COLOMBO — If a young Sri Lankan had entered one of the country’s many Buddhist monasteries in mid-October last year – handing in his cell phone to the abbot and vowing to obey a strict rule of silence — on leaving two months later, he would likely think nothing much had happened during his time in isolation.
When he had entered the hallowed sanctuary, Maithripala Sirisena would have been president — and still would be when our monk left. Ranil Wickremesinghe would have been prime minister, too, a position he would also hold after our novice’s two months of monastery life.
Meanwhile, in parliament, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been the biggest beast on the opposition benches when our monk had donned his saffron robes, and the old strongman of Sri Lankan politics would still be the most powerful anti-government voice in the chamber when our monk returned to daily life.
Yet, in an odd reversal of the maxim that the more things change, the more they stay the same, here in Sri Lanka, the more things seem to stay the same, the more they have in fact changed.
For, during the seven weeks that followed Oct. 26 last year, the country went through its most profound political crisis in years.
For seven weeks, it had two rival governments, mass demonstrations, people forming human shields around the prime minister’s residence, punch-ups in parliament, talk of a coup d’état and a terrible fatality.
Rajapaksa briefly became prime minister after being abruptly appointed to the post by Sirisena. Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe was fired by the president, his former ally, but refused to leave office, barricading himself in his official residence, Temple Trees.
Sirisena’s promotion of Rajapaksa and sacking of Wickremesinghe sent shockwaves throughout the country. Rajapaksa, who served as president from 2005 to 2015, is a deeply polarizing figure. He has been criticized for his ties to China, his crackdown on political dissent, his support of Buddhist extremists and human rights abuses committed during the final stages of the war against Tamil separatists.
But Rajapaksa is also widely revered for ending that decades-long war despite accusations that his forces slaughtered tens of thousands of rebels as well as civilians. Rajapaksa is also generally more popular than Wickremesinghe, who has been criticized for failing to address the country’s sluggish economy and mounting debt to China.
Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe’s allies in parliament rallied around their man. Chaos ensued as lawmakers yelled and hurled insults at one another, eventually voting to oust Rajapaksa. Meanwhile, Sirisena tried to dissolve parliament and call for new elections.
All this was then brought to an end by a ruling of the Supreme Court on Dec. 13 that upheld the constitution and the rule of law.
To many people’s surprise, that ruling was then accepted by all the warring parties. Rajapaksa duly returned to the opposition benches, while Wickremesinghe returned to being the sole prime minister.
Indeed, after staring chaos in the eye, Sri Lanka — Asia’s oldest democracy — stuck to its laws, kept its cool and fended off a major internal challenge to its current political system.
Wickremesinghe’s governing coalition has been revitalised by the crisis — a phenomenon acknowledged even by Rajapaksa. The president, meanwhile, has ended up weaker than ever, despite triggering a crisis that was intended to be a decisive show of force.
At the same time, however, some things have stayed the same. Principle among these is the fact that the stresses and strains within the country’s economy, political system and ruling classes that led to the Oct. 26 upheaval are still very much out there, beneath the surface of the current return to normality.
Hiring and Firing
The first of these factors is the clear dislike that exists between the president and prime minister — a phenomenon made far worse by the former’s recent firing of the latter.
Personality clashes account for some of this antagonism, as do differing roots. Sirisena is from a rural province outside Colombo, while Wickremesinghe is very much a part of the metropolitan elite.
In addition, there are significant ideological differences. Sirisena comes from the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), while Wickremesinghe has long been a leading light of the center-right United National Party (UNP).
This difference has grown in importance as the country has attempted to follow a $1.5 billion, three-year International Monetary Fund reform program. Begun in 2016, this has entailed a tightening of government expenditure and a raising of revenue, largely through increasing taxes and tax collection.
These moves, while seen as necessary by the more conservative Wickremesinghe, have been increasingly at odds with Sirisena’s more socialist views.
They have also been increasingly at odds with many ordinary Sri Lankans, who have seen subsidies and other benefits cut, while prices have jumped along with taxes. This fueled both disillusionment with the new government and a rise in support for the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Thus, in February 2018, when Sri Lankans voted in local elections, Rajapaksa and his supporters gained a major victory, winning 239 out of 340 contests, nationwide. Sirisena’s supporters did particularly badly, too, punished by core supporters for his alliance with the center-right UNP.
That’s why some have speculated that Sirisena dumped his prime minister in favor of Rajapaksa to boost his re-election chances in 2020, even though Rajapaksa is a bitter political rival.
Debts and Conflicts
The irony in all this is that the IMF program was initiated largely because of the debts Sirisena’s government inherited from its predecessor, the Rajapaksa presidency.
In office from 2005 to 2015, Rajapaksa had signed a number of major financing deals over the years, beginning with weapons purchases from China and Pakistan during the long and devastating civil war fought in the country between government forces and guerillas from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers).
That war ended in 2009, after which Rajapaksa then launched a number of giant infrastructure projects.
These include the new airport and port of Hambantota, located in Rajapaksa’s home constituency, along with a number of highways, the iconic Lotus Tower in Colombo and a major land reclamation project in the capital. All of these have required large injections of capital, which the country did not have.
China, however, seeking to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean and develop its One Belt One Road strategy — while pulling Sri Lanka away from its traditional strategic partner, India — stepped up to the plate and became the main source of loans, while Chinese companies became the main contractors.
As a result, “We were about $80 billion in debt when the new government took over in 2015,” a Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) official, who asked not to be named given current political sensitivities, told The Washington Diplomat. “That’s pretty much the equivalent of our entire GDP.”
The country become so indebted to Beijing that last year, it had to relinquish the Hambantota port that Rajapaksa had built to the Chinese government because it could not keep up with the debt payments. Sirisena in part defeated Rajapaksa to become president in 2015 by vowing to distance Sri Lanka from China.
But tackling this major debt problem was not made any easier by a major scandal at the CBSL that erupted soon after Sirisena took office.
It centered around alleged insider trading involving a treasuries dealership run by the son-in-law of the then-CBSL governor and a surprise bond issuance that may have netted millions of dollars for those involved. The scandal quickly tarnished the reputation of the new government, as Wickremesinghe continued to defend the CBSL governor in the face of widespread suspicion of a scam.
The government thus approached the IMF for help, with the resulting program obliging the austerity measures that have since dogged the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
The IMF program also involves structural changes in the way the country’s state-heavy economy is run. All of Sri Lanka’s banks, for example, are state owned. The state is also a major player in industry and even transport, with Sri Lankan Airlines, a state entity, taking heavy losses. The state bureaucracy is thus also substantial, with large numbers of ministries and agencies requiring funding, while also being opaque in their functioning.
The IMF program calls for more open and transparent government tendering, better governance and auditing of state-owned enterprises, financial accountability and the use of IT to monitor expenditure. All of these steps have met with considerable resistance, even though Sri Lanka ranked 91st out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Index.
At the same time, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government also came to power promising to take significant steps in dealing with the aftermath of a devastating 26-year civil war with Tamil insurgents that killed as many as 100,000 people.
Rajapaksa presided over the military campaign that brought the ethnic conflict to a definitive close in 2009. But that campaign was widely criticized for human rights abuses, including the intentional shelling of Tamil civilians, summary executions, rape and the blocking of food and medicine. One U.N. estimate says up to 40,000 people, mostly Tamils, may have been killed in the war’s final months, as government troops closed in on the LTTE’s last remaining stronghold.
Sirisena — who, like Rajapaksa, belongs to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority — was elected in part by courting the country’s marginalized Tamil and Muslim minorities.
But the effort to bring about transitional justice after the 26-year civil war has proven difficult.
Somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 people are still missing from that conflict and previous ones, while land seized by the army during its re-conquest of LTTE-controlled areas has, allegedly sometimes been sold off to developers, leaving the surviving inhabitants homeless.
There are also many allegations of extrajudicial executions, abductions and assassinations during the war and in the years immediately afterward, with most never adequately addressed. Sirisena pledged to prosecute any possible war crimes, but no military generals have ever stood trial and Sirisena rejected calls by the United Nations to allow an outside investigation into the conflict.
The new government has, however, managed to establish an independent Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to try and track down the missing and bring closure to still-grieving relatives and friends. Yet this faces some major obstacles.
“The process is slow and challenging,” Saliya Pieris, the OMP chairman, told The Diplomat. “It’s also a very divisive issue in the country. While some see it as a way of getting justice for their loved ones, others see it as a betrayal of the army, the military – even though we are looking for soldiers who disappeared, too.”
Measures to protect witnesses, give financial support to the families of the disappeared and establish a truth, justice and reconciliation commission were proposed in parliament on Oct. 26, when the crisis erupted, bringing deliberations to a halt.
This timing caused a particular chill to those still hoping for justice — in some cases decades after their husband, wife, son or daughter went missing, or were killed in mysterious circumstances.
“It was frightening when that happened,” said Amalini De Sayrah of the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank in Colombo. “Particularly as Sirisena then appointed Rajapaksa as prime minister. Rajapaksa had been in power while many of these atrocities were being committed.”
Rule of Law
The government thus continues to face the challenges posed by debt, the need for structural reform and the search for transitional justice, while having a leadership that is divided between the presidency and prime ministry. At the same time, there is considerable resistance to any challenges to the existing networks of power within the state bureaucracy and the security services.
“Progress will be slow,” the CBSL official told us. “But we have to do this. We have to become more fiscally responsible, more transparent, more open. If we don’t, the debts will continue to pile up and the country will never get out of this.”
The government intends to keep going with the IMF program, despite the pressures. Surviving the recent crisis has also given it greater confidence — “UNP members were asleep,” Rajapaksa told reporters just before the December Supreme Court ruling. “But now they are awake.”
In addition, for many Sri Lankans, the Supreme Court’s upholding of the constitution in the face of great pressure has boosted popular confidence in the strength of a highly precious commodity: the rule of law.
“I don’t agree with any of the politicians,” Sami Ratnagari, a Colombo café owner told The Washington Diplomat. “But I do agree there should be rules and they stuck to the rules this time. That’s the main thing, right?”
About the Author
Jonathan Gorvett (jpgorvett.com) is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in Near and Middle Eastern affairs.