On the night of October 26, most Sri Lankans were taken by surprise when President Maithripala Sirisena named his former leader and later political foe Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister. Within minutes, celebratory firecrackers were lit across the country, as Rajapakse is still widely popular, especially among the Sinhalese majority, for having brought peace to a nation rocked by a 30-year civil war.
But the news flashed across the world by the Western-dominated international media was different. They depicted the President’s move as dipping Sri Lanka into a new era of “dictatorship” and possible violence, going back to the old narrative of Rajapakse as a “ruthless” human rights violator and war criminal. They went to the sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, still holed up in his official residence refusing to quit, and his supporters including Western-funded NGOs, for quotes that fit their narrative.
Wickremesinghe, who comes from an Anglicised, urban background, is widely unpopular with the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist majority because he is seen as unable to connect with them and too aligned with Western, Christian interests. He is more comfortable speaking in English than in the native Sinhala language. President Sirisena, who is the son of a rural Sinhalese Buddhist rice farmer, is poles apart culturally, and when both of them came together to defeat Rajapakse in 2015, many people wondered how long the alliance could last.
Their differences have now come to the surface, and were reflected in Sirisena’s address to the nation on October 30, in which he explained Wickremesinghe’s sacking through a devastating put-down of his character.
Sirisena pointed out the sacked prime minister’s inability to connect with the common people, Wickremesinghe’s disrespect for those outside a small circle of Colombo-based elites, his disregard for the country’s sovereignty and his tendency to favour foreign business over locals. It was only towards the end of Sirisena’s speech that he referred to an assassination plot against him, which he said Wickremesinghe did not take seriously. The international media largely latched on to this comment, making the president look childish for sacking the prime minister on these seemingly flimsy grounds.
Sirisena was the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which was led by Rajapakse during his tenure as President from 2005 to 2015. He defected in November 2014 and became the opposition candidate to challenge Rajapakse – a decision that shocked the nation. Along with a slogan of yahapalanaya, or “good governance”, coined by Western agencies and delivered via NGOs funded by them in Sri Lanka, it connected with the masses, who resented the corrupt practices of Rajapakse cronies, including his family members. Thus, riding on this popular anti-corruption wave, he won the presidency narrowly in January 2015.
A day after being sworn in as President, Sirisena appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister, citing a campaign promise, even though Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) only had 46 MPs in the 225-member parliament. After the appointment, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance forced the existing prime minister D.M. Jayaratne to submit a backdated resignation letter to avoid any constitutional hassles.
Today, when Wickremesinghe loyalists accuse Sririsena of breaching the constitution, Rajapakse supporters point out the “unconstitutionality” of the Wickremesinghe appointment in 2015. They argue that since Sirisena’s SLFP withdrew from the “National Government” formed in 2015 a day before he appointed Rajapakse as prime minister, the existing cabinet and prime minister ceased to exist, and thus the president was within constitutional norms in his appointment of Rajapakse. This could be why Wickremesinghe has not gone to the Supreme Court to challenge it, and instead has tried to mobilise his Western allies to bail him out.
Immediately following the events of October 26, the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia met Wickremesinghe at his “official” residence, which the new government says he is illegally occupying. After this, their governments issued statements calling for the “restoration” of democracy and recalling of parliament (which the president has prolonged until 16 November). They have also had meetings with opposition leaders and foreign-funded NGOs.
On October 30, President Sirisena summoned all foreign envoys for a meeting to brief them about his actions. During the meeting, EU Ambassador Tung-Lai Margue warned that if democratic norms and constitutional provisions were not observed in handling the ongoing political crisis in Sri Lanka, the EU might consider withdrawing the trade concessions the island nation enjoyed under the General System of Preferences Plus. On Sunday, it was reported that the US and Japan are withholding some US$1 billion of promised “aid” to Sri Lanka.
On the perceived unpopularity or unacceptability of his act of removing Wickremesinghe in the way he did, Sirisena reportedly told the Western envoys it was best to leave the governance of Sri Lanka to Sri Lankans, and that the government and the people of Sri Lanka knew best what was good for them.
At a time when the US and EU are complaining about Russian interference in their domestic politics, the western envoys’ behaviour in Sri Lanka is a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations adopted in 1961.
“We are facing blatant external interference in a domestic political process … A climate of insecurity is being created artificially by the defeated allies of the West whose objective may be to provoke a violent situation that will provide justification for external intervention,” warned Tamara Kunanayakam, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in a commentary published by local media.
In October 2015, the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored UNHRC resolution 30/1 “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, an action taken by then-Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, which Sirisena claims was not approved by him. This invited direct interference by the UNHRC in the country’s domestic affairs, even to the extent of trying to establish war crimes tribunals with foreign judges. The people of Sri Lanka are vehemently opposed to this, except for a few urban elites and NGOs around Wickremesinghe.
Under Wickremesinghe, western aid agencies, think tanks and corporations shaped, drafted and helped to implement policies, opening “new frontiers” for US hegemony. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which claims to be independent, is a US government body chaired by the US Secretary of State, has a project unit physically located inside the Prime Minister’s office and was involved in drafting Wickremesinghe’s eight-year economic development plan, “Vision 2025”, that was believed to be planning to recommend constitutional changes to make it easier for foreigners to buy land in the country.
Wickremesinghe on Sunday told Reuters the MCC was withholding US$480 million worth of aid for a “motorways project and improving land administration”. While the US and its allies have widely criticised the allocation of about 100 hectares around the Hambantota harbour to a Chinese government-linked company on a 99-year lease as infringing on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the Vision 2025 plan is suspected to include provisions to declare government land across the country as economic assets that could be acquired by foreign investors.
When parliament resumes later this month, Rajapakse is expected to present an interim budget in place of the budget that was due to be presented in parliament last Friday. He had previously said he would prepare an economic plan to encourage domestic production and agricultural sector activities, and hinted that the outgoing government’s outward-looking policies favouring foreign investors would be curtailed.
If he loses the vote on the budget, it will allow Sirisena to dissolve parliament immediately and call for a snap general election, which Rajapakse loyalists want and the UNP, Wickremesinghe’s party does not. There are also many UNP members who have not yet completed five years in parliament, upon which they will receive a government pension. If a new election is held many of them are likely to lose; they could abstain from voting, giving Rajapakse victory. Winning the budget vote will legitimise his appointment as prime minister, and Wickremesinghe’s allies will find it difficult to move a no-confidence motion.
However, with a lot at stake for US, India and China in the geopolitical battle in Sri Lanka, things can also take a nasty turn outside the confines of parliament.
Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lankan-born journalist, media analyst and international communications expert based in Singapore.