Sri Lanka’s fierce power strug­gle ex­plained

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD -

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.


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