at in the light of a China-India tug-of-war in the region. The Sri Lankan "coup" happened after Chinese economic interests were seriously challenged by Wickramasinghe's administration”.

The official justification behind the dismissal of Wickremasinghe was his alleged involvement in a murder plot against President Sirisena, which until present day has been backed by no tangible evidence whatsoever. Hence, it does not come as a surprise, that Rajapaksa’s close ties with China have also disturbed the political equilibrium in the region, and become a razor edge in the Indo-Sri Lankan relations, raising New Delhi’s concerns regarding Beijing’s socio-economic influence and political infiltration in the Indian Ocean.

One could speculate that Sirisena’s ostensibly bizarre and inconsistent actions are a result of the desire to bring Sri Lanka and China closer together, realizing that his initial anti-China agenda which aimed at freeing Sri Lanka from Chinese debt, is unsustainable and could make his country even more fragile, demonstrating how Beijing’s tight political and economic grip is more difficult to escape than envisioned at first. As Akhilesh Pillalamarri, International Relations Analyst, contributing editor at The Diplomat and fellow at Defence Priorities, has summarised it: “The crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates the role China can play in upsetting local political calculations elsewhere, even without direct interference”. He continues on explaining, “…In Sri Lanka’s case, China’s “deep pockets” have meant that even though the Sirisena government initially promised to re-evaluate Chinese investment, it was unable to because India and the United States were unable to provide an equivalent amount of money for its projects — or to get it out of Chinese debt”.

It does not come as a surprise that Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to congratulate Rajapaksa on the new position, thus expressing Beijing’s satisfaction with the ongoing events and manifesting Chinese intentions of consolidating its national interests in Sri Lanka. Meantime, the United States State Department urged Sirisena’s office to immediately summon the parliament and enable legislators and justice officials to find a legal solution to this constitutional crisis.

A few weeks later, Sri Lanka’s political fiasco experienced a curious U-turn; On 13 December 2018, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled that President Sirisena’s earlier decision to dissolve the parliament and call for elections was unconstitutional, thus forcing him to re-appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. Two days later, on 15 December 2018, Rajapaksa signed his letter of resignation from the Prime Minister post and Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new Prime Minister on 16 December 2018.

It is crucial to observe the pivotal role of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, which it played in this political turmoil by reinstating democratic governance and bringing back hopes to the population in Sri Lanka’s judiciary and legislature. Such landmark course of action proved the significance of the institutional autonomy of the judicial body which is supposed to act as a pillar of fairness and impartiality, immune to corrupt political machinations.

As it has been demonstrated again, China’s debt-trap diplomacy has put in jeopardy other countries which have also geopolitical and financial stakes in Sri Lanka, such as the United States and India. Drawing examples with the recent elections in the Maldives, described in EFSAS Commentary of 05-10-2018, Sri Lanka must adopt some of the lessons learnt by its South Asian neighbour, which has also found itself a victim of Beijing’s presumptuous appetite for control.

Considering Sri Lanka’s geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean, such illegal political manoeuvres orchestrated by foreign powers, such as China, are destined to repeat; therefore, the country must place greater significance on seeking strategic partnerships with other South Asian neighbours in order to protect its sovereignty and independence.