Sri Lankan Crisis Cannot Be Seen Through India-China Prism: Former Indian Envoy

"We should not fall in the trap of characterising person A as 'pro-India', person B as 'pro-China'. That's a very facile, simplistic way of looking at politics in a neighbouring country."

New Delhi: It would be incorrect to see the current political crisis in Sri Lanka, which has led to Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as prime minister by president Maithirpala Sirisena, as a simple binary between India and China, said a former Indian ambassador to both Colombo and Beijing.

On October 26, Sirisena had suddenly withdrawn the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from the coalition government and had sworn in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe. He also suspended the parliament till November 16.

Even as Wickremesinghe refuses to vacate Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister of Sri Lanka, Sirisena on Monday gave oath of office to a new cabinet, most of which were ministers in the national unity government. The list included one member from the United National Party (UNP).

Sri Lanka is facing a constitutional crisis, as the United National Party and many legal experts contend that Sirisena does not have power to dismiss the prime minister.

There is increasing pressure on the speaker Karu Jayasuriya to convene the parliament, with the UNP handing over a letter with signatures of 126 members of parliament.

Explained: The Constitutional Crisis in Sri Lanka

The US released a second statement on Sri Lanka, which specifically called on the president and speaker “to immediately reconvene parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfill their responsibilities”.

This is the first time that a foreign government has given a public support of the parliamentary path to resolve the crisis.

The statement from India, the regional power, on Sunday morning had said:

India is closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka. As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected. We will continue to extend our developmental assistance to the friendly people of Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka met with both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe. The Chinese envoy conveyed best wishes from President Xi Jinping to Rajapaksa, as per the Sri Lankan media.

During a press conference, Wickremsinghe said that the Chinese ambassador had assured him that China would not interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

A ‘trap’

The role of China has been highlighted as Rajapaksa had given a red carpet to Chinese investment during his presidential term – though his party opposed these projects when they came into the opposition.

According to India’s former ambassador to Sri Lanka and China, Ashok K. Kantha, it would be a mistake to look at the current crisis in Sri Lanka simply through the prism of relations between the two Asian giants.

Also read: India’s Limited Options in Sri Lanka as Crisis Deepens in the Island Nation

“We should not fall in the trap of characterising person A as ‘pro-India’, person B as ‘pro-China’. That’s a very facile, simplistic way of looking at politics in a neighbouring country with which we have very close engagement,” he said.

Kantha, who was envoy to Colombo from 2009 to 2013 and China from 2014 to 2016, noted that there had always been been well-known political differences between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena.

“You had a situation that two parties which are intrinsically opposed to each other. It was inherently difficult situation,” he said, adding that the differences surfaced over the years.

In his address to the nation, Sirisena said that the key reason for his antipathy towards Wickremesinghe was the lackadaisical investigation into an alleged “assassination” plot. He had also ascribed political and cultural differences to their estrangement over various anti-corruption probes.

“We are sort of exaggerating Chinese influence in Sri Lanka. Here, ascribing everything to Chinese influence is not warranted,” said Kantha, who is currently director of Institute of Chinese Studies.

Even Rajapaksa’s perceived ‘pro-China’ bias should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Members of Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force and the police stand guard next to a poster of newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa after an official security guard of sacked minister Arjuna Ranatunga shot and wounded three people in front of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, in Colombo, Sri Lanka October 28, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

“Any prime minister, any president of Sri Lanka will have to take in account certain ground realities including the fact that they have vested interest in maintaining close engagement with India and they recognise India’s vital stakes in Sri Lanka,” he asserted

Earlier this month, the Sri Lankan government had to issue several press releases in a single day – and Sirisena even spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the telephone – after media reports on a cabinet proceedings indicated that he had blamed an Indian intelligence agency for the alleged assassination plot.

Also read: Story About Sirisena Assassination Plot Puts Indian Journalist in the Eye of the Storm

Kantha said that the Indian statement had the right note, as the outcome of the current crisis is uncertain.  “We are not coming out in favour or against any of the political players, which is the right policy to adopt,” he explained.

Strong opposition

Even as India is considering its limited options, most civil society groups in Sri Lanka have come out strongly against Sirisena’s actions.

The latest to add their weight against last Friday’s move is well-known Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

Condemning the move in the “strongest possible terms”, CPA stated, “We firmly believe that these acts are unconstitutional and illegal, and wholly lacking in democratic legitimacy”.

Also read: Sri Lanka: PM Rajapaksa Calls for Snap Parliamentary Polls; Crisis Turns Violent

In its statement, CPA said that the nineteenth amendment had taken away the power previously held by the president to dismiss the prime minister. The legality of president Sirisena’s actions “exacerbated” by the suspension of parliament.

“Only Parliament has the constitutional authority to determine the continuation in office of the Prime Minister, or a change of Prime Ministers. By its prorogation, the country cannot resolve the unprecedented constitutional crisis into which it has been plunged, and it fundamentally calls into question the democratic legitimacy of the President’s purported appointment of a new Prime Minister,” said the Sri Lankan think-tank, urging the immediate reconvening of parliament.