Two weeks after an electoral upset that ousted Sri Lanka’s long-reigning strongman, the country’s new leaders are racing to investigate allegations of corruption under the previous regime and are rushing to enact legal and constitutional changes they say are aimed at reestablishing rule of law.
“This is going to be a huge, huge challenge,” said Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister after the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mr. Wickremesinghe and the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, have promised to complete a far-reaching revamp of the government within 100 days.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Wickremesinghe said one of his most urgent priorities was to depoliticize the police and “dismantle the apparatus that was built up” under Mr. Rajapaksa to stifle dissent. His government has called on journalists and intellectuals who have fled the country to return.
A 65-year-old veteran politician who has served as premier twice before, Mr. Wickremesinghe also said he is determined to work toward a lasting political settlement with the country’s ethnic Tamil minority. Mr. Rajapaksa’s government crushed a decades-long Tamil separatist insurgency in 2009.
January’s election was “a vote for change—change that includes reconciliation,” he said. The prime minister said the government would push to increasingly empower the provincial government in the north, where Tamils outnumber the island nation’s majority Sinhalese.
In tackling corruption allegations, Mr. Wickremesinghe, who works in a small and sparsely furnished office on the ground floor of Temple Trees, Mr. Rajapaksa’s former residence, said he and other cabinet ministers are still struggling to find out the exact terms of deals struck by the previous government with Chinese lenders and contractors.
Agreements for some mega-projects initiated under Mr. Rajapaksa were never made public and often there was no competitive bidding process, ministers said. Some contracts appear to have been revised after they were signed and allegations of bribery and kickbacks abound, ministers said.
Dinesh Gunawardena, a member of parliament and an ally of Mr. Rajapaksa, said parties in the former governing alliance were open to a “transparent investigation” but said the new government has yet to produce any clear evidence of corruption. “They must have concrete facts and stop mudslinging.”
Ganesh Dharmawardena, director general of Sri Lanka’s Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, said 40 to 50 complaints of “serious political corruption” have been received since the elections. “There’s been a huge increase.” So much so, he said, that he needs to hire more investigators. (Wall Street Journal)