Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the democratic ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa by Maithripala Sirisena as president of Sri Lanka on 8 January, what are the peacebuilding opportunities and challenges?
Rajapaksa’s regime was effective in many ways: it had defeated the 25-year Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebellion in a crushing military victory in 2009; it implemented a great deal of infrastructure improvement, including in the war-ruined north; attracted much inward investment from elsewhere in the region; and improved living conditions for the growing middle class.
But its manner of governing proved its undoing. The Rajapaksa family circle dominated not just the reins of government, but also large swathes of the economy, seeming far more corrupt than earlier regimes. The cost of living rose sharply recently, partly as a result of the government taking out huge foreign loans – some of which were transparently used to promote the family’s economic and political interests. President Rajapaksa’s governing clique was closely allied to Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, and he did little to foster reconciliation with the ‘defeated’ Tamil minority, while allowing new conflicts with Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority to be stoked. His modernisation agenda paid scant attention to the needs of tens of thousands of poor families whose homes were razed to make way for new economic projects; and the new infrastructure built in the post-war north was designed with little involvement of the people living there, who were simply expected to take it or leave it. Human rights violations allegedly committed during the final stages of the civil war, and afterwards, were not investigated. A common popular comment on his rule was that “he simply went too far” – and this is also given as one of the reasons why security forces and political allies refused to go along with the coup he is alleged to have attempted, when he realised he would lose the election.
President Sirisena is popularly known by his nickname “Maithri”, or “blessings”, but we should be careful not to expect too much. In a political system known for shifting loyalties, the strength of his power-base will be determined by the parliamentary elections due in April; he may not show his full hand until after then, for political reasons. The coalition which he led in the presidential elections includes a variety of unnatural bedfellows, all of whom must be satisfied. And the margin of his victory was small, with 51.3% of the vote. While in a nice piece of symbolism he was sworn into office by a Tamil judge, and he has promised to rebalance the political institutions in favour of the judiciary and parliament, and to investigate alleged human rights violations by the state, it is not clear how far he will go in promoting much-needed national reconciliation. Although he won the election largely on an anti-corruption ticket, it will be hard to root out the corruption which is endemic in the political system; or to hold together a wide coalition without allowing some members to ‘benefit from power’.
I have written before about how political systems and political cultures tend to be resilient to change. Ironically, even though he is not personally from a political elite background, the natural result of President Sirisena’s election could eventually be a restoration of the pre-Rajapaksa status quo, in which a narrow elite political class ran Sri Lanka in a way which allowed its members to retain their political and economic dominance while providing technocratic government but failing to resolve political issues like the need for nation building and inter-community reconciliation, and the need for jobs for young people; nor to prevent a 25-year civil war. If that were to be the case, there are risks of more instability and insecurity down the road.
Expectation management will be key, and beyond that from a peacebuilding perspective, it therefore seems critical to seize this opportunity to:
- Open up government to as much transparency as possible;
- Prevent conflicts and promote reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese, and with Muslims;
- Increase the genuine power of local government, so that people can participate better in decisions which affect them;
- Create a policy environment which supports economic opportunity for young people from all groups; and
- Support the emergence locally and nationally of young leaders from diverse backgrounds who are committed and have the talents and skills to promote a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka – the next generation of politicians.