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Sri Lanka’s clash of civilisations

The writer is director of the Chennai chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian think tank. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com.
Published : Nov 11, 2018, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Nov 11, 2018, 6:51 am IST

Wickremesinghe finds himself not only jobless but once again rootless, especially in terms of the earthiness of Sri Lankan politics.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (Photo: AP)
 Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (Photo: AP)

Sirisena and Rajapaksa, who were both with the centre-Left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at one time, carry their ‘son-of-the-soil’ imagery on their sleeves against the elite, English-speaking, ‘liberal imagery’ that Wickrermesinghe & Co are not tired of reiterating.

Exactly two weeks after he first plunged the nation into a ‘constitutional crisis’, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has done it again, this time by dissolving Parliament, leading to fresh national elections close to two years earlier than due, in August 2020. With this he has at least removed the decisive uncertainty his first act of replacing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa had plunged the nation into.

At the bottom of it all was the dynamics and chemistry of personal relations between Sirisen and Wickremesinghe, given their socio-economic backgrounds, and also their Left-Right political divisions which continues to have some relevance in the country, decades after the founding nations of communism, namely, the present-day Russia and China, began moving away.

That said, the current crisis was written into the script, authored by the West (?), the day Sirisena defeated incumbent ex-boss Rajapaksa in the presidential polls of January 2015 and swore in Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in a politically amoral way as his action now has been ‘unconstitutional’ to his critics at the very least. Citing the Sinhala original, which has an abiding supremacy in such matters, Sirisena has already clarified that his current action is sanctioned by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, whose English version alone Wickremesinghe & Co swore by.

The reigning, Second Republican Constitution of 1978 was even otherwise flawed at inception as it was centred on the personality of the late JR Jayewardene, then boss of the centre-Right United National Party (UNP) who was also a relation of Wickremesinghe. The more recent 18th and 19th Amendments were equally personality-driven, one to confer more powers and privileges on President Rajapaksa, and the latter to secure Wickremesinghe’s prime ministerial job after then President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK) had dissolved Parliament and ordered fresh elections before its five-year term, back in 2004. Suddenly, Wickremesinghe finds himself not only jobless but once again rootless, especially in terms of the earthiness of Sri Lankan politics.

Not only do CBK, Sirisena and Rajapaksa belong to the centre-Left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), barring the former, other top-rung leaders all carry their ‘son-of-the-soil’ imagery on their sleeves, against the elite, English-speaking, ‘liberal imagery’ that Wickrermesinghe & Co are not tired of reiterating. As Sirisena readily conceded soon after ‘sacking’ Wickremesinghe, this personality problem was among the causes for his drift with his Prime Minister, but then both of them were/are as secretive and deceptive as Rajapaksa has been relatively open. It’s a clash of civilisations, so to say!

Procedural problems
On Sirisena’s unilateral actions, be it of ‘sacking’ Wickremesinghe or now dissolving Parliament, the ‘international community’ (read: West) seems to have been convinced that the President may not be wrong, after all. However, after remaining quiet for a brief while, some of the western envoys whom Sirisena too briefed, like Wickremesinghe before him, began demanding that Rajapaksa face a trust / no-trust vote in Parliament, when it reconvenes after presidential prorogation on November 14. It was in line with Wickremesinghe-led UNP’s line, just as they had refused to acknowledge the latter’s ‘sacking’, earlier.

If Sirisena had originally targeted Wickremesinghe and his ministerial colleagues for usurping the ‘collective responsibility’ of the Cabinet by taking unilateral initiatives, there were reasons. According to his camp followers, Wickremesinghe & Co first committed Sri Lanka to international deals, including those on ‘war crimes probe’ at UNHRC, and the debt-equity swap-deal on Hambantota Port, with China, without explaining the contents in detail to the President and the entire Cabinet.

Even on the more recent Wickremesinghe offer for India to develop the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo Port, post-sacking, the Sirisena camp went to town, saying that the former had no business to give the kind of ‘ unilateral commitment’ he claimed to have given Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. They quarrelled openly in a Cabinet meeting last month, where Sirisena is also reported to have talked about an Indian intelligence agency plotting his assassination — a charge that he denied in a telephonic conversation with Prime Minister Modi.

If this much was on the administrative front, and Sirisena’s ‘sacking’ of Wickremesinghe was on the constitutional front, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya added his own cuppa by shifting gears on the President’s powers in relation to Parliament, at every turn. He first abided by the presidential Gazette notification on Wickremesinghe’s replacement, but soon changed sides, to say that his UNP boss continued to be Prime Minister. Likewise, from Rajapaksa having to prove his majority in the House on day one, he changed sides to say that Wickremesinghe would have to do so.

This gave a psychological advantage to Wickremeisnghe, which was not to the liking of Sirisena as much as it would have been for Rajapakasa. As if to ‘irritate’ Sirisena even more, Jayasuriya met with foreign envoys in his Parliament Chamber and also wrote to them separately, seeking their intervention to ‘restore democracy’ in the country. Sirisena openly declared that Speaker meeting with foreign envoys in a group and on Parliament premises was not on, and declared that ‘replacing’ the Prime Minister was only one of the ‘weapons’ in his armour, and he could use many others.

Numbers didn’t add up
There is no denying that despite best efforts, the numbers did not add up for Rajapasksa, despite his being a past master at the game from his first term as President (2005-10). At the time, he caused the cross-over of 20 MPs belonging to Wickremesinghe’s UNP, to bolster his majority and reduce dependence on the 39-member left-nationalist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) ally. He also got the JVP split in the process, taking over its cadre and whatever vote-based into his fold. It did not happen this time.

There is no denying that between the two, Rajapaksa is all for early polls, though not all his MPs and ‘ministerial colleagues’ sworn in by Sirisena (even hours before dissolving Parliament) may or may not share his optimism. In comparison, Wickremesinghe’s UNP optimism derives from the international support it has from the West, and also the traditional urban elite backers, who are shocked as much by a possible Rajapaksa return for a longer term as by Sirisena’s ‘unilateral and unconstitutional’ actions, which they thought was not possible under the 19th Amendment of 2015 — which it has not.

So confident has Rajapaksa been since the nation-wide sweep for his breakaway Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led ‘Joint Opposition’ in the February local government (LG) polls that he even called upon Wickremesinghe to help vote out his ‘mini-Budget’ later this month, the one sure, consensual way to have fresh elections under the amended Constitution.  This is because on paper, Rajapaksa’s vote-share and that of Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party /United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP-UPFA) vote-share in the February polls was a high 52 per cent (even by conservative estimates) against rival UNP’s 30 per cent. Despite the current turmoil and their roles in it, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo seems confident of retaining that vote-share in fresh parliamentary polls.

Indian pragmatism
Unlike in shared neighbour Maldives, where India played all its cards in the name of democracy, on the current crisis in Sri Lanka, New Delhi has been holding the cards close to its chest. The return of traditional Indian pragmatism seems to have influenced not only post-Cold War European friends, at least up to a point, of whom some were seen as scaling down their criticism of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo, until rumours of imminent dissolution of Parliament began doing the rounds on Friday, November 9.

The very day, India’s spokesman Raveesh Kumar said as much, indicating that New Delhi preferred working with the Government that Sri Lanka gives itself, without indicating the preferred route — court, Parliament or people — than jump to conclusions, which may not match the final result, as different from Indian expectations. After all, Sirisena did not meet with the expectations when India reportedly backed him for the presidency, nor was Wickremesinghe as much pro-India as he wanted to be believed, his leadership having readily agreed to the ‘debt-equity swap’ on Hambantota Port with China, without seriously looking at other options!

THREE MAIN PLAYERS
The three main players in the volatile political scene of back-stabbing and shifting sands in the strategically important Indian Ocean island of 21 million people.

The quiet Sri Lankan
Mild-mannered but steely-nerved President Maithripala Sirisena, 67, was relatively unknown until his shock defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential elections of 2015.

Sirisena had walked out of Rajapaksa’s government a day after the two men had dinner together, and accused his former ally of plotting to assassinate him if he lost the election. “If I had not won the presidency, I would be six feet under by now,” he told a public rally after his win. Usually dressed in spotless white, Sirisena vowed to do all in his power to stop the highly divisive Rajapaksa becoming PM and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe instead.

Macho Mahinda
Having loaned his government billions, China swiftly congratulated Rajapaksa, (72), on his new appointment but India and the West were less pleased — to say little of the Tamil minority. As president from 2005 until 2015, Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s four-decade civil war in 2009 by crushing the Tamil Tigers. But 40,000 ethnic Tamils were allegedly massacred in the process.

Sri Lanka’s media, remembering the 17 journalists and media workers killed under Rajapaksa, are also fearful about his comeback. He and his family are also accused of corruption.

But with his trademark macho moustache, traditional national dress and outsize personality, Rajapaksa remains a hero for many Sinhalese, deftly portraying himself as a man of the people. “A general election will truly establish the will of the people and make way for a stable country,” he tweeted in the early hours of Saturday.

Western style dresser, pro-West leader
Silver-haired and often in Western-style suits, Wickremesinghe has been PM four times, the first time after the Tamil Tigers assassinated the then-president in 1993. During his 2001-4 time in office, Wickremesinghe is credited with pulling Sri Lanka out of its first ever recession, in part with reforms that have endeared him to the West.

“You have not let this country be plunged into the darkness of dictatorship,” Wickremesinghe said in a video message on Thursday thanking his supporters.

Tags: maithripala sirisena, mahinda rajapaksa