Sri Lanka appeared to turn a new leaf with the election in January 2015 of President Maithripala Sirisena. This put an end to rule of this country of 21 million people by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is closely associated with a brutal 2009 victory over the Tamil Tiger insurgency and authoritarian government. Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst discusses how much President Sirisena, previously a minor figure in Rajapaksa’s government, has changed politics on the South Asian island. We publish below an interview done by the International Crisis Group.
You recently returned from Sri Lanka. It’s now been four months since Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena came to office. Did the political atmosphere in the country feel different from before?
Alan Keenan: Absolutely. The most striking change is that people are no longer afraid to talk. Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, people were very careful in what they said publicly or even privately: they constantly felt that they were being monitored and feared the consequences. That has changed dramatically with the election of Sirisena. In public places, in cafés, in restaurants, people talk openly about corruption and war crimes, about the need to hold politicians, security forces and armed groups accountable for abuses of power. Academics and activists are publishing and speaking publicly again. In my view, this is Sirisena’s greatest achievement so far. The word that many people used when talking to me was that they felt “relief”.
Achieving Sirisena’s agenda – particularly the constitutional changes – was always going to be a challenge, given that his government doesn’t have a majority in parliament. Despite being the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa thanks to the support of the SLFP’s great rival, the United National Party (UNP) and a coalition of smaller parties. Even after bringing two-dozen SLFP members into his government in March, Sirisena’s government, headed by prime minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, had far less than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. On almost every issue, Sirisena has struggled to gain the cooperation of the SLFP, with many opposed to his collaboration with the UNP, and a significant wing of the party wanting to see Rajapaksa return as prime minister of an SLFP government.
Sirisena is thus in a tricky position. He remains the head of the SLFP and he doesn’t want to damage his own party in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the very least, he doesn’t want to be known as the person who took over the SLFP, investigated them all for corruption, only to have them be soundly defeated in the next election. So he’s trying, in many ways, to find the middle path between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough, whether it is with respect to corruption, to ethnic issues, to war crimes allegations, or to relations with China, Western powers and India.
Nonetheless, after months of uncertainty and complicated negotiations with the SLFP, the late April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution – just a few days past the 100 days goal – allowed Sirisena to deliver on the most important promise on his agenda: to cut down the excessive powers of the Executive Presidency, which his predecessor Rajapaksa had expanded significantly. While the amendment that passed didn’t reduce powers as much as many of Sirisena’s supporters wanted – thanks largely to changes the SLFP insisted on – it was still a significant step. It re-imposes a two-term limit to the presidency and removes the president’s powers to dissolve parliament whenever he wants. It also removes some of his immunity, makes him answerable to parliament and, perhaps most important, significantly increases the power of the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.
Another important promise – and one of Sirisena’s government’s first moves in office – was to pass a consumer and employee-friendly budget, lowering prices on food and increasing salaries for public servants. This was in response to the widespread sense that the cost of living was becoming unbearable, with even middle-class families under severe economic pressure.
Sirisena also promised to reform the electoral system within his first 100 days. How is he doing with that?
Sirisena’s plan – which he is struggling to implement, even if it has widespread acceptance as a general idea – is to eliminate the preferential voting system, seen as a major cause of election violence, and return to a largely first-past-the-post system, while preserving some degree of proportional representation. But the smaller parties and those representing geographically dispersed minorities, such as Sri Lanka’s Muslims, fear that the new model does not give enough emphasis to proportionality and will reduce their number of seats. Others, like the Tamil National Alliance, which represents the country’s Tamils in the north and east, are worried the delimitation of new constituencies will shrink the number of constituencies with Tamil majorities, given how many Tamils have left Sri Lanka the past thirty years. Sirisena hopes that all the major parties will be able to reach a consensus within a month, but given these complexities, that’s a very optimistic timeline.
As on many issues, the Sirisena government and the diverse coalition of parties that brought him to power are split on the timing and sequence of electoral reforms, which will require another constitutional amendment. Many of his supporters, along with the SLFP, want the new electoral system approved and want the upcoming parliamentary elections – promised to be called after the conclusion of Sirisena’s first 100 days – to be held under the new system. With the process of drawing new electoral district boundaries expected take at least two or three months after passage of whatever new system is agreed, this would involve a considerable delay. The SLFP would be happy with this, as they see their election chances increasing with time.
On the other hand, the UNP and some of the smaller parties backing Sirisena want an election as soon as possible. At this stage, they’d prefer to address electoral reforms in a new parliament, but if reforms are to be agreed now, they want the elections to come immediately after, and to be held under the old voting system. The UNP’s hope is to come back in a new parliament with a majority and a strengthened political position. This is important if they are to face a number of difficult issues that the UNP and Sirisena have promised to tackle, including a domestic mechanism for investigating and prosecuting any crimes committed during the civil war, and making progress on reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the smaller Tamil population. But tackling these topics will generate a lot of resistance from nationalists and the supporters of former President Rajapaksa, who still enjoys considerable backing among Sinhalese voters and sections of the security forces.
In light of this, one of the Sirisena government’s first moves on coming to power was to request a six-month deferral of an upcoming UN report on atrocities committed during and after the war – from 2002 to 2011 – which was due to be released for the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. With the extra time, the government hoped it could have the elections behind them and be in a stronger position when it received the bad news expected in the report. The U.S., UK and EU supported the request for a deferral on this same basis, assuming that by September, the government would have had time to take measures and develop a plan that could win the approval of the Human Rights Council.
So, one of Sirisena’s key decisions over the next month is whether to call elections in time to get past them before the UN report is released in August and before the Human Rights Council session begins in September. Sirisena has promised to have unveiled by then a domestic “accountability mechanism”, to investigate and hold accountable anyone found guilty of war crimes and other serious human rights violations committed during the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers. While the new government has refused to cooperate with the ongoing UN inquiry, it has expressed a willingness to accept “technical assistance” from the UN when conducting its own domestic process. It remains to be seen how large a role the UN or other international expertise will be invited to play.
How are these frictions between Sirisena’s government and the country’s former leaders affecting reconciliation with the country’s 12 per cent Sri Lankan Tamil population?
During his first months in office, Sirisena has made a number of small but positive moves to address longstanding grievances of Tamils in the north and east where they are the majority. His government has returned some military-occupied land to its long-displaced owners. And although the military has not withdrawn any troops, it is keeping a lower profile than before and interfering less in civilian affairs. Sirisena also appointed two new governors in the north and east, both of whom are well-respected former civil servants, to replace the retired generals that Rajapaksa had appointed. And he has released some detainees held under the prevention of terrorism act.
Nonetheless, Sinhala nationalism remains strong. According to its vision, Sinhalese and Buddhists have been historically – and remain today – under threat from various outsiders, whether those are Muslims, Tamils, Westerners or Christians. Under Rajapaksa, this vision was encouraged as de facto state policy, and it remains a very powerful element in Sri Lankan politics, courted by Rajapaksa and his supporters. Now, given the tensions within the SLFP and the popularity that Mahinda Rajapaksa still enjoys, it’s clear that Sirisena is being forced to pick his battles. The recent decision to ban Tamil commemorations of their war-dead in the north, and the appointment of General Jagath Dias, one of top commanders in the final months of fighting in 2009 and almost certainly to be cited as a key perpetrator in the forthcoming Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, as army chief of staff, were popular with Sinhalese nationalists but outraged the Tamils, for example. I don’t think we can expect any big moves on reconciliation, meaning either more releases of land to Tamils or a real scaling back of the military, until after the parliamentary elections.
On a more clearly positive note, Sirisena has made clear he won’t tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa. Muslims faced particularly intense pressure in 2013 and 2014 from militant Buddhist organisations that clearly had the backing of the former regime. The organisations burned out their businesses, attacked people on the street, and pressed for legislative changes to weaken the Muslim community. All this was done in the name of opposing “Islamic extremism”, which does not really exist in Sri Lanka. All of that has come to an end under Sirisena, though some of the issues raised by militant Buddhists remain potential flashpoints that will require careful management by the government and community leaders.
How do you see the government’s relations with other countries in the region and internationally?
The new government, with its major shift in priorities, has been welcomed by most world powers, with the exception of the Chinese. Indian Prime Minister Modi visited soon after the election, the first visit of an Indian prime minister in 28 years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was just in Colombo in early May. Senior EU and UN officials arrived before that. All have issued very positive statements. The reason Beijing is less thrilled is that the Sirisena-UNP government has deliberately distanced itself from the very close ties that Rajapaksa had cultivated with China. Rajapaksa had relied on China for political support on the Security Council and Human Rights Council against investigations into alleged war crimes. But he also depended economically on China, which has pumped billions of dollars in loans, investments and development assistance into Sri Lanka over the past decade. The new government has made clear it doesn’t want to cut its ties with China but is instead trying to recalibrate them, not least because of worries that the country’s growing dependence would bring strings that could be dangerous for Sri Lankan sovereignty. In the coming years, Sri Lankans will certainly still need Chinese money and support, but will want to have it along with support from India and the West. This will be a challenging balancing act, but shouldn’t be impossible to pull off.
Who is winning the political tug-of-war between President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Sirisena wasn’t a non-entity under Rajapaksa, he was the general secretary of the SLFP, but he didn’t have a high public profile. His personality and demeanour are very quiet, unassuming, modest, and he remained a bit of an unknown even in the initial months of his presidency. Over time, though, we’ve seen Sirisena emerge with a particular leadership style which is much more consultative, modest, not about increasing his power but about getting as many people to sign on as possible. This is quite unusual in Sri Lankan politics. Many find the change refreshing and encouraging; others criticise Sirisena as weak and say his “national government” experiment is beginning to unravel.
Gradually, though, Sirisena appears to have put Rajapaksa in an increasingly tight spot: through the eventual passage of the nineteenth amendment; his moves to weaken pro-Rajapaksa forces in all kinds of intra-SLFP and intra-Sinhalese political battles; and continued legal pressure on the former ruling family and its close associates. These include investigations and arrests of former Rajapaksa government officials like the former president’s brother, the ex-minister for economic development, Basil Rajapaksa. Mahinda and another very powerful brother, the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have both been summoned for questioning by the bribery commission. These moves triggered street demonstrations and an uproar in parliament from the pro-Rajapaksa wing of the SLFP that succeeded in delaying debate on the nineteenth amendment. But it failed to stop the passage of the amendment by an enormous majority, once the pro-Rajapaksa camp realised it didn’t have the votes to defeat it.
Most positively, the tradition of robust debate and challenging authority in Sri Lanka has returned. One of the most striking things about the election campaign was that suddenly all these voices were speaking out against Rajapaksa because they had a vehicle, finally, to challenge him. People were willing to take the risk of writing letters critical of him, of working for his defeat. Because they thought there was a chance of change. Crucially I think many people thought it was their last chance, since most people believe many of those who opposed him would have been arrested or faced worse outcomes had Rajapaksa won. President Sirisena himself speaks of how he was risking his life running against Rajapaksa, saying it was like jumping into the sea with my family, “would we sink or swim, would we find land again”? Now, the changed environment is tangible.
Still, the aggrieved and potentially violent streak in Sinhalese nationalist politics is being actively courted by former President Rajapaksa and his supporters. Among the big questions about the upcoming parliamentary elections are: who will champion this constituency? Will Mahinda Rajapaksa himself join the campaign? Or will it be his proxies? How strongly will they push the classic fears of Sinhalese nationalism: Tamil separatism, Muslim extremism, Christian evangelicals, a Western-led global conspiracy? All these remain very potent ideologically within Sri Lanka, and the country still has some way to go to consolidate its democratic transition.