First Rajapaksa, then Wickremesinghe: How Sirisena Has Stunned Lanka With a Repeat of 2014 Betrayal
In 2014, Maithripala Sirisena ditched and defeated then president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Four years later, he has unseated PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Rajapaksa.
File photo of Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (Image: Reuters)
Bengaluru: Sometime in December 2014, Sri Lanka’s joint opposition, led by former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga and then leader of opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe, shocked the island nation by declaring that Maithripala Sirisena would take on incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections.
Sri Lanka was stunned by this move. Sirisena, a mild-mannered senior minister in the Rajapaksa cabinet, quit and crossed over to the opposition to take on the authoritarian president. It was an audacious move on the part of Kumarathunga, Wickremesinghe as well as Sirisena.
Till that day, they had kept Rajapaksa guessing. Even in his wildest dreams, he did not expect that the low-profile Sirisena would ditch him and join hands with his opponents.
In a bitterly contested election, Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa. His attempt to cling on to power by cancelling the election results was foiled by the upright army and police chiefs. Rajapaksa stepped down, handing over the charge to Sirisena.
As expected, Sirisena appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister. The Rajapaksa era was over. Or so everyone thought.
A few months later, the Lankan parliament was dissolved. The United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came together to form a national unity government under Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. It lasted till this Friday, surviving a few attempts on it.
In the first two years, both the leaders shared a great rapport and, after a decade, Sri Lanka was experiencing real democracy.
It also gave new freedom to the media, civil society and even the public who were under constant threat during the Rajapaksa regime.
The events building up to Friday’s showdown were set in motion in early 2017. Rajapaksa and MPs close to him exploited and even fuelled the nascent rift. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe differed over several vital issues, including handling of the relationship with two Asian giants and neighbours — India and China. They even sparred in public over the handling of several domestic issues.
The gap widened and Rajapaksa was smiling. He was successful in driving a wedge between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
But not many expected that Sirisena would betray Wickremesinghe, who actually made him president by taking a huge personal and political risk.
According to some political analysts in Colombo, under the influence of Rajapaksa, the president made several outlandish statements, including one claiming that India's R&AW was plotting his assassination. A stunned Wickremesinghe had questioned him in the cabinet meeting and many UNP ministers had disagreed with him.
When Sirisena was chosen to take on Rajapaksa, the joint opposition had claimed that his personal integrity and mild manners would be their trump card against an authoritarian president. Sirisena's Buddhist moorings also helped the opposition dent Rajapaksa's carefully built Buddhist image.
Speaking to this reporter during one of his visits to India, Wickremesinghe had said that Sirisena was the best choice before them at the time. Even Kumarathunga had expressed faith in Sirisena, who had served in her government before Rajapaksa succeeded her in 2005.
Like 2014-15, Sirisena has once again stunned Sri Lanka and its neighbours. This time with a bloodless coup against Wickremesinghe.
Until December 2014, nobody had thought that Sirisena was going to betray Rajapaksa. He did that. Until this month, nobody had thought that he was going to betray Wickremesinghe. He has just done that.
Since Wickremesinghe has refused to step down, terming his sacking as unconstitutional, the political and constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka is unlikely to end anytime soon. Through his hasty and unconstitutional acts, Sirisena seems to have caused an irreparable damage to the island nation's international stature and his own.
Because no one in Sri Lanka expected a mild-mannered man to turn into a wily old fox. That too in just four years.
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