Move sounds the alarm over authoritarian slide . . .
Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has approved a constitutional amendment giving him substantial new powers, including the right to dismiss government ministers and dissolve parliament half-way into its five-year term. He was also given authority over previously independent commissions overseeing corruption, elections, policing, and human rights. Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, gained a two-thirds majority in parliament in August. The president’s brother, Mahinda (also a former president), is prime minister and another brother and three nephews are also members of parliament. Human rights organizations say the country is returning to the repression that characterized the previous period of Rajapaksa rule (2005-2015).
Pressure to pick sides . . .
Rajapaksa’s consolidation of executive power comes amid larger countries vying for Sri Lanka’s allegiance. Last week, India and Sri Lanka concluded joint naval exercises that are part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to counter Chinese influence in the region. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Colombo and plans to emphasize their “shared goals of sustainable development and a free and open Indo-Pacific.” In a recent briefing, a senior U.S. official, when asked about Sri Lanka’s apparent authoritarian turn, stated that the country will have to make “difficult but necessary decisions to secure its economic independence” and jettison its “discriminatory and opaque” economic development practices – a reference to Colombo’s relationship with China.
Trying to de-bunk the debt-trap narrative . . .
Pompeo’s visit comes a few weeks after a visit by Yang Jiechi, China’s former foreign minister who now sits on the Politburo. The visit resulted in a C$119-million grant said to be earmarked for education, medical care, and water supplies in Sri Lanka’s rural areas. The payment is likely intended, at least in part, to discourage Sri Lanka from drifting into the Washington-New Delhi orbit. Rajapaksa, aware of the criticism of his government for accepting large amounts of funding from China, implored Yang to help him de-bunk perceptions that Sri Lanka has fallen into a “debt trap” with China. It’s not clear whether Rajapaksa was thinking ahead to his meeting with Pompeo, but the renewed funding from Beijing will give the two sides plenty to discuss.
- Associated Press: China grants $90m to Sri Lanka after visit by top official
- The Guardian: Sri Lanka president tightens grip with constitutional changes
- Human Rights Watch: Sri Lanka: Increasing suppression of dissent