Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa — and Sirisena’s subsequent decision to suspend and dissolve Sri Lanka’s parliament and call for snap elections — have sparked outcry from people across the country and piqued the interest of India and China, two key players in Indian Ocean geopolitics. Even with recent events indicating an end to the conflict, such as the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the decision to dissolve parliament and Rajapaksa’s resignation from the prime ministership, context is necessary to understand the situation, its main actors, and the implications for Sri Lanka’s political future, as well as the regional and international community.
Understanding the backlash to Sirisena’s actions requires context about Sri Lanka’s demographics and recent political history. The vast majority of Sri Lankans are ethnic Sinhalese, but sizeable Tamil (11.2 percent) and Muslim (9.2 percent) minorities exist. Sri Lanka’s recent history has been dominated with the Sri Lankan state’s civil war with an insurgent group calling itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent group that aims to create a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president by exploiting Sinhalese nationalism and promising an end to the war with the LTTE. LTTE’s defeat by the Sri Lankan military in 2009 emboldened Rajapaksa’s authoritarian, ushering in an assault on freedom of press and speech and oppression of Tamil and Muslim minorities. However, the most significant feature of Rajapaksa’s reign was his decisive foreign policy reorientation toward China. His government accumulated large debts through infrastructure loans from the Chinese government for projects like the port of Hambantota.
In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapaksa, defected to the opposition coalition and defeated Rajapaksa for the presidency of Sri Lanka. Sirisena formed a government with the United National Party and chose Ranil Wickremesinghe as his prime minister. Relations between the two men have since soured — Sirisena recently accused a member of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet of plotting to assassinate him. Sirisena removed Wickremesinghe from power in October 2018, installed Rajapaksa in his place, dissolved parliament, and called for snap elections. There was immediate blowback to these moves, culminating in Rajapaksa’s resignation of his position, and the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Rajapaksa subsequently became the official leader of the opposition to Wickremesinghe in parliament.
Regionally, the seven-week long crisis had major implications for both India and China. During Rajapaksa’s tenure, the Sri Lankan government fell into crippling debt from unpaid loans for Chinese-financed infrastructure projects, a pattern that some commentators call ‘debt-trap diplomacy.’ In essence, debt-trap diplomacy is a situation in which Beijing extends loans to countries they know will be unable to pay them, creating a vicious cycle where debtor nations are at China’s mercy and China is able to exert influence over the nation’s domestic affairs. As a result of mounting debt, Sri Lanka ultimately leased Hambantota port to the Chinese government for 99 years in December 2017, giving China access to critical shipping lanes in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This saga exemplifies how Beijing trapped Colombo in a vicious cycle in which the only reprieve was to essentially become an economic vassal state for temporary debt relief. Despite Rajapaksa’s resignation of the prime ministership, his reentry into Sri Lankan domestic politics means that Beijing can hope that in the interim, Rajapaksa will be a reliable pro-China voice within the country, eventually paving the way for an agenda dominated by Chinese interests if Rajapaksa returns to power in 2020. Prior to this crisis, China’s recent plays in Sri Lanka unnerved India, who fear increased Chinese influence through economic control. The reinstatement of Wickremesinghe as Sri Lankan prime minister is a relief for New Delhi — Wickremesinghe has prioritized better relations with India and the West during his administration.
As for the international community, Sri Lanka’s crisis is indicative of the worrisome rise of authoritarianism across the world over the past few years and provides solutions on how to stop it. Rajapaksa’s rise is disconcerting because of his previous administration’s actions — politicizing issues surrounding a military that committed human rights violations against Tamils during and after the civil war, suppression of the freedom of speech, and oppression of other ethnic minorities and political opponents. Such a person in the prime ministership would have been a win for China in the economic and political sense because it would have ensured a proponent of Chinese-led economic development in power — and endorsed a Chinese-led world order, where economic growth is ranked higher than democracy and human rights on a sovereign country’s needs.
Sri Lanka’s future
While the crisis may have come to an end, the ramifications for Sri Lanka’s political stability are significant. Sirisena’s decision to replace Wickremesinghe and suspend and dissolve parliament displays his willingness to subvert democratic institutions and flout constitutional norms. Sirisena’s actions were clearly unconstitutional — the Sri Lankan constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment mandates that a parliament may only be dissolved four and a half year after an election unless two-thirds of the existing parliament consents to an earlier dissolution. Rajapaksa’s second act as an influential Sri Lankan political figure also must not go unnoticed — his authoritarianism has the potential to resurface in his role as the leader of the opposition.