When a United States Department of State official reacted to the dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe by Sri Lanka’s president Maitripala Sirisena installing the former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place on October 26, the issue raised was could Sri Lanka accommodate two prime ministers at the same time. The indication was the official was familiar with constitutional procedure especially the provisions of the Nineteenth Amendment.
In a subsequent statement, early in the month of November, the State Department advocated a legitimate legislative process – to allow the Sri Lanka parliament to elect a prime minister who has the endorsement of a majority of Members – insinuating that Mr. Rajapaksa did not have the majority backing in the legislature to hold the position of prime minister, and that Washington preferred Wickremasinghe who, in their view, commands a majority.
Those of us who were familiar with the operation and functioning of the U.S. Department of State and its overseas diplomatic missions because of our long official engagement with it, the initial pronouncement of the said official, noted in one of the early reports of Asian Tribune, and subsequent state department pronouncement gave a very clear indication that Washington entertained the idea that the October 26 decision at some stage could bring confusion and domestic disturbances and destined to collapse. The December 3 Court of Appeal Interim Order restrained Rajapaksa from holding the position of Prime Minister was the first step.
How did Washington entertain such a mindset?
When this writer was a Foreign Service Political Specialist at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo, the widespread belief in the diplomatic community was that the American Embassy was the first to know hard-to-get information. They often quipped that the Americans, because of their knack for investigative and probing skills, knew ‘whose shoes were under whose bed’. The U.S. Mission knew exactly what happened to JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera that 1989 November fateful night at the Borella cemetery. Used to intense scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s socio-political environment and developments, American officials in Colombo undoubtedly knew the exact division among the Sri Lankan legislators between Wickremasinghe and Rajapaksa. Naturally Washington was apprised of this clear division resulting in the early statements from the state department.
The issue at hand is: Why should an emerging leader who proved his electoral domination and mass appeal last February during the nationwide local government election be a willing partner not only to soil the democratic process but place obstacles in his own path confusing the nation and the diplomatic community.
There were no visible obstacles on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s path that prevented him from moving once again toward political power. The nation deposed him at the last presidential election in 2015 but was seen progressively regaining strength among the masses. Despite the final five years of his presidency facing allegations of misrule, authoritarian tendencies, diluting the rule of law, curbing the right to dissent and civil liberties, he emerged as a serious stakeholder in the Sri Lankan political scene just forty days of his dismissal.
On 20 February 2015, the Asian Tribune reported under the caption ‘Sri Lanka’s political landscape changing’ analyzing the massive mass rally using the theme ‘ Way Forward With Mahinda’ held 18 February in the outskirts of the capital city Colombo that strategized to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back in the national political fray.
We wrote: (Quote) Exactly forty days into the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe administration, the emergence of the Eighteenth of February Movement changed the narrative of Sri Lanka’s politics and its trajectory undoubtedly giving a shock to the regime and to the surprise of the American Foreign Service Officers at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo.
Never in Sri Lanka’s post-independent history a ‘defeated’ head of state made an enormous impact in just forty days since the inauguration of a new regime what the Sri Lankans, the world, and most significantly, the American diplomats in Colombo saw in February eighteen in the outskirts of Colombo in Nugegoda giving birth to the Eighteenth of February Movement. (End Quote)
The mass enthusiasm generated at that massive rally clearly manifested Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electrifying mass appeal in Sri Lanka’s political scene. His nationalist agenda won him the presidency in November 2005, and a war that the West believed was unwinnable.
The mass mobilization around Rajapaksa culminated in the February 2018 nationwide local government elections at which his patronized political party – Sri Lanka Peoples Front (SLPP) –inaugurated just a year before, registered the most impressive 44% national vote awarding an ignominious defeat to his onetime political party – SLFP – a distant third of 13%. And its coalition partner – the UNP – registered an unimpressive 33%.
That was Mr. Rajapaksa’s trajectory toward broad national endorsement until he made a misstep on October 26 accepting the position of prime minister from President Maitripala Sirisena whose credibility as a political leader was fast diminishing, and his coalition administration’s popularity among the masses was on the decline.
A number of U.S. officials when in conversation with this writer were well aware of Rajapaksa’s re-emergence in the national scene in the last twenty-four-month-period, and how his national agenda was taking root among the broad masses of the people.
This writer recalls what the late Trotskyite leader Dr. Colvin R. de Silva prophetically pronounced at a 1988 working lunch at the American Embassy’s political chief’s residence: This writer, at that time a Foreign Service Political Specialist at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo, Ernestine Heck, the Political Counselor and Caroline Johnson, her deputy with Dr. de Silva were probing and analyzing the prevalent political development during that time when a question was raised if a political party opposed to the party of the incumbent president swept a nationwide polls how would he describe the unexpectedly emerged scenario.
Dr. de Silva explained: If a political party opposed to the executive president’s receives a majority endorsement in a nationwide parliamentary or local polls, the presidency could somewhat become disabled.
With the SLPP impressively winning the nationwide local polls Sirisena presidency ‘became somewhat disabled’, and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s national stature was seen on the upward mobility.
It is amid this favorable political atmosphere Rajapaksa accepted the position of prime minister on October 26. The move was, he took two steps back when he could have taken another step forward.
The American officials, despite their utter reservation about Mahinda Rajapaksa, were facing the reality that he gained popularity among the masses in the past year and a half or so.
Neither he nor his counselors ever saw what would have been the scenario if they coalesced with a regime that was fast losing its foothold in Sri Lankan politics.
The move that commenced on October 26 plunged the nation into a constitutional crisis and a state of despair, and Mahinda Rajapaksa voluntarily placed road blocks on his path which would have otherwise been a somewhat ‘not-so-difficult’ path to political power.
Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s prophetic pronouncement in 1988 reverberated at the February 2018 nationwide local government polls disabling a presidency with the change of the national mood in favor of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Taking two steps back, this was an opportunity lost, and most importantly, bringing confusion among the masses of the people, isolating from major aid donors, an unwanted constitutional crisis, and uniting the almost-fractured United National Party behind Ranil Wickremasinghe whose ouster from party leadership was well laid out – and was taking effect prior to October 26 – at this writer’s residence in the United States a couple years ago by none other than UNP’s Monaragala District parliamentarian Ranjith Madduma Bandara. (Asian Tribune)