Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, speaks with President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP
Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, speaks with President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5, 2018. Photo: AFP

The political crisis in Colombo appears to have been given a brief break with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena dissolving Parliament last Friday and calling for fresh elections. Candidates are to file before November 26 for elections scheduled on January 5, and a new Parliament to convene on January 17.

The political crisis erupted on October 26 when Sirisena unceremoniously fired the sitting prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, installing former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place – a move considered unconstitutional by the majority of parliamentarians. Sirisena also suspended Parliament until November 16 without even consulting the Speaker.

Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to accept the dismissal and continued to stay at his official residence. But when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya called for Parliament to meet, Sirisena ordered continued suspension of Parliament, calling for fresh elections because, observers reported, Rajapaksa did not have enough support to win a parliamentary vote after Jayasuriya met with 118 MPs.

The second major reason was global disenchantment toward Sirisena’s action. The United States held back some US$500 million in an aid program and Japan put on hold plans to extend a soft loan of $1.4 billion. In addition, the European Union warned it could withdraw duty-free concessions for Sri Lankan exports.

The political crisis is likely to get murkier, with reports of MPs being bought over and a spokesman for Wickremesinghe’s United National Party stating that Sirisena wants to shut Parliament for as long as possible to give himself more time to secure votes for Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa’s decade as president up to 2015 was marked by the brutal defeat of Tamil rebels in the civil war, war crimes, corruption claims, and Beijing saddling Sri Lanka with billions of dollars’ worth of debt to China.

Against the backdrop of the bloody massacre of Tamils during the Rajapaksa regime, it is paradoxical that his legislator son now is indicating that Sirisena and Rajapaksa will make a decision very soon on the demand of the Tamil minority community for the release of all Tamil prisoners, since Tamils may hold the key to Sri Lanka’s power struggle. Whether Rajapaksa will be successful in hoodwinking the Tamils is a different question.

Ranjan Ramanayake, a deputy minister in Wickremesinghe’s administration, has accused China of paying for Rajapaksa to buy legislators, saying, “I am telling China not to spend their millions to buy MPs in Sri Lanka. They want to buy the country wholesale.”

The Chinese Embassy in Colombo has denied the charge, which is a usual Chinese norm. But the undeniable fact is that China has surreptitiously but blatantly interfered in influencing the politics of South Asian nations, including through its debt-trap policy, which in effect becomes a death trap for the target nation’s sovereignty.

Several South Asian nations have large growth and investment deficits, and Chinese money is flowing in to fill the vacuum. China invested more than $55 billion in Pakistan in recent years. In Nepal, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is funneling as much as $8 billion into the infrastructure and other key sectors. China has persuaded even Afghanistan to open a military base on Afghan soil.

It has lent more than $8 billion to Sri Lanka over the years, which it found impossible to pay off, even handing over Hambantota Port to China for 99 years.

Sirisena’s desperate act to fire Wickremesinghe should be seen in backdrop of the shock defeat of Abdulla Yameen as president of Maldives – a China stooge who had no compunctions in bartering his country’s sovereignty and economy to China.

The fact that the reason behind Sirisena’s desperate act was China should be taken as a certainty. There is a viewpoint that Sri Lanka is important to China and India for economic reasons, but in the case of China, it is the island nation’s strategic importance that is of paramount importance. This is not only because of China’s BRI but because Sri Lanka is vital to Chinese plans for domination of the India Ocean, which it is pursuing at fast pace.

It is in the same vein that China has made Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha order his National Security Council to begin examining the feasibility of constructing the Kra Canal, cutting across Thailand to connect with the Indian Ocean, whereby China lessens or overcomes its “Malacca dilemma.” Significantly, private Chinese investors have already committed $30 billion for construction of the Kra Canal.

While that project may take a decade to complete once it gets going, China and Myanmar have entered a multibillion-dollar deal to construct a deep-sea port in Kyaukphyu on Myanmar’s west coast. The project will be known as Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Deep-Sea Port Project.

From now until the elections in January, plenty political skulduggery can be expected in Sri Lanka. At least eight lawmakers have deserted Wickremesinghe and accepted ministerial posts under Rajapaksa, while one deputy minister resigned and joined Wickremesinghe. China can be expected to put its full weight behind keeping Rajapaksa in the PM post, money being only one part of Beijing’s strategy.

Obviously, China would have assured Sirisena that if he can swing Rajapaksa retaining the premiership then China in turn would help him during the next presidential election in 2019. Speaker Jayasurya has warned that if the crisis is not resolved inside Parliament, there could be a “bloodbath” in a country that has emerged from decades of civil war.

If Sri Lanka submits to China’s power politics, debt trap included, at the cost of adherence to constitutional norms and rule of law, it will become an active proxy in Chinese plans of militarization of the Indian Ocean region. The world should be concerned.

Prakash Katoch

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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