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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

War-weary Sri Lanka needs leadership for the sake of its people

Politicians bent on power games must reach accord to avert further tragedy

Sri Lankan police officer tries to control a rally in Colombo for newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and president Maithripala Sirisena / AFP 
Sri Lankan police officer tries to control a rally in Colombo for newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and president Maithripala Sirisena / AFP 

In the last decade, Sri Lanka's picture-postcard perfection has reeled in millions of tourists from around the world, with numbers soaring from fewer than 440,000 in 2008 to more than two million last year.

But that vision of an Indian Ocean idyll is now under threat. Almost 10 years after the nation emerged from a viciously fought civil war, a constitutional crisis is driving frustrated Sri Lankans onto the streets in increasingly violent protests that have already claimed the life of one man and left others injured.

While cricketers representing Sri Lanka and England take to the green at Galle International Stadium for a genial test match, a more sinister clash has broken out between the country’s president and prime minister.

Erstwhile, uneasy partners in a dysfunctional government, their squabbling and mutual suspicion have descended into a dangerous game of chess.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accused by President Maithripala Sirisena of unlikely involvement in an alleged assassination attempt, has barricaded himself in his official residence, refusing to make way for his replacement.

That replacement, chosen by the president in what many observers regard as nothing less than a constitutional coup, couldn’t be a more polarising choice.

A former president himself, Mahinda Rajapaksa might be popular with the majority Sinhalese population – and the tens of thousands who took to the streets of Colombo on Monday in support of him – but for others, he is associated with the authoritarianism, human rights abuses and corruption that so badly alienated the Tamil minority during his 10 years in office.

Instead of promoting Mr Rajapaksa, Mr Sirisena was supposed to have been investigating him for his role in the killings of Tamils at the end of the war. In a worrying sign of a clampdown on any dissent, Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters have already seized control of newspapers in the capital.

The president has taken it upon himself to suspend parliament. Until it is reconvened – ostensibly on November 16 – Sri Lanka has two prime ministers and no effective government.

The heat is rising and parliament’s speaker has warned of a bloodbath on the streets if the situation is not resolved by politicians soon.

With a thriving economy fuelled by textile exports and tourism, the last thing the country needs is another descent into bloody chaos. Memories of the 26-year war that divided the nation and its people, claiming the lives of thousands, are still etched onto the minds of many of its citizens.

For their sake, Sri Lanka’s politicians should set aside divisive self-interest and their differences to end its worst constitutional crisis in years – one that threatens to undo the efforts of the past decade and plunge a country that has only recently recovered from the worst ravages of war back into violence and instability.

Colombo must show a proper sense of leadership for the sake of its people and a swift resolution must be reached before more lives are needlessly lost.