Sri Lanka crisis deepens as Parliament suspended; India silent

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Sri Lanka crisis deepens as Parliament suspended; India silent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo on October 27, 2018. (Image via Reuters)

The political crisis in Colombo deepened Saturday as Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended Parliament till November 16 a day after sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought an emergency session to prove his majority.

Sirisena’s decision comes a day after former President Mahinda Rajapakse was sworn in as the Prime Minister and is seen as a move to allow Rajapakse more time to seek a majority in Parliament.

As the constitutional crisis unfolds, Delhi continued to maintain a studied silence and is keeping an eye on the three prominent players — Sirisena, Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe. A South Block source told The Sunday Express that since all three have been in touch with the Indian leadership, Delhi is aware of the “fluid” political situation in the island nation. Officials said the President prorogued the House till November 16 and that Parliament was earlier due to meet on November 5 to unveil the 2019 annual budget.

Also read | Sudden regime change in Sri Lanka: Mahinda Rajapakse is back, now as PM

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Wickremesinghe, who briefed the diplomatic community in Colombo at his official residence at Temple Trees maintained that he is “still the Prime Minister”, his colleague, Mangala Samaraweera called his removal “unconstitutional and illegal”.

Sri Lanka’s official broadcaster Rupavahini has been taken off the air, while new Cabinet is likely to be sworn in on Sunday morning, Sri Lankan news outlet Daily Mirror reported.

The Rajapakse and Sirisena combine has only 95 seats and is short of a simple majority in the 225-member House. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has 106 seats on its own — just seven short of the halfway mark.

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The UNP claimed that Sirisena sought to prorogue Parliament as 72-year-old Rajapakse did not command a majority in the House. Wickremesinghe had earlier, in a letter to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, demanded an emergency session to prove his majority.

While Sirisena met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu in August, Rajapakse met him in September during his visit to Delhi. Wickremesinghe met Modi in Delhi in October, just days after a phone call with Sirisena.

“It was not a surprise to us…our mission in Colombo has kept us well-briefed on the developments in the island nation,” said a top source.

British junior foreign minister Mark Field said on Twitter said: “Following today’s developments in #SriLanka closely and with concern. We call for all parties and competent authorities to ensure that the constitution is respected and due political process followed.”

Indian diplomats said the situation is fluid, and Delhi is known to wait and watch the situation before responding in haste.

“We have always learnt from experience that politics in South Asia very dynamic…so, we do not want to make the mistake of picking sides so early on. We will only act or speak in national interest after facts are clear,” the source said.

With Modi travelling to Japan with senior foreign policy officials and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj going to the Gulf, South Block mandarins are expected to play a key role at the moment.

Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale is coordinating with the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Taranjit Sandhu for updates, sources said, even as he participates in the meetings between Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in Japan.

What complicates the situation for Delhi is that the alleged involvement of India has been dragged into Sri Lankan politics by major players to suits their interests.

While Sirisena claimed R&AW’s involvement in an assassination plot to kill him (he later denied this publicly and to Modi) this month, Rajapakse has also blamed R&AW for its defeat in 2015.

“We have vital strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region, and it begins with Sri Lanka. We need to have a strong robust relationship with the government of the day,” the source explained.

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