Sri Lanka was plunged into political crisis over the weekend amid a power struggle that has resulted in two different leaders claiming to head the country.
Long simmering tensions boiled over when President Maithripala Sirisena fired the country’s prime minister on Friday citing a murderous plot. In the minister’s stead, the president reinstalled his former nemesis, strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led Sri Lanka for nine years and oversaw the end of the country’s calamitous civil war. Sirisena also dissolved the country’s parliament for three weeks.
The split between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seemingly dissolves the governing coalition that has led Sri Lanka for the past three years.
But Wickremesinghe has refused to cede power and remains ensconced in the prime ministerial residence in Colombo, the capital, according to the Guardian. The political impasse has raised fears of renewed violence: one person was killed and two wounded after a shooting at the Petroleum Ministry on Sunday. Here’s what to know:
Who is Rajapaksa?
As Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2014, Rajapaksa enjoyed popular support among the country’s majority Sinhalese majority. He earned plaudits for overseeing the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 25-year civil war in 2009, when government forces defeated ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels in the South Asian island country’s north.
But under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka earned international criticism for resisting investigations into allegations of war crimes perpetrated by the military against Tamil civilians. A 2011 U.N. report estimated that as many as 40,000 Tamils may have been killed in the final months of the war alone. It also accused the Tamil Tigers of committing atrocities, including recruiting child soldiers. Rajapaksa’s government dismissed the report as “fundamentally flawed.”
What’s behind the shake-up?
In 2015, Sri Lanka narrowly toppled Rajapaksa and elected a new government, led by a coalition between current president Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. The alliance was something of a surprise, according to the Guardian. Sirisena had formerly served as Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Health under Rajapaksa’s administration before defecting.
The fragile Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition began to crumble early on, losing public support as it failed to achieve election promises including renegotiating the country’s huge debt burden and holding wartime perpetrators within the Rajapaksa government to account, the Associated Press reports.
On Sunday, Sirisena accused Wickremesinghe of collaborating in an alleged assassination plot against the country’s leadership. In an address to the nation, Sirisena said the conspiracy targeted himself and a former defense secretary. He pledged to form a new government with Rajapaksa.
What happens next?
The standoff has divided Sri Lanka’s government, with both Wickremsinghe and Rajapaksa now claiming to be the country’s legitimate leader. “At the moment, there is a constitutional crisis — two persons each claiming to be the prime minister,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the nonpartisan National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, told AP on Friday.
Wickremesinghe’s sacking may prove to lack legal standing: Sri Lanka passed a constitutional amendment in 2015 to prevent the president from removing a prime minister unless they resigned or lost the confidence of parliament, according to the Guardian.
Wickremesinghe denied the latter and said he has no intention of abandoning the premiership, according to AP. On Friday, he called for an emergency confidence vote in parliament.
But Sirisena adjourned parliament until Nov. 16, a move widely interpreted as a bid to buy time to build support for Rajapaksa. The parliamentary speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, warned this action could have “serious and undesirable consequences” as the political turmoil teeters on the brink of violence, AP reports.
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa has begun to consolidate power, moving into Wickremesinghe’s offices on Monday and promising to appoint a cabinet.
The U.S. State Department said it is following the developing episode “with concern” and urged “all sides to refrain from intimidation and violence.”
“We call on the President [Sirisena]…to immediately reconvene Parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to to fulfill their responsibility to affirm who will lead their government,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The politicking has already had deadly consequences. At least one person was killed Sunday when Rajapaksa supporters reportedly mobbed the former petroleum minister and security guards opened fire.
As the political crisis deepens, the army has been deployed in some areas of the capital. Anxieties are running high as protest camps break out and Wickremasinghe’s United National Party plans on rallying Tuesday.
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Write to Eli Meixler at firstname.lastname@example.org