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International relations

India dragged into Sri Lanka's leadership crisis

Sirisena's move to fire PM partly seen as pushback against New Delhi

A poster in Colombo shows Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, with President Maithripala Sirisena on Oct. 28.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Sri Lanka is on a knife edge after President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday, a move seen partly as a reaction to India's behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

Sirisena engineered what some experts have called a "coup" and installed former political foe Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister. Back in January 2015, Sirisena defeated the incumbent Rajapaksa in a presidential election, after which the latter claimed that India had helped to oust him.

On Sunday afternoon, New Delhi issued its first comments. "India is closely following the recent political developments in Sri Lanka," the Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement. "As a democracy and a close and friendly neighbor, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected."

India's nod to the constitution puts Sirisena on the spot. It echoes a growing chorus of Sri Lankan constitutional scholars who have challenged Sirisena's unilateral dismissal of his governing partner. They say he exceeded the constitutional powers granted to the president in deposing the premier, who heads the largest party in parliament.

In addition to naming Rajapaksa prime minister, Sirisena also suspended the 225-member parliament to give Rajapaksa time to line up the 113 votes he needs for a majority before the next sitting in mid-November. Rajapaksa's faction in the opposition now counts 95 parliamentarians in its ranks.

The clashing Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had both attempted to use India as a political prop.

Sirisena, in a mid-October cabinet meeting, said the Research and Analysis Wing, India's spy agency, was plotting to assassinate him. He reportedly fumed that Wickremesinghe was treating the threat lightly, a political insider told the Nikkei Asian Review. "That did it for Sirisena," the source said.

The president mentioned the threat in a national address on Sunday evening. "[Because of] the strong plot to assassinate me, the only alternative open to me was to invite former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and appoint him as the prime minister to form a new government," Sirisena said in the speech, in which he alleged a conspiracy involving a cabinet member and did not address the constitutionality of his move.

For his part, Wickremesinghe used a trip to India in October to humiliate Sirisena, presenting the president as the stumbling block hindering a joint plan with India to develop a container terminal at the port of Colombo.

Wickremesinghe's office released a statement saying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had expressed "regret" over the delayed plan to give India a say over the development of the Eastern Container Terminal at the port, Sri Lanka's busiest harbor. Colombo handled a record 4.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units of freight in 2017, nearly half of which were containers headed to or coming from India.

Western diplomatic sources in Colombo say the falling out that ended the coalition government's nearly four-year run has pushed India into an awkward corner. One diplomat in the Sri Lankan capital suggested the "Indian angle" in the political feud "appears to be the visible scenario that resulted in the president's action."

Commentators in India noted New Delhi's annoyance at the churlish behavior of Sri Lanka's sparring leaders. The Modi government has been displeased with the way "it has been dragged into the internal politics of the Sri Lankan cabinet over the past few weeks," Suhasini Haider wrote in an op-ed in The Hindu, an Indian daily. "The two leaders have been jockeying to draw an Indian angle to their issues for a while now."

India's tone on Sri Lanka has changed since the presidential election in January 2015, when Sirisena led a political alliance under the banner of clean government to defeat the increasingly autocratic Rajapaksa. Shortly afterward, Rajapaksa accused the RAW of plotting his downfall by forcing Sirisena, who had been a senior member of Rajapaksa's cabinet, to defect to lead the alliance against him.

New Delhi's murky role in toppling Rajapaksa raised the geopolitical stakes in Sri Lanka, which had turned increasingly pro-China during the president's nearly 10 years in power. Lately, though, China has regained the upper hand, with its investments and loans to build Sri Lanka's economy overshadowing India's limited cash flow.

Little wonder that Cheng Xueyuan, China's ambassador to Sri Lanka, seized on the current crisis as a political opportunity. He was the first -- and only foreign envoy so far -- to congratulate Rajapaksa on his appointment as premier.

"I don't think India will do what the Chinese did by reacting now in favor of one side and regretting later," said Harinda Vidanage, director of the Colombo-based Bandaranaike Center for International Studies. "India is trying to avoid creating a geopolitical crisis from a domestic crisis."

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, on Sunday called on Sri Lanka's president to "immediately reconvene parliament." The U.S. urged Sirisena to "allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfill their responsibility to affirm who will lead their government."

The deepening political crisis comes just before a refinancing of external debt, scheduled for early 2019. "The president's sudden appointment of Mr. Rajapaksa as prime minister significantly heightens policy uncertainty," said Matthew Circosta, an analyst of the sovereign risk group at Moody's. "Uncertainty about the direction of future policy could have a large and lasting negative impact on international investor confidence."

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