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Supporters of ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe burn coffins to protest the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Supporters of the United National Party and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe burn coffins to protest the government of disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nov. 15, 2018 (AP photo by Rukmal Gamage).

The Roots of Sri Lanka’s Political Crisis—and Why It May Not Be Over

Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—For many Sri Lankans, the country’s recent political turmoil came on so quickly they couldn’t possibly have prepared for it.

Rami Singh, a delivery driver in his 20s, recalls barreling through this city’s hectic traffic on the night of Oct. 26 when, suddenly, he had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting a crowd of protesters that had gathered outside Temple Trees, the British colonial-era complex surrounded by white walls that serves as the prime minister’s office and residence. “There were hundreds of people out on the street,” he says. “They were shouting and chanting, and I heard one of them say they had come to protect the prime minister, and that there had been a coup.”

Earlier that day, President Maithripala Sirisena had unexpectedly fired the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and moved to replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and Sirisena’s one-time political rival.

In the seven weeks that followed, Sri Lanka witnessed its worst instability since its 26-year civil war ended in 2009. At one point, around 10,000 people marched through Colombo in support of Wickremesinghe. In a separate demonstration, several hundred supporters of Rajapaksa occupied the offices of the country’s state newspapers and raided a state-run TV channel.

Parliament was suspended and then reopened, only to become the scene of punch-ups and dramatic walkouts. And on Oct. 28, in a chaotic scene outside the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, the national oil company, a bodyguard for the oil minister shot a protester. It was the only fatality directly linked to the crisis.

“I hadn’t seen anything like it in years,” says Singh, the driver. “It was very bad for our peaceful country.”

Listen to Jonathan Gorvett discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast. His audio starts at 26:37.

But while parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya warned early on that the crisis could lead to a “bloodbath,” its resolution was remarkably peaceful. On Dec. 13, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that Sirisena had acted unconstitutionally when he suspended parliament after firing Wickremesinghe. That ruling opened the door for the legislature, which maintained a majority in favor of Wickremesinghe, to reappoint the veteran center-right politician. Rajapaksa then “resigned” a post he may never have been entitled to, and Sri Lanka’s troubles, at least in the immediate term, appeared to be over.

This does not mean, however, that Sri Lanka is out of the woods. To the contrary, many of the factors that have destabilized Sri Lankan politics in recent years, some of which directly contributed to the recent crisis, remain unresolved—and will likely lead to more uncertainty in 2019.

Indeed, while the power grab attempted by Sirisena and Rajapaksa caught everyone from high-ranking politicians to ordinary Sri Lankans by surprise—to say nothing of the outside world—it did not come out of nowhere. Instead, it amounted to a fuse blowing on a circuit board that had finally become overloaded.

Various unsustainably high currents had been building up for many months and, in some cases, years, both politically and economically. These included personal animosity and ideological disagreements between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, as well as strains resulting from efforts to revive a battered economy—including those mandated by a three-year economic loan and reform program drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. The program has combined austerity measures, which hurt many ordinary Sri Lankans, with initiatives to make public finances more transparent, which threaten deeply entrenched business and political interests.

The government has also come under mounting pressure to address injustices and grievances resulting from decades of fighting. Meanwhile, the jockeying for influence on the part of world powers with interests in Sri Lanka, including India, China and Western countries, notably the U.S., has only added to the tension, raising both the domestic and the geopolitical stakes.

The Politics of Personality

On Oct. 29, three days after he went public with his decision to fire Wickremesinghe, Sirisena tried to justify it in a televised address to the nation. He accused Wickremesinghe of destroying “the pure and noble expectations” of those who had initially supported him, and said that “differences in policy, culture, personality and conduct aggravated this political and economic crisis.”

Many of the factors that destabilized Sri Lankan politics last year remain unresolved—and will likely lead to more uncertainty in 2019.

Such language can give the impression that there’s a fair amount of enmity within the country’s political class. But to Sri Lankans who have little connection to politics, politicians seem to exist in a rarefied, chummy world of their own, with little regard for those outside it.

“The politicians are all the same,” Sameera Kadugawana, an Uber driver by night and a lab technician by day, said one day in the middle of November as he weaved his tiny, box-like Suzuki through the streets of Colombo. “Despite appearances, they all know each other and get along fine, really.”

It’s a refrain common to many countries, but in Sri Lanka, a small number of powerful people really have long dominated the political scene. The three central characters in the recent drama—Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and Rajapaksa—have all served as president or prime minister at various points in the past 20 years. To the extent that they’ve been able to distinguish themselves and develop personal brands, it’s because they’ve leaned heavily on their backgrounds as well as their records during the war years.

Wickremesinghe, born and raised in Colombo in a family of lawyers and press barons, is widely perceived as the urbane, consummate political insider. Sirisena, on the other hand, is cast as the humble outsider, having been born in a rural village south of the capital to a father who was a small farmer and mother who was a schoolteacher.

Rajapaksa, for his part, is a different kind of rural leader, his landowning family having controlled political and business life in the southern district of Hambantota for generations. And about a decade ago, he gained a reputation as a strongman while leading the country as president during the final years of the civil war.

That conflict pitted successive governments against fighters from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers. Composed almost entirely of members of the country’s ethnic Tamil minority, who constitute around 15 percent of the population, the group began fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and west of the country in 1983. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed before the fighting ended in 2009.

Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and Rajapaksa adopted different approaches to the war. Rajapaksa, who was first elected to Parliament in 1970, when he was 24, emerged as an early champion of a military solution, while Wickremesinghe, as prime minister in the early 2000s, led peace efforts that in 2002 resulted in an uneasy truce with the Tamil Tigers.

That truce ended abruptly in 2006, however, one year after Rajapaksa became president. In keeping with his hawkish philosophy, Rajapaksa orchestrated a brutal military campaign to defeat the Tamil Tigers once and for all. The campaign became notorious for bombings against civilians, extrajudicial executions and, finally, an army offensive that forced 200,000 people onto a narrow, heavily shelled strip of land in the northeast. The Tamil Tigers, including most of their leaders, were annihilated in this concluding battle.

Sirisena, who was originally appointed to serve as agriculture minister under Rajapaksa, had stepped into the role of acting defense minister for the final phase of the fighting. He has since claimed to have survived several assassination attempts by the Tamil Tigers, at least two of which involved female suicide bombers attacking his motorcade.

The president remains wary of such tactics. In the weeks before he fired Wickremesinghe, he alleged that there was a new plot to assassinate him, and that a Cabinet minister and Indian intelligence services were involved. The president was reportedly angered by the fact that Wickremesinghe and other officials did not take this allegation seriously.

A Tangled History of Graft

Outside Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa is still widely associated with atrocities committed during the war’s closing stages. But his presidency stretched for a full decade, from 2005 to 2015, and his domestic legacy is more layered. Crucially, his reputation has been shaped by his alleged role in perpetuating endemic societal problems, most of all corruption and self-dealing. More recently, this has also become true for Wickremesinghe and Sirisena.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Rajapaksa presidency was the way it pushed personal and family connections to the center of Sri Lankan politics. During Rajapaksa’s time in office, one of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was appointed secretary at the Ministry of Defense and Urban Development. Another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, became minister for ports and airports, water and irrigation management, and later served as parliamentary speaker. A third brother, Basil Rajapaksa, was in charge of redeveloping the country’s shattered eastern provinces while serving as minister of economic development in the president’s post-war Cabinet. And one of Rajapaksa’s sons, Namal Rajapaksa, became a lawmaker representing Hambantota, the Rajapaksa family fiefdom in southern Sri Lanka, where Rajapaksas have been MPs going back to the 1940s.

Demonstrators burn portraits of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a protest in New Delhi
Supporters of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, an Indian political party, burn portraits of
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during a protest, New Delhi, India,
May 26, 2014 (AP photo by Tsering Topgyal).

The insular nature of the Rajapaksa administration—even by Sri Lankan standards— may have blinded the president to growing public discontent. When he called for elections in January 2015, he seemed confident he would win a third term. He was shocked, then, when Sirisena, who had been seen as a close ally, announced that he would run against Rajapaksa as the candidate of an opposition coalition. Explaining his decision to reporters, Sirisena said Rajapaksa was leading “a dictatorial regime” and that the “entire economy and every aspect of it is controlled by one family.”

Sirisena joined hands with Wickremesinghe and other opposition leaders to campaign on a platform of ending corruption and nepotism. As a candidate, Sirisena, despite having served as a minister under Rajapaksa, was able to play up his outsider credentials. Moreover, the fact that Sirisena was general-secretary of Rajapaksa’s political party, the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party, meant that his candidacy forced an internal party split, weakening Rajapaksa further.

In the end, Sirisena won 51.28 percent of the vote, besting Rajapaksa’s 47.58 percent. After he took office on Jan. 9, 2015, he promptly rescinded bans on news websites that Rajapaksa had ordered, replaced large numbers of pro-Rajapaksa civil servants, and called for the limiting of presidential powers. The following month, he announced the creation of a presidential probe into corruption under Rajapaksa.

But while Sirisena clearly saw himself as a reformer, the corruption phenomenon carried over into his administration. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International placed Sri Lanka at No. 91 out of 180 countries. The biggest areas of concern are insider trading, bribery and malfeasance in government procurement and the awarding of contracts.

So far, the most damaging scandal of the Sirisena era appears to date back to its early days. In February 2015, a treasuries dealership owned by Arjuna Aloysius, the son-in-law of the Central Bank governor, Arjuna Mahendran, allegedly snapped up millions of dollars of surprise-issue bonds at a highly advantageous interest rate. These were then sold via various intermediaries to the country’s largest state purchaser, the Employees’ Provident Fund social security scheme. “It was like a chain, where everyone took a share,” one former senior Central Bank employee, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told me last month. “They bought from the state at 70 rupees and ended up selling back to the state on the same day at 100.”

The scandal almost immediately came to light when rival dealers complained, with their calls for an investigation being taken up by media and parliamentarians. A government inquiry revealed a murky world of insider trading and market manipulation that stretched back to Rajapaksa’s time, but had also dragged in Wickremesinghe, Sirisena’s prime minister. Wickremesinghe, after all, had appointed Mahendran, and he continued to stand by him until his eventual resignation in August 2016.

It was pressure from Sirisena that seems to have led to Mahendran’s departure—an early sign that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance might one day fall apart. In this way, the pervasiveness of corruption, which helped bring Sirisena to power, has also been a factor in his recent political woes.
Debt “Traps”
When Rajapaksa left office following his election defeat, Sri Lanka was saddled with $81 billion in debt, a burden that amounted to around 100 percent of the country’s GDP. He had taken on much of this debt—around 60 percent of which was held by foreign lenders, notably China—to help finance massive infrastructure projects.

The most notorious among them is the port in Hambantota. In 2007, Rajapaksa reached a deal with the EXIM Bank of the People’s Republic of China to finance 85 percent of the $361 million cost of the first construction phase for a giant new port, airport, international cricket stadium and industrial complex in what was a sleepy town on the Indian Ocean. Work began in 2008, undertaken by China Harbor Engineering Company and Sinohydro Corporation. After they opened in 2010, however, it quickly became clear that there was not enough traffic for the projects to be viable.

Concerns about corruption helped bring Sirisena to power, but they have also fueled his latest political woes.

In addition to Hambantota, Rajapaksa swelled the national debt to construct the 1,100-foot Lotus Tower in Colombo, the tallest self-supported structure in South Asia; finance a major expansion of the port in the capital; and build highways from the capital to the country’s international airport and to the southern city of Galle.

On top of all that, Rajapaksa signed a controversial deal with China Harbor Engineering Company to build Port City, a new district on land adjacent to the Colombo port.

Many of these projects were widely welcomed at the time, given the fact that Sri Lanka’s creaking infrastructure had suffered from a lack of investment during the war years. When Rajapaksa approved these deals, the country was experiencing a postwar boom fueled by the return of many Sri Lankans, and much Sri Lankan capital, from abroad. This boom helped transform central Colombo, which became home to a crop of glistening new skyscrapers.

But during his surprise opposition campaign ahead of the 2015 vote, Sirisena slammed Rajapaksa for his links to China, alleging in his campaign manifesto that if Rajapaksa continued in office Sri Lanka would “become a colony, and we become slaves.”

On the strength of these attacks, Sirisena was able to rally support from a range of parties and groups that became known as the yahpalanaya coalition. The term means “good governance” in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic group. The coalition consisted of Wickremesinghe’s center-right United National Party, or UNP, and SLFP members loyal to Sirisena, along with the main parties of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious minorities—the Tamil National Alliance, or TNA, and the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, or SLMC.

Once in office, however, the new government quickly found that the pressures of debt repayment and the country’s existing commitments for infrastructure projects financed and developed by the Chinese left it with little room for maneuver.

Instead, in December 2017, Sirisena’s government, struggling to make payments on a debt load that had mushroomed to $1.1 billion, made a debt-for-equity swap, turning the Hambantota port and adjacent land over to China Merchants Port on a 99-year lease—a development that has inspired much hand-wringing about the dangers of so-called debt-trap diplomacy.

Meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka in May 2018, Sirisena demonstrated his new attitude toward China by saying that Beijing’s support was “indispensable” for the country “to realize its future development.

Legacies of War

The yahpalanaya coalition had gained the support of minorities in part by promising a fairer deal for them. That meant looking into some of the darker episodes of the war years, which had left the Tamil and Muslim communities in the north of the country particularly devastated.

When the guns finally fell silent in May 2009, Sri Lanka had been the scene of one civil conflict after another for nearly four decades; prior to the civil war, fighting between Sinhalese groups had played out in the south of the country. All of these conflicts had been bitter, violent affairs, involving massacres, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances, with plenty of blame to go around on all sides.

Today, somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 people remain “disappeared,” including over 5,000 government soldiers. The Rajapaksa administration did little to resolve these cases. Moreover, many who raised the issue faced violence and intimidation from what Sri Lankans called “white vans”—shadowy squads that abducted mainly ethnic Tamils from the streets of Colombo and other towns, often in broad daylight. The unmarked vehicles were sometimes followed by anxious relatives to police stations and army barracks, where officials would deny their existence. Many of those abducted were never seen again. Journalists reporting on human rights violations were also “disappeared” or murdered.

These disappearances are not the only bitter legacy of the conflicts. Toward the end of the civil war, the army took control of large areas of land previously held by the Tamil Tigers and closed them to their original inhabitants—many of whom ended up in detention camps while being investigated for any links to the group. Much of that land has not been returned to its original owners.

“In the northeast, we have reports of whole areas being cordoned off by the army for years as ‘high security zones,’ while the people from there lived in tents,” says Amalini De Sayrah of the Center for Policy Alternatives, an advocacy group based in Colombo. “Then, after a few years, the land was sold off to developers to build hotels or villas. Tourists can now go there, but the inhabitants can’t.” There is widespread suspicion that the land sell-offs were being coordinated at the highest levels of the Rajapaksa government.

The yahpalanaya coalition vowed to right these wartime and postwar wrongs and push for transitional justice. Yet these moves, understandably, made many powerful people in the Sri Lankan security forces and those connected with the old Rajapaksa administration nervous. “You could say that there were a number of things on the agenda that certain interests didn’t like,” says one Western diplomat, who did not want to be named, citing protocol.

Nevertheless, justice advocates have made some strides. An Office on Missing Persons, established in 2017, delivered its first report to Sirisena in September 2018. And a law to establish a second key body, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is progressing through parliament.

But continued advances on transitional justice initiatives were jeopardized by the crisis, especially when it looked like Rajapaksa was going to take over the premiership.

While the resignation of the Rajapaksa “government” has therefore been welcomed by many human rights groups, there are still major concerns that progress on accountability and security sector reform is moving too slowly. The appointment of Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva as army chief of staff at the start of 2019, for example, was greeted with consternation, as the United Nations has accused him of violating human rights during the closing offensive of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers in 2009.

“The government should be demonstrating their genuine commitment towards reconciliation,” the Center for Policy Alternatives said in a statement on Jan. 11. “Instead, we are seeing very troubling signs of efforts to exacerbate and further entrench impunity in Sri Lanka.”

Opening Up the Books

Beyond transitional justice issues, powerful interests in Sri Lanka have also been deeply troubled by the Sirisena government’s approach to Sri Lanka’s economic problems. Paying down the debt, in particular, has required major reforms, including those stipulated by the IMF program, which was signed in 2016.

The program calls for more open and transparent tendering, better governance and auditing of state-owned enterprises, and expanded digital record-keeping to increase accessibility of information related to government expenditures.

Traditionally, such measures have been difficult to implement in Sri Lanka. A program sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, for example, which was aimed at reforming and developing the country’s capital markets, had to be formally abandoned earlier this year, as almost none of its recommendations had been translated into action.

There have nevertheless been some breakthroughs under Sirisena, including a new tax law passed last year. One Central Bank insider says related bills were on their way to parliament when the latest crisis struck.

Yet as it seeks to address the country’s economic problems, the government has been riven by internal divisions concerning the best way forward. Wickremesinghe’s UNP is known for its pro-free market beliefs; its base is made up largely of members of Colombo’s business class and larger plantation owners. The party’s emphasis on tighter monetary policies and smaller government has clashed with Sirisena’s more rural-oriented, social democratic approach.

The policy changes implemented so far have had concrete, sometimes grave ramifications for ordinary Sri Lankans, whose average income is around $4,000 a year. In accordance with the IMF program, the government has raised taxes, cut jobs in some key state-run enterprises and slashed subsidies on fuel.

One consequence of these highly unpopular moves has been a surge in support for Rajapaksa and his allies in the opposition. This became apparent in local elections held last February, which saw the former president’s new party, the Sri Lanka People’s Front, or SLPP, win 239 out of 340 local council contests nationwide. Sirisena’s SLFP, by contrast, fared poorly, winning just 9 percent of the vote.

Sri Lankan mothers check for the names of their sons on a memorial to fallen soldiers.
Mothers of fallen Sri Lankan government soldiers check for the names of their sons engraved on the
national war heroes memorial, Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 19, 2017 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

Regional Rivalries

As it tries to address its ever-growing array of challenges, Sirisena’s government must cope with an intensifying great-power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

India, Sri Lanka’s much larger neighbor, has a complicated presence in the country. It mounted a disastrous and bloody peacekeeping campaign during the 1980s before withdrawing in frustration 1990. Yet New Delhi remains deeply involved economically in Sri Lanka. Some 30 percent of all its container traffic is transshipped through Colombo, as India lacks well-developed deep-water ports of its own. India has also made many significant business investments.

China, meanwhile, has been the rising power in the Indian Ocean for some time. Its Belt and Road Initiative has led to major investments in a string of ports in the region. These include Hambantota, which is just 15 nautical miles from the main shipping lanes between Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. China is now by far the largest foreign investor in Sri Lanka, as well as its largest foreign creditor.

The United States has grown increasingly alarmed by the Belt and Road Initiative—and India shares its concerns. The U.S. also has strategic interests in the region, including a major military base on the Diego Garcia atoll.

Additionally, the European Union, and the U.K. in particular, continue to be Sri Lanka’s most lucrative export and tourism market. The U.K. is also home to much of the influential Sri Lankan diaspora, both Sinhalese and Tamil.

While Rajapaksa is widely seen as China’s man in Colombo—when Sirisena appointed him prime minister in October, China was the only nation to congratulate him—Wickremesinghe has been cast as the more pro-Indian and pro-Western leader. This impression was reinforced by careful U.S. and EU statements during the recent crisis that emphasized the need for a solution in keeping with the constitution. That language was widely interpreted as indicating support for Wickremesinghe, who claimed he had been fired unconstitutionally.

On top of its internal challenges, Sirisena’s government must cope with an intensifying great-power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

For now, with Rajapaksa’s appointment as prime minister rejected and Wickremesinghe comfortably back in that role, India and the West may have the stronger hand to play. But if the events of recent years have shown anything, it’s that the political winds in Sri Lanka can shift quickly and unpredictably.

A Plan Gone Awry

Three months after the fact, there is little question that Sirisena’s decision last October to fire Wickremesinghe in favor Rajapaksa, his former foe, was woefully misjudged.

The president is now in the unenviable position of being trusted by no one, while Wickremesinghe is enjoying a new lease on his political life. Rajapaksa has been relegated to the parliamentary backbenches.

The debate now is about what comes next. Presidential elections are currently scheduled for December, followed by parliamentary elections in February 2020. Conceivably one or both could be brought forward, making 2019 a year of campaigning, with all the political uncertainty—and loosening of finances—that implies.

At the same time, all the factors that triggered the Oct. 26 “coup attempt” are still in play. The country faces some major debt repayment deadlines in January and April, and it still has yet to find a way of convincingly addressing the legacy of years of armed conflict and political repression.

Yet for all that, there may be one bright spot. The recent crisis, and its resolution, showcased an impressive amount of resilience on the part of Sri Lanka’s democracy and rule of law. After many years in which neither of those were very much in evidence, this may well be a cause for optimism.

Jonathan Gorvett is a freelance journalist, writer and analyst who covered the Sri Lankan civil conflict between 2006 and 2009 for, among others, The Guardian and Al Jazeera English. He currently specializes in Near and Middle Eastern affairs, with a corresponding interest in Indian Ocean politics and economics.