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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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Confronting The Dangers Of A War Reporter

Of the some 9,000 journalists believed to have arrived in Ukraine to report on the war, many were under-prepared. A course in France is now training them on how to face the harsh realities of conflict and teaching them essential survival techniques.

The objective of the training is not for journalists to learn how to face dangers but mainly how to avoid them.

Marina Alcaraz

BEAUVAIS — The ground is soaked with blood. A young man screams, struggling to make himself heard amid the gunfire. The bullet-proof vest with the word "PRESS" emblazoned on it seems insignificant in this moment of horror. Under Russian fire, his colleague has to extract him before he bleeds to death. He only has a few seconds to decide how to transport the injured man, who is weighed down by his equipment. Just a few more seconds to evaluate the severity of the wounds. Two serious injuries, a wounded eye… There are only a few minutes to save his life by applying a tourniquet and taking his pulse before calling emergency services, which will in any case only arrive two hours later.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The crackling of the bullets, the adrenaline, the fear and the silence that follows… the whole scene is utter chaos. Except this is not Ukraine, where the war is still raging. It's a shooting range about 75 kilometers north of Paris.

Emergency training

This simulation is the result of a course organized for journalists and technicians who work in danger zones. In May, a dozen employees of the French public broadcaster — some with experience, others without — spent a week in immersive training. This meant a few days of preparation before leaving for or returning to Ukraine.

In order to cover the war, which takes place just a few hours' flight from Paris, media organizations sent a huge amount of reporters — some 9,000 accredited journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Young freelancers also went of their own accord, sometimes without even the most basic survival knowledge.

"Ukraine has created a sort of training emergency," says Jean-Christophe Gérard, security director of media company France Médias Monde. "The 'press' vest or badge no longer offers the protection it used to.”

Yan Kadouch, an editor and participant in the course, says: "I have been on several fronts, but often behind the army. In Ukraine, I really felt unsafe. With the artillery fire, it's a lottery."

In danger zones, every decision can lead to death

In Ukraine, eight journalists have lost their lives since the start of the war and 16 have been wounded, according to numbers by RSF. The death of French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff a few weeks ago has left its mark. "He had not even taken any irresponsible risks. This tragedy reminded us how dangerous this war is," says Omar Ouahmane, a senior reporter at Radio France, who has been doing this job for years.

Patrick Chauvel, a veteran photo journalist, agrees. "Unfortunately, you don’t have to go to the front to be killed. In Ukraine, the military uses very heavy weapons, which are rarely seen elsewhere." This training was actually born out of a tragedy: the kidnapping and murder of two French journalists working in 2013 in Mali. Since 2015, this course has welcomed a total of 460 journalists and technicians from audiovisual and print media.

What war preparation involves

Participants are trained by former members of the military. The objective is not to learn how to face dangers but mainly how to avoid them. A bullet-proof vest or even a chemical suit is not enough in Ukraine. It is important to “always be vigilant,” says Michael Illouz, a security expert. “Knowing how to react in certain situation is already a good start.”

For example, in the heat of the first aid exercise, none of the trainees remembered how many shots were fired, and none thought to put on gloves before touching their colleague's wounds. A lot of the advice given is common sense: do not carry your backpack behind you in a minefield to prevent something falling out, do not step too far away from your car to relieve yourself, do not stand next to the armed forces.

To confront them with other possible situations, the journalists are placed in a messy room: an overturned table, chairs on the floor and a pack of cigarettes with a file still intact, in broad daylight. “Everything that seems incoherent should alarm you: there could be explosives,” warns Stéphane Ulhen, a former army mine expert, now a security consultant.

“In danger zones, every decision can lead to death,” he emphasizes. In 2017, three journalists working for a French television program were killed during a mine explosion in Mosul, Iraq. A big part of the training is also focused on gestures that can save a life, following the acronym MARCHE (M = Massive bleeding, A = Airway, R = Respiration, C = Circulation, H = Head & Hypothermia, E = Everything else).

“Bleeding out is the number one cause of preventable death," says Fabrice Simon-Chautemps, a former army paramedic and now a trainer. And the training is quite rigorous: the participants are, for example, capable of treating an evisceration or a thoracic wound affecting the lungs as a first aid measure.

Journalists as targets

Shortly before the terrorist attacks hit Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, a production manager had taken the course. That evening, because she lived in the neighborhood, she went to get her first aid kit and was able to save lives by applying tourniquets.

“It is essential to have first aid skills. Journalists have died because people around them did not know what to do. For example, thanks to this knowledge, I was able to compress a wound on my stomach I had gotten in Panama, with a piece of my shirt and my belt, while waiting for the paramedics that only arrived a few hours later,” says Chauvel.

Even without traveling across the world, the trainees learn how to stay safe in a large crowd. Many journalists were targeted during anti-vaccination protests in France. “A journalist has become a target in certain cases,” says Jean-Christophe Gérard. “Some media outlets assign security guards to them, but I don't think that's the solution: the job is all about going out into the field, being in contact with people, whereas the bodyguard is more likely to try to get in the way. In any case, he wouldn’t be able to do much against an angry crowd.”

But the training is also intended to make people aware of their limits. One of the participants admits never having worn a bullet-proof vest and says they are “extremely heavy” (20-26 lb). Another one is afraid of not having the physical strength to carry someone on their shoulder in case of a real injury.

“I realize that I have been lucky in the past,” says journalist Marie-Pierre Vérot, who decided to take the course. “I have already found myself in complicated situations, for example in the middle of gunfire in a house in Indonesia. My first reflex was to hide under a table, which does not really protect from bullets. I will now take further precautions and think more about possible outcomes.”

A journalist taking pictures in the village of Komyshuvakha, southern Ukraine, after it was bombarded by Russian forces

Dmytro Smoliyenko/Ukrinform/ZUMA

The fixer's role 

Many of the journalists think that the course (marketed at $4,300) should also be followed by their managers, who do not necessarily realize the potential threats, whether those are physical or digital. "Journalists often leave with their personal phones and computers full of documents. If they are captured, there is a risk of finding their sources, for example," says Guillaume Barcelo, an expert in information systems security.

In conflict zones, teams of two or three people are usually tracked by their editors, who help them manage logistics. The journalists must then follow precise protocols with prohibitions and missions. But, in the end, they are the ones who are best able to perceive the danger on the ground, along with the fixer. The fixer is a key component in war reporting. They translate, give guidance on the ground, and bring their network of contacts. In some cases, they even drive and find witnesses. In fact, they take the same risks as their Western colleagues and even risk more reprisals. A fixer in Ukraine generally costs between 250 and 350 dollars a day, but the rate can go up depending on the danger.

Some have become addicted to the field

Some of them are journalists in their own countries, while others come from civil society organizations, “but they all have a sense of resourcefulness,” says Charles Villa, a reporter who has just made a documentary on the profession. In Ukraine, Villa was "surprised to see many fixers taking up arms... Now, with the influx of foreign journalists, some of them who had never done this before are participating.” Especially women. Given the difficulty of finding the right people, some American television stations used specialized protection companies like Chiron, with bodyguards who accompanied the journalists.

If the profession of war reporter is accompanied by a hint of heroism, these journalists are not at all reckless. "Fear is our life insurance," says Omar Ouahmane, who has covered several conflicts.

“We are not looking for adrenaline," says Charles Villa, who attended a training course organized by the army in the south of France a few years ago. "War reporters are mostly reasonable and rational. They seek to emerge in terms of their career, while living extraordinary situations. Some have become addicted to the field," adds Denis Ruellan, a researcher in information and communication sciences and an author of books on war reporters.

A cellar in Chechnya

War reporters know about anxiety. Journalists or technicians in dangerous areas have all come close to serious trouble or even death. Charles Villa has risked his own life on several occasions, in Yemen, or in the Congo when he came face to face with a local warlord. Each one of them recounts with humility the moment when everything changed. Omar Ouahmane remembers a report in Sirte (a city in Libya) where the experienced Dutch photographer, Jeroen Oerlemans, was shot in front of him while crossing a street. "What saved me was that I took some time to observe before I went to follow him."

Patrick Chauvel spent a few hours in a cellar in Chechnya, sure that he was going to stay there and managed to get out by running at the right moment. Not everyone was so lucky.

So what drives war reporters to do their jobs? “I love adventure, the physical side, meeting extraordinary people, living history," answers Patrick Chauvel.

”It is in conflict zones that humanity stands out the most," adds Omar Ouahmane.That’s where we belong as journalists."

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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