By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Maithripala Sirisena is not exactly a type of politician described as ‘charismatic’ or ‘revolutionary.’ But in the space of three and a half years he has pulled off two dramatic political reversals in the country’s electoral history. The first was in 2014 ,when he broke ranks with the ruling UPFA coalition to be the UNP-led Opposition’s common candidate in the 2015 election. Now he’s unceremoniously dumped his UNP coalition partner, pulling the UPFA along with him to appoint his one-time bete noire Mahinda Rajapaksa as his prime minister.
With the UPFA having to prove a majority in the House in the days ahead in order to chrystalise the move, the situation has parallels with that which prevailed when the UNP-led coalition failed to garner a clear majority in 2015, and multiple cross-overs helped to consolidate power.
There has been furious debate on the legality/constitutionality or otherwise of the president’s actions, by loyalists on either side. This discussion related to the 19th amendment that redefined the presidential powers. The main point of contention is that the Sinhala version of the Constitution is said to include ‘removal’ by the president as one of the circumstances in which the prime minister ceases to hold office, whereas this condition is missing in the English version. It is the Sinhala version that prevails when there is a dispute, according to lawyers. A Supreme Court determination, if sought, would no doubt help settle the legal question.
Meanwhile, a closer look at the social context might help understand the forces at work in this drama. While constitutional experts split hairs over the interpretation of Article 48 subsection (1), or the meaning of Article 46 subsection (2), the reality is that these events come at a time of deep discontent among ordinary people across the country. The mood was best summed up by the chief prelate of a Colombo temple. In rough translation what he said was “Voters, when these things happened, did not cry, lament, light lamps, or curse. There was not a sound.” Ven. Galaboda Gnanissara Thera told reporters: “The people were hard-pressed, trampled upon, saddened and living in fear. In any other country if a government elected by a majority was toppled, people would rise up. But here nobody lost any sleep. I too slept well.”
As the monk suggested, it has been business as usual for the most part – in fact, stocks hit a six-week high. The mainstream media has not gone into overdrive, and service chiefs called on the new PM within days of his appointment.
Interestingly, those who rushed to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s side were western diplomats, who went into a huddle with him at Temple Trees and then came out with almost identical statements calling on the President to ‘reconvene parliament immediately.’ This call reflected the demand of the UNP camp, for the government to prove its majority on the floor of the House immediately, without waiting for the assigned date of 16th Nov. It is the president’s prerogative to prorogue parliament, and the inordinate ‘concern’ expressed by these ambassadors and high commissioners in what is essentially an internal problem, could be seen as unwarranted meddling.
“The meeting as well as subsequent declarations can be construed as a concerted and deliberate act against the Head of State, openly challenging the authority vested in the President by the people, interfering in internal political processes, and violating Sri Lanka’s sovereignty,” said Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN, addressing an ‘Eliya’ briefing.
She drew public attention to the hypocrisy of these statements made by those who had nothing to say when Wickremesinghe was made prime minister in 2015 with the UNP in a minority while the UPFA held a two thirds majority in parliament, and when local and provincial council elections were endlessly postponed.
“How do you explain that the same indignation was missing when Germany was unable to form a government for five months, when Belgium had no government for almost two years (541 days) and Northern Ireland was without government for even longer?” she asked.
In a more respectful response, the Chinese ambassador called on both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, while a spokesman in Beijing said “What is going on in Sri Lanka is their domestic affairs.” It should be mentioned that when Wickremesinghe was asked in an interview with NDTV if he saw a ‘Chinese hand’ behind what was going on, his categorically reply was “I don’t see a Chinese hand.”
In a development that could raise some eyebrows, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in a phone call with President Sirisena on 1st Nov., echoed the call of the western powers, urging the latter to “revert to Parliamentary procedures and allow the Parliament to vote as soon as possible,” according to a readout of the conversation on the UN website. “He encouraged the government to uphold its earlier commitments to human rights, justice and reconciliation, in line with Human Rights Council resolutions,” the statement dated 2nd Nov. said. In a previous statement of 28th Oct. however, the UNSG had only said he was ‘following the latest developments with great concern’ and calling on the government to respect democratic values and constitutional process, uphold rule of law and ensure the safety of all Sri Lankans.
The reference to HRC resolutions raises the question as to whether the UNSG’s ‘second thoughts’ on the matter were influenced by those same western powers that led the 2015 Geneva resolution against Sri Lanka. The other question is whether the western powers ‘concerns’ for Sri Lanka have more to do with their own vested interests, than peace and stability in Sri Lanka.
The UNSG’s revised remarks come on the heels of a visit to the Speaker of Parliament on 30th Oct. by a delegation of ambassadors and high commissioners from the EU, Canada, UK and Germany along with the UN resident representative. At this meeting they reportedly warned of ‘inimical consequences’ of the power transition. It’s relevant to recall here how, during the 2014 CIA-backed coup in Ukraine, the US roped in a UN representative to help legitimise its actions. Or in other words ‘glue the thing together’ as a US official famously said in a leaked phone call with the US ambassador in Ukraine at the time.
The sequence of events in Sri Lanka would suggest western powers have gone into high-gear over the current political impasse, presumably with a view to influencing the outcome. These developments serve as a pointer to intense underlying geopolitical tensions in the region. Western powers alarmed at a rising China’s expanding footprint in this small but strategically located state, had counted on Wickremesinghe to bring the country within the western sphere of influence. The prospect of that project being undermined has rung alarm bells.
The new government will have more to deal with than revelations of an assassination plot targeting the president and former defence secretary. It will also have to navigate the threat of possible interventions by western powers alarmed by the prospect of further inroads by China. Such interventions will no doubt come packaged in the guise of a ‘concern for democracy and human rights.’