Two checks on the Rajapaksa coup

Last week began with a series of blows to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s illegal and unconstitutional power grab. After the lodging of multiple legal challenges, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court filed a temporary ‘stay order’ overturning President Sirisena’s dissolution of Parliament and halting plans for snap elections. A final determination on the issue will be delivered by the court on 7th December.

Following the filing of the stay order, the Speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament Karu Jayasuriya issued a statement reconvening Parliament for Wednesday 14th November, thereby setting the stage for a crucial floor test on Rajapaka’s claim to command the confidence of a majority of MPs.

Despite efforts by MPs loyal to Rajapaksa to disrupt proceedings, that floor test duly took place with the successful passing of a no confidence motion against the purported Prime Minister. Having been forced to conduct the vote ‘by voice’, a hard copy of the motion signed by 122 MPs – a clear majority in Sri Lanka’s 225 member Parliament – was subsequently handed over to the Speaker.

As the no confidence motion was being brought, Rajapaksa exited the Parliament chamber. Without any sense of irony, an MP loyal to Rajapaksa later stated: “there is only one way in which the Prime Minister could be thrown away from his office. That’s by way of a no-confidence motion. If the correct procedure is not followed … the Prime Minister cannot be put out of his office.”

Later in the day, President Sirisena wrote a letter to the Speaker rejecting the validity of the no confidence motion against Rajapaksa.

Several MPs who recently defected from PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP to support Rajapaksa’s bid for power were reported to have crossed back over to their original parties.

Two days of violence in Sri Lanka’s parliament

On Thursday 15th, the Speaker re-opened Parliament, announcing to MPs that, “according to the no-confidence vote held yesterday, there is no prime minister or cabinet of ministers as … those posts are invalidated by the vote.”

Following a speech by Rajapaksa, in which he stated that the post of Prime Minister was not important to him, the Speaker called for a further vote (to be taken, on this occasion, by name). That prompted Rajapaksa loyalists to surround the chair of the 78-year old Jayasuriya, and to launch into a tirade of verbal and physical abuse against him. Various objects, including a waste paper basket, water bottles and copies of the constitution were thrown at the Speaker. One MP succeeded in physically destroying his microphone. After fifteen minutes of physical confrontation between MPs – one of whom was seen brandishing a table knife – the Speaker was finally escorted from the chamber by security.[1]

 

The following day, on Friday 16th, Rajapaksa loyalists entered the chamber ahead of schedule, occupying the Speaker’s chair and conducting a mock session. Defying advice that it was too unsafe to begin the session, the Speaker then attempted to reach his chair protected by a human chain of dozens of police officers. The officers were met with a barrage of serious physical violence by Rajapaksa loyalists, who threw chairs and sprayed water mixed with chilli powder. Eleven were reportedly injured.

Despite the circumstances, a further vote by voice on the no confidence motion against Rajapaksa was held, the Speaker declaring yet another majority in support of it. President Sirisena once again refused to accept the verdict.

On Saturday 17th, the President chaired a meeting with representatives of Sri Lanka’s political parties at the President’s office. According to reports, the talks resulted in little, if any, progress towards breaking the political deadlock.

The beginning of an assault on human rights and accountability?

There were several indications this past week of attempts to use the unfolding crisis to shield perpetrators of serious human rights violations from justice.

On Monday 19th President Sirisena reportedly ordered the transfer of Nishantha Silva, a senior police officer involved in several key investigations, including against Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, who stands accused of covering up the abduction and murder of eleven Tamil youths. Following intense pressure from civil society, the transfer was thankfully cancelled by the National Police Commission.

The daughter of murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, a case which Silva was also investigating, penned an emotive letter to President Sirisena decrying efforts to obstruct the attainment of justice for her father.

Meanwhile, on Monday 19th President Sirisena met with the extremist Buddhist nationalist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Among the items up for discussion was BBS’s demand for the release of their leader, Galagodaatte Gnanasara, who is currently serving a jail sentence for contempt of court after he threatened the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Eknilagoda.

In a somewhat ominous display of strength, shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision President Sirisena held an ‘emergency meeting’ with heads of the military at his office in Colombo.

Taking a hit

The unfolding political crisis resulted in further knocks to Sri Lanka’s economic outlook. One credit rating agency downgraded their country rating from B1 to B2. The International Monetary Fund said it had decided to suspend funding for Sri Lanka. And the World Bank announced that a $150 million sustainable tourism development project had been delayed.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority appealed to travellers to continue to visit Sri Lanka “in spite of the prevailing situation.” In an astonishingly tone-deaf piece, Forbes magazine announced that, “there’s no better time to visit Sri Lanka.” Lonely Planet were yet to comment on the unfolding coup attempt, despite the escalation of the situation and a raft of updated travel advisories.

#RiseUpSL

The beginning of the week saw the emergence of #RiseUpSL, a non-partisan protest movement demanding that those involved in the recent assault on Sri Lanka’s constitution and democracy be held accountable for their actions. Calls to abolish the Executive Presidency, a key pledge of Sirisena’s 2015 Presidential bid, intensified.

[1] UNP MP Palitha Thewarapperuma subsequently defended his actions, claiming that the object was not in fact a table knife but a “letter opener.”