Paradise in Peril

Paradise in Peril

When the final decisive battle took place between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers, India had remained neutral despite the many atrocities committed against the Tamils, in the hope that the end of the civil war and the elimination of terrorism would lead to peace and communal  harmony in the Paradise island. Too many lives were lost in the long battle and the country was devastated. India proposed after the war that there should be a political settlement and that the remaining leaderless Tamil population should have the benefits of the 13th amendment to the constitution. But the Sri Lankan Government did not heed India’s advice and proceeded with a policy of Tamil genocide to establish a Sinhala nation, without any concern for the minorities.

Internationally too, the Sri Lankan Government was more grateful to China and Pakistan for their support to the war rather than to India for remaining neutral, even though, given the Indian position on the Tamil issue, it was significant. The result was that Mahinda Rajapakse got closer to China and Pakistan, much to the consternation of India. When Rajapakse lost the elections to Maitripala Sirisena, a former ally, it was generally suspected that India was instrumental in unseating Rajapakse. But Sirisena as President not only followed Rajapakse’s policy on China, but also deepened it.The political situation got complicated further because of an alliance formed between Sirisena and Ranil Wikramasinghe to keep Rajapakse out of power. A liberal and a friend of India, Wikramasinghe proved to be an unnatural partner to leftist Sirisena. The uneasy relationship led to a no-confidence motion against Wikramasinghe, which failed as he had a larger number of supporters than Sirisena and Rajapakse put together.

The country plunged into a constitutional crisis, when, after accusing India of trying to assassinate him, Sirisena broke the coalition with Wikramasinghe and appointed Rajapakse as Prime Minister. This was a setback to India, because the new coalition had an anti- India hue. Wikramasinghe wanted to prove his strength in the Parliament, but the President suspended the Parliament even though the Speaker supported Wikramasinghe. The situation turned violent when Minister Ranatunge’s bodyguard shot and killed a supporter of the President. The danger of a civil war still hangs over Sri Lanka.

The current constitutional crisis has to be solved in Parliament, where both sides seem to have an equal chance. But smaller parties hold the key to either side reaching the magic figure of 113 in a House of 225 members. Since there is no anti-defection law in Sri Lanka, any kind of horse trading is possible within the Parliament. Some Tamil parties have become crucial in the present situation. But the constitutional crisis came just a week after the Chief Minister of Northern Province, C V Wigneswaran, had formed a new party.

The ‘political coup’ that President Sirisena has effected through the change of Prime Minister has landed Sri Lanka in a grave constitutional crisis. Both sides have vowed to prove their parliamentary majority. With the Parliament in suspension till Nov 16, Wikramasinghe could move the Supreme Court, but he is not confident that the President did not have the power to remove the Prime Minister.

Apart from its impact on the domestic situation and the future of Sri Lanka, the current constitutional crisis has set off an aggravation of the India-China rivalry in Sri Lanka. When Wikramasinghe briefed foreign envoys about his position, he invited India and western countries, but excluded China and Russia. That has put Wikramasinghe clearly on the Indian side, leading inevitably to China backing Sirisena and Rajapakse. But China took the precaution of sending its envoy to call on Wikramasinghe, a day after he had met Rajapakse and conveyed China’s congratulations to him on his assumption of office as Prime Minister. China thus kept its option to work with Wikramasinghe in the event of his retaining the position of Prime Minister. But clearly, it is the Sirisena-Rajapakse combine which China prefers because of Wikramasinghe's closeness to India.

India’s response to the crisis was cautious. After a day of silence, India stated that it was closely following the political developments in Sri Lanka and expressed the “hope that democratic values and constitutional process will be respected.” The statement also referred to continued development assistance, which gave a hint of support to Wikramasinghe, who had discussed the assistance programme with the Indian Prime minister just before the latest developments. But India does not rule out the possibility of the Sirisena-Rajapakse coalition prevailing in the end.   In that event, China will become more assertive in Sri Lanka and Maldives. The ethnic issue may also flare up in the aftermath, demanding India’s greater engagement. The demand of the international community to investigate war crimes is another issue the new dispensation will have to contend with.

The current political crisis has landed Sri Lanka in peril again, leading to greater turmoil in India’s neighbourhood. A ray of hope for India in the Maldives on account of a change of President and Gayoom’s open support for India’s role in Maldives is dwarfed by the continuing crisis in Sri Lanka. The challenge for india is to ensure a settlement of the political crisis in Sri Lanka without direct involvement and without jeopardising India's tentative recent moves to improve relations with China.