(The Maithripala Sirisena government in Sri Lanka wins appreciation in its initial months, but it’s not all smooth-sailing just yet.)
Sri Lanka’s new leader Maithripala Sirisena won an election against all odds. He now seems determined to unite majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, who have known decades of ethnic tension and war. Many promises, which he was to honour in the first 100 days, were made during the presidential campaign. That deadline passed with most promises falling by the wayside — it isn’t easy being a minority government — but there was delivery on some substantive ones. He has won admiration in the West and even in India for his less intransigent ways. Having been in the president’s office since January, his greatest challenge is to win the backing of his own disunited party.
Sirisena came to power by defeating the country’s war-winning president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. To contest, he defected from the government in which he was health minister. An array of political groups, eager to see the back of an authoritarian ruler, supported him at the polls. It was a dangerous gamble. Rajapaksa was a daunting adversary who unapologetically abused state power. In 2010, basking in the glow of a military victory, he clinched a second term with 57 per cent of the vote. He used that victory to consolidate his strength and did little to bring about post-war reconciliation. A two-thirds majority in parliament allowed Rajapaksa to rush through constitutional changes that made the office of the executive presidency even more powerful. His administration was riddled with relatives and cronies. In November, he called an early presidential election and announced his candidacy for an unprecedented third term.
By contrast, Sirisena — despite being a veteran politician and long-time member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — was rarely visible at the forefront of Sri Lankan politics. He was from the countryside, spoke only Sinhala and did not court media attention. In announcing his candidacy, he admitted that he was risking his and his family’s lives. He spent election night in hiding.
The gamble paid off. Sirisena garnered 51 per cent of the votes while his opponent slipped to 47 per cent. The victory was due, in no small measure, to the overwhelming support of Tamil and Muslim minorities, who had felt increasingly marginalised under the Rajapaksa regime. Mangala Samaraweera, the incoming foreign minister, called it Sri Lanka’s “rainbow revolution”.
The colours of the rainbow continue to flutter at all public rallies that President Sirisena attends. They symbolise the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and diverse political platform on which he contested the election. His close aides maintain that he genuinely believes in equality and a negotiated political settlement to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.
“Maithripala has always been left of centre,” disclosed an SLFP activist, who could not be named due to workplace rules. “And, like most left-leaning politicians in this country, he believes in equality of races and minorities. He knows, as far as Tamils go, there is a problem that cannot be dealt with through terrorism or war.”
President Sirisena set the tone early. He pledged in his inaugural speech that ethnic and religious reconciliation would be his government’s top priority. He has only strengthened that message since. A key development was a ‘Declaration of Peace’ delivered in the country’s three main languages — Sinhala, Tamil and English — on Independence Day in February. It was the fulfilment of a recommendation in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, set up by the previous administration in response to international calls for a war crimes investigation.
For the first time, the government paid respect to citizens of all ethnicities and religions who had died in the three-decade war and to all victims of violence since independence from colonial rule. In the past, greater emphasis was placed on the loss of military lives and on victims of Tiger terrorism. But the way the Declaration of Peace was worded also covered LTTE fighters and Tamil civilians who perished in military attacks.
On May 1, addressing his first International Workers’ Day rally as president, Sirisena again preached unity to the crowd. “We must understand social realities,” he said, “The issues are not whether we are people of the North, the South, the East, the West, Sinhalese, Muslim, Tamil, Buddhist, Catholic, Malay, Burgher or Hindu. We must give foremost place to humanity.”
The president’s stance has earned him kudos from the international community. Diplomats confess that “he does come across as very genuine”. He has had no difficulty securing appointments from world leaders. If anything, they have stumbled over themselves to meet him. He was especially pleased to have received a private audience with Queen Elizabeth II in London.
The West had a particularly strained relationship with the Rajapaksa regime. The US sponsored several resolutions at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council on the government’s worsening human rights record and its failure to investigate war crimes alleged to have been committed at the end of the war. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was due to present a report to the Council in March 2015. After Sirisena’s victory, the government earned a six-month postponement on the premise that it would create a credible domestic body to probe allegations. Some rights groups were enraged. More time-buying, they scoffed. Little is still known of the type of local mechanism envisaged; but officials claim the process is “moving ahead”.
The truth is that Western administrations, and even New Delhi, are more welcoming of the Sirisena regime because they find it more flexible. Rajapaksa repeatedly promised India a full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, of which India was the architect. This did not happen. Neither was an alternative offered to the imperfect power-sharing arrangement the Amendment had set up.
New Delhi was also alarmed over the Rajapaksa regime’s overpowering relationship with Beijing. China loaned money for nearly all of Sri Lanka’s massive infrastructure projects — an airport, a port, railway lines, even a power station. Scores of expensive Chinese projects were being approved without open tender. When the defence ministry allowed a Chinese submarine to dock at the Colombo port for the first time, New Delhi hit the ceiling.
Today, there is a palpable change in the demeanour of foreign governments that once cold-shouldered Rajapaksa. Their tone is friendlier, more obliging. They appear willing to consider the complexities of the tasks President Sirisena has at hand. They accept all Sri Lankans have grievances that need addressing. The conversation has shifted from a Tamil-centric one — although the need for devolution and the unique situation of minorities remain significant — to a more broad-based one.
The US has been particularly supportive. Washington dispatched two top-level officials to Colombo in the space of a month, including John Kerry — the first US Secretary of State in nearly four decades to visit Sri Lanka in an official capacity.
Recovering from conflict is never easy, Kerry admitted, in a speech. But under President Sirisena’s leadership, Sri Lanka’s traditions of critical debate, free press, and independent civil society were returning. “Your citizens have been asked to mourn all the dead, not just those from one part of the country or one ethnicity or one faith,” he added, alluding to the Declaration of Peace.
Internationally, then, Sirisena’s administration is doing everything right.
Bumps in the road
Back home… it’s complicated.
The president’s biggest challenge is to reconcile a deep rift within the SLFP, caused by his defection last year. He took over the party from the former president but, by his own admission, is “not allowed to lead it”. It is crucial that he heals these divisions before a promised general election is held.
A key problem is that Rajapaksa does not see himself as defeated — only edged out of power by minorities and Western-funded conspiracies. He publicly insists that “certain governments” pushed for regime change because he was a strong leader and they preferred a weak one. He is energised by hordes of people who stream to his home in the south, begging for him to return to politics. Some weep openly.
The former president is also cocooned by a group of loyalists who see no political future without him. They now campaign, often disruptively, for him to return to power through parliament. Depending on how successfully his party performs at the polls, he could be installed as prime minister. For this to work, however, Sirisena has to agree to nominate him. He has shown no inclination to do so. In coming weeks — unless a “deal” is struck — there will be increased pressure on him by quarters backing Rajapaksa.
There was evidence of this at the SLFP’s May Day rally in Colombo. The working class was cast aside as the stage turned into a platform for calls of party unity. The only trade unionist among the speakers was quickly shooed off. The others were ageing, sweaty party seniors who loudly advocated a Sirisena-Rajapaksa partnership. That was the only way to defeat the United National Party (UNP) — the country’s other big political grouping — at the next election, they shouted.
This is the dilemma. As party chairman, Sirisena knows a divided SLFP is a problem. But he also owes his presidential triumph to the UNP. Without its assistance, and its traditional block vote, he would not have won.
In the meantime, the UNP is pushing for a quick election. Sirisena’s victory has, ironically, invigorated his party’s traditional rival. Its May Day rally — usually just a straggle of bored people — drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Parliament must be dissolved immediately, Eran Wickramaratne, a party senior, now insists. The current one has no legitimacy and has outlived its mandate.
Sirisena is in no great rush. He has vowed to dissolve parliament only after the country’s electoral system is changed. That could take several more weeks. A draft amendment is due to be presented to cabinet on May 13. This buys him time to sort out issues within the SLFP. His political skill and acumen are about to be strongly tested.
The president can still neutralise the worst of Rajapaksa’s efforts to undermine him by charging ahead with progressive reform. His popularity soared after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed on April 28. Among other things, it limits a president to two five-year terms (meaning that Rajapaksa can no longer stand for that post) and obliges the president to consult the prime minister on ministerial appointments. It also curbs the president’s immunity by making him liable to fundamental rights litigation on official acts. Sirisena is now hailed as the only president in Sri Lanka’s history to give away power.
However, much more needs to be done. Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, said it best during his April visit to Sri Lanka: “So long as the country keeps moving forward, it will have the support of the United States and the international community. Nothing is settled. Something has begun in Sri Lanka, but nothing is settled. It is very, very heartening that something has begun.”
Namini Wijedasa is a senior journalist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka
(This article was published on May 8, 2015) The Hindu