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The political situation in Sri Lanka: Turmoil at Medamulana

The previous editorial analysed the political situation in Sri Lanka in April 2022. This editorial will analyse changes in the political situation since. The fundamentals remain the same: the economic crisis continues with no indication that it is going to be resolved anytime soon. The Sri Lankan rupee has rapidly depreciated and Sri Lanka is still in negotiations with the IMF on a bailout package for the nation. Meanwhile, the people’s protests continue to grow throughout the country and are not just limited to Colombo. The protesters’ demands remain adamant and focused on demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign and a new interim government to be established with a caretaker leadership.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa: A Presidency in crisis

The President has managed to remain in power despite the demand for his resignation remaining central to the people’s protests. Last month, the government whip informed Parliament that the President will not be resigning. In a recent interview with the Daily Mirror, the former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa noted that the “Go Home Gota” campaigns are only run by a certain section of the population and are not practical since the President and Prime Minister enjoy an electoral mandate. The Opposition parties, in the meantime, had rejected the President’s call for a unity government, on grounds that the President resign first. As the economic crisis and political crisis worsens, the resulting social crisis has placed the President in a very precarious position. He also appears to have, crucially, lost a large part of his Sinhala nationalist middle class electorate which is clamouring for his (and the SLPP-led government’s) resignation

Sri Lanka, a heavily import-reliant South Asian nation, no longer has enough dollar reserves to purchase essential goods such as fuel, medicine, and other essential commodities.

Electricity shortages continue with daily power cuts. However, the movement to remove the President appears stronger than ever and it is unclear how much longer the President will be able to hold on to power. Their situation is precarious and complex and appears to be worsening day by day.

The legal dimension: Legal proceedings against the Rajapaksa family

They say that all political careers end in failure and that is true to some extent. It may be that we are currently witnessing the downfall of the Rajapaksa government and the political dynasty that has ruled Sri Lanka for so long. One of the key reasons the Rajapaksas are so desperate to remain in power are the legal proceedings against the family.

This has two dimensions: internal legal proceedings within Sri Lanka and external, international legal proceedings. The internal proceedings largely centre around corruption, such as the alleged misappropriation of $33.9 million rupees in public funds from Sri Lanka Land Reclamation and Development Corporation for the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa Memorial and Museum in Medamulana.

On the international front, the regime faces accusations of war crimes and Tamil genocide due to the brutal and controversial manner in which the LTTE was crushed in 2009, bombing and killing civilians with no restraint. Sri Lanka’s human rights record is very, very weak indeed. In March 2021, during the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the body’s members put forward a resolution calling on the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner for Human Rights to “collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence” pertaining to human rights violations in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime. Once out of office, the Rajapaksa’s could find themselves in deep hot water with international human rights groups and organisations calling for them to be prosecuted. It is this fear in part that prompts the family’s attempts to cling on to power at whatever cost, as they fear the repercussions once outside of office.

The removal of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the introduction of Ranil Wickremesinghe: A catastrophic political mistake or a new opportunity?

On May 9th 2022, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka after months of protests against the government, fuelled largely by the dire economic crisis Sri Lanka faces at present. Mahinda Rajapaksa is of course no stranger to Sri Lankan politics, having previously served as President across two terms. The Prime Minister’s resignation was, however, highly unlikely to satisfy the people’s protests while the President remains in power. In a move that shocked the nation and the world, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa picked and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the 6th time.

Wickremasinghe’s appointment has drawn mixed reviews from analysts. Some have described Wickremesinghe’s experience and expertise as a selling point which will allow him to steer and stabilise Sri Lanka through these troubled times. Others point to the current Prime Minister’s failings in the past, in particular his involvement in the highly controversial Central Bank bond scam which triggered public outrage and anger at the previous Yahapalana government.

It is unclear how this move by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will eventually play out. But there does appear to be a worrying trend emerging in Sri Lankan politics. That is, of leaders being elected or appointed as President or Prime Minister and then being forced to resign amidst pressure from the people and/or political factions. Mahinda Rajapaksa has just been forced to resign and Mr Wickremesinghe was controversially sacked as Prime Minister in the last Sirisena government, not too long ago. Will the PM be able to remain in office? Or will he face the same fate as his predecessor, with the people turning against him as he fails to deliver?

In summary, the political situation in Sri Lanka this May appears very difficult indeed. The Rajapaksas, once an all-powerful dynasty that no one would dare touch or oppose, is today being unravelled one step at a time – especially in the ideological-discursive realm. Of course introducing Wickremesinghe may buy the family some time to regroup and re-enter the political fold. But this is the crucial lesson about politics that everyone in Sri Lanka is observing: that you may rise to power quickly but you will also fall even faster.

OTI Editorial

26 May 2022