Loaded Gun

Behind the scenes in Sri Lanka, the military guards its turf

Hours after taking the presidential oath, Ranil Wickremesinghe joined the army’s top brass to visit soldiers injured in the protests. Wickremesinghe, a stalwart of the old establishment, does not threaten Sri Lanka’s military-political nexus. COURTESY MINISTRY OF DEFENCE SRI LANKA
31 July, 2022

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa had nowhere else to go—protestors raging against him on the streets of Colombo, his opulent presidential residence overrun, blocked by airport immigration staff from boarding civil flights out of the country—he found sanctuary at a military base for his last night in Sri Lanka. The next day, 13 July, he and his wife finally escaped aboard a special air-force flight to the Maldives, leaving behind the country he and his brothers had led to complete economic ruin. In his darkest hour, Gotabaya knew that the military was the last institution still with the power to stand up to the people who had sent him running.

Gotabaya gave up the presidency, and the immunity from arrest that came with it, only after he had made his way to Singapore. His position passed on an interim basis to Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had earlier taken over as prime minister from Mahinda Rajapaksa. Just hours after taking the presidential oath, Wickremesinghe joined the army’s top brass at a military hospital to visit soldiers injured when protestors had stormed the parliament complex. There was no such immediate gesture of solidarity with the millions of civilians stricken by the economic crisis, many left without so much as basic food, fuel or medicines.

After Wickremesinghe won a vote in parliament to become Gotabaya’s permanent successor, on 20 July, he was quick to lean on the army’s goodwill. Military personnel joined a brutal raid on a major protest camp in the capital—ominous proof of Wickremesinghe’s earlier announcement that he had told the military and police to do whatever was needed to restore order. This was a significant turn, and a show of the military’s backing for Wickremesinghe. Back in April, while Gotabaya was still hoping to hang on to power, the army had denied rampant speculation that it was preparing a crackdown and instead vowed to uphold the country’s constitution.

The raid was a reminder that the military, even if it does not reach for overt power, still has a massive say in where Sri Lanka goes next. While the country’s political establishment and civil government face a crisis of legitimacy, the military seems poised to weather the turmoil with its considerable might intact or even enhanced relative to other centres of power. Its reach goes far beyond the traditional roles defined for the armed forces under a democratic government, and includes considerable business interests amassed in collusion with the established political elite. This leaves the military with a tricky balancing act: navigating a popular revolt against the old political order while protecting those parts of the order that have benefitted it so greatly.