Tense impasse in Sri Lanka as shoot on sight order given by president

After the chaos of Monday when, in response to pro-government mobs attacking the tent camps of anti-government protestors, there was a massive nationwide retaliation in which the homes of 41 pro-government politicians were burned down including three belonging to the family of the president and prime minister, an uneasy calm has returned to the streets. The president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared an emergency that has given him even more powers than before, ordered a nationwide curfew until Thursday morning, and given the military orders to shoot ‘lawbreakers’ on sight.

On Tuesday, the government ordered troops to open fire on anyone looting public property or causing “harm to life”.

It also deployed tens of thousands of army, navy and air force personnel to patrol the streets of the capital Colombo.

Despite their presence, the city’s top police officer was assaulted on Tuesday afternoon by a mob accusing him of not doing enough to protect peaceful protesters.

At Colombo’s Galle Face Green, on the sea front, crowds also continued to gather.

The big question is how this impasse will end. The protestors are demanding that the president resign. If he should do so, there is no position of vice-president in the Sri Lankan constitution to automatically take over, so there is no heir-apparent. In the event that the president leaves office for any reason, it is up to parliament to elect one of its members to replace him within one month. Until that takes place, the prime minister serves as interim president. But the prime minister’s office is now vacant since Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign. So the Speaker of the House of Parliament becomes the interim president. But parliament is also in chaos because of so many defections from the ruling party so it is not at all clear who will be elected as president or if an orderly election can even take place.

Gotabaya R shows no signs of leaving office. The big question is whether the military will stand by him. Here he does have an advantage over other authoritarian leaders because he has a long and cozy relationship with the military, starting his adult life as an army office for 20 years from 1971 to 1991 before retiring and emigrating to the US in 1998 and becoming a US citizen. He returned to Sri Lanka in 2005 to oversee the defense ministry in the government led by his brother Mahinda R and in that role unleashed the armed forces from pretty much all restraints in a brutal crackdown on the Tamil Tiger separatist movement that ended up defeating it in 2009. This was achieved at the cost of massive human rights violations and the deaths and displacement of huge numbers of Tamils. But he was cheered on by the Sinhala Buddhist majority who gave him the nickname of ‘the Terminator’ as a compliment. Since he has become president, he has consolidated his relationship with the military by placing former personnel in key government positions.

So while his links to the military are strong, the next phase of the current turmoil will be a tougher test of their loyalty. It is one thing for the armed forces (who are largely made up of members of the ethnic-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community) to ruthlessly attack a separatist movement (that was largely made up of an ethnic-religious Tamil-Hindu minority), because they can use chauvinist appeals to get popular support from the majority. It is quite another thing for them to attack members of their own community, as they are now being called upon to do, since the tide of opinion can turn against them very quickly, requiring even more repression.

Meanwhile, after abruptly resigning shortly after swearing not to do so, prime minister Mahinda R’s official residence at Temple Trees in Colombo was attacked by angry mobs who breached the outer perimeter and hurled ‘petrol bombs’ (akin to Molotov cocktails). Elite security forces were called in to enable a pre-dawn rescue of him and his family and they were later seen boarding a helicopter. Unconfirmed reports say that he was taken to a naval base in Trincomalee in the northeast of the country, far away from the capital. This is a large facility built by the British to serve as the base of the South East Asia Command during World War II, chosen because it is a large deep-water natural harbor. The British built a mansion inside its fortified walls for the use of the British governor and other officials, so Mahinda R and his family can continue to live in luxury and security until conditions enable them to return to public life. But there have been protests outside the base calling for his arrest. Protestors are apparently watching the roads leading to the airports in order to prevent the Rajapaksas from fleeing the country.

According to one report that I received from a friend, Mahinda R’s big miscalculation was in assembling and unleashing his supporters on the peaceful demonstrators. Those demonstrations had been going on for over a month and had shows signs of losing strength since it is hard to keep large crowds enthused about protests for a long time. (Recall how the Occupy Wall Street protests died out.) By violently attacking the tent cities of the protestors, Mahinda R angered and energized them and infuriated even those who had been watching from the sidelines who rallied to the side of the protestors and brought about his downfall and resulted in the homes, offices, and vehicles of a large number of pro-government politicians being destroyed.

Will the protestors test the ‘shoot on sight’ order by carrying out more attacks on the property of pro-government politicians? If the order is carried out and people are killed or injured, we could see further anti-government violence.

So things remain volatile and restoring calm may take a while.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “Gotabaya R shows no signs of leaving office. The big question is whether the military will stand by him.”
    This is something that puzzles me about Myanmar, and many of the Latin American countries in the ’70s and ’80s: If you are the dictator of a small country, how can you use the army to oppose the will of the people? Sure, you bribe the officers and try to enforce military discipline in the ranks, but every soldier has a mother and grandmothers and aunts who will berate him for harming their friends and neighbors. Surely that would erode loyalty to whatever peacock is strutting as the head of the country at the current moment.

  2. Mano Singham says

    There are strong constraints on individual soldiers to prevent them from defying orders from higher up. The military has ways to keep troops loyal. It is a secure job and offers considerable perks that ordinary citizens do not enjoy. The training emphasizes the importance of following orders until it becomes almost a reflex. Most importantly, to disobey orders would constitute a mutiny or a coup, and if it fails because others do not join, you could suffer serious consequences.

    Troops are also often kept separate from the general population in barracks, especially during crisis times, so they are shielded from criticism from families and friends. Furthermore, in situations like that in Sri Lanka, the military may not want to be in charge since they would be saddled with dealing with a massive crisis and blamed if they fail.

    There can be a breaking point whereupon either senior officers decide to defy the civilian leaders or large numbers of rank and file soldiers abandon their posts. But that is a high bar to clear.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Protestors are apparently watching the roads leading to the airports in order to prevent the Rajapaksas from fleeing the country.

    They must have lots of spare time &/or spare people, since the dynasty has already shown they have helicopters.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    @Mano #2
    Yes, everything you say is true. I have been fortunate in that I never was forced to join the military, but looking at the Vietnam protests in the USA, I hoped that the people of the world could resist that kind of slavery. But, then again, I look at the Republican party in the USA and I see that you are quite probably correct, again. (Sigh!)

  5. Dunc says

    If you are the dictator of a small country, how can you use the army to oppose the will of the people?

    In addition to Mano’s points at #2, it’s always important to remember that “the will of the people” is almost never even close to unified, and that even the most unpopular regimes have their supporters amongst the general population. There are always multiple viewpoints and factions, and always some groups who benefit from the current regime. One of the tricks of being a successful dictator is to ensure that you keep enough of the right people on your side, and there are many ways to do this, ranging from appeals to patriotism and duty all the way through to outright bribery and corruption. One of the most common and effective options is simply to ensure that the people keeping you in power actually get paid -- in a country where the economy is collapsing and many people are going hungry, people will put up with a heck of a lot in order to feed their families.

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