Sri Lanka: What went wrong

by K. Ratnayake

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena swore in Ranil
Wickremesinghe as prime minister yesterday, after having unconstitutionally
sacked him seven weeks ago in what amounted to a political coup. The decision
is a major setback for Sirisena who had repeatedly insisted that he could not
work with Wickremesinghe and would never reappoint him.

Contrary to the claims of the Colombo media, the decision
to reinstate Wickremesinghe will not end the political crisis but is just a
temporary pause in the ongoing conflict within Sri Lanka’s ruling elite.

After removing Wickremesinghe on October 26, Sirisena
appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister and then swore
in a new cabinet, declaring it to be the government. The decision brought to
the surface a bitter war between two factions of the ruling elite—one headed by
Sirisena and Rajapaksa, and the other by Wickremesinghe.

After sacking Wickremesinghe, Sirisena prorogued
parliament until November 14 to enable Rajapaksa to secure a parliamentary
majority via bullying and bribery. When Rajapaksa failed to get the numbers,
Sirisena dissolved the parliament and called a new general election.

Sirisena’s anti-democratic manoeuvre was temporarily
halted by the Supreme Court in response to petitions from Wickremesinghe’s
United National Party (UNP) and its allies, which included the Tamil National
Alliance (TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Sirisena ignored two consecutive parliamentary no-confidence motions passed against Rajapaksa. However, on December 3, a Colombo appeal court issued a temporary restraining order against Rajapaksa and his cabinet from exercising ministerial powers, effectively leaving the country without a functioning government.

Yesterday’s swearing-in of Wickremesinghe followed a
final ruling by the Supreme Court on December 13 that the president’s
dissolution of parliament was unconstitutional. The next day, another Supreme
Court bench refused to stay the appeal court restraining order against Rajapaksa
and his cabinet. It postponed a hearing of that case until mid-January.

Sirisena made various face-saving remarks about his reinstatement
of Wickremesinghe, claiming that he had done so as a leader who “respects the
parliamentary traditions and democracy.” All his actions, including the
dissolution of the parliament, he continued, were in response to the advice of
“law experts” and based on “good intentions.”

Responding to impeachment threats made by some UNP
parliamentarians, Sirisena said that he was “not afraid to go to jail.”
However, UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa has ruled out impeachment and said
that the party would collectively work with him.

Cynically posturing as a saviour of democracy,
Wickremesinghe yesterday thanked those “who stood firm in defending the
constitution and ensuring the triumph of democracy.” The first objective, he
added, was to return Sri Lanka “to normalcy” and “restart the developmental

Wickremesinghe is expected to select a new cabinet today
and present his list to the president. The UNP-led United National Front (UNF),
however, has only 103 MPs, and requires another 10 MPs for a majority.

According to press reports, Wickremesinghe is manoeuvring
behind the scenes to declare a ‘national government’ with the Sri Lanka Muslim
Congress (SLMC) and to expand the cabinet. Constitutionally, a one-party
government is entitled to appoint a 30-member cabinet. The UNP is also seeking
support from members of Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Wickremesinghe’s democratic posturing is as bogus as
Sirisena’s claims that his actions over the last two months were to “save” the
country and democracy.

Sirisena’s about-face is in response to international
pressure, particularly from the US and its European allies, and India, which
have demanded the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe, and fears about the growing
upsurge of strikes and protests.

Washington’s main concern was that the appointment of Rajapaksa
as prime minister would undermine the military and political relations built
during the past three years under the so-called unity government of Sirisena
and Wickremesinghe.

Sirisena came to power in 2015 as part of a regime-change
operation orchestrated by Washington which opposed Rajapaksa’s close relations
with Beijing. Sirisena, assisted by Wickremesinghe, denounced Rajapaksa as
dictatorial and ousted him as president in the 2015 election. Wickremesinghe
was installed as prime minister.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe quickly brought Sri Lankan
foreign policy into line with the intensifying US-led confrontation against
China. The new Sri Lankan “unity” government also began imposing austerity
measures, as dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in exchange for
a bailout loan.

From the outset, Washington responded to the bitter
factional war in Colombo by backing Wickremesinghe and declaring that it should
be “resolved” through the parliamentary process. Rajapaksa sent his party
leaders to meet with Western diplomats in Colombo in a futile attempt to secure
their support.

Sirisena also came under international economic pressure.
The IMF withheld final instalments of its loan until the “political uncertainty”
was resolved; the US postponed its Millennium aid program; and Japan announced
that it was delaying its aid and investment projects.

Writing recently in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror,
Robert Blake, the former US ambassador to Sri Lanka, made Washington’s
hostility to Rajapaksa explicit. He should step down as prime minister, Blake
declared, in order to “resolve the current political impasse and position Sri
Lanka to be a leader and winner as the new Indo-Pacific great game unfolds.”

Translated into plain English, the so-called
“Indo-Pacific great game” is Washington’s efforts to subjugate China through
all means including diplomatic, economic and military. The end result will be a
catastrophic military confrontation between nuclear armed powers.

The Sri Lankan ruling class is also terrified that the
continuing political standoff would paralyse government functions, including a
new budget, and accelerate the upsurge of strikes and protests by the working
class, rural poor and youth in recent months against the government’s attacks
on social and democratic rights.

This hostility was also reflected in local elections in
February in which Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickremesinghe’s UNP suffered humiliating
defeats at the hands of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Sirisena attempted to distance himself from Wickremesinghe, blaming him for the
“unity” government’s attacks on social and democratic rights.

The demagogic posturing by Sirisena and Rajapaksa, on one
side, and Wickremesinghe, on the other, as defenders of democracy is completely
bogus. Both factions have long histories of brutal autocratic rule. Their
bitter clashes are over how best to prop up capitalist rule and suppress the
emerging mass opposition in the working class.

Now reappointed as prime minister, Wickremesinghe will
use the economic crisis created by the factional infighting to intensify the
attacks on the social and democratic rights of the masses.

Nothing, however, has been resolved. On Saturday, Rajapaksa
officially announced his resignation as prime minister and attacked the Supreme
Court rulings for failing to support a general election.

“We are now engaged in a direct confrontation with a
group of political parties that have continuously engaged in various
subterfuges to avoid facing elections. We will bring the forces opposed to the
country down to their knees by engaging the people,” he warned.

Rajapaksa also made clear that he would intensify his
campaign of anti-Tamil communalism. He lashed out against the UNP, which, he declared
“has been taken hostage by the TNA [Tamil National Alliance]” and had to
“adhere to the diktat of the TNA.” The TNA had sided with Wickremesinghe
against Sirisena’s unconstitutional moves.

The political crisis which erupted in October exposed the
reactionary nature of every faction of the Sri Lankan bourgeoisie. Behind the
empty rhetoric about “defending democracy” is the fear of the ruling elites of
mass struggles by the working class.

The political dangers now facing workers and the poor
have not decreased, but have intensified. The working class cannot stand on the
sidelines and allow the ruling elite to resolve its economic and political
problems. Workers must mobilise and intervene as an independent political force
for its own class interests based on the perspective of socialist

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