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A new Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankas newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (C) arrives for his
swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, 9 January 2015. REUTERS/STRINGER

By Alan Keenan | @akeenan23

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 discusses how much President Sirisena,
previously a minor figure in Rajapaksas government, has changed politics
on the South Asian island.
You recently returned from Sri Lanka. Its now been four months since Sri

Lankas 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 cafs, 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
Sirisenas greatest achievement so far. The word that many people used
when talking to me was that they felt relief.
Sirisena came to power in January with an ambitious 100-day agenda. We
are now almost a month past those 100 days. How much progress has he
made on his agenda?
Achieving Sirisenas agenda particularly the constitutional changes was
always going to be a challenge, given that his government doesnt have a
majority in parliament. Despite being the general secretary of Rajapaksas
own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa thanks to
the support of the SLFPs 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, Sirisenas government, headed by prime
minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, had far less than the twothirds 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
Sirisena is in a tricky position. He doesnt want to be known as the person
who took over the SLFP and investigated them all for corruption, only to
have them be soundly defeated in the next election.

Sirisena is thus in a tricky position. He remains the head of the SLFP and he
doesnt want to damage his own party in advance of the upcoming
parliamentary elections. At the very least, he doesnt 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 hes 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
didnt reduce powers as much as many of Sirisenas 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
presidents 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 Sirisenas governments 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
Sirisena also promised to reform the electoral system within his first 100
days. How is he doing with that?
Sirisenas 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 Lankas 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 countrys 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, thats 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 Sirisenas 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.
Tackling these topics will generate a lot of resistance from nationalists and
the supporters of former President Rajapaksa.
On the other hand, the UNP and some of the smaller parties backing
Sirisena want an election as soon as possible. At this stage, theyd 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 UNPs 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 governments 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 Sirisenas 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 Sirisenas government and the countrys
former leaders affecting reconciliation with the countrys 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, its
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 dont 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.
Sirisena has made clear he wont tolerate the violent campaigning against
Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa.
On a more clearly positive note, Sirisena has made clear he wont 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 governments 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 doesnt want to cut its ties
with China but is instead trying to recalibrate them, not least because of
worries that the countrys 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 shouldnt be impossible to pull off.
Who is winning the political tug-of-war between President Sirisena and
Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Sirisena wasnt a non-entity under Rajapaksa, he was the general secretary
of the SLFP, but he didnt 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,
weve 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 intraSLFP 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 presidents 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 didnt have the votes to defeat it.
The tradition of robust debate and challenging authority in Sri Lanka has
returned. The changed environment is tangible.
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.
All our previous reporting on Sri Lanka can be found on the Crisis Group
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