Despite appeals for calm, the risk of further coercion, and possibly serious violence, cannot be discounted at this stage. Rajapaksa has been quick in seeking to project the image that security forces and police apparatus are loyal to him. The alignments that emerge over the next few days, and the tactics which the various parties choose to adopt, will be critical determinants of how the situation unfolds.
Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, has attempted to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – a man against whom there are credible allegations of complicity in the murder of tens of thousands of his own citizens during the final stages of the civil war, and who presided over a police state in which journalists and other critics were regularly murdered or disappeared.
While the move appears to be almost certainly unconstitutional and illegal, Rajapaksa has been moving fast to consolidate his hold on power; allegedly having allies taking control of state news broadcasters and summoning military personnel to demonstrate their loyalty to him. President Sirisena has meanwhile suspended Parliament.
As Rajapaska attempts to assert himself as Prime Minister, we must remain vigilant to the risk of a crackdown against critics and political opponents, and demand that fundamental rights are respected. Steps should be taken to reassert the constitution and the rule of law.
In this piece, we explain events so far and look at what might happen next. We highlight some of the risks and consider how the international community should respond.
What happened in Sri Lanka last night?
As explained here, three things happened in very rapid succession late on Friday evening (26th October):
First, an announcement from members of Parliament loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena that they had withdrawn their support from the coalition government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Second, and minutes later in an event broadcast live, the ‘swearing in’ as Prime Minister of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa by President Sirisena.
Finally, the announcement from President Sirisena that he had removed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, purportedly in accordance with the powers granted to him under the constitution.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe quickly took to the airwaves to declare “I am still Prime Minister.” On Twitter, Finance Minister Managala Samaraweera said that the appointment of Mahinda Rajajapksa as Prime Minister had been “unconstitutional and illegal,” decrying the turn of events as an “anti democratic coup.”
Reports then emerged that groups of individuals loyal to President Rajapaksa – reportedly comprised of MPs and their supporters, and overlooked by members of Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force (STF) police unit – had forcibly entered a number of state-owned TV newsrooms. Some workers were forced to flee as a result of threats and physical intimidation against them, with some channels being taken off air.
Is this a coup?
Yes, it appears to be an attempted coup of sorts – though it has yet to conclude with a decisive shift in the balance of power. There is broad emerging consensus that the President’s actions last night were illegal, with one eminent constitutional scholar describing events as having the makings of a “constitutional coup.”
With regards to the appointment of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, it is clear that the President has strained to its limit interpretation of Sri Lanka’s constitution – which states that the President “shall appoint as prime minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the president’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of parliament”. Both at the time of the appointment and now, Rajapaksa does not have command of a majority in Parliament. That the President has subsequently “prorogued”, i.e. suspended, Parliament – thereby preventing the chance to test his opinion that Rajapaksa can command a majority – further underscores the undemocratic nature of the appointment.
With regards to the dismissal of sitting Prime Minsiter Wickremesinghe, things are more straightforward. The constitution is very clear on the ways in which the Prime Minister can be dismissed, and none of them have been satisfied in this case.
Rajapaksa’s strategy appears to be to persuade a sufficient number of MPs from what remains of the governing coalition in Parliament to cross over to his side and provide him with a ruling majority by the time he is forced to demonstrate one. With Parliament now prorogued, he has more time and the stage is for several weeks of intense political manoeuvring. It is possible that we will see further efforts by the President and Prime Minister to deploy all of the organs of the state – including the media, police and military – to their advantage during this time.
The wider use of state coercion would unambiguously mark what we have seen in Sri Lanka in the past 24 hours as a coup d’etat. That would be a first in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history.
For now, only a handful of MPs have crossed over. But given Sri Lanka’s long tradition of fluid party allegiances – and the high stakes riding on Rajapaksa/Sirisena’s bet – that could change.
Why has this happened now?
While taking nearly all by surprise, yesterday’s events follows months of deteriorating relations between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. While there had been some speculation about a re-grouping of President Sirisena and former President Rajapaksa – despite the latter having been ousted by the former in a shock defeat in January 2015 – few could have predicted the manner in which this occurred on Friday evening.
Before becoming President, Sirisena had been a Minister in Rajapaksa’s government. After emerging as the ‘common candidate’ in late 2014, supported by a broad range of political forces opposed to Rajapaksa’s rule, he secured victory on a platform of abolishing the excessive powers of the President, ending corruption, and reversing the erosion of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions that had taken place under Rajapaksa.
Many Sri Lankans who had placed hope in the national unity government will regard Sirisena’s latest move as an astonishing betrayal of his 2015 mandate.
Some, particularly many war-affected Tamils, who took a more sceptical view of Sirisena – himself acting Defence Minister during the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war and someone who has made repeated promises to protect human rights abusers from justice – have been less surprised at the latest re-alignment.
There is speculation that Sirisena, who promised he would be a one-term President, will seek to run again next year with the support of Rajapaksa. Others have suggested that Rajapaksa may seek to run himself – if he is able to find the 2/3 majority in Parliament needed to reverse a recent constitutional amendment that prevents him from doing so.
What could happen – and how should the international community respond?
As a strictly non-political organisation, we do not take a position on who should govern Sri Lanka. That is for the people of Sri Lanka to decide. However, we do believe that for the rights of Sri Lankans to be upheld, it is essential that the both the constitution and democratic institutions are respected. That that has not happened in this instance is a matter of grave concern to us.
The possible return to power of Mahinda Rajapaksa, an alleged war criminal who presided over the deaths of tens of thousand mostly Tamil civilians during the final stages of the civil war – and who, with his brothers, oversaw one of the worst periods of state-sponsored killings, abduction and torture in Sri Lanka – raises the prospect of a serious deterioration in the human rights situation. The limited and stalled progress that we have described over the past three years, could rapidly and firmly go into reverse gear.
Many journalists, activists and human rights defenders who have used the increased space under the current government to speak up about human rights abuses by the state, will be extremely concerned about what happens next – and will be preparing for the worst. Those fears will be particularly acute among members of the minority Tamil community, who overwhelmingly bore the brunt of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule in the past. Given the failure of the current government to tackle the culture of impunity for past violations and to meaningfully reform the security sector – things the Sri Lanka Campaign has repeatedly warned must happen to prevent recurrence – egregious human rights violations could rapidly intensify and resume.
There is an urgent need for members of the international community to signal to the security forces that they are monitoring the situation of vulnerable individuals on the ground, and that they will not tolerate acts of retribution against them. We will be watching closely, particularly in the intensely militarised north and east of Sri Lanka, for evidence of a wider crackdown, as well as possible opportunistic violence by members of the security forces.
Already, we have witnessed some chilling scenes of coercion against journalists and media personnel. We join members of Sri Lankan civil society in calling on the international community to roundly condemn this behaviour and to bring pressure to bear to protect the freedom of the press in Sri Lanka.
The situation is very fluid and unpredictable. Despite appeals for calm – including from the US, the EU and the speaker in Parliament – the risk of further coercion, and possibly serious violence, cannot be discounted at this stage. Rajapaksa has been quick in seeking to project the image that security forces and police apparatus are loyal to him. The alignments that emerge over the next few days, and the tactics which the various parties choose to adopt, will be critical determinants of how the situation unfolds.
Whatever happens next, what is certain is that this is a further devastating blow to efforts to ensure that Sri Lanka addresses the needs of victims and survivors. Sadly, the failure to adequately deal with the legacy of the war, and to ensure accountability for atrocities committed, is one of the key reasons that the events that we have seen over the past 24 hours in Sri Lanka have occurred. With fears for the future once again intensifying, it further shows that, even ten years on, justice is more vital than ever.