Why Sri Lanka Risks Return to Violence

(Bloomberg) -- Sri Lanka is in the throes of a political crisis that’s threatening to bring violence back to the South Asian island nation. A bitter standoff was sparked in October when the president fired the prime minister, suspended parliament and attempted to install a controversial ex-president as premier. It marks a return of political upheaval to the country of 21 million people that’s still in rehabilitation following a brutal 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.

1. Why was the prime minister fired?

President Maithripala Sirisena said he dismissed Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct. 26 for failing to properly investigate a plot to assassinate him, one that he alleges involved a cabinet minister. But the president also accused Wickremesinghe of mismanaging the economy, and relations between the two had been strained for months. Sirisena attempted to appoint populist strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, claiming the move was within his constitutional rights. Wickremesinghe described his ousting as “blatantly illegal, unconstitutional, and opportunistic.”

2. What’s happened since?

Lawmakers voted twice to reject Sirisena’s bid to install Rajapaksa as prime minister, then froze spending by Rajapaksa’s office and ministerial salaries in an attempt to crimp the new government’s ability to implement policies. Tensions boiled over Nov. 15 when rival lawmakers exchanged blows in the middle of the parliamentary chamber. To settle the matter, Sirisena planned to dissolve parliament and call an election for Jan. 5. However, the Supreme Court has ruled the plan unconstitutional, putting pressure on the president to reinstall Wickremesinghe.

Why Sri Lanka Risks Return to Violence

3. Why is Rajapaksa controversial?

As president from 2005 to 2015, he was implicated in human rights violations toward the end of the civil war. He also drew criticism for his close relationship with China and the ramping up of the country’s borrowings. Roughly 80 percent of government revenue now goes toward paying down debt. Nonetheless, Rajapaksa remains popular in part because many of the Sinhalese population (80 percent of Sri Lankans) were relieved to see a conclusion to the war and the regular bombings and assassinations it brought to the capital Colombo and the rest of the country.

4. What was the civil war about?

Sri Lanka has been weighed down by conflict since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. The Sinhalese sought to disenfranchise Tamil migrant workers from India -- Tamils make up 9.4 percent of the population -- and made Sinhala the official language. In 1972, the country’s name was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka and Buddhism was established as the main religion. Tamils are mostly Hindu. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, was formed in 1976 and began to campaign for a Tamil homeland in the north and east. The civil war that followed killed up to 100,000 people, and both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military were accused of violations, including the use of child soldiers, before the war ended in 2009 with a government victory.

5. What’s happened since the war?

Economic growth initially took off, with Chinese loans funding infrastructure development even as western nations held back through concern about unresolved human rights violations. Extreme weather, from droughts to floods, has kept many Sri Lankans in poverty, but the country has moved to leverage strengths such as its location along key shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, a growing services industry and its palm-fringed beaches and ancient temples. The tropical island was named as a top 2019 destination by Lonely Planet. Tourist arrivals -- mainly Chinese and Indians -- have gradually increased since the war, climbing 7 percent in 2017 to 1.3 million and contributing 4.5 percent of gross domestic product. The economy has faltered, though, with 2017 seeing the slowest pace of growth since 2001 and consumer prices surging the most in four years. In ousting Wickremesinghe, the president blamed him for poor management of the economy. The political crisis has led Moody’s Investors Service, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the island nation’s credit rating.

6. Could the situation turn violent?

It’s been tense at times. One person died when when ex-minister Arjuna Ranatunga’s security detail opened fire on Rajapaksa supporters inside the Ceylon Petroleum Corp. headquarters in Colombo. And there was the brawl in parliament. But there hasn’t been any widespread violence or rioting, even with protests and supporters of rival camps gathering in large numbers. More broadly, there are fears that Rajapaksa, who lost the 2015 election, will stoke religious and ethnic nationalism if he returns to power. Rajapaksa, whose administration largely refused to cooperate with investigations into human rights violations, “leveraged Buddhist nationalism” to win elections in 2018, political consultancy Eurasia Group said. Wickremesinghe had engaged with the international community and civil society groups as well as embracing a United Nations resolution that included justice mechanisms for truth and accountability over the civil war. Since the crisis erupted, there have been allegations of bribery in a political climate Transparency International describes as "ripe for horse-trading."

7. What about Sri Lanka’s international ties?

Wickremesinghe was re-balancing foreign relations toward India and Japan after Rajapaksa had shifted the country closer to China. While Rajapaksa was prime minister, Sri Lanka took those large Chinese loans to fund projects including the construction of a port and airport in remote southern Hambantota -- his own political constituency. The port lost money and was eventually sold to a state-owned Chinese firm in a debt-to-equity swap on a 99-year lease, while the eerily empty airport has no scheduled daily flights.

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