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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Sri Lanka's political dramas expose its wider vulnerabilities

Two men are claiming to be prime minister while India and China jockey for influence

A supporter of Sri Lanka's former president and new prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo. AFP 
A supporter of Sri Lanka's former president and new prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Colombo. AFP 

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan newspapers carried alarming revelations from a senior advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena. According to the advisor, Mr Sirisena believed foreign intelligence agencies planned to have him killed. It was an indicator of just how feverish the political climate in the island nation has become. But it was the calm before the storm.

On Saturday, Mr Sirisena acrimoniously sacked his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with the country’s former strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both men now claim to be the rightful prime minister, which spells three weeks of political jockeying ahead of parliament’s resumption on November 16. It is among the worst constitutional crises ever to befall Sri Lanka, whose population is still recovering from a decades-long civil war against Tamil separatists that killed thousands. The return to power of Mr Rajapaksa – subject to parliamentary authorisation – could undo recent progress in the country, particularly with regard to human rights and corruption. Indeed, his authoritarian tenure was sullied by allegations of forced disappearances and brutality. But above all, the Sri Lankan people deserve a speedy resolution.

But there are greater powers at play. Mr Rajapaksa’s elevation will worry India, which has long viewed the former president as a Chinese proxy. Just 30 kilometres away, India considers Sri Lanka to be within its sphere of influence. During his rule from 2005 to 2015, he forged close ties with Beijing, which took control of Sri Lanka’s strategic Hambantota port amid claims of corruption. As recently as September, the indebted nation drew yet closer to China when Beijing supplied $1.25 billion in loans.

Across South Asia, this struggle for dominance is playing out. China has invested heavily in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives – as well as Pakistan – as part of its landmark Belt and Road Initiative. The struggle for influence between the world’s two most populous countries has troubling implications for the region’s more fragile and beholden nations. It could now be playing out at the highest echelons of Sri Lankan politics, heralding a fresh era of instability for a population bedevilled by bloodshed for decades.