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Sri Lanka marching towards authoritarian security politics – East Asia Forum

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Author: Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, Erasmus University Rotterdam

It was an eventful year in Sri Lankan politics in 2019. If not a year of crisis, perhaps the term chaos sums it up most accurately.

Sri Lanka's former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed as the new Prime Minister, looks on during the swearing in ceremony in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 21 Novermber 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte).

The year started with several political tugs-of-war between former president Maithripala Sirisena and former prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, after Sirisena sacked Wickramasinghe and swore-in Mahinda Rajapaksa , quite unconstitutionally. These dramatic events paved the way for more political problems later in the year and eventually led to the end of the so-called Yahapalanya (good governance) coalition government.

Jihadist-inspired bombings in April 2019 created a security crisis on top of the deepening political crisis. Failing to prevent these Easter attacks and mishandling the aftermath proved to be the last nail in Yahapalanaya’s coffin. The electorate’s response to these events was clear at the presidential election held in November 2019, which brought the Rajapaksas back to power. The Rajapaksas secured 52.25 per cent of the vote, almost all from the Sinhala Buddhist constituency that played a key role in sending the Rajapaksas packing just over five years ago amid serious allegations of corruption and nepotism.

The 2019 political crisis was a long time in the making. The controversial handover of Hambantota Port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease, after the new government failed to repay loans taken out under the previous regime, became an issue. Controversies surrounding the port’s handover went beyond economic concerns, sparking endless spats between Sirisena and Wickramasinghe, the former leaning towards China and the latter towards the United States. They accused one another of undermining Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and of angering India, China and the United States.

The most dramatic scandal was the Central Bank bond scam, which placed Wickramasinghe in the political spotlight. Set up at the direction of Sirisena, the Bond Commission inquiry made political history. This was the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that a sitting prime minister had been summoned before a presidential commission of inquiry.

The SLRs 10 billion (US$55 million) bond scandal certainly eroded the public’s trust in the government. Although the prime minister protested his innocence, predatory forces close to the United National Party — Wickramasinghe’s party — were shown by the inquiry to have held key stakes in the scam. This scandal helped turned the tables in favour of the Rajapaksa clan, who wasted no time exploiting the fiasco to their own advantage. The scandal helped them win the 2018 local government elections, and eventually, the presidential elections of November 2019.

The renewal of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States also created waves. The ACSA was signed in 2007 under the Rajapaksa regime and was renewed in August 2017. But in 2019, the terms of the renewal caused political heat in Colombo and drew serious criticism from the public over the government’s apparent abandonment of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

The new terms of the agreement also raised suspicions from both China and India. Divisions between the seemingly pro-United States Wickramasinghe and the pro-China Sirisena were on stark display. The timing of the renewal proved bad luck for Wickramasinghe. Unsurprisingly, the populist candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa strategically remained silent on the issue during his presidential election campaign.

To explain this past year’s political crisis, one cannot ignore the ‘narcissism of small differences’ that characterised the relationship between Sirisena and Wickramasinghe. Although both Sirisena and Wickramsinghe are veterans of Sri Lanka’s political scene, their political behaviour during the Yahapaalanaya government showed political immaturity, childishness and arrogance. Their clashing egos also curtailed their ability to jointly deliver on key election promises.

So, what can Sri Lanka look forward to in 2020?

President Rajapaksa has clearly indicated that national security will be his number one priority. Almost all of his new policies rest on this single imperative, as well as on a promise to deliver ‘order’ and ‘prosperity’. His approach is forward-looking and pragmatic — convenient given the ghosts of his past, including alleged war crimes, which have not yet fully faded away.

On the economic front, Rajapaksa is recasting the old dream of being the ‘new Singapore’. This requires both stability and security as preconditions. The first casualties of his pragmatic approach will probably be freedom of speech, civil liberties and parts of the constitution that protect them, especially the 19th Amendment. Abolishing the amendment will pave the way for Rajapaksa to reinstate the executive presidential powers that were done away with in 2015.

Internationally, Sri Lanka will continue its drift eastwards away from the West. An unfolding diplomatic spat between Switzerland and Sri Lanka, which began within days of Rajapaksa’s election, serves an early warning of Colombo’s foreign policy of intolerance towards the West. Meanwhile, a friendlier approach towards neighbouring India is already on display, as well as a strategic balancing act with China. But over time, management of this relationship will require more political wit and skill from the ruling regime. Both India and China appear to be the most helpful partners able to deliver on promises of economic prosperity, political stability and security.

Given all of this, Sri Lanka appears to be inching towards a more authoritarian security politics — governance controlled by experts on violence, leaving very little room for democratic dissident voices and in addressing the enduring grievances of minority communities in the country.

Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits is Assistant Professor in conflict and peace studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2019 in review and the year ahead.

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Politics This Morning: Kenney resigns – The Hill Times

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The government says it plans to appeal the May 10 Alberta Court of Appeal decision that found the Impact Assessment Act is unconstitutional because it infringes on provincial jurisdiction.
Liberal MP Michael Coteau predicts that Ontarians will vote Liberal in tight Liberal-NDP races in order to oust the Ford government.
Fearing Russian aggression, Finland and Sweden will likely apply for NATO membership. While Canada supports the membership of these countries, it needs to step up its own contributions, especially in the Arctic: experts.

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Opinion | Abortion and America’s Polarized Politics – The New York Times

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Damon Winter/The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “How Roe Warped the Public,” by Ross Douthat (column, May 8):

Mr. Douthat argues that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was “an inflection point where the choices of elite liberalism actively pushed the Republic toward our current divisions,” but he ignores three glaring facts.

First, Roe v. Wade still aligns well with the American people’s best sense about the complexity of abortion: that it be safe, legal and rare. Second, it was deliberate decisions by conservative elites that weaponized minority opposition to abortion for their own goals. Third, it is the unyielding minority religious belief that personhood begins at the moment of conception that has been driving the divisive politics of abortion for decades.

Frederick Civian
Dedham, Mass.

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat lays the social divisions of this country at the feet of the liberal elites who foolishly made the mistake of codifying a constitutional right not specifically delineated in our Constitution. He overlooks the deliberate choice of abortion as a politically galvanizing issue by movement conservatives who, seeking to unite a party in disarray after the “Southern strategy” and Watergate, fixed on abortion as a standard to unite under.

Abortion was not originally a significant concern of evangelicals and was simply one tool they picked to create and sustain the quest for political control. Mr. Douthat, while thoughtful, is simply dead wrong on this one.

Andrew Mishkin
Portland, Maine

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat’s column about Roe was exceptionally brilliant. In an age when so much opinion content is designed to simplify complex issues, to create easy distillations that fit into previously established convictions, it takes courage to present issues with nuance and complexity and trust that readers will reward you for it.

Well done, Ross!

Ben Lincoln
Mount Desert Island, Maine

To the Editor:

I am a strongly pro-choice feminist, and I understand and respect the perspective of people who are opposed to abortion. However, opposition to abortion has taken on an element that is not pro-life. Not making an exception for instances of rape and incest suggests a lack of compassion, rather than reverence for life. Criminalizing and instigating vigilante injustice suggest not just lack of compassion, but also punishment and vindictiveness.

Where in this response is the love and mercy that are at the heart of the message of Jesus?

Berne Weiss
Estoril, Portugal

Bernardo Bagulho

To the Editor:

Running for Office to ‘Stop the Steal,’” by Barbara McQuade (Opinion guest essay, Sunday Review, May 15), should strike fear in the heart of every patriotic American.

Between now and November, honest Americans of every political stripe need to get the word out that Donald Trump is working frantically to elect “his” state legislators, secretaries of state and election officials who will replace the honest bipartisan ones who said there was no election fraud in 2020. His apparent goal is to have Trump electors tallied instead of legally chosen ones in what could be our last free election.

People need to be reminded how Mr. Trump attempted to cajole officials — even his own vice president — into overturning an honest election. Now he’s learned a better way to do it, and only the voters can prevent this electoral calamity and national tragedy.

Two years from now our democracy could be in as much danger as Ukraine’s is now, but without one missile being launched or one shot being fired.

Bobby Braddock
Nashville

Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “The Perils of 2 Ukraine War Endgames” (column, May 15):

Ross Douthat is right to envision these endgame scenarios. He fears that if the Ukrainian military (with U.S. weapons support) should come close to expelling the Russian forces, “nuclear escalation suddenly becomes more likely than it is right now.”

If the Russians should decide to end a protracted war with a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine, the U.S. might be tempted to retaliate against Russia with its own nukes. Both sides have put the nuclear option back on the table.

Even short of World War III, a continuing military stalemate in the Donbas would likely have serious consequences: global grain shortages, starvation in poor countries and eventual upheavals and mass migration. U.S. arms aid would also come with high domestic costs, including the likely abandonment of needed social programs.

The U.S. and NATO should make the reduction of nuclear war risk a top priority. They should stop stoking the conflict with arms shipments. Instead, they should encourage Volodymyr Zelensky to engage in meaningful negotiations with Vladimir Putin, even if it means territorial concessions in the Donbas region.

President Biden’s objective should now be peace through diplomacy, not endless war through the continuing supply of weapons.

L. Michael Hager
Eastham, Mass.
The writer is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization.

Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

To the Editor:

According to the F.B.I. expert who spoke to my synagogue on Sunday about how to survive an attack by an “active shooter,” we should not encourage mentally ill bigots by giving them heroes, that is, by naming other shooters they can emulate.

In other words, every time the news media repeats the shooter’s name, sick folks will have another person to admire. So stop saying those names. What is horrific to us is cool to them. Don’t name them.

Emily Farrell
Philadelphia

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‘A fine leader:’ Reaction to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney resigning after UCP review

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday he is stepping down as leader of the United Conservative Party after the party announced he had won a leadership review with just 51.4 per cent of votes. Here is some of the political reaction:

“He was a fine leader. He worked so hard for this province, uniting us Conservatives together back in 2016 and his heart was in this province. And now he’s gone. He’s going to do wonderful things with his life and his career, but it’s a loss to our party.” — Janis Nett, secretary of the United Conservative Party

“There are obviously many things about which we don’t agree, but that doesn’t negate the time and sacrifice that goes into taking on the role of Premier. The work is never easy. The days are long and often difficult, as I’m sure today is. I wish Jason the best.” — Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley

“I respect Jason’s decision. It’s going to be tough going forward for a little bit … but we need to unite as a party and we need to find a leader who can do that, because right now we are divided.” — Conrad van Hierden, constituency association president for Livingstone-Macleod

“No one understands political traditions and conventions more than Jason Kenney and I want to thank him for his decent and honourable concession.” — UCP MLA Brian Jean

“Thank you @jkenney for all your contributions. Through the challenges of the past two years and decades of public service, you’ve been a voice for Alberta and Albertans, and I wish you all the best in the years ahead.” — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

“Thank you to my friend Premier @jkenney for everything you have done to unite Alberta conservative voters into a new party, defeat a destructive NDP government and lead Alberta through a very challenging time.” — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe

“@jkenney my friend, the people of this province owe you a debt of gratitude. You took a province economically ravaged by the NDP & turned it into a thriving place to live and work again. B/c of you less kids will leave our home for jobs somewhere else. I’m so proud of you.” — Former federal Progressive Conservative leader Rona Ambrose

“@jkenney has dedicated his career to serving the people of his province and country. Proud to call him a friend and colleague. Wishing him all the best in his next endeavours.” — Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson

“Sad tonite to see @jkenney step down. Under his leadership, Alta found a way thru dark times and is now better positioned to thrive than any other prov. Thx for your work PJK. You always tried to do the right thing not just the popular one. Canada is a better country bc of it.” — former B.C. premier Christy Clark

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.

 

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