-Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal
This question puzzles everyone – both analyst and layman. It is because these days governments behave alike and prefer to pursue similar policies though generally new governments come on anti-incumbency wave.
On January 8, the Sri Lankan electorate achieved the impossible by voting President Mahindra Rajapaksa out of office – something inconceivable just a couple of months ago when he as a dictator was too strong to be ousted. Unlike other countries that have had to oust dictators through bloody violence or street protests, Sri Lankan voters ended Rajapaksa’s decade-long, increasingly authoritarian rule via democratic means, the ballot box.
The January poll made Maithripala Sirisena the new president of Sri Lanka and people in the country as well as onlookers worldwide expect a sea change in the Lankan policies and politics.
New President Sirisena appointed Wickremesinghe, leader of pro-US United National Party (UNP), as prime minister based on a new ruling coalition, the National Democratic Front, which includes a number of right-wing parties. Wickremesinghe declared last week that his government would implement the 13th amendment to the country’s constitution. After nearly three decades, the amendment, which provided for the limited devolution of powers to the Tamil elite on a provincial level in the island’s north and east, has never been carried out fully. More fundamentally, however, it underscores the shift in foreign policy toward the US and India that was ushered in by Sirisena’s election.
India, supported by the unilateral USA, has repeatedly demanded the amendment’s implementation as part of a “political solution” to the Tamil problem. The 13th amendment was introduced in November 1987 under the Indo-Lanka Accord, which provided for Indian “peacekeeping” troops to occupy the island’s north and disarm the LTTE.
Sri Lankan civil war ended with the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Rajapaksa became Sri Lanka’s president first in 2005. In May 2009, his government inflicted a crushing military defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending the 25-year-long civil war. As a wave of Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism swept the island in the wake of the war victory, Rajapaksa assumed demi-god status among the Sinhalese-Buddhists. His popularity swept him into a second term in 2010 and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United People’s Freedom Alliance’s (UPFA) won a string of elections to parliament, provincial councils and local bodies.
Rajapksha took shelter behind the rich and corporate lords like the leaders in other countries, like India. After the defeat of Tamil, in fact common people and poor even among the Singhalese majority were scared of the regime and suffered. During the presidential election, the Socialist Equality Party was the only party to fight for the unity of common people—Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim—in a common struggle to oppose the US war drive and secure basic democratic and social rights by abolishing capitalism.
Of late upon the rout of LTTE, not many newspapers were unwilling to write anything negative about his poll prospective. Yes, that is because of fear and nothing else because media lords would have to pay for any negative prospects forecast by them against the all powerful Singhalese president Rajapaksha, who made maximum from his ending civil war with Tamils by committing extra war crimes.
A few Lankans, however, forecast the end of Rajapksha. I am among Indians who predicted the defeat of Rajapaksha and argued in favor of Maithripala Sirisena, former communist, because Lankans have to get rid of a growing dictator in South Asia. Lankan voters justified our confidence posed on them. In an election that produced a record 81.5 percent voter turnout, Sirisena secured 51.28 percent of the votes compared to Rajapaksa’s 47.58 percent. Although the Singhalese also rejected incumbent president, however, Sri Lanka’s beleaguered minorities, Tamils, Muslims, among others, who account for 30% of the island’s population can take credit for the electoral defeat of its most powerful president ever in what came to be a historic poll.
Sirisena would not have won against Rajapaksha had the majority population Singhalese not vote him in big numbers. So, in fact, majority of Lankans voted Rajapaksha out and made Sirisena the new president of the island nation.
According to his election manifesto, Sirisena wants to wean Sri Lanka off its dependence on China, a move praised by Indian and Western commentators alike. New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said before the election that he would stop the $1.5 billion China-financed Colombo Port City project.
India welcomed Sirisena’s election as it was reportedly worked against Rajapaksa’s election because he rejected India and chose China instead to grant huge projects. New Delhi is hoping that the new government will enable India to strengthen its position in Colombo at the expense of Beijing, which India has long regarded as a regional rival.
The Modi government is also hoping that the implementation of the amendment will deflect opposition among common people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to the treatment of Sri Lankan Tamils. The protracted civil war in Sri Lanka and continuing repression and discrimination against Tamils has generated political instability in Tamilnadu and India.
Washington was hostile to Rajapakse’s ties with Beijing in conditions where it is seeking to strategically encircle China as part of the US “pivot to Asia.”
Sri Lanka may now return to its traditional non-aligned foreign policy maintaining friendly relations with its Asian neighbors that are linked through geo-politics, history and culture. Asia is the new centre of gravity in global political and economic relations and Sri Lanka can develop her economic potential with even-handed and mutually beneficial ties with China, Pakistan, India, Japan and the Asia pacific, using its strategic location. At the same time important economic partners in trade, investment and tourism remain in the West with whom Sri Lanka has had longstanding ties thorough the Commonwealth, the United Nations and other multilateral organisations working together for international peace and security. The values of good governance, democracy, the rule of law and human rights will be upheld in domestic and foreign policy ensuring that the ethnic and religious diversity of the country is respected and protected.
Allegations of war crimes and crimes against Rajapaksa’s government — in which Sirisena served as defense minister— have resulted in demands for an investigation within Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa has persistently refused to do so. As a result, the UN Human Rights Council is demanding an international investigation. The investigating body is expected to present a report at the next Human Rights Council meeting, in March, but Sirisena has categorically rejected calls to give the former president up for trial.
It is alleged that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa attempted to cling to power by staging a coup, the police and Army refused to back his defeated regime. That elections in Sri Lanka ushered in a democratic transition with little bloodshed is cause enough for celebration. But it’s too early to party. The real challenges for democracy — setting up inclusive, transparent institutions and dealing with issues of peace and reconciliation following Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war — are only just beginning.
No one today respects Colombo, does not trust it as a genuine democracy. If Sirisena wants to restore Sri Lanka’s credibility internationally, he cannot violate international law. He will have to adhere to the UN treaties that Sri Lanka has ratified and work within U.N. resolutions.
Lankans seek different government now. If Sri Lanka is to enjoy rule of law and media freedom, Sirisena must repeal the draconian PTA. The cornerstone of new President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto is his promise to institute constitutional amendments that would restore good governance and rule of law. He has promised that within his government’s first 100 days in office, he will transform Sri Lanka from a near autocracy into a democracy, one in which the president will share power with Parliament. Second, Sirisena wants to establish independent commissions to ensure that the police, judiciary, elections committee, and the offices of the auditor and attorney general are impartial.
The new government, presumably a pro-US, is seeking to establish the widest possible coalition in anticipation of popular opposition to its agenda of austerity at home and the integration of Sri Lanka into US war plans.
It is not proper to consider the minority populations as enemies. Neither presidential nor parliamentary forms of government — invariably dominated by the Sinhalese, who make up roughly 74 percent of the country’s 21 million people — is satisfactory to the Tamils and Muslims. Instead, they demand greater autonomy in the north and the east. But Sirisena’s election manifesto is completely silent on the matter.
Sirisena would want to restore democracy, but the challenges are immense. Many of the obstacles stem from his ties to his predecessor.
Will Sirisena spoil his own tea?
Meanwhile, the disastrous fall of a strong dictator in the most democratic manner would serve as a stern warning to all those arrogant rulers around rulers who use the people’s mandate to advance their own interests.
History willingly repeats itself all the time!