By Prarthana Mitra
Just days Sri Lankan President Sirisena’s MPs boycotted the parliament, their opponents passed a motion on Friday that slashed state funding of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministers. The 122-0 vote in a 225-member Parliament will halt payment of salaries and travel expenses for the office of the disputed prime minister.
The Sri Lankan parliament has been in a political gridlock since Sirisena fired and replaced PM Ranil Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa in October. Despite being sacked by the parliament twice since then and having no working majority, Rajapaksa refuses to resign, fuelling a constitutional crisis at the centre.
What is happening right now?
Rajapaksa’s allies boycotted the vote, calling the motion to “cut down the expenditures of ministers, deputy ministers, and state ministers” invalid, and presented under the assumption that Rajapaksa has been sacked.
“The motion presented today is illegal and we have mentioned it to the speaker too. We will not attend such illegal motions.” Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, a Rajapaksa loyalist, told the press before the proceedings. He further called the speaker’s impartiality into question.
A court hearing on the unconstitutionality of Sirisena’s November 9 decision to dissolve parliament is expected to deliver a verdict on December 7. Another court began hearing on a petition by 122 legislators that challenges Rajapaksa’s authority to hold office after losing two no confidence votes (not been accepted by the President yet).
What about the detained Defence Chief?
A day before this, top-ranking military officer Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne’s was arrested for involvement in the abduction and murder of 11 teenage rebels during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war in 2009. After the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) failed to pay their ransom, he is said to have ordered their murder.
The case against him was opened on the basis of reports by the International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations highlighting the inhumanity of the long drawn-out war. Rajapaksa was the president at the time.
How does this tie in with Beijing and Delhi’s tug of war over the island?
Amidst the brewing crisis that pits two rival politicians in a battle to be prime minister, the final verdict stands to affect the island’s economy because one contender leans towards India as the other favours China.
At one point in the early nineties, Sri Lanka was one of India’s top trading partners in South Asia. Economic ties between Colombo and New Delhi at that time outweighed Chinese investment. The latter now stands at a whopping £12 billion worth of infrastructure projects.
Despite linguistic and cultural similarities, India’s strategic relations with Colombo have been anything but amicable ever since New Delhi made a military intervention to disarm the Tamil rebels agitating in Sri Lanka for an independent homeland. With the LTTE and Colombo arriving at a peace agreement, even that influence faded, and China started pouring in military and developmental assistance during Rajapaksa’s presidency.
Despite being indebted to China because of the latter’s “debt diplomacy“, and growing inflation at home, Rajapaksa leans towards China. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping was the first foreign leader to congratulate Rajapaksa after he was made prime minister.
Many critics of the current government are even viewing the ongoing political imbroglio through the prism of Chinese interests. For instance, Wickremesinghe’s role in improving ties with India and the West had begun to threaten China, just before he was fired.
Should Rajapaksa be forced out, conciliatory efforts with Colombo can eventually give India an equal footing in the regional power struggle with China. It could accelerate the rehabilitation of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils which ought to be a greater priority for New Delhi than countering Beijing’s economic influence and strategic interest in the region.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.