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The Dangers Of Ranil Wickremesinghe's Sudden Power Grab In Sri Lanka

As Sri Lanka looks to choose a new leader, the country's acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe is already behaving like an autocrat. Only by listening to the goals of the people's movement can the country be rescued from ruin.

Photo of Ranil Wickremesinghe in Sri Lanka

Ranil Wickremesinghe participates in a public event in the city of Galle, southern Sri Lanka

Devaka Gunawardena and Ahilan Kadirgamar*

Sri Lankans rose in unison to oust Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president as the country faces its worst-ever economic crisis and shortages of basics such as food, medicine and fuel. Foreign exchange reserves are empty and the island nation has been forced to hold bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Protests started in the capital, Colombo, in April before spreading across the country.

Despite his destruction of the economy, which led to Sri Lanka’s unprecedented collapse, Rajapaksa proved difficult to dislodge. He clung on to power thanks to the excessive concentration of power in the executive presidency. Nevertheless, the people’s movement brought together protestors from all walks of life to demand his resignation.

Now as Sri Lanka chooses a new leader, some fear that the acting president may not willingly give up power.

A predecessor forced out

The protesters' collective mass proved overwhelming. Rajapaksa was forced to flee the country on an ignominious route around the Indian Ocean, and his family regime has been banished from Sri Lankan politics into the foreseeable future.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the previous prime minister and Gotabaya’s brother, had been pressured to resign after he incited a mob attack on protestors. Soon after, Gotabaya appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe in his brother’s place.

An ostensible political rival, he had saved the Rajapaksa family from prosecution when they were out of power between 2015 and 2019. In the last parliamentary election in August 2020, Wickremesinghe did not even receive enough votes to be elected. He came into Parliament through the back door – via the single seat that was available to his party through the national list.

After his appointment by Rajapaksa, he promised to bring a political stability that would enable negotiations with the IMF. Far from being placated, the protest movement shifted their demand to include the resignation of both Gotabaya and Wickremesinghe. This became central to the struggle as economic conditions deteriorated still further with Wickremesinghe’s wrong-headed pursuit of even greater economic austerity.

While on the run, Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as acting president. This enraged protestors. Some became emboldened enough to capture the Prime Minister’s Office on July 13. His official prime ministerial residence, Temple Trees, had been taken over on July 9, and his private home was torched on the same day.

Despite his attempts to use such incidents to discredit the people’s movement, Wickremesinghe’s obstinacy was the catalyst for a renewed round of confrontation. The Rajapaksas’ party, the SLPP, has decided to support Wickremesinghe when the Parliament votes for a president to replace Gotabaya on Wednesday July 20. Wickremesinghe will be up against two other candidates — the opposition-backed Dullas Alahapperuma and the Marxist party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The race is predicted to be tight.

SLPP's embrace of Wickremesinghe has earned the further ire of the protestors. Nevertheless, he has a good chance of occupying the presidency for the rest of Gotabaya’s term, which ends in 2024.

Another roadblock to credible leadership

The hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Sri Lankans who have come out in protest over the past year appear to face yet another roadblock in their demand for credible political leadership and national recovery. Wickremesinghe prides himself on his neo-liberal leanings and international connections. But Sri Lanka’s economy has collapsed so profoundly that only a government that can command the support of the people will have any hope of pulling the country out of the abyss.

Yet the appointment of Wickremesinghe as president by the Parliament would lead to a new round of conflict with the protestors. Such polarization would result in even greater instability. Powerful international actors, including the U.S., initially endorsed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May on the grounds that he could negotiate an IMF agreement. But that move, as we saw, backfired.

Demagogic and xenophobic forces could eventually displace the peaceful movement for change.

Sri Lankans continue to experience the effects of Wickremesinghe’s disastrous economic policies and his heavy-handed attempts to suppress the people’s movement. He has ordered the military to crack down on protestors in the name of “law and order.” The protestors, in his rhetoric, are “fascists” who must be put down. It is hard to see how this will lead to a constructive way forward.

Wickremesinghe shielded the Rajapaksas from prosecution and pursued the same disastrous neoliberal agenda during the brief period when he was prime minister, between 2015 and 2019. This enabled Gotabaya to win the presidency by riding the wave of an authoritarian populist backlash.

It is very likely that Wickremesinghe’s current power grab will continue to incite such forces, leading to further polarization on both a national and regional level. Instead of demanding progressive reform, as the current protest movement calls for, these demagogic and xenophobic forces could eventually displace the peaceful and pluralist movement for change.

Photo of police using tear gas on protesters in Sri Lanka

Protesters storm the compound of prime minister's office

Pradeep Dambarage/ZUMA

The need for international solidarity

Wickremesinghe can no longer even rhetorically be identified as the pragmatic candidate of economic reform. He is actively contributing to the militarization of Sri Lanka’s polity. His own uncle, J.R. Jayewardene, began this trend in the late 1970s and 1980s, when he declared a State of Emergency and introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act to suppress Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups. This culminated in the civil war.

Moreover, like Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe has explicitly indicated he is willing to use force against protestors.

In addition, Wickremesinghe’s self-identification with Western leadership could provoke the emergence of a nationalist opposition that generates further geopolitical polarization in choosing between regional allies, such as China and India. Wickremesinghe claims that he is willing to play both sides. But given the scale of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and his lack of accountability to even a political party within the country, these factors could make him an agent of any external actor willing to support him.

Future domestic political alignments are unpredictable. The Rajapaksas’ own partnership with China offers a depressing lesson. Sri Lanka’s crisis urgently demands a non-aligned foreign policy that hinges on building international solidarity. That can only come through a people-backed recovery that is based on domestic mass mobilization, not on the maneuverings of powerful external actors.

A path to recovery

Wickremesinghe’s continued political machinations will have profound and potentially disastrous effects on Sri Lanka. His appointment represents a form of presidential revanchism in response to the massive people’s movement that ousted Gotabaya. The path to recovery in Sri Lanka depends on taking the demands of the movement seriously. These include the need for a politically acceptable interim president who is circumscribed in the powers he exercises, and who is oriented toward the goal of abolishing the executive presidency. Furthermore, popular oversight of the existing Parliament, given the collapse of its mandate, must be institutionalized.

Finally, parliamentary elections must be held as soon as possible to reflect the dramatic reconfiguration of political forces that has emerged during Sri Lanka’s crisis.

Wickremesinghe’s appointment and continued attempts to stay in office are an explicit rejection of these demands. His willingness to use the economic crisis to justify a state of exception and his ambitions for rescuing the executive presidency are already clear indications of his power grab, regardless of the catastrophic consequences for Sri Lanka. This will not end well. Only a fulfillment of the goals of the people’s movement offers hope for an end to the legacy of the Rajapaksas.

*Devaka Gunawardena is a political economist and independent researcher. Ahilan Kadirgamar is a political economist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna.

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The Everyday Weight Of Wearing A Hijab In India

Several Muslim women who wear hijabs share their stories to highlight the discrimination, from disapproving looks to outright insults, they face everyday in India in both their personal and professional lives.

photo of women wearing hijabs during the Muharram procession in Srinagar, India

During the Muharram procession in Srinagar, India

Idrees Abbas/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Seemi Pasha

On September 20, 2022, the government of Karnataka told the Supreme Court that Muslims girls in Udupi were goaded into wearing a hijab to school by the Islamic Popular Front of India (PFI) through social media messages. The state government made the argument while responding to a petition challenging the ban on wearing a hijab to school imposed by Karnataka, and upheld by the state high court. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the apex court that wearing a hijab was part of a "larger conspiracy" orchestrated by the PFI to create social unrest.

On October 13 this year, the Supreme Court of India delivered a split verdict on pleas challenging the Karnataka high court order that had upheld the ban. A constitutional bench comprising the Chief Justice of India will now examine whether Muslim girls can or cannot wear a head scarf in school.

As of December 1 this year, there were 69,598 cases pending before the Supreme Court. The backlog includes petitions challenging the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 and pleas challenging the government’s decision to dilute Article 370 of the Constitution. These have been pending for more than two years. Despite the urgency of matters that have been placed on the back burner, the apex court is being forced to spend its time deciding whether schoolgoing Muslim girls can get an education while wearing a head scarf, a tradition some Muslims believe is integral their faith.

The ban on wearing a hijab in classrooms may have highlighted the Karnataka government’s intolerance towards minorities, but the bias against the head scarf, it seems, is an old one.

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