SRI LANKA: BREAKING THE POLITICAL IMPASSE

President Maithripala Sirisena is trying hard to work out a face saving compromise to break the political deadlock created by him after he installed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, three weeks ago. Though PM Rajapaksa and his cabinet have taken over the government, the parliament has refused to accept his appointment. The country is in a drift as day to day functioning of the government is hamstrung by the crisis.

Former PM Wickremesinghe refusing to vacate the PM’s official residence Temple Trees, and his party said to be meeting the expenditure for his continued stay there, typically illustrates the confusing ground situation.

A defiant speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, rejected the President’s order to prorogue the parliament and later dissolve it. He has ensured two no confidence motions are passed against the Rajapaksa government. The parliament boycotted by Rajapaksa’s UPFA-SLPP coalition, has passed yet another resolution to block any expenditure by PM’s office.

A plethora of cases against President Sirisena’s actions dubbed as unconstitutional by Wickremesinghe and his erstwhile coalition partners is pending in the supreme court. These cases are likely to be disposed of on December 7, 2018. Added to this, Wickremesinghe’s quo warranto petition filed to prevent PM Rajapaksa from functioning filed in the Court of Appeal is coming up for hearing on December 3, 2018.

With pressure building up on two fronts — in parliament and the impending verdict in the cases in Supreme Court — President Sirisena has probably realised the only way to defuse the situation is to work out a deal with the opposition leaders. The Speaker agreed to arrange a one-on-one meeting between the President with the leaders of the United National Front (UNF) constituent parties led by Wickremesinghe and with the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members led by the leader of the opposition P. Sampanthan to explore a possible way out of the crisis.

The meetings took place on November 30, 2018, as scheduled. But it was probably inconclusive. According to TNA sources, the President is said to have advised them to pass another no confidence motion against Rajapaksa government in the parliament in accordance with the standing orders when it meets on December 5, 2018. This could pave the way for swearing in another UNP nominee as PM. President Sirisena has repeatedly vowed not to accept Wickremesinghe again as PM again; so far, the UNP has not chosen another leader from the party to be the PM. The President will probably withdraw the notification dissolving the parliament as the price for striking a deal with the opposition. Seeking UNF cooperation for holding a fresh parliamentary election could also be another trade off for President Sirisena.

PM Rajapaksa in his first televised address after taking over as PM said the country’s stability could be restored through a fresh round of parliamentary elections. He added that the UNP, unlike other parties, was not ready to face the people. The PM said President Sirisena had entrusted him to resurrect the falling economy and living standard of the people. Referring to his government, he said: “what we have now is only an interim government. When a downward trend manifests itself, it is difficult to turn things around in a month or two.” He alleged that the Wickremesinghe government had borrowed USD 20.7 billion in three years and it would take a while to turn things around.

However, in May 2018, when a no confidence motion against PM Wickremesinghe was defeated, the PM described the motion as an attempt not to just oust him, but the first step to topple the National Unity government led by President Sirisena. He had asked the party to be prepared for the coming provincial, presidential and parliamentary elections. Is the UNP ready now for a parliamentary election?

Arrest of the CDS and attempted transfer of CID Inspector

President  Sirisena,  speaking  to  foreign correspondents, has assured non interference in ongoing investigationsinto abductions, killing of journalists, and other crimes allegedly committed by those connected to the new government. He said: ‘no one can interfere’ with police and courts. Apparently, the President’s assurance was a damage control measure after political parties raised a furore when Inspector Nishantha Adrian Silva of the CID branch, investigating a number of highly sensitive cases, was suddenly transferred by the Inspector General of police. It was allegedly done due to pressure from the President’s office.

The cases he was handling included the assaulting of journalist Keith Neyhr by suspected military intelligence personnel and the case of Lt Comdr Hettiarachchi involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of 11 Tamil youth in 2008-2009. However, the police commission intervened to cancel the transfer of Inspector Nishantha indicating at least the Yahapalana government has indeed made a difference in making the commissions function independently.

Curiously, while the whole drama of the CID inspector’s transfer was beingenacted, Sri Lanka’s highest ranking serving military officer Chief of Defence StaffAdmiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, appeared before Colombo Fort Magistrate and was remanded to custody till December 5, 2018.It is interesting to note that earlier the CDS failed to appear before the CID and give a statement on his alleged help to Lt Comdr Hettiararchchi to evade arrest in the case of kidnapping 11 youth.

The arrest and prosecution of the CDS could set a precedent for the arrest of other service officers allegedly involved in war crimes. President Sirisena has repeatedly said he would never prosecute armed forces personnel on alleged war crimes. So, how he reacts to the arrest of the CDS is likely to determine whether other cases involving two naval officers would be allowed to take its logical course.

Tail piece: Even the constitutional crisis and its questionable status did not deter the government from signing two contracts totalling more than USD 50 million with two Chinese firms. The contract worth USD 32 million with China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) was to enhance the deep berth capacity of the state-run Jaya Container Terminal in Colombo. The other contract worth USD 25.7 million was for the supply of three cranes from Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries for the same project. India had expressed its concern at the deal earlier as 80 per cent of its marine trade passes through the port.

A veteran of the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pak wars, Col R. Hariharan, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90. He was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in June 1963 when he left his career as a journalist with the Press Trust of India to join the Army in a burst of patriotism. He frequently writes in his areas of specialisation – South Asian neighbourhood and terrorism and insurgency. He can be contacted at colhari@gmail.com, blog: http://col.hariharan.info This article was first published in South Asia Security Trends, Dec 2018

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