A failing coup?

The past week saw intense political manoeuvring in Sri Lanka, as efforts by Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain command of a majority in Parliament continued. Despite the ‘crossing over’ of a handful of MPs, which further narrowed the gap between the two main voting blocs in Parliament, at the time of writing Rajapaksa was yet to reach the crucial threshold of support needed to stamp his power grab with a veneer of legitimacy.

That fact did not appear to deter President Sirisena, who proceeded this past week to ‘swear in’ a raft of new ministers to what has been dubbed by some as the ‘fake cabinet’. A fortnight ago, in a move deemed illegal and unconstitutional by respected academics and lawyers, President Sirisena purported to dismiss serving Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, an alleged war criminal.

Sri Lanka’s Parliament remained suspended, having been prorogued by the President on 27th October. The suspension is widely seen as a way of preventing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from demonstrating command of a parliamentary majority – and of allowing further time for Mahinda Rajapaksa to threaten and bribe a critical mass of MPs over to his side.[1] On Friday 2nd November, 116 MPs (a clear majority) signed a resolution condemning the illegitimate appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his new ‘cabinet’, and calling for Parliament to be immediately re-convened. Despite several indications that that could happen as early as this week, a gazette issued by President Sirisena has now fixed the date for Wednesday 14th November.

Pressure continued to mount on Parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya to exercise his constitutional authority to overrule the President and re-convene Parliament sooner than the 14th. While that has yet to happen, on Monday 5th November Jayasuriya issued a strongly worded statement in which he decried “the severe violation of democratic principles” that had taken place and said that he was compelled to continue to recognise the government of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe until Parliament had determined otherwise.

 

The battle for legitimacy and the risks ahead

With Mahinda Rajapaksa having failed to consolidate his authority, and with the emergence of two parallel administrations both claiming legitimacy, there were growing fears, as one commentator put it, of Sri Lanka’s “politico-constitutional crisis … deteriorating into an open struggle for state power.” Though the past week did not thankfully see further serious violence, there were continued concerns about the possibility of force being deployed to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from his official residence at Temple Trees. Thousands of supporters continue to surround the complex.

In Parliament, a potential flashpoint arose on Monday when Rajapaksa-loyalist Dinesh Gunawardena stormed the Parliament building with a group of Buddhist monks and “assumed office” as Leader of the House, a position still legally occupied by Lakshman Kiriella. Later in the week, the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Parliament, a senior official responsible for maintaining order and security in Parliament, stated that he would abide by the orders of the President when it came to allocating seats; thereby contradicting the position of the Speaker and paving the way for possible conflict should further purported ministers begin ‘assuming’ their offices.

By Wednesday, there were growing concerns among commentators that President Sirisena was considering dissolving Parliament, a move which would be a gross violation of Sri Lanka’s constitution.[2]

 

Growing pressure – from within and without

Following widespread calls for Parliament to be immediately re-convened and for the democratic processes to be restored, the past week saw a series of tangible responses to the crisis from members of the international community – along with a series of warnings about the consequences that could follow should the current coup attempt succeed.

By way of example, the United States put on hold planned development funding to Sri Lanka through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Japan suspended a $1.5 billion loan for an light railway infrastructure project. And the EU warned that Sri Lanka’s recently regained status as a beneficiary of GSP+ trade privileges could be withdrawn. At the time of writing, and to our knowledge, the UK government was yet to publicly comment on whether its current stream of development funding to Sri Lanka was at risk, or whether it was considering withdrawing its Trade Envoy to Sri Lanka, MP Ranil Jeywardena.

Sri Lankan citizens and civil society groups continued to voice their anger about the current crisis, with a protest at Liberty Roundabout in Colombo entering its 9th day, despite an apparent  effort by officials to stifle the gathering by turning off the streetlights. On Tuesday, protestors lit a series of lamps arranged in the shape of a butterfly, in retort to homophobic remarks recently made by President Sirisena about Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and members of his team. Demonstrations against the unfolding coup attempt were also reported to have been held outside of the capital, including in Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Kilinochchi.

 

Our take:

The coup attempt in Sri Lanka has not yet succeeded. Indeed, there are even signs that it may be backfiring. That raises hope that the illegal power grab by Mahinda Rajapaksa can be stopped. But it also raises the risk that its instigators could turn to further unconstitutional – and possibly violent – means to assert their authority in the coming days and weeks. We are particularly concerned by recent reports that Sri Lanka’s President may seek to break through the current impasse by dissolving Parliament, a move that would be in flagrant violation of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.


While we welcome the intensification of pressure from members of the international community this past week, we believe they can and must go further in ensuring that the democratic rights of Sri Lankan citizens are respected and upheld. That is why we have recently written to representatives from key countries outlining a series of specific measures that we believe should be brought into play – ranging from the suspension of trade and development funding arrangements, to the halting of Sri Lankan peacekeeping deployments (a step that we believe is already long overdue).

 

Members of the international community have been quite right to insist – echoing the views of many Sri Lankans and the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament – that President Sirisena should re-convene Parliament immediately. But given the risk that Rajapaksa could bribe and threaten his way to a majority in Parliament by the time that that happens, they should also go further by making clear that they will never recognise as legitimate any government which emerges through illegal means.

Footnotes:

[1] As examples, on Friday 2nd November, an MP loyal to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Range Bandara, released an audio recording of a telephone call in which he claimed he had been offered $2.8m (USD) to lend his support to Rajapaksa’s camp. In a separate incident, an audio recording of a telephone call was released in which a man claiming to be “very close” to President Sirisena threatened to “destroy” MP Hirunika Premachandra. (The man in question was later identified as Fazl Muhammed Nizar, an individual who has previously written in support of underage marriage and apportioned blame for rape on the clothing choices of victims).

[2] Article 70(1) of Sri Lanka’s constitution clearly stipulates that the dissolution of Parliament by the President can only take place when four and a half years of a Parliament’s term have been completed, or if Parliament requests the President to do so with the support of a two-thirds majority of members.