Indian Ocean Region needs a stable and secure Sri Lanka


By: N Sathiya Moorthy

How does Sri Lanka’s political and economic turmoil affect the Indian Ocean Region?

Independent of the outcome(s) of the ongoing political tussle in Sri Lanka, continued political stability with assured economic revival in the nation is a sine qua non for a strong and safe Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This is due to Sri Lanka’s very coastline, studded with the southern Hambantota/Dundra Point, facing the busy IOR-SLOCs. This could be seen as a politico-diplomatic tool but it can also prove to be a greater burden than a strategic boon in times of economic and political crises, as has been witnessed in Sri Lanka over the past week.

The Sri Lankan political crisis is a product of the continuing economic and forex disaster, which is not going to go away overnight even if there is a change in political leadership. Seemingly capitalising on the public anger that is finding expression in nation-wide street protests, the political Opposition has shifted gears to talk about traditional constitutional issues like ending the all-powerful executive presidency.

This requires a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, along with a national referendum—which is both time-consuming and is diverting attention from the economic priorities that any government should be addressing first. Independent of the issues involved and the direction internal politics may take—especially of the constitutional and parliamentary varieties, whoever may be the President or Prime Minister, need to be able to head a stable government with confidence and direction, so as to address the economic issues and forex concerns in a systematic manner, after determining the course.

Getting the numbers

With the Parliament seized of the matter, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena stated in  a leaders’ meeting that the Constitution did not provide for the House to direct the President to quit. He also appealed to all the parties to find an amicable solution within the Constitution, preferably before the weekend. While multiple Opposition parties did not add up to a third of the strength of the House, 42 MPs belonging to three distinct groups from within the ruling coalition, including one of 12 coalition’s SLPP leader, have decided to stay independent. Of them, the 14-member SLFP parent of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP and the 12-member rebel group may be weighing available options. A 11-party rebel group accounting for 16 MPs may offer ‘issue-based support’ without joining an alternate government.

The Speaker has a point. Under the Constitution, if the President does not quit—and Gotabaya has reiterated more than once that he wouldn’t oblige—the Parliament can impeach him through a two-thirds vote, which the rivals do not have at present. In case of a vacancy, the Prime Minister, followed by the Speaker, steps in, for the Parliament to elect an alternate and complete the remaining part of the five-year term. PM Mahinda is barred by the Constitution to fill in, or even replace Gotabaya, as he is barred by the two-term upper-limit that he completed in 2015.

With his back against the wall, after he had failed to read the signs of the times for weeks and months, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered to hand over power to whichever party or group with a majority-support of 113 MPs in the 225-member Parliament. This implied that either the government acknowledged that it did not have the numbers or it was confident that rivals would not come together and add up, even if his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost simple majority.

Given the political dynamics, the Parliament, in such a turn, will find it difficult to scrape up the numbers for a replacement. For the same reasons, the House may not be able to vote for fresh parliamentary polls, which it is empowered to but can’t before the end of half the term in March 2023. PM Mahinda too has refused to step aside when the rest of the Cabinet quit over the weekend, seeking to resolve the political crisis but contributing to a fresh stalemate.

Economy takes a back seat

All of it means that the economic crisis over which the Opposition hauled the government leadership over the coals has taken a backseat, as feared. Not only has the Opposition not been able to come up with any substantive policy options through the past months of fiscal and forex crisis, but even inside the Parliament, its members, starting with the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, are talking politics more than economics. This has reportedly peeved the people at large, who were crying hoarse for the Rajapaksas’ exit, hoping for a way out of their economic ills.

Outside the Parliament and the President’s Secretariat, the residences of Gotabaya and Mahinda and almost every ruling party MP, public demonstrations galore. There have also been standalone reports of some of the government rebels, like sacked minister Wimal Weerawansa, facing a similar situation. Here again, there are proven signs of either the Opposition parties backing them from the beginning, or hijacking them, in the interim. The Sri Lanka Bar Association (SLBA) has condemned the sporadic violence in some places, starting with President Gotabaya’s Mirihana residence in capital Colombo. Yet, some lawyers in court attire stormed the offices of the Attorney-General’s Department, protesting the withdrawal of pending cases against the Rajapaksas and their favourites since the Gotabaya government came to power.

Though early signs of anarchy had caused a clueless President to promulgate emergency and impose a curfew over the weekend, the quiet defiance of both by the political Opposition and guarded international criticism have caused their quick withdrawal. As if the belie rumours of partisanship and to reassure the public, Defence Secretary, Gen Kamal Gunaratne (retd) has declared that the armed forces stood by the Constitution and would not hesitate to enforce the law against rioters. Likewise, Army Chief, Gen Shavendra Silva, ‘sanctioned’ by the US and the UK, met with the defence attaches of foreign missions in Colombo, only to swear by the Constitution, and to order tri-services security for major installations. It is not impossible that the security agencies may be combing the nation across for the background of new and emerging leaders, who may form the core of future political leaderships, one way or the other.

Upended priorities

At the peak of the economic crisis, when the nation needs to build confidence all around, to convince friendly nations to restructure massive debts and extend further credit-lines, and also convince overseas investors to help create jobs, generate incomes, and government revenues, the reverse seems to be happening. Likewise, the revival of tourism, severely impacted by the 2019 Easter serial blasts, followed by the global pandemic, too may suffer further if internal instability continues. Unfortunately, the upended priorities of the political class, comprising the dispirited yet adamant Rajapaksa clan and the divided Opposition, can do more harm than good.

The economic situation will take to take time to restabilise, and the nation has already demonstrated its impatience—as was only to be expected. The Indian neighbour’s assistance, in credit-line, investments, and supplies in the form of fuel, rice, and pharma supplies, will go a long way in mitigating the people’s suffering over the short and long term. The medium term will require the restructuring of existing loans, and also funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and also the World Bank and Asian Development Bank), to shore up forex reserves in the interim.

The political class, cutting across loyalties and ideologies, will have to come together, if only to restore the confidence of the people—and rather win back the same, as the economic crisis is as much a ‘legacy issue’ as one of mismanagement by the Rajapaksas. Yet, middle-class protestors, especially in urban centres like capital Colombo, have added ‘family rule’, ‘Rajapaksa corruption’, and ‘nepotism’ to their sloganeering and pamphleteering, making it more personal and personalised. This too may have consequences for political stability even as economic recovery has to wait.

Fishing expedition?

Establishment Sri Lanka, as distinct from the political class at helm at different times, has been wary of the return of Sinhala-Buddhist youth militancy, as showcased by the two episodes of JVP militancy (1971 and 1987) and also LTTE. They have been looking at reports of ‘people’s protests’ with anxiety, and the presence of the millennial youth in these protests, both in urban and rural areas, has not gone unnoticed. These youths have been rendered jobless, not only by the pandemic lockdown, but by the massive China-funded infra projects that brought with it Chinese labour which led to the loss of employment opportunities of the locals. Only a post-protest dissection and analysis across the country would confirm or deny such speculative anxieties.

The external security situation looks relatively stable, especially with the exit of the LTTE and its ‘Sea Tigers Naval Wing’. This has since been augmented with Sri Lanka joining the bi-annual India-Maldives ‘Dosti’ Coast Guard exercises in 2011, and the three following it up with the creation of the ‘Colombo Security Conclave’ (CSC) in 2020, and upgrading the existing Maritime Security Agreement into Maritime and Security Agreement. Mauritius, on the mouth of the ‘pond’ that the Indian Ocean forms in these parts, joined the CSC during this year’s CSC meeting in Maldives as a full-member while Seychelles and Bangladesh have continued as ‘observers’.

However, internal weaknesses of the political and economic kind are bound to have an impact on the external security, especially centred on the shared IOR. To begin with, it could delay further upgradation of the CSC, as planned, to keep extra-regional powers further away, but which may be tempted to fish in the troubled Sri Lankan, and in turn, IOR waters all over again. This time, it could go beyond their traditional investment routes, which is economically desirable, but could also include plans and plots for a regime change or worse, including anar

chist versions of ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘Orange Revolution’, where local radical groups of every shade and colour may have the last laugh!

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. email: sathiyam,[email protected])

courtesy: N Sathiya Moorthy 6 April 2022