Sri Lanka appeared to turn a new leaf with the election in January 2015 of President Maithripala Sirisena. This place an finish to rule of this country of 21 million men and women by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is closely related with a brutal 2009 victory more than the Tamil Tiger insurgency and authoritarian government. Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst discusses how a lot President Sirisena, previously a minor figure in Rajapaksa’s government, has changed politics on the South Asian island. We publish be the interview accomplished by the International Crisis Group.
You recently returned from Sri Lanka. It’s now been four months given that Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena came to office. Did the political atmosphere in the nation feel various from prior to?
Alan Keenan: Totally. The most striking modify is that individuals are no longer afraid to talk. Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, men and women had been quite careful in what they mentioned publicly or even privately: they consistently felt that they have been becoming monitored and feared the consequences. That has changed substantially with the election of Sirisena. In public areas, in cafés, in restaurants, folks speak openly about corruption and war crimes, about the want to hold politicians, safety 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 a lot of individuals used when talking to me was that they felt “relief”.
Sirisena came to power in January with an ambitious one hundred-day agenda. We are now nearly a month previous those 100 days. How significantly progress has he produced on his agenda?
Attaining Sirisena’s agenda – especially the constitutional changes – was usually going to be a challenge, given that his government does not have a majority in parliament. In spite of being the common secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Celebration (SLFP), Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa thanks to the help of the SLFP’s wonderful rival, the United National Party (UNP) and a coalition of smaller sized parties. Even right 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 significantly less than the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution. On virtually 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 celebration wanting to see Rajapaksa return as prime minister of an SLFP government.
Sirisena is thus in a difficult position. He remains the head of the SLFP and he does not want to damage his personal party in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the quite 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 subsequent election. So he’s attempting, in a lot of ways, to find the middle path between pushing as well hard and not pushing challenging enough, regardless of whether it is with respect to corruption, to ethnic problems, to war crimes allegations, or to relations with China, Western powers and India.
Nonetheless, after months of uncertainty and difficult negotiations with the SLFP, the late April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution – just a few days previous the 100 days goal – allowed Sirisena to deliver on the most essential promise on his agenda: to cut down the excessive powers of the Executive Presidency, which his predecessor Rajapaksa had expanded considerably. Whilst the amendment that passed didn’t reduce powers as a lot as many of Sirisena’s supporters wanted – thanks largely to alterations the SLFP insisted on – it was still a considerable step. It re-imposes a two-term limit to the presidency and removes the president’s powers to dissolve parliament anytime he wants. It also removes some of his immunity, makes him answerable to parliament and, possibly most important, drastically increases the energy of the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.
An additional important promise – and 1 of Sirisena’s government’s very first moves in workplace – was to pass a customer and employee-friendly spending budget, lowering rates on meals and rising salaries for public servants. This was in response to the widespread sense that the price of living was becoming unbearable, with even middle-class households beneath extreme economic pressure.
Sirisena also promised to reform the electoral system within his 1st one hundred days. How is he undertaking with that?
Sirisena’s strategy – which he is struggling to implement, even if it has widespread acceptance as a common thought – is to eliminate the preferential voting method, noticed as a key cause of election violence, and return to a largely 1st-previous-the-post system, while preserving some degree of proportional representation. But the smaller sized parties and these representing geographically dispersed minorities, such as Sri Lanka’s Muslims, fear that the new model does not give adequate emphasis to proportionality and will decrease their quantity 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, offered how numerous Tamils have left Sri Lanka the past thirty years. Sirisena hopes that all the major parties will be able to reach a consensus inside a month, but offered these complexities, that’s a extremely optimistic timeline.
As on many concerns, the Sirisena government and the diverse coalition of parties that brought him to energy are split on the timing and sequence of electoral reforms, which will demand an additional constitutional amendment. Several of his supporters, along with the SLFP, want the new electoral technique approved and want the upcoming parliamentary elections – promised to be named soon after the conclusion of Sirisena’s initial 100 days – to be held under the new system. With the method of drawing new electoral district boundaries anticipated take at least two or 3 months after passage of whatever new program is agreed, this would involve a considerable delay. The SLFP would be pleased with this, as they see their election possibilities rising with time.
On the other hand, the UNP and some of the smaller sized 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 right away after, and to be held beneath the old voting technique. 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 quantity of challenging troubles that the UNP and Sirisena have promised to tackle, which includes a domestic mechanism for investigating and prosecuting any crimes committed throughout the civil war, and generating progress on reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the smaller sized Tamil population. But tackling these topics will produce a lot of resistance from nationalists and the supporters of former President Rajapaksa, who nonetheless enjoys considerable backing among Sinhalese voters and sections of the security forces.
In light of this, one particular of the Sirisena government’s initial moves on coming to energy 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 additional time, the government hoped it could have the elections behind them and be in a stronger position when it received the negative news anticipated in the report. The U.S., UK and EU supported the request for a deferral on this identical 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 subsequent month is whether or not to call elections in time to get previous them prior to the UN report is released in August and ahead of the Human Rights Council session starts in September. Sirisena has promised to have unveiled by then a domestic “accountability mechanism”, to investigate and hold accountable any person discovered guilty of war crimes and other severe human rights violations committed in the course of the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers. Even though 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 personal domestic method. It remains to be observed how large a part the UN or other international knowledge 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?
Throughout his very first months in workplace, Sirisena has created a number of modest but positive moves to address longstanding grievances of Tamils in the north and east exactly where they are the majority. His government has returned some military-occupied land to its extended-displaced owners. And though the military has not withdrawn any troops, it is maintaining a reduced profile than ahead of 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 below 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 or not those are Muslims, Tamils, Westerners or Christians. Under Rajapaksa, this vision was encouraged as de facto state policy, and it remains a very potent element in Sri Lankan politics, courted by Rajapaksa and his supporters. Now, given the tensions within the SLFP and the recognition that Mahinda Rajapaksa nevertheless enjoys, it is clear that Sirisena is becoming forced to choose his battles. The current choice to ban Tamil commemorations of their war-dead in the north, and the appointment of General Jagath Dias, a single of leading commanders in the final months of fighting in 2009 and virtually undoubtedly to be cited as a essential perpetrator in the forthcoming Office of the Higher Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, as army chief of employees, were well-known with Sinhalese nationalists but outraged the Tamils, for instance. I do not think we can count on any big moves on reconciliation, meaning either far more releases of land to Tamils or a genuine scaling back of the military, till after the parliamentary elections.
On a far more clearly good note, Sirisena has produced clear he will not tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished beneath Rajapaksa. Muslims faced specifically intense pressure in 2013 and 2014 from militant Buddhist organisations that clearly had the backing of the former regime. The organisations burned out their organizations, attacked people on the street, and pressed for legislative adjustments 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, even though some of the problems raised by militant Buddhists stay potential flashpoints that will need cautious management by the government and neighborhood leaders.
How do you see the government’s relations with other countries in the region and internationally?
The new government, with its significant shift in priorities, has been welcomed by most globe powers, with the exception of the Chinese. Indian Prime Minister Modi visited soon soon after the election, the initial pay a visit to 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 really constructive statements. The purpose Beijing is significantly 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 help on the Safety 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 help into Sri Lanka over the past decade. The new government has made clear it does not want to reduce its ties with China but is rather trying to recalibrate them, not least due to the fact of worries that the country’s developing dependence would bring strings that could be harmful for Sri Lankan sovereignty. In the coming years, Sri Lankans will surely nonetheless need Chinese funds and help, but will want to have it along with support from India and the West. This will be a difficult balancing act, but shouldn’t be impossible to pull off.
Who is winning the political tug-of-war among President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Sirisena wasn’t a non-entity beneath Rajapaksa, he was the basic secretary of the SLFP, but he didn’t have a higher public profile. His character and demeanour are quite quiet, unassuming, modest, and he remained a bit of an unknown even in the initial months of his presidency. Over time, although, we’ve seen Sirisena emerge with a specific leadership style which is considerably much more consultative, modest, not about rising his energy but about acquiring as numerous individuals to sign on as attainable. This is really uncommon in Sri Lankan politics. A lot of discover the change refreshing and encouraging others criticise Sirisena as weak and say his “national government” experiment is beginning to unravel.
Progressively, even though, Sirisena appears to have place 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 stress on the former ruling family and its close associates. These contain investigations and arrests of former Rajapaksa government officials like the former president’s brother, the ex-minister for economic improvement, Basil Rajapaksa. Mahinda and an additional really powerful brother, the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have each 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 cease the passage of the amendment by an massive majority, after the pro-Rajapaksa camp realised it didn’t have the votes to defeat it.
Most positively, the tradition of robust debate and difficult authority in Sri Lanka has returned. One particular of the most striking factors about the election campaign was that suddenly all these voices have been speaking out against Rajapaksa since they had a automobile, finally, to challenge him. Folks were willing to take the threat of writing letters essential of him, of functioning for his defeat. Because they believed there was a possibility of alter. Crucially I consider many folks thought it was their final likelihood, since most people think a lot of of these 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 discover land again”? Now, the changed environment is tangible.
Nevertheless, the aggrieved and potentially violent streak in Sinhalese nationalist politics is getting actively courted by former President Rajapaksa and his supporters. Amongst the big queries 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 worldwide conspiracy? All these remain really potent ideologically within Sri Lanka, and the nation still has some way to go to consolidate its democratic transition.