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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

Sri Lanka's political chaos is over, but it's leaders must still tread carefully

This fragile nation has been rocked by recent events. The challenge now is to maintain order and stability

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses his supporters and the party members after assuming duties in Colombo. Reuters
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses his supporters and the party members after assuming duties in Colombo. Reuters

Sri Lanka’s political drama might have come to an end, but the divisive power struggle at its core is far from resolved. President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision in October to sack his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and appoint the former political strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his stead, plunged the country into chaos. And as parliament descended into mayhem, with two men simultaneously claiming legitimacy, fears grew of a return to the sectarian violence that killed thousands between 1983 and 2009. It was, after all, Mr Rajapaksa who brought Sri Lanka’s war to an end in brutal fashion. Fortunately, those fears were never realised. Left humiliated after failing to form a parliamentary majority, being barred from using state funds, suffering defeat in a no-confidence vote and being blocked from calling a general election by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, Mr Rajapaksa resigned on Saturday and, in turn, Mr Wickremesinghe was reinstated.

It is almost a decade since Sri Lanka last attracted global attention, but the nation's politicians should tread carefully and the international community would be wise to keep an eye on Colombo, too. The charismatic and ruthless Mr Rajapaksa, who remains popular among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese population, insinuated that he would mobilise the public against Mr Wickremesinghe and make a comeback in local council elections. “We will bring the forces opposed to the country down to their knees,” he declared in a bitter resignation statement. It is reasonable to expect that Mr Rajapaksa will hold even more sway over his supporters as an aggrieved outsider than he would in the prime minister’s residence. Meanwhile, Mr Sirisena still holds a grudge against Mr Wickremsinghe, whom he accuses of handling an alleged plot to assassinate him with indifference. Mr Sisrena’s accusations are unconvincing, but in Sri Lanka’s febrile atmosphere, that is not really the point.

Colombo is lurching towards economic ruin as it buckles under the weight of enormous debt, owed mostly to China, with whom Mr Rajapaksa has strong ties. The government will shut down by January unless a temporary budget is swiftly approved by a bitterly divided parliament. The political elite must now set aside self-regard and unite to bring stability and growth. Because despite its reputation as a lush tourist destination, the scars of Sri Lanka’s war run deep. And the great triumphs of the past decade are at risk of falling apart.

Updated: December 16, 2018 06:39 PM

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