Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirsena by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26 this year has not only precipitated the country into a political crisis, this is likely to lead to an economic disarray. Ousted finance minister Mangala Samaraweera not only reminded of the country’s outstanding debt of $1 billion, repayment of which needed a legitimate government and functioning legislature, he further pointed to the Article 148 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which provided for the Parliament’s full control over public finance and thereby indicated absence of legal mechanisms to meet public expenditure and obligations of the state from 2019.
The Presidential action of replacing Wickremesinghe with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has allegedly been in violation of constitutional provisions and therefore, has been controversial ever since. According to the Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), while the nineteenth amendment had taken away the power previously held by the president to dismiss the prime minister, the legality of president’s actions was further “exacerbated” by the suspension of parliament. While Wickremesinghe has demanded a floor test to prove his majority, Sirisena’s party did not cooperate with parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to hold the floor test. Meanwhile, the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has faced two no-confidence motions but has refused to resign by terming the motion invalid. Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has warned that if the current state of affairs continues, there could be serious consequences that may not be in the best interest of the country.
Some observers have looked at the domestic crisis from the perspective of big powers’ interests. For instance, Harinda Vidanage, director of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo is of the opinion that “the larger context of the current political situation is clearly intensifying India-China rivalry in countries like Sri Lanka”. In a similar vein, Siegfried O. Wolf from the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) argues that the unfolding political crisis has lesser to do with Sirisena and Rajapaksa and argued: “It should be looked at in the light of a China-India tug-of-war in the region.” During Rajapaksa’s leadership, Colombo not only took interest in undertaking several infrastructure projects with Beijing including building a strategic port at Hambantota under the Belt and Road Initiative but the Chinese projects are reported to have gradually expanded from the southern parts to the northern and central parts of the country and penetrated into the areas of rubber, tea and coconut plantations.
There is no denying the fact that during a decade (2005-2015) of his leadership, Rajapaksa pushed Sri Lanka closer to China which led some observers like Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo viewing the crisis from a prism of Chinese interests. He said: “The assumption is that whatever Rajapaksa does, the financial bill as it were will be met in some way by the Chinese” pushing the Sri Lankan further into the Chinese arms. Wolf goes on to argue: “The Sri Lankan ‘coup’ happened after Chinese economic interests were seriously challenged by Wickremesinghe’s administration”. He views Wickremesinghe’s role in multiplying and improving ties with India as well as the West as threatening to China. A lawmaker from Wickremesinghe’s party reportedly accused China paying for Rajapakse’s attempts to win over rival deputies and Beijing swiftly rejected the charges terming them “Groundless and irresponsible”. However, the contention of Rajapaksa’s proclivity toward China and Chinese preference for the leader has been strengthened when the Chinese envoy to Sri Lanka was the first diplomatic representative to call on Rajapaksa and congratulate him on his appointment as prime minister.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also lost no time sending his congratulations to Rajapaksa. Some scholars, analyzing the crisis from a perspective of India’s interests believe that the political impasse has encouraged developments in the country which would end the political coalition that was understood to have been formed with Indian encouragement in 2015. The crisis is further learned to be unfavorable to New Delhi as news reports also indicated President Sirisena’s alleged objection to Wickremesinghe’s willingness to develop Colombo port with Indian investment. However, the President’s speech when he was addressing the country, foregrounds the primary reason behind his dismissal of the prime minister in the latter’s alleged involvement in the former’s “assassination” plot and estrangement over various anti-corruption investigations.
However, there are scholars like Guo Xuetang, who is serving as director of the South Asian and Indian Ocean Research Center at Shanghai University, argues that it is farfetched to believe that “small countries” such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives would like to be client states of bigger powers and the Sri Lankan tilt in favor of India or China in the future will be governed by “balance of interests”. Likewise, India’s former ambassador to Sri Lanka and China, Ashok K. Kantha, argues that it would be facile and simplistic to look at the current crisis in Sri Lanka predominantly through the prism of relations between India and China.
Some scholars have tried to understand the implications of the crisis from a perspective of political future of the Tamil minority. Rajapakse’s regime has witnessed successful yet ruthless military campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels which ended the country’s long-drawn civil war in 2009. But, it has come with a stiff price with around a death toll of 40,000 civilians. Some estimates put the civilian death statistics of the 26-year long war between Sri Lankan troops and separatist Tamil rebels at around 100,000. Some Human rights groups project the civil war causing at least 20,000 people to disappear. Recently, according to news reports, more than 230 skeletons have been found at a grave in the former war zone of the town of Mannar. However, the Sri Lankan government has been steadfast in refuting its forces’ connection with civilian deaths and disappearances. Meanwhile, there have been allegations that Rajapaksa had been utterly slow in rehabilitating the Tamil refugees. The current political crisis has led the minority-led political party TNA, with 14 MPs in parliament, to term the new government as illegal and unconstitutional.
Leader of Opposition R. Sampanthan has reportedly remarked: “In such a situation, the country’s minorities, especially Tamils, may become the victims”. The crisis has further raised questions according to the Tamil leader over the government’s assurance on returning the remaining military-occupied land belonging to civilians in war-affected areas, the release of political prisoners, ongoing work of the office on missing persons and efforts to set up the office for reparations. In this context, it is argued that engaging and nudging the Sri Lankan government irrespective of leadership change towards the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils would be of primary importance for New Delhi (given the strong linguistic, cultural and kinship links between the Sri Lankan Tamil minority and the Tamils of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu) rather than Beijing’s influence in the country.