Image: A civil society initiative, Rise Up has mobilized citizens against the #CoupLK.
Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena was hailed as Sri Lanka’s Mandela by his supporters in January 2015. He is now being called Sri Lanka’s Mugabe after his recent actions plunged the country into a chaotic constitutional crisis of unprecedented gravity.
On Friday the 26th October, President Sirisena appointed as Prime Minister, the former President Rajapaksa whose authoritarian rule was ended by the people at 2015 elections. Soon afterwards President Sirisena removed from office Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the Parliament, in violation of the Constitution.
On 27th October, the President prorogued the Parliament for three weeks. In the days that followed several MPs crossed over to the ‘new governing coalition’ led by Rajapaksa while reports that this coalition is attempting to bribe MPs with hundreds of millions of rupees to crossover surfaced1. Hundred and sixteen MPs of the Parliament wrote to the Speaker urging him to convene the Parliament2 and amid the growing pressure, on 04th November President Sirisena issued a Gazette notification convening the Parliament on 14th November. On the same day, 4 new appointments were made to the Cabinet3.
On 5th November- Speaker of the Parliament Karu jayasuriya issued a statement noting that the majority of the Parliament is of the opinion that all changes made in the Parliament are undemocratic and inconsistent with traditions of Parliament. ‘I am compelled to accept the status that existed previously until such time that they and the new political alliance prove their majority in Parliament’, he stated. Following this, one of the MPs who had defected to the ‘new ruling party’ did a backflip claiming that he accepted the Speaker’s position4.
The Rajapaksa supporters contended that the new PM will show support of the majority in the Parliament once convened. However, when it became clear to President Sirisena that Rajapaksa cannot show favour of majority as he had failed to change the balance of forces in the Parliament as intended, in another act that violated the Constitution, the President dissolved the Parliament on 9th November, but not before appointing another two new Cabinet Ministers and five State Ministers5.
When the President dissolved the Parliament calling for a General Election, 13 parties filed petitions in the Supreme Court against this move. Upon the initial hearing of these cases on 13th November, the Supreme Court issued an interim order staying the proclamation issued by President Sirisena to dissolve the Parliament till 7th December and granted leave to proceed for the petitions.
The Parliament was convened on 14th November and since then the majority of the 225 member Parliament have voted against Rajapaksa in 4 occasions. Two no-confidence motions have been passed with 122 votes. On 23rd November, the 122 MPs who supported the no-confidence motions filed a Writ Quo Warranto in the Court of Appeal challenging the new government’s continuation in office. According to Article 48 (2) of the Constitution, with the passage of a no-confidence motion the Government stands dissolved. A motion to curtail expenditure of the Office of the Prime Minister was passed by the majority of the Parliament with123 votes on 29th November.
The Speaker of the Parliament called these events ‘a coup without guns’ against the lawful government. Under the patronage of President Sirisena, Rajapaksa and his Cabinet continue their official functions under the guise of lawfulness. The Military and the Police have so far refrained from intervening in the political turmoil. However, being the commander of the armed forces, the President enjoys control over the Police and the armed forces. In this political chaos, institutional changes that would have resulted in continued impunity, could have gone unnoticed if not for timely interventions. On 18th November IP Nishantha Silva who is in-charge of the CID’s Organised Crime Investigation Unit was served notice of transfer. Silva and his team are currently investigating several cases involving attacks against journalists perpetrated during the Rajapaksa regime including the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunga and the assault on Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon. The transfer was cancelled on 20th November6.
Within a month following these unacceptable events, Sri Lankan Rupee depreciated severely and the tourist industry, one of the major foreign exchange earner of the country, took a downhill turn. The entire country came to a standstill.
Sirisena would have assumed that removing the sitting PM and appointing another would be a political cake walk. But unprecedented levels of resistance to this constitutional violation drew from all quarters of the society in the days that followed. Three countries including China congratulated Rajapaksa on his ‘appointment’ while Western democracies including Japan, Canada, and USA repeatedly called for a legitimate parliamentary process to solve the crisis.
First push for the resistance came from the legally elected PM Wickremasinghe himself when he refused to leave his official residence- Temple Trees, and barricaded himself in. His supporters spurred to action and the attempts and threats to dislodge the PM failed.
Tamil National Alliance- with 14 MPs, and two Muslim parties- with 12 members, have stood by the lawful PM Wickremasinghe throughout the crisis. The leftist JVP with their 6 MPs has opposed Sirisena’s unconstitutional move, despite having distanced themselves from the UNP. UNP and JVP have both mobilised large crowds to protest against Sirisena’s action, with the UNP surpassing the efforts of JVP in terms of numbers and continuity.
The central political factor that has influenced the current situation is that PM Wickremesinghe clearly enjoys the support of the majority in the Parliament. Other factors that can affect the situation include the independence of judiciary, the strength of civil society, and the response of the international community.
Since 2015 Sri Lankan judiciary has shown remarkable independence. In January 2018 Supreme Court shattered President Sirisena’s hope of staying six years in presidency. Though the Attorney General argued on behalf of the President that his team extends to six years, the five judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this plea7.
Colombo based diplomatic community made it clear to the Government that due process needs to be adhered to in appointing the Prime Minister and that the Parliament should be allowed to function without any hindrance. Because of the current political uncertainty, IMF, US Millennium Development Fund, and Japan have put on hold their assistance to Sri Lanka. A number of Western diplomats have openly expressed their concerns over Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis on Twitter.
The most heartening factor in this turbulent time is the revival of independent civil society activism. Civil society groups that played a leading role during the 2015 election campaigns were not able to mobilise people independently as their reputation had come to be tarnished due to the association with Wickremasinghe led government. However, numerous independent civil society groups came in to fill this vacuum. These groups organised daily protests in the Capital and engaged the participants. Participants drew their own placards. Young middle-classed men and women rejected affiliations to political parties at these protests and stressed that they have taken to the street not to protect the privileges of the political class, but the democratic rights of the people.
Independent civil society activism was also visible on social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter . A number of new Sinhala language website emerged to complement existing web media. Twitter has become a real time news source on the crisis. The discourse on Twitter remains predominantly in English white Facebook has become the space for Sinahla language news and views as well as fake news and hate. This points to a clear class difference between the users of the two social media platforms in Sri Lanka. Twitter has become the platform for elite discourse, cross-cutting gender and ethnicity. But the discussions in local languages take place on Facebook.
The struggle for re-establishing rule of law in the country has pointed to some serious discrepancies of the democratic movement in Sri Lanka. Although women activists have been at the forefront of public campaigns, almost all political stages are being filled only by men. Even a seminar by Left Centre had only male speakers. The need to ensure gender equality at all levels is completely forgotten in this struggle. It appears that in Sri Lanka, democracy is by men-for men.
Ethnic dimensions cannot be ignored. A closer look at the struggle shows that democracy in Sri Lanka is in fact by Sinhalese men-for Sinhalese men. Muslim and Tamil communities have not been mobilised to protest against the constitutional crisis. Tamil people in the country still struggle to regain their land, get justice for the disappeared, and achieve political autonomy. However, the principles of human rights, justice, and accountability too appear to be absent in the current discourse.
Sooner or later, this crisis will come to an end. Most probably, Rajapaksa will voluntarily or involuntarily, give up his claim to the premiership. The worst case scenario will be the Supreme Court justifying the unconstitutional dissolution of the Parliament by President Sirisena. In any event, this crisis cannot go on any longer. Its life is coming to an end.
On 3rd December, considering the writ Quo Warranto filed by 122 MPs challenging the authority of Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold office as Prime Minister, the Court of Appeal issued an interim order prohibiting the disputed ‘PM’ and his ‘Ministers’ from carrying out government duties until the case is taken up again8. Despite this development, at this point in time, it is difficult to predict the turn these events will take. While it can be seen that the Supreme Court’s decision will determine the direction of developments, it is possible that Sirisena will simply make a turn-around. Whichever happens the struggle for democracy and justice will remain. The independent civil society groups that came forward to protect the Constitution and democracy will have to charter new paths of advocacy and keep a close watch on the Government.
Sri Lanka now enters a very volatile period politically as well as socially. Provincial Council elections are overdue and a general election may be fast approaching. Parties and Candidates will fight bitterly at the elections. Under these conditions it is difficult to foresee the transitional justice agenda and the constitutional reform agenda moving forward. On both sides of the divide, nationalism is on the rise. Whether the ‘democratic spring’ we are experiencing at the moment can maintain its momentum and resist the growing pressure is yet to be found out.