On October 26th, President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka challenged the country’s constitution by dismissing Ranil Wickremesinghe from his position as Prime Minister. In his place, therefore, Sirisena appointed opposition leader, and former Sri Lankan President- Mahinda Rajapaksa. Al Jazeera reports that just hours after this, Wickremesinghe called on parliament to convene in order to “prove he still retained his parliamentary majority.” President Sirisena responded to this motion by suspending the country’s parliament.
Constitutionally, in order for the President to be able to remove the Prime Minister, they have to first prove that the Prime Minister has fallen out of favor with the country’s 225-seat assembly. Yet, if there is no parliament, there can be no vote.
Many are understandably concerned about the state of Sri Lanka after the abrupt and unethical reintroduction of Rajapaksa to the political sphere. Member of the International Crisis Group, Alan Keenan, said, “Even through years of war, Sri Lanka has never had a transfer of power whose legality was questioned.” That is, until now. Heather Nauert, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said that in Washington there is concern about the events unfolding in Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe himself admitted to The AP that “At the moment, there is a vacuum and constitutional crisis.”
Ironically, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe ran their campaign together to oust Rajapaksa in 2015. They joined forces against the former Prime Minister after allegations of brutality, forced disappearances, and authoritarianism made it evident that Rajapaksa wasn’t fit to rule. Following Rajapaksa’s defeat, the two men originally from opposing parties have governed side by side with major bouts of disagreement and animosity between them.
To understand the reason why Rajapaksa’s growing political presence has quickly caused global backlash, we should analyze Sri Lanka’s past. Rajapaksa’s presidency, which ran from 2005 until his defeat in 2015, decisively ended the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2009. A war which was caused by an insurgent group in 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, that sought to overthrow the government, and create an independent Tamil state. While the conflict came to an end under Rajapaksa’s jurisdiction, it was also by his order that the Sri Lankan military attacked civilians, hospitals, and schools, while executing prisoners and interning thousands of Tamils. In fact, Tamils and other marginalized groups with links to the Tigers were essentially bullied out of existence thanks to his rule.
It is understandable that the international community fears Sri Lanka’s future as the man, who committed such blatant and atrocious war crimes, slowly returs to power. However, once Rajapaksa returns to office, it is unacceptable to throw out constitutional due process and close the legislative branch in order to block the people’s vote.
After suspending parliament a week ago in order to block the vote which could protect Wickremesinghe, Sirisena has since re-opened parliament at the insistence of thousands of protesters (per TIME magazine). A vote is now scheduled for November 5th to determine Sri Lanka’s future Prime Minister. According to Sky News, Sirisena is still defending his decision to sack Wickremesinghe, claiming the prime minister and his party privatized public ventures to foreign countries and were involved in an assassination plot against him. Wickremesinghe has vehemently denied all these claims.
Despite the questions arising around Sirisena’s right to rule, the Guardian notes that making Rajapaksa a central figure of authority once again might reverse all of the progress made in transitional justice and accountability since the civil war ended.
Peace at this point cannot be achieved if Rajapaksa is to take office by cheating the democratic due process. The democratic process must be restored so that Sri Lankans can once again have faith in their own government. A man who ended violence by violating human rights and by jeopardizing his own nation’s democratic process is not one fit to govern.
President Sirisena promises that “the voice of the people will be heard,” but his headstrong, abrasive actions tell a different story, casting judgment on his executive abilities.
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