Sri Lanka: Battle of two Prime Ministers turns deadly

By Athula Vithanage

A man has been killed in a shooting in Colombo when two prime ministers challenging the legitimacy of each other are battling it out to consolidate their power, triggering fears of further violence.

The president has suspended parliament making it difficult for any of the contenders to show their strength through a vote of confidence.

Sri Lanka was thrown into political instability after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked the prime minister in a three year old uneasy coalition to appoint his party strongman, who was ousted three years ago.

The unexpected move to dismiss United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has been widely criticised as illegal.

In a televised address to the nation, President Sirisena justified his action to change government as “totally in accordance with the constitution and on the advice of legal experts”.

"No constitutional violation was done when appointments were made and removal was enacted."

However, Parliament’s Speaker recognised Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s prime minister.

In a letter sent on Sunday (28), Speaker Karu Jayasuriya urged the president to protect Wickremesinghe’s rights and privileges “until any other person emerges from within the Parliament as having secure confidence of the Parliament”.

Opposition Leader R Sampanthan, who heads Tamil National Alliance, has also written to the speaker to summon parliament.

Supporters of the appointed prime minister had quickly moved to wrest control of several state institutions, while the sitting PM stood his ground urging to reconvene the parliament.

On Sunday, a man identified as REA Rajapaksa (34) was killed in a shooting when the UNP minister of petroleum Arjuna Ranatunge was stopped entering his office by pro Rajapaksa crowds.

Police said one of Ranatunga’s security guards opened fire. One person was killed and two wounded.

The guard had been arrested and an investigation launched, police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said.

Taking over state media by force

As soon as Rajapaksa was sworn in as PM on Friday, mobs stormed state media institutions and took over editorial and  technical control.

Former media minister Keheliya Rambukwella was seen among the group that entered state owned TV, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC).

The director general of information and editorial staff appointed to Independent Television Network (ITN),  Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) and Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd (ANCL)  by the UNP-SLFP coalition have been forcibly replaced.

A recent media study has recognised the state as the largest media owner in the country.

The parliament speaker had warned the president of "severely damaging international implications," by forceful taking over of media institutions.

"You would also appreciate that the forcible takeovers, which have been reported at State Media institutions, has been seen as transcending a mere internal breakdown of law and order, and would have severely damaging international implications," said  the letter by Speaker Jayasuriya.

Tamil journalists who spoke to JDS from the heavily militarised northern Jaffna peninsula fear that the power struggle in the majority Sinhala south will reinforce the impunity enjoyed by security forces.

'None of the murdered or disappeared  Tamil journalists got justice and impunity prevails. Not even a nominal investigation initiated during the past three years," said  one journalist.

A change of government will give the military the freedom to suppress media freedom, said another.

“Even recently, the  Sri Lankan military intelligence had threatened Tamil journalists in Jaffna saying that their hands are tied for the moment, but they keep their eyes widely open. We know what that means and we fear the worst.”

Reopening door for past abusers

Already rights watchdogs have strongly criticized the move to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM without any justice for crimes committed under his regime.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) based in Brussels said that it raised "chilling concerns".

“Rajapaksa’s return to high office without any justice for past crimes raises chilling concerns for human rights in Sri Lanka,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The current government’s failure to bring justice to victims of war crimes under the Rajapaksa government reopens the door for past abusers to return to their terrible practices.”

HRW recalls that people with suspected links to Tamil Tigers that led an armed insurrection were subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances during the Rajapaksa era.

"Journalists and activists critical of the Rajapaksa government faced harassment, arrest, and even physical attack," it added.

The day he was sworn in as prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his sibling Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who was the all powerful defense chief in the height of those atrocities were seen in a meeting with the head of the police force and the chief of the police Special Task Force.

Details of the discussions were not made public.

The United States urged President Sirisena to summon the parliament for lawmakers to decide on the legitimate prime minister.

"We call on the president and the Speaker, to immediately reconvene parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfill their responsibilities", said State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert.

Earlier western countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada and France have called on all sides to respect the constitution and refrain from violence.

India said it was following events in Colombo closely while China sent its ambassador in Colombo to congratulate the appointed PM.☐



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.