A Constitutional Crisis in Sri Lanka

Inter-Korean military progress; India's nuclear sub milestone; Lion Air crash

The Big One.

A game of thrones in the Indian Ocean.

In the final week of October, Sri Lanka found itself thrust suddenly into a political crisis—or a soft coup, depending on who you ask. The crisis has swirled largely around the ambitions of three men: Maithripala Sirisena, the president; Ranil Wickremsinghe, the prime minister of the country since 2015; and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former decade-long ruling president and newly appointed prime minister. Sirisena, who had unexpectedly risen to defeat Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential elections, appointed his one-time former rival to the prime ministership. Meanwhile, Wickremsinghe, who was once Sirisena’s unity government partner, refused to vacate the prime minister’s residence, arguing that he could prove that he continued to enjoy the support of parliament. In the days since, a power struggle has played out as two prime ministers seek to wrangle support from the legislature. Meanwhile, Sirisena prorogued parliament and dissolved and reconstituted his cabinet. At least one person has been killed in political violence resulting from the crisis and there are serious concerns that further violence might emerge.

The geopolitical contours of the crisis are apparent. China has acknowledged Rajapaksa’s ascent to the prime ministership while India and the United States have been more circumspect. Under Rajapaksa’s ten-year rule, Sri Lanka took on massive amounts of Chinese debt. Beijing also sees the former Sri Lankan president as a reliable partner.

Things are still in flux, but it’s expected now that Sirisena will reconstitute parliament sooner than expected, allowing a potential confidence vote to take place, reviewing Rajapaksa’s appointment. “Really, Rajapaksa or Wickremesinghe should have to prove that they have majority support in the legislative body right now. Chaos and delay favor coup supporters,” writes Taylor Dibbert in The Diplomat.

Bottom Line: A constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka with geopolitical stakes threatens to thrust the island nation toward prolonged instability and even political violence.

Bonus: Catch the latest Asia Geopolitics podcast where Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis and its regional implications.

Northeast Asia. 

North and South Korea have been remarkably successful so far at seeing through the implementation of the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) they announced during the third inter-Korean summit this year in Pyongyang. The two sides have, among other things, jointly de-mined and demilitarized the Joint Security Area (JSA) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that separates them, instituted land-, sea-, and air-based exclusion zones for military exercises and live-fire drills, instituted a no-fly zone, removed guard posts, and started talks on turning the Han River Estuary into a “joint utilization zone.” The details are interesting, but the broader picture is that South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have produced a stark change in the security environment on the Peninsula at breakneck speed. So far, while there continue to be roadbumps on the side of economic cooperation due to the unswerving international sanctions regime against North Korea, there have been no significant obstacles in the implementation of the CMA. The reason this is particularly important and valuable is because it raises the threshold for a crisis to break out. A replay of the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong Island or the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan becomes far less likely in this context.

Bottom Line: Inter-Korean military tension reduction is an incredible bright spot right now on the Korean Peninsula.

In Case You Missed It: Japan-China ties are on the mend. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing was an important moment in the bilateral relationship and a product of both sides seeing hedging value in the other amid an increasingly unpredictable U.S. foreign policy under President Donald J. Trump.

Bonus: Read Diplomat editor-in-chief Shannon Tiezzi’s take on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech to the China International Import Expo (CIIE) in Shanghai:

There were clear echoes here of Xi’s speech at the 2017 Davos meeting, where he tried to position China as the new defender of free trade and globalization. That branding exercise has become both a harder sell and a more crucial one for China to make as the United States and European countries step up their criticisms of Beijing for placing restrictions on foreign firms.

South Asia.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continue to stoke the flames of popular extremism in the country. On October 31, 2018, the Pakistani Supreme Court—the apex institution in the country charged with ensuring that the rule of law, well, rules—acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman charged with blasphemy, citing poor witness statements against her and a shaky case by the prosecution. The Diplomat’s Umair Jamal had written in anticipation of the verdict that the case would be a “test case” for Pakistan, to see how well it could cope with an institutionally sanctioned acquittal of a defendant in a blasphemy case.

Blasphemy is no joke in Pakistan. A few years ago, Pakistani authorities hanged Mumtaz Qadri, who was bodyguard—and eventually assassin—to Salman Taseer, the former governor of Punjab province. Qadri killed Taseer after the latter criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and called openly for Bibi, who had been held in custody since 2009, to be released. Qadri’s hanging spurred mass protests across the country.

That episode foreshadowed the ongoing fallout in Pakistan from Bibi’s Supreme Court verdict. Political parties like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan have seized on the moment to spur mass protests, in an attempt to force the Pakistani government to override the writ of the Supreme Court and thus rule of law itself. These protesters seek to prove that God’s law is greater than that of the state itself, as Jamal notes. Critically, the still-new government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan is unwilling to stake out too radical a position. “The government is not willing to target protesting individuals, let alone target the narrative of religious intolerance that has brought out thousands of people in streets,” Jamal observes.

It’s still unclear how the latest episode will resolve itself. Asia Bibi is being held in the custody of the Pakistani military while her life is under threat. Her lawyer has left Pakistan in the meantime, fearing for his life.

Bottom Line: Extremist outcry over Pakistan’s blasphemy laws continues to be a serious political force in the country.

Southeast Asia.

Indonesia remains gripped by the tragedy of Lion Air Flight JT610. The Boeing 737 MAX 8 passenger jet crashed off the coast off Jakarta in the Java Sea, claiming the lives of all 189 passengers and crew on board. The accident was the first to involve this kind of Boeing aircraft and is the deadliest to date involving an aircraft of the 737 class. The question of just how preventable the accident was has gripped Indonesians in the past week. The 737 MAX 8 that crashed as flight JT610 had previously encountered mechanical errors during a previous flight.

Image result for lion air crash

As Asmiati Malik explained in The Diplomat, one passenger on that flight noted that the plane was “flying at a lower altitude than usual” and another noted that “the airplane’s engine made unusual noises.” But the bigger problem may have to do with a failure to adequately regulate low-cost carriers, which are fast-growing all over Asia. Lion Air, especially, has grown famous for its low fares, which have come at a cost to customer service, labor standards, and, apparently, safety too. Malik cautions:

Given this lengthy history of issues in the industry, the Indonesian government should have tightly monitored the safety standards for air transportation and imposed a severe punishment for any company that does not follow relevant regulations. But that is easier said than done. Reform will be hard to implement, as the sector is largely monopolized: banning companies that currently dominate the air transportation market will impact many consumers. Rusdi Kirana (the chief of Lion Air) himself has admitted that Lion Air might be the worst airplane company in the world, but at the moment there is no alternative for Indonesia.

It’s unclear if the Lion Air tragedy will kick the Indonesian government’s incentives to regulate the low-cost carriers in the country, but what’s likely the case is that this kind of incident won’t be the last in Southeast Asia. Airlines in other countries, including Thailand’s Nok Air and the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific Air, are quickly growing and may need similar regulatory scrutiny.

Bottom Line: Indonesia’s Lion Air tragedy exposes the risks in low-cost aviation in Southeast Asia and the need for greater regulation.

In Case You Missed It: China and Vietnam held a new joint patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, despite the differences between them over the South China Sea. The Diplomat’s Prashanth Parameswaran breaks down the significance of the latest patrols.

Central Asia.

Catherine Putz, The Diplomat’s managing editor and Central Asia hand, noted an important development underway in Kyrgyzstan last week that you should be aware of. President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, the democratically elected successor to Almazbek Atambayev, is slowly tearing down the patronage networks his predecessor had set up. Atambayev allies are finding themselves pushed out of plush jobs and facing investigation for corruption. “Last week, authorities in Russia detained Ikramjan Ilmiyanov, a former adviser to previous Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, and transferred him to the custody of the Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security (SCNS). Ilmiyanov becomes the latest Atambayev ally to face corruption charges in Kyrgyzstan,” Putz noted. There’s more to anticipate:

As the case against Ilmiyanov becomes more clear, eyes will invariably be on Atambayev. Earlier this month, the Kyrgyz Supreme Court ruled that the immunity enjoyed by former presidents is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, other Atambayev allies are also in pre-trial detention facing corruption charges, most prominently former Prime Minister Sapar Isakov.

Bottom Line: After a year in office, Jeenbekov has moved away from his predecessor, with Atambayev’s guys increasingly finding themselves out of top jobs and facing corruption charges.

Bonus: Read about how two Central Asians found themselves at the center of a struggle to lead the International Boxing Association.

Asian Defense. 

November 5 marked a big day for India’s nuclear forces. The Indian government announced that INS Arihant, the country’s first-ever commissioned nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), conducted its first successful deterrence patrol. As my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady reported for The Diplomat:

The INS Arihant is the lead boat of a fleet of four to five planned SSBNs destined for service in the Indian Navy. The sub, quietly commissioned in 2016, is based on the Russian Project 971 Akula I-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) and can carry up to 12 K-15s or four K-4, an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable SLBM with estimated ranges of 750 and 3,500 kilometers respectively.

The development marks India’s coming out as a nuclear triad power. China, too, recently assumed the status of a triad power, with the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2018 report on the Chinese military noting that the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force has a nuclear mission now, for the first time in more than 30 years. China additionally operates four SSBNs. Pakistan, too, is working toward a sea-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile, the Babur-3, intended for deployment on its French Agosta 90B diesel-electric submarines.

Bottom Line: Nuclear competition in the Indian Ocean is heating up as India crosses an important milestone in operationalizing its sea-based deterrent.

In Case You Missed It: Pakistan looks to have another customer for its co-developed low-cost multirole fighter with China, the JF-17. Nigeria is expected to purchase the fighter in due time.

Bonus: I teased it in the previous issue, but if you missed it, The Diplomat’s Robert Farley and had a friendly debate on a recent podcast on the advantages of INF Treaty noncompliant systems in Asia.


India just unveiled the world’s tallest statue. The State of Unity depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, an Indian independence icon and the country’s first home minister, who’s credited with ensuring the unity of the newly independent country.

Image result for statue of unity

The 597 foot-tall statue has drawn controversy for its cost, given that it reportedly cost a whopping $420 million. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the statue on October 31.

And finally, don’t miss the November 2018 edition of our e-magazine. This month, we analyze the Trump administration’s Asia policy thus far, take stock of Pakistan’s ever-precarious civil-military balance, explore how new Prime Minister Scott Morrison might lead Australia, and see how Taiwan is responding to Chinese disinformation campaigns. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

Finally, I’ll be in Seoul, South Korea, and Geneva, Switzerland, this week for a few speaking engagements. I hope to run into some of you.

Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at either ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.