How Sri Lanka descended into political turmoil
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How Sri Lanka descended into political turmoil

LATE last week, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was hastily booted from his post, sending the South Asian country into political turmoil with the leader refusing to relinquish power.

The sudden sacking has created an air of confusion surrounding the nation, with tensions escalating to violence that has left at least one person dead on Sunday.

Shock dismissal

In a statement on Oct 26, the office of President Maithripala Sirisena announced the dismissal of Wickremesinghe with who he has ruled the country in a coalition for the past three years.

Shortly after the sacking the president named Wickremesinghe successor, former president Mahinda Rajapakse, whose rushed swearing-in ceremony was aired on national television.

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According to the AFP, the shock dismissal came amid disagreements between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over economic policies and government administration.

Having ruled with an iron fist from 2005 to 2015, the new prime minister Rajapakse is highly controversial, as the strongman has been accused of graft and the murder of his political opponents.

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Sri Lanka’s sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (L) looks at his party member Malik Samarawickrama’s phone during a news conference with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Media Association in Colombo, Sri Lanka Oct 29, 2018. Source: Reuters

Sirisena on Monday also announced a new Cabinet line-up and put Rajapaksa in charge of the finance ministry, while giving out ministerial appointments to four lawmakers who defected from Wickremesinghe’s political camp.

During his term, Rajapaksa stamped out a decades-old Tamil Tiger separatist struggle in 2009 through a military offensive that killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians.

‘Illegal sacking’

Wickremesinghe insists his sacking was illegal and that he still holds the prime ministerial post owing to support from the majority of parliamentarians.

“The only way out of this crisis is to resolve who has the majority. Once parliament is summoned, this issue can be resolved,” Wickremesinghe told reporters at the prime minister’s official residence, as quoted by Reuters.

The embattled leader has also threatened to take the matter to court.

Constitutional crisis

On Oct 27 Wickremesinghe called for an emergency session of parliament to prove he indeed held the majority support of the MPs but the president suspended the assembly until Nov 16.

Amid the crisis, Wickremesinghe continues to occupy the official prime minister’s residence, Temple Trees, with around 1,000 supporters surrounding the premises

The foreign missions of India, US and Europe have called for the rivalling factions to uphold the constitution.

Privately run newspapers have dubbed Sirisena’s move as a “constitutional coup”, while parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuria says Wickremesinghe is the lawful prime minister pending a vote in parliament.

In Aug 2015, Wickremesinghe played a pivotal role in amending the country’s constitution to disallow the country’s president, who is the head of state, to sack prime ministers.

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Sri Lanka’s newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa waves at his party members during the ceremony to assume duties at the Prime Minister office in Colombo, Sri Lanka Oct 29, 2018. Source: Reuters

Potential bloodbath

The bodyguards of Arjuna Ranatunga, the petroleum minister aligned with Wickremesinghe fired shots inside a ministry building as a mob loyal to Sirisena raided his office. The clash led to the death of a 34-year-old man while two others were injured.

Ranatunga was arrested on Oct 29 after being accused of ordering the shooting on the previous day.

To quell the crisis, the US State Department has urged Sirisena to reconvene parliament “immediately” to allow representatives to name the prime minister.

SEE ALSO: Sri Lanka’s ‘disappeared’: Torture, assault and still no justice 

“We call on the president, in consultation with the speaker, to immediately reconvene parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfil their responsibilities to affirm who will lead their government,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

On Oct 29, Wickremesinghe said the country is in a power vacuum while Speaker Jayasuriya warns of a potential “bloodbath”, according to the AFP.

Ramifications

Amid a battle for influence in south Asia between India and China, the crisis carries important ramifications for all stakeholders in the region.

Beijing, which has long backed Rajapaksa, has congratulated him on the appointment as prime minister, although the missions of most foreign countries had yet to do so for fear of recognising an illegitimate government.