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David Pratt: Tensions rise between the men who would be Sri Lanka’s PM

If you think Theresa May as Prime Minister has her work cut out over Brexit, spare a thought for the crisis confronting her Sri Lankan counterpart, or perhaps I should say, counterparts. 

In an unprecedented period of political turmoil in what many Sri Lankans claim is Asia’s oldest democracy, two men right now are currently engaged in a bitter struggle, both claiming to be the country’s Prime Minister. 

It’s a complex affair, one whose intrigues have prompted watchers to compare its machinations to Shakespeare’s darkest Roman political plays or the political drama House of Cards. 

What is undeniable is that the crisis has now reached a perilous and uncertain phase and already involved street protests, violence and one deadly confrontation that some observers fear could now escalate. 

So just what is going on in Sri Lanka’s corridors of power and what lies behind this complex, precipitous and potentially combustible stand-off? 

Since its start earlier this month, the affair has centred around three main characters. 

The first is Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, the second player is ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and third, former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was recently appointed prime minister by Mr Sirisena, a move seen by many as unconstitutional.

For their part M Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe are ideological opponents who formed a coalition of “convenience” to defeat Mr Rajapaksa in 2015 elections. 

Political veteran Mr Rajapaksa meanwhile, who was president from 2005 to 2015 and is nicknamed by some Sri Lankans “Lord of the Rings” thanks to his taste for gem-laden rings and an epic battle, is revered by some and feared by others for his brutal ending of the country’s prolonged Tamil separatist war in 2009. Some estimates say more than 40,000 ethnic Tamils were massacred.

These wartime atrocities and allegations of corruption and nepotism consistently marred Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Last month however on October 26, the alliance between Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe formally crumbled, with Mr Sirisena naming Mr Rajapaksa the new prime minister and suspending Parliament.

After a week of upheaval that included street protests, Mr Sirisena announced he was dissolving Parliament and calling snap elections due on January 5. 

Since then Mr Wickremesinghe has been holed up in the prime minister’s official residence in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, maintaining he is the country’s rightful leader and repeatedly calling for Parliament to be reconvened so that he could prove his majority support among the country’s 225 politicians. 

This week the crisis deepened even further after Sri Lanka’s politicians passed a no-confidence motion against purported Prime Minister Mr

His allies however have now refused to recognise the legitimacy of this week’s vote, further fuelling the uncertainty of the past weeks and leaving it unclear who, if anyone, is currently Sri Lanka’s lawful prime minister.

It would be wrong to underestimate just how significant this crisis is, given that its outcome will likely determine the future course of democracy in Sri Lanka, a country still struggling with the legacy of its bitter 25-year civil war that ended in 2009.

Already a number of international human rights groups and conflict monitors have flagged up the dangers in President Sirisena’s efforts to impose Mr Rajapaksa as prime minister.

According to Alan Keenan an analyst at the conflict monitoring think-tank International Crisis Group (ICG), Mr Sirisena’s actions were “illegal,” with the result that “Sri Lanka’s democracy is at stake”.

“Rajapaksa appears to be in a strong position. He has the backing of the president and the sympathy of the police and army. The longer he controls the state, the more likely it is for him to win the vote when parliament convenes,” Mr Keenan said recently.

While this weeks’s motion aimed at removing Mr Rajapaksa and his cabinet from their posts is a boost to sacked incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, few expect Mr Rajapaksa will take such a move lying down and many fear the worst may yet be about come in this bitter contest between the two men. For his part Mr Wickremesinghe remains undaunted.

“If anyone wants to challenge the speaker’s decision they can put it to a vote,” he insisted yesterday. 

“We will now take steps to ensure that the government in place before Oct 26 will continue,” he later posted on Twitter.

Just who precisely is prime minister though still remains unclear, adding to confusion over who controls the army and other state bodies. As the stand-off continues and tensions rise it’s not just Sri Lankans that are looking on nervously.

The US, UK, and other powers have raised concerns over the crisis in this strategically important island nation of 21 million people. For behind the struggle for power inside the country a bigger tussle for economic power between India and China is going on. 

The big fear for India is that Sri Lanka, just off its southern coast and on one of the world’s busiest maritime routes, could become a Chinese military outpost.

“India can ill-afford to ignore the strategic advantage China has gained in Sri Lanka so close to peninsular India,” was how Colonel R. Hariharan, a retired Indian Army intelligence officer summed up the threat recently. 

In Colombo, Chinese companies are constructing a $1.5 billion new commercial district, including hotels, marinas and a motor racing track, and have already built a giant container terminal nearby and a huge port in the south. 

This economic backdrop has only exacerbated the current leadership crisis in Sri Lanka where the issue of how far to accommodate Indian interests has been a significant factor. 

While Mr Wickremesinghe is seen to lean more towards New Delhi Mr Rajapaksa has long been regarded as more pro-China. For the moment both giant countries have remained comparatively quiet on the current crisis. 

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres offered to moderate in discussions,  urging the Sri Lankan government to respect “democratic processes and institutions.” 

So far his offer has fallen on deaf ears.

Source : HeraldScotland

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