COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—Sri Lanka was caught in a constitutional crisis on Sunday, split between two prime ministers as politicians clashed over the sudden surprise appointment of a controversial former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as premier.
On Friday, President Maithripala Sirisena brought in Mr. Rajapaksa, an authoritarian figure who ended the country’s long civil war and moved the country closer to China when he was president. Critics said his return could push the island nation away from reconciliation with its Tamil minority and toward a further tightening of ties with China.
The prime minister ousted in the action, Ranil Wickremesinghe, refused to leave the official prime minister’s residence even though he has lost official security forces protection.
President Sirisena asserted that he had the right to pick a new prime minister, and has postponed opening Parliament until November 16th. In a speech Sunday he said he needed to take the drastic measure of replacing the prime minister to protect the country’s struggling economy.
“Politicians like us who are committed to serve the people, should always look at what is right for the people,” he said.
The speaker of the house Karu Jayasuriya, who is from the ousted premier’s party, the United National Party, warned that suspension of Parliament would have “serious and undesirable consequences.”
The UNP is collecting signatures from parliamentarians to begin a process to impeach President Sirisena. Lawmakers of Mr. Sirisena’s party have insisted they will use the next two weeks to cement a majority in parliament and thwart any such efforts.
Mr. Rajapaksa is expected begin his duties on Monday, with a new cabinet expected this week.
While protests have generally been sporadic and small, one person was killed and two injured when a guard of one of one of the outgoing ministers opened fire on an angry crowd in Colombo.
Mr. Rajapaksa was president when the country defeated ethnic Tamil separatists in 2009, ending the island nation’s bloody civil war. After the conflict, Mr. Rajapaksa was popular but became increasingly authoritarian, critics say, deepening ties with China as the many in the West distanced themselves from Sri Lanka.
He was voted out of office in 2015 on concern he had abused his position to solidify power within his family during his years in office.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s possible return to the top of the government is alarming the country’s Tamil community. The defeat of Mr. Rajapaksa in 2015 was seen as the beginning of the reconciliation between the island nation’s Tamil minority community and its Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
Sri Lanka’s long civil war left deep scars and distrust between the two groups that the country is still struggling to address. The war ended with a brutal crackdown on the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam who had waged an insurgency that used suicide bombings and other terror tactics to win an independent Tamil state.
“Should Rajapaksa win the coming test of strength in parliament, his return to power will put a decisive end to Sri Lanka’s already flagging moves toward interethnic reconciliation,” said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for the International Crisis Group.
The shake up in Sri Lanka could also have implications for Sri Lanka’s relationship with China.
Mr. Rajapaksa oversaw the country when it started receiving Chinese financial backing and expertise for many massive infrastructure projects. After he was voted out of office, the succeeding administration put some of those projects on hold, questioning whether they benefited the country, though for the most part decided that they needed China’s help.
“China has always had close ties to Sri Lankan governments but during the tenure of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa it was particularly close so we expect China to be closer to an administration he is part of,” said Bernard Goonetilleke, chairman of the Pathfinder Foundation.
China has been using its economic might to strengthen its influence across Asia, but has suffered some setbacks this year as pushback against its programs has led to electoral losses among the leaders who have welcomed it.
Last month in the island nation of the Maldives, located southwest of Sri Lanka, the opposition won a surprise victory at the polls, rejecting a president who had embraced Beijing.
Outgoing President Abdulla Yameen had brought the archipelago closer to China by accepting its help and loans for a series of infrastructure investments which were part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” plans in 2014.
Opponents to the president and his plans said he was drawing the Maldives into a debt trap that will give China more sway in the island nation.
Indeed, Sri Lanka is cited as an example of how growing dependence on China can backfire. When Sri Lanka couldn’t repay a Chinese loan for a port set up in Mr. Rajapaksa’s home region while he was president, it granted a Chinese state company a 99-year lease on the facility.
Corrections & Amplifications
The Maldives is southwest of Sri Lanka. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the country is north of Sri Lanka. (Oct. 29)
Source : WSJ