On Sunday, 29th of October, one person was killed and two more were injured after a minister’s bodyguard opened fire into a crowd of protesters gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The bodyguard was taken into custody soon after the incident while the victim – a 34-year-old man – died shortly after being transported to a nearby hospital.
The shooting came in the wake of Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the rest of his cabinet, citing economic mismanagement as a primary reason. In his speech, Sirisena further noted the minister’s alleged involvement in an assassination attempt on himself and on one former defence secretary as another contributing cause. On Friday, Sirisena went ahead and replaced Wickremesinghe with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This choice has been met with dismay and apprehension by many Sri Lankans, as during Rajapaksa’s presidency, he was accused of corruption and multiple human rights violations.
The bodyguard in question worked for petroleum minister Arjuna Ranatunga, who was part of Wickremesinghe’s now-dissolved cabinet. On the day of the shooting, a crowd of people loyal to Sirisena gathered in front of the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, where Ranatunga’s office was located. According to the police, the bodyguard fired rounds into the crowd after they tried to prevent Ranatunga from gaining access to the building. Ranatunga’s version of the events, according to Al Jazeera, is that his bodyguard opened fire because the crowd “was trying to kill” him.
The shooting was the first violent incident since Sirisena announced his controversial decision. Wickremesinghe has labelled the president’s decision as “unconstitutional”, a categorization that Sirisena has vehemently rejected, citing again the alleged assassination attempt as grounds for his action. The fallout between the two leaves the nation in political turmoil. Many perceive Sirisena’s move as hypocritical and disloyal, as Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had worked together in the 2015 election to defeat then-incumbent President Rajapaksa.
Wickremesinghe continues to insist he is still Prime Minister and is refusing to leave the official residence. Sirisena and Rajapaksa, on the other hand, are hoping to move forward with their new partnership, which Rajapaksa even advertised as a “new democratic beginning and the rejection of the politics of hate”, according to BBC News. Following Rajapaksa’s return to government, concerns have been raised by Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups over fears that Rajapaksa will resume abuses that Sirisena vowed to move forward from following the end of the civil war in 2009. Sirisena successfully ended the civil war, but has been criticized for how victory was achieved. It is believed that thousands of Tamil citizens were killed by the government during the final months of the war and there are also numerous allegations of war crimes.
In addition to the Prime Minister and cabinet reshuffle, Sirisena has also suspended parliament for the last three weeks, a move that many believe was done so that Rajapaksa is able to gather the support of the required number of MPs. According to BBC News, Speaker of the Parliament Karu Jayasuriya has urged Sirisena to reconsider the decision, saying it will have serious and undesirable consequences.
Supporters for both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe have been gathering for protests and demonstrations all around the city of Colombo. Fear of further violence is widespread. If this political unrest continues much longer, the nation could be looking at serious clashes – a very risky outcome in a country that only ended its 25-year-long civil war in 2009. Citizens – and MPs – need to hold Sirisena to the promises he made during his 2015 campaign and not allow Rajapaksa to regain power like this. Either way, parliament needs to be reconvened and a clear decision made about the governance of the country. Allowing the current setup to continue is simply asking for further turmoil and violence.