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January 17, 2015



A new start in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s people have made the cause of democracy proud by handing a humiliating, well-deserved defeat to President Mahinda Rajapaksa after 10 years of authoritarian rule. Rajapaksa called an election two years ahead of schedule, and lost to Maithripala Sirisena – despite last-minute attempts to rope in Bollywood stars and desperate appeals to electors to vote for the “known devil”.
All South Asians should celebrate this result because it represents a big setback to the majoritarianism and extreme national-chauvinism that Rajapaksa personified, and generates the hope that our countries could become more inclusive and pluralist democracies that can accommodate and genuinely respect difference and diversity in religion, culture and ethnicity.
There are allegations by seasoned politicians that Rajapaksa had toyed with the idea of a coup to prevent the announcement of the election result. These charges must be seriously and impartially investigated. If found true, they would warrant prosecution. At any rate, the fact that they are made and believed by many testifies to the climate of divisiveness and suspicion that Rajapaksa created.
This points to the tough challenges President Sirisena confronts. The first challenge is to cohere or unite the different parts of the rainbow coalition that amazingly catapulted this relatively low-key, if not faceless, politician, to power. This includes the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya, the two main Muslim parties, and old political arch-rivals: former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe of the United National Party.
Such cohering won’t be easy despite Sirisena delivering on his promise to appoint Wickramasinghe as prime minister. Nor will it be easy to convince the other minorities, especially the northern or Jaffna Tamils, that they have a stake in supporting his government and can expect a better deal under him than under Rajapaksa.
It is

estimated that more than 80 percent of northern Tamils, overwhelmingly led by the Tamil National Alliance, voted for Sirisena’s coalition. In a brilliant tactical stroke, TNA leader R Sampanthan delayed announcing his support until a week before the polling to deny Rajapaksa an opportunity to polarise the contest along ethnic-chauvinist lines.
Not very much is known about the political acumen of Sirisena, who was health minister under Rajapaksa until late November. But fulfilling the promise of major political reform – that is, abolishing the executive presidency and moving over to a parliamentary system of government within 100 days – will prove a great challenge to even the most astute leader.
A shift to the new system would require the support of two-thirds or 150 members of the 225-strong parliament. This cannot be done without the cooperation of the Rajapaksa brothers, whose Sri Lanka Freedom Party holds 135 seats in parliament.
Rajapaksa has reportedly agreed to surrender the SLFP’s chairmanship to Sirisena, but on the condition that all inquiries related to his family’s corruption and undemocratic conduct be dropped. This cynical manoeuvre must be opposed by getting top SLFP leaders to advise party MPs to understand the true import of the election results – while their impact is still current and strong.
Similarly, the new president will have to negotiate hard with the JHU and with Gen Sarath Fonseka, a ‘war hero’ with political ambitions, who became Rajapaksa’s rival and who recently demanded that he be made Field Marshal. Sirisena will have to do a lot of fancy footwork to keep his widely divergent Sinhala supporters together while the 100-day transition takes place.
In the Tamil north, he will find it even tougher to send the army back to the barracks and demilitarise the civilian administration. Many soldiers have illegally grabbed lands belonging to displaced Tamils. Evacuating them won’t be easy. Yet that’s a precondition for defending the livelihoods of large numbers of this ethnic minority which feels cornered and persecuted.
Another challenge would be to arrest the drift towards neoliberal policies, with dependence on foreign capital for growth, which dogs Sri Lanka. When the war ended in 2009, foreign aid and western investment dried up. The government opened new avenues for financial flows, primarily from China, through real estate-related foreign investment, expansion of casinos and for-profit universities and hospitals.
This has aggravated unemployment in the Sinhala South. The north and east, with a large Tamil presence, are plagued by a serious economic crisis: a collapse of agriculture and small industry, a fall in rural incomes, and widespread indebtedness.
This only magnifies the political crisis rooted in the alienation and dispossession of large numbers of Tamils, and the terrible war crimes committed against civilians in the last phase of the massive army operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Up to 40,000 Tamil civilians are estimated to have been killed during the war, many of them in targeted or indiscriminate attacks.
The Rajapaksa government always described the war as an “anti-terrorist” operation and inflicted punishment on ordinary civilians after branding them LTTE’s colluders or supporters. This is simply impermissible even under the laws of war with a foreign power. Yet, Colombo has defied attempts by United Nations agencies to hold its functionaries responsible for war crimes.
Sri Lanka’s neighbours, especially India, failed to restrain it, and supported its ‘sovereign’ right to ‘defend’ itself against the LTTE – except for the occasional, token, and usually hypocritical, protest from the ethnic-Tamil parties that were part of India’s recent ruling coalition.
Sirisena inherits his predecessor’s ‘anti-terrorist’ premise about the war. His manifesto said: “No international power will be allowed to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.” This is retrograde national-chauvinism. The international community, particularly South Asian governments, must mount pressure on Sirisena to fix responsibility for the war crimes, if necessary through a truth commission.
Such efforts are most likely to succeed if there’s a domestic process of devolution of powers to the north and east and a sincere effort to win the confidence of the ethnic minorities as part of a grand reconciliation package to rebuild inter-ethnic relations on an equitable basis.
This hope is not entirely misplaced. In the past, under President Kumaratunga, a ‘devolution debate’ could be sustained despite opposition from hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide. Sirisena should not reject sensible devolution proposals simply because they weren’t part of the terms on which the Tamil and Muslim parties supported him during the election.
Their support was unconditional, not negotiated. But it reflected the overall character of the electoral contest, itself a referendum on corruption, cronyism and family-based rule, represented in a venal, concentrated form by Rajapaksa, whom Sirisena opposed, at the right moment.
Sirisena didn’t win on the strength of his ideology, manifesto or personal image, but simply because the people were fed up with Rajapaksa, and didn’t want to degrade Sri Lankan democracy further by subjecting it to a third term under him. Sirisena showed during the campaign that Rajapaksa wasn’t invincible. He could be trounced by affirming the simple-sounding ‘good governance’ agenda. And trounced he was.
There is a larger lesson in Sri Lanka’s election results for us South Asians. We too can get rid of half-dictators and self-styled national-heroes-turned-tyrants who seem invincible, as Rajapaksa did until recently. We should at least try.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.
Email: [email protected]