[SI_section_desc description=”Will he bring sustainable peace to the divided nation? -by a Special Correspondent” text_color=”#393939″]
[SI_section_desc description=”Three decades of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka divided the country along religious, language, party and faction lines. The new Colombo administration is a marriage of convenience. The President has promised to implement good governance and unify the country. Will he deliver what he promises?” text_color=”#393939″]
Now that Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war is a thing of the past, the brutal leadership that came into power after its end has been unceremoniously booted out by a determined and enlightened electorate. Remarkably, there is no visible opposition party in the current political scene. The timely visit of Pope Francis is viewed by many as a good omen for the island nation. Even the international community is keen to bring Sri Lanka out of its diplomatic isolation. Its great neighbour India would like to re-establish its relationship with the new regime as a good friend rather than a big brother. There is a sense of euphoria among all sections of the populace bar the diehards of the former regime.
The Sri Lankan diaspora living in many countries have also overwhelmingly welcomed the recent regime change although they have many reservations about a lasting solution to the vexed problem of securing harmony between the different ethnic groups in the country. The new regime is on a 100 day agenda and seems to be venturing into a new political culture, willing to listen to the concerns of all sections of the society including the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Even the country’s constitution had been amended in the past but promises were not kept due to, party politics and heavy pressure from religious hard liners. Unless this trend is reversed political analysts believe it will be yet another opportunity missed.
Three decades of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka divided the tiny Indian Ocean Island along religious, language, party and faction lines. Even though the civil war was brought to an end in 2009 by a party with a large majority which took on the reins of government, the country was still divided on ethnic lines with the Tamils complaining that the prosperity brought by the end of the war did not trickle down to the people of the North and East and specially those who were displaced by the war. Regeneration of war-ravaged areas of the North and East was not given the priority it deserved and on the contrary, intimidation, abduction and land grabbing were pursued with great vigour which was largely blamed on the military.
In 2010 Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected on a ticket of extreme nationalism with the overwhelming support of the Sinhalese voters. During his ten years of presidency, he ran the country like an uncrowned king and amassed immense wealth for his family. He embarked on a systematic plan to appoint family members and close relatives to powerful positions within the government. He also co-opted opposition members of parliament with offers of jobs in governmentand managed to engineer a twothirds majority in Parliament in order to drive through laws that would entrench his position as President for ever. Nepotism and corruption as well as the threatof violence against dissenters created a climate of fear within the opposition. He suppressed press freedom and forced many journalists who were critical of him to flee the country. His policies and pronouncements alienated many western powers. He befriended China, thereby advancing its hegemony in the region right under the nose of India, Sri Lanka’s immediate powerful neighbour and regional super power. Rajapaksa, however, did not fail to visit famous South Indian Hindu temples whenever he sought the help of divine powers to prop up his corrupt regime.
In a western democracy like Britain the outcome of an election is often predictable as opinion polls and exit polls are conducted by many independent agencies and political analysts who keep their eyes and ears wide open to every twist and turn of party political campaigns. Election frauds are rarely heard of if not non-existent. In acountry like Sri Lanka where press freedom is suppressed through coercion and intimidation, the rule of law is heavily undermined by government machinations. Politicians take advice from astrologers as to the best dates for success at the polls. Sometimes even astrologers are afraid to speak the truth for fear of being victimised. The leaders put their faith on the influence of planets rather than on good governance.
They must have felt let down by the stellar constellations when Maithripala Sirisena dubbed as an unknown angel, previously unheard of in the international media, took office as 6th President of the Republic of Sri Lanka while the known devil Rajapaksa who ruled the country for a decade with an iron fist had to pack his bags and quietly leave his den in a predawn exit on the 9th January. The rule of Rajapaksa has some parallels to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a popular Danish tale where no one close to the king was brave enough to tell him that he was wearing nothing until an innocent child among the crowd of spectators told him the truth. Even though Rajapaksa appeared to have total control over his country’s affairs, recent events have proved the contrary.
It must be emphasised that what happened in Sri Lanka recently was a political miracle as it all happened so unpredictably. Politicians of all the constituent parties of the government as well as the opposition parties used their good sense and good will to enable regime change. Moreover, the architects of the change acted in a very circumspect manner avoiding any phone calls or text messages which could be tracked by anyone close to the old regime. During the 30 years of conflict the Tamil rebels themselves were well known for their disciplined manner of carrying out their attacks so meticulously so that no one could predict their targets or the timing of their attacks.
Even though Rajapaksa called the presidential elections in November 2014, two years ahead of the schedule expecting an easy win for a third term, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the major party representing Tamils living in Northern and Eastern provinces for a long time, was sitting on the fence between Rajapaksa’s and Sirisena’s camps holding the cards close to its chest until a week before the January elections. Sirisena too did not promise anything about giving more powers to the Tamil regions or about removal of military from the North and East knowing that it would fuel unrest among his supporters. In the meantime, pressure was exerted by a section of the diaspora urging the Tamils not to vote for any presidential candidate as they were both of the same political breed and neither of them would be willing to share power with Tamils.
Mystery surrounds the circumstances under which Rajapakse gave up his powers in a hurry. He must have been bitterly disappointed that many of his cabinet colleagues had deserted him in favour of supporting Sirisena. He was also disappointed that changing the law to ensure a third term did not work in his favour but instead, he lost two years of his term by calling elections so early. Perhaps, he did not want to end up in a fatal situation similar to the one his one-time ally Colonel Gaddafi found himself during the Arab spring in 2011. Sri Lankan voters have brought about a new chapter in the country’s history through ballots not bullets. Tamil voters mainly from Northern and Eastern provinces will take credit for the electoral humiliation of Rajapaksa as he himself has acknowledged it publicly.
The new Colombo administration headed by Maithripala Sirisena is a marriage of convenience and practicality. Srisena was the Health minister in Rajapakse’s government until November 2014. The newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of United National party (UNP) was the Opposition leader until the January 8th elections. Another important figure who played a crucial role in bringing down Rajapakse regime was his predecessor and Executive President for two terms, Chandrika Kumaratunga whose parents were prime ministers of Sri Lanka during the sixties and seventies. Even though Tamil party TNA was invited to be part of the unity government, they did not accept the invitation but remain supportive of the new government’s peace efforts.
Sirisena has promised to revolutionise the way the country will be governed and has chartered a blueprint for the 100 day agenda for political reforms. Some of the key features are abolition of executive presidency, depoliticisation of government institutions and more power sharing with the Tamil and Muslim minorities. However it should be noted, it has been a common practice in Sri Lanka’s politics that the leaders soon forget their pledges and bow to pressures from the Buddhist clergy and hard line politicians who often threaten to withdraw their support for the government.
It is too soon to be optimistic about lasting peace and prosperity for this ethnically plural country. It is widely speculated that the new government will make clear their far reaching political reforms and proposals for a solution to the Tamil problem, during their first 100 day period of governance. They will of course work hard to make their proposals more appealing to Tamil and Muslim communities and might even make discrete pacts with these parties in order to get a two third majority in the parliament. All the key players in this new marriage are veteran politicians who have seen and personally experienced the trauma this divided nation has undergone for over three decades. Therefore one can expect that this rare opportunity to unify this tiny island nation will not be missed. However, it will be wrong for anyone to think that lasting peace is within easy reach as often politicians who promise don’t even remember what they promised or don’t have the courage to deliver what they promised. Will they deliver it this time? The answer is everyone’s guess.