Sri Lanka’s fierce power struggle explained
Aconfusing power struggle has broken out on the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka, and many powers in the region and beyond are watching closely. President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last month and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Shaun Donnelly, U.S. ambassador to Colombo from 1997 to 2000 and now vice president for investment and financial services in the Washington office of the U.S. Council for International Business, answers questions from The Washington Times on the crisis.
Question: Sri Lanka appeared to be emerging successfully from a long and brutal civil war. What is the backdrop to the crisis?
Answer: Like everything in Sri Lanka, it’s complicated. Basically, this crisis is all about Sri Lanka domestic politics, including some long-held personal grudges and rivalries, with only indirect linkages to the civil war that ended a decade ago or to international factors. The three key individual players were all prominent politicians whom I came to know well during my own time in Colombo 20 years ago. Sri Lanka has a unique and vibrant democratic tradition, the only major South Asian nation never to have had the military intervene in domestic politics. But it also has a tradition of evershifting political coalitions, self-serving defections from party to party, backroom deals and, yes, even some corruption.
Q: Why did President Sirisena move last month to remove Mr. Wickremesinghe? Why has the prime minister resisted the ouster?
A: The relationship between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has long been more an alliance of convenience than a true partnership or shared policy agenda. Their political roots are quite different: Mr. Sirisena grew up in modest circumstances in a small rural village outside the capital, Colombo, associated with the left-of-center, populist SLFP and its successor parties. Interestingly, he shares a political background and populist orientation with Mr. Rajapaksa much more than with the ousted prime minister. Mr. Wickremesinghe is a scion of Colombo’s political and economic elite who early on inherited the leadership of the right-of center UNP party and its successors.
The alliance of these two disparate politicians, born from the 2015 election, has always been a tactical gambit based more on pragmatic paths to power and a shared antipathy to former President Rajapaksa than any common program or shared ideology. My sense is that over the last year or so, political support for the governing coalition has waned and the stresses between the two leaders intensified. The president may have seen an opportunity to shift horses in the middle of the race and position himself better for the next presidential election, set for 2020.
It’s pretty self-evident why Mr. Wickremesinghe would resist the ouster: He’d rather be prime minister than leader of a weak opposition in parliament.
Q: Mr. Rajapaksa is often described as a “divisive figure” and a “former strongman.” Why is the president supporting him?
A: Mahinda Rajapaksa is, indeed, a “former strongman” and a formidable politician, still popular with his political base as the Sri Lanka leader who finally defeated the hated terrorist rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and ended the country’s long-running civil war. After three years on the political outs, Mr. Rajapaksa certainly seems the primary beneficiary of the recent political gambit. Some observers in Sri Lanka suspect his intentions may not be to serve a loyal No. 2 to Mr. Sirisena but to exercise — directly or indirectly — real power. Personally, I doubt the political turnstiles have finished spinning in Colombo.
Q: One Asian newspaper described Sri Lanka as “a battleground in the struggle for geopolitical supremacy in South Asia” between India and China. True or false?
A: That may be a bit overdramatic. There is no question that these internal political games will have some international implications. As president, Mr. Rajapaksa developed especially close relations with China, including launching several large and widely criticized infrastructure partnerships which seemed more driven by cynical domestic politics and/or short-term pecuniary interests than any rigorous economic analysis. In the three years Mr. Rajapaksa has been out of power, those Chinese infrastructure projects have turned sour, China has stepped in to seize control and the whole process has been widely criticized in Sri Lanka and beyond. If Mr. Rajapaksa ends up rehabilitated and back in power, that could well signal a return toward closer ties with China.
Undeniably, India is a rival to China, especially in a region which India has long regarded as its own backyard or zone of influence. We may well see some increased Sino-Indian competition over Sri Lanka. But I just feel the language of “geopolitical supremacy” overstates the real strategic importance for either Beijing or Delhi.