Sri Lanka in Disarray as President Fires Prime Minister and Suspends Parliament
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena unilaterally replaced the country’s current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. He subsequently suspended the Sri Lankan Parliament for a three-week period, catapulting the nation into political turmoil that some warn may turn into a “bloodbath.”
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe originally joined forces in 2015 to defeat Rajapaksa, whose tenure was tinged with criticisms over alleged human rights abuses during the end of Sri Lanka’s Civil War. During its ten years in power, Rajapaksa’s administration also received negative attention over its suspension of freedom of speech.
But Sirisena and Wickremesinghe’s coalition against Rajapaksa was fragile, and its ultimate crack stemmed from disagreements between the two men over policy issues. Recently, the two clashed on plans to lease a port to India. On Friday, Sirisena alleged that Wickremesinghe’s leadership was plagued with corruption, claiming that Wickremesinghe’s team had orchestrated a plot to assassinate him.
Wickremesinghe denies Sirisena’s allegations, refusing to step down as Sri Lanka’s prime minister. He claims that Sirisena’ s actions were unconstitutional, especially since his suspension of the Parliament prevented a no-confidence vote from being held for Rajapaksa. The US State Department released a statement urging President Sirisena to immediately reconvene Parliament and allow the vote to proceed.
Now, two men claim to control the Sri Lankan government, and neither appears ready to back down in the near future.
In a news conference on Monday, Wickremesinghe said he would step down if someone else were to earn a majority of the vote, but he did not believe this would be possible. He stated: “I am confident that I am the only one who can get a majority. If someone else can show a majority, I will give way.”
Meanwhile, Sirisena and Rajapaksa have already moved to consolidate their power. In fact, Mr. Rajapaksa has already nominated ministers to his cabinet.
Though Sri Lankan officials and politicians hope to resolve the dispute with diplomacy, many fear that a violent bloodbath will soon ensue. Protests have already taken the life of one person and wounded two when the former cabinet’s petroleum minister, Arjun Ranatunga, tried to enter his office on Sunday. His bodyguard opened fire on protesters who gathered outside.
A substantial portion of Rajapaksa’s supporters comes from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhists who represent the nation’s predominant ethnic and religious constituency.
Support for each politician is also heavily informed by regional geopolitical struggles, as India and China have fought for influence in Sri Lanka ever since the end of its 25-year civil war.
In fact, Rajapaksa blamed his loss of the 2015 presidential election on India’s interference, which New Delhi vehemently denied. India tends to support Wickremesinghe and his political allies, while China generally supports Sirisena and Rajapaksa. Both the current political crisis and the potential return of Rajapaksa to Sri Lankan foreign policy are advantageous to China.