Why Sri Lanka has a tyrant as president — yet again
Unelected and brutal, Ranil Wickremesinghe must go. But so must the executive presidency that keeps serving up tyrants.
Sri Lankans are used to tyrants as presidents. Since the executive presidency was instituted as the centrepiece of the country’s system of government in 1978 by JR Jayewardene, every single person to hold that office has been a dangerous autocrat in some form. Even presidents elected on promises of liberal governance and peace have been responsible for horrendous atrocities.
Still, the presidency of Ranil Wickremesinghe, which began on July 21, 2022, has been a startling reign of terror. Wickremesinghe, incidentally Jayewardene’s nephew, was elected by a vote in Parliament to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa who resigned as president following the massive uprising of Sri Lankans against his rule.
Wickremesinghe is only the second president of Sri Lanka to not be directly elected, and the first to replace a resigning one.
Less than a day had passed after his election by parliament before Wickremesinghe sent Sri Lanka’s armed forces to brutally attack protesters at a site of continuous anti-government protests (termed the “aragalaya” or struggle in Sinhala) in central Colombo since mid-April.
Since then, Wickremesinghe has embarked on a sustained and intensive crackdown, detaining protesters on spurious charges under repressive frameworks. Initially, this was done by declaring a state of emergency, giving Wickremesinge sweeping powers.
This has now accelerated to apprehending protesters under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), another invention of Jayewardene that gives the state outsized powers to detain individuals without pressing charges and with few safeguards and judicial supervision. Its use for more than four decades by successive Sri Lankan governments has been synonymous with prolonged detention, torture and enforced disappearances, targeting particular communities using the state-crafted idea of “terrorism”. For the long years of the civil war (and even afterwards), this was the Tamil community, and following the 2019 Easter Bombings, this has been the Muslim community.
The latest targets of the PTA under Wickremesinghe are aragalaya protesters, foremost among them leaders of student and trade unions who have been branded “terrorists”. This targeting comes on top of widespread abuses, including the abduction of suspects; attempts to declare numerous public places in central Colombo “high-security zones” where authorities have outsized powers to ban protests and arrest people; and instituting “rehabilitation centres” where members of undefined “violent extremist groups” can be mandatorily detained. The idea is simple – to use the threat of force to scare Sri Lankans into stopping all protest.
Illusions of Stability
Wickremesinghe’s tyranny brushes away any pretence of him being liberal and democratic-minded, an image he carefully cultivated for decades in Sri Lankan society and the international community. It instead connects him more squarely with his past as someone who has faced lingering accusations of condoning and shielding autocrats.
He is widely seen as having provided cover for the alleged corruption and crimes of the Rajapaksa brothers during his term as prime minister from 2015 to 2019, despite being elected on a platform that promised to hold them accountable for their actions. As a member of Jayewardene’s cabinet in the 1980s, Wickremesinghe was accused of links to sites such as the infamous Batalanda torture centre.
Now, he is engaged in a comprehensive campaign to downplay the ongoing repression. Moves such as temporary increases in fuel supplies and a reduction in power cuts are being used by Wickremesinghe to paint the present reality as one of stability.
Much of Sri Lanka’s elite establishment – many media outlets, economists, professionals and civil society actors – who were rightly vocal about human rights violations under the Rajapaksas are now either downplaying Wickremesinghe’s abuses of power or staying silent.
Sri Lanka’s stark class differences have helped the president. Middle-class – and even wealthy – Sri Lankans joined the aragalaya protests driven by the shared misery of no fuel and prolonged power cuts. By marginally easing their pain on those counts, Wickremesinghe has made it easier for them to buy into his stability narrative. It is no coincidence that most of the activists and students being arrested are working class and poor Sri Lankans, who are more easily painted as violent and disorderly based on longstanding tropes that help to deny them solidarity from the rest of society.
Yet, Wickremesinghe and his supporters are so insistent on this illusion of stability precisely because his rule is so unstable. Besides its complete lack of an electoral mandate, the government also functions on the opportunistic alliance between Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by the Rajapaksas. Their union is founded in mutual self-interest to stave off the prospect of early elections where both would likely face rejection.
However, Wickremesinghe’s obscene dependency on the SLPP and the significantly different electoral bases of the partners – the SLPP’s being suburban and rural Sinhalese and Wickremesinghe’s urban and more multi-ethnic – mean that the alliance is unsustainable in the long run.
The foreground to all this is the country’s spiralling economic crisis, which Wickremesinghe has shown little ability to resolve in a way that protects the most vulnerable sections of Sri Lankan society. Instead, he is embarking on an extensive austerity drive, reducing subsidies, privatising public assets and deregulating labour, including through the recent agreement reached between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In this context, it is important to understand his reasons for targeting trade unionists and student activists as agents of instability, violence and now, “terrorism”. These actors all mobilised significant numbers of people to overthrow the Rajapaksas and have the capacity to do the same against oncoming austerity measures. Wickremesinghe’s repression is a preemptive curtailing of future dissent.
Abolish the executive presidency
Still, the frightening farce under way in Sri Lanka is not just about Wickremesinghe. It is also about the country’s decrepit political order which so easily enables government repression. At the heart of this is the 1978 Constitution, and in particular, the office of the executive presidency which has long served as a tool to enforce both Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and neoliberalism in the country.
Wickremesinghe’s presidency is a more concentrated version of this political order firmly rooted in chronic tyranny.
His rule, however, is a direct repudiation of the unprecedented uprising of the Sri Lankan people and their demands for a more equitable and just order. These demands frequently included the abolition of the executive presidency. Instead, Wickremesinghe’s government has merely proposed a constitutional amendment to shave a few powers from the office while keeping it intact.
This is why, just as Wickremesinghe needs to go, the executive presidency, too, needs to be abolished. Until then Sri Lanka is doomed to a repeating cycle of tyrant-presidents, who only inflict compounding misery and pain on the people.
For this, the illusion of stability peddled by Wickremesinghe must be shattered and his ongoing repression firmly exposed and challenged. In this endeavour, the Sri Lankan people, driven to the edge and kept there mercilessly for so long, deserve the support of the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.