United National Party supporters stage a protest in Colombo on Oct. 30 urging Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena to uphold democratic values and reconvene parliament to resolve the constitutional crisis. (ucanews.com photo)
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his coalition partner, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Oct. 26 and appointed ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa as his successor, triggering a constitutional crisis.
Former strongman Rajapaksa, 72, served as a rival candidate to Sirisena, 67, in the country's last general election three years ago.
Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe, who is serving his third stint and fourth term as premier in the last quarter of a century, has refused to accept being ousted and vowed not to leave his official residence. He claims that Sirisena, who also suspended parliament, has no constitutional right to replace him.
Explaining why "the current political change was necessary," Sirisena said in his address to the nation on Oct. 28 that both he and former defense secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had been targeted for assassination by one of Wickremesinghe's cabinet ministers.
He further alleged that Wickremesinghe, 69, was not supporting him in conducting policies of good governance and had acted contrary to civil society's expectations.
At midnight on Nov. 8, the situation was aggravated when Sirisena dissolved the National Assembly and called elections on Jan. 5, 2019.
Sirisena said the situation warranted such a decision due to the partisan activities of the Speaker of the House. He also pointed out that members of parliament were being bought with big monetary inducements. He said the people are supreme and their voice would be heard in elections.
Many in opposing parties pointed out the illegality of Sirisena's dissolution of parliament. They filed 13 rights petitions in the Supreme Court for violation of the 19th amendment enacted in March 2015 after Sirisena won the presidential election. According to that bill, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved before four and half years have elapsed since the first sitting of the parliament. Five actions were also filed in complete support of Sirisena's action
The Supreme Court's decision to reconvene the old parliament created the problem of a no-confidence motion from Wickremesinghe's party. Rajapaksa's government could not muster the required numbers to be in the majority — the main reason for the dissolution.
Further, many foreign governments have not approved Sirisena's procedure and have threatened to withdraw the flow of foreign aid to Sri Lanka. Tourists are being discouraged from visiting Sri Lanka.
It was the Most Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, an influential Sinhalese Buddhist monk who passed away in 2015 at the age of 73, who initiated the change of leadership in 2013 and sought a graft-free candidate who was not affiliated with any party to serve as the nation's president.
Some politicians surreptitiously jumped on the bandwagon and proposed Sirisena as a candidate. He ended up winning the election with the support of civil society and minority groups in January 2015. He also signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ), headed by Sobhitha Thero.
Sirisena, who previously served as general secretary of the defeated Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as well as holding the position of Minister of Health until 2014, took over as party chairman in 2015. He used this position to steer the party away from the original agenda of the National Unity Government coalition
This was one of the main factors behind the political crisis that culminated in the recent ouster of Wickremesinghe and sparked the ongoing constitutional crisis over an amendment to the charter in early 2015.
Sirisena has said that Sri Lanka's next general elections will be held in 2020.
A few days after the recent change of leadership, he indicated there had been policy differences with Wickremesinghe, who he claimed had acted independently in making the amendment without any prior consultation.
The central bank's bond issuance, created by the deposed prime minister and his stooges, ranks as one of the biggest financial crimes in Sri Lanka's modern history and contributed to the ongoing economic turmoil.
Despite this, a number of positive changes have been brought about by the government in recent years. It permitted more freedom of expression, showed a greater tolerance for dissent without seeking recourse to violence, and passed the Right to Information Act in 2016, paving the way for increased transparency.
Independent commissions were established and the judiciary was given more freedom to act at its own discretion.
Even though many issues affecting minorities have not been fully resolved, numerous attempts at national reconciliation were initiated.
Christians keep quiet
Christians make up less than 7 percent of the population. They had some measure of power and respect while Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was part of the British Empire, before it gained its independence in 1948.
But the public perception of Christians changed in later years, and they found themselves accused of being an unpatriotic "alien culture." They were mistakenly labeled lackeys of foreign groups due to their language and culture and suffered indirect forms of persecution.
When it comes to politics in Sri Lanka, most Christians opt not to get involved. Instead they choose to remain silent and wait for the final outcome of any vote or election.
Some tend to interpret whatever events unfold as the work of the Almighty and therefore accept them indiscriminately. In this respect Catholics are different from Protestants and Anglicans, by paying more attention to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council when deciding how to interpret and respond to political and other developments.
Some civilians have fallen in line with the Christians' way of thinking by choosing to remain silent while a vociferous minority have taken the upper hand in supporting anti-democratic values, which could lead to more violence, as was seen under the Rajapaksa regime from 2005-14.
Meanwhile, a few heads of churches that fall within the penumbra of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka have already issued statements about the country's latest crisis.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka has urged the nation to resolve the political crisis peacefully, as it is the poor and common folk who suffer the most in such difficult times. The bishops instructed all Catholics to respect three things: the rule of law, democracy and the charter.
Yet due to a fear of being misunderstood, many Christian leaders have failed to follow Christ, who never shied away from speaking the truth, standing up for justice or pursuing peace.
It is easy to go with the tide in supporting one side or the other. But when we lend our support to a particular party or cause, we must be mindful not to slavishly attach ourselves to any group purely for selfish reasons. Rather, we must always seek the common good.
Christians, in particular, must speak the truth in a way that is intelligible and relatable to all people. We must champion the rule of law, avoid violence, denounce untruths or "fake news" and seek justice in all of their endeavors.
And while a few Christian politicians have ascended to office in Sri Lanka today, they tend to sacrifice some of their religious values when it comes to their political dealings. They blindly follow the leaders of their party, even when these grate with their Christian values, which is often the case.
Even when human rights are at stake, Christian leaders working for either the government or opposition fail to live up to the ideals of Christianity time and again.
It may be that the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has failed to educate them well enough about the kind of roles they are expected to play in society. The net result is that the majority of Christian leaders who are involved in Sri Lanka's party politics today lack a strong sense of responsibility toward their country.
As such, we can all start to contribute to the greater good by seeking justice, avoiding violence, speaking the truth and becoming actively involved in efforts to foster peace and reconciliation.
It is imperative that we keep a watchful eye out for graft, monitor any legal or moral violations in our communities, keep records and encourage a more virtuous society.
Lay leaders also need to become more organized so that they can promote the above-mentioned characteristics in their communities for the good of the people of Sri Lanka.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a prominent human rights defender. He was a university lecturer and former chaplain of the Young Christian Workers movement of the archdiocese. He is well known in Sri Lanka for his writings and commentaries on social and political issues.