Sri Lanka: New President, Same Problems

2 years ago Alger Mag Editor 0


As the ramifications of the Sri Lankan elections continue to hold the political attention of much of the country’s news since the beginning of this year, the Western World has come to herald the presidential win of Maithripala Sirisena as a shocking miracle. Sirisena came to narrowly win 51.28% of the nation’s vote whilst Rajapaksa won the remaining 47.62%. The United Nations along with the West acknowledged this victory and celebrated the displacement of the former dictatorial president, Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015). Sirisena has claimed to implement a number of reformatory measures that focus on decentralizing the executive branch.

Yet in retrospect, Sri Lanka’s recent events shows otherwise. Sirisena, who served under Rajapaksa as the Minister of Health just months ago, exchanged his loyalties to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to successfully attain the reins of the country for himself. Despite this, Sirisena managed to form an impressive coalition composed mainly of Tamil-speaking minorities – those who seeked an end to dictatorial social and political stagnation. Voter turnout illustrates that the age-old ethnic rivalry between the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority and Hindu, Tamil-speaking minority were on the road to alleviating tensions and making amends . However, observers doubt whether the Tamil minority just wanted to vote Rajapaksa out of office or if they really put their trust in Sirisena’s promises. Can Sirisena deliver on reforms, or is he just a new face of the same, old dictatorial regime?

The dethronement of former president Rajapaksa, who pursued an unconventional third presidential term this past November, was a victory in itself. Sri Lanka has been rife with this ethnic conflict that has pervaded through many institutions and systems of the nation. The conflict has historically caused a great number of deaths, deterioration to the nation’s political structure, dislocation of different peoples, and intensified racism in the nation.

Creating a recipe for resistance, extremist Tamils decided to take measures in their own hands. The Tamil minority, making up 12% of the Sri Lankan population, has faced unequal treatment by the Sri lankan state through the longstanding systematic discrimination in government employment, higher education, and other matters controlled by the government. This was due to a historical favoring and empowerment in education and civil administration of Tamils from British colonial rule that quickly changed when a Sinhalese majority developed a strong sense of nationalism and decisively limited the voice of the Tamil peoples.

Thus was the formation of the Liberation of Tamil Eelam Tigers, a terrorist organization who waged a secessionist nationalist insurgency to create an independent state for Tamil-Hindu minority Sri Lankans. However, after a 26-year civil war between this growing militant group and the Sinhala-Buddhist government, the stalemate concluded in ceasefire. The defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 was credited to Rajapaksa.

This victory accrued a devastating amount of repercussions – particularly in terms of evident civilian casualties of the Tamil peoples. The Tamil Tigers were notoriously renowned for using “human shields” which deliberately placed civilians around combat targets to deter the enemy from attacking these targets. The Sri Lankan army, under Rajapaksa’s order, acted upon this by heavy artillery shelling of designated “safety zones,” internment camps, safe houses, and hospitals set up for Tamil civilians. While the government most likely attacked these hospitals because of supposed Tamil Tiger sympathizers, yet they themselves said no such shellings happened verbally endorsing their “zero-civilian casualty propaganda” (Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields). This war did not just end in the triumph of the disseminated Tamil Tigers; it left much of the Tamil population in true disbandonment and despair.

Post-war Sri Lanka made little reform due to fear of future terrorism. Rajapaksa established heavy militarized zones in the North, where much of the Tamil minority resided and an authoritarian crackdown started to limit representational efforts of those other than the elite Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Rajapaksa inserted several of his immediate family members into the government and was soon accused of corruption, nepotism, and misuse of power. The executive limited the power of the Parliament and lower courts, and the urban Sinhala-Buddhist majority and upper middle class of Sri Lanka were successful in supporting the current affairs of Rajapaksa rule for two terms. Moreover, Rajapaksa faced controversy for not adequately addressing war crimes committed by both the terrorists and the government. United Nations ambassadors and other NGOs have fruitlessly tried to aid and address the Tamil refugees, but Rajapaksa limited outside foreign aid on the grounds of sovereignty.

President Sirisena has promised to improve the corrupt public affairs that have overrun the nation. He stands by his statement about the Rajapaksa regime that “The entire economy and every aspect of society are controlled by one family” (BBC News). Similar to Rajapaksa’s nepotistic tendencies during his term, Sirisena has recently appointed his brother as chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, the nation’s largest telecommunications provider, and his son-in-law as Ministry of Defense. Moreover, Sirisena blindly set out on an ambitious 100-Day Plan that outlines an immediate reformative plan of actions meant to be successfully addressed in about three months. It included creating checks on the president, such as transferring most of the executive power to parliament and allowing independent commissions to run public service positions rather than just the militia. While he has succeeded in reducing a formidable amount of executive power, he has yet to address crucial issues – electoral reform, war crimes, and domestic issues.

The principal domestic concern is how to initiate a holistic reconstruction of the Tamil community. Specifically, the issues of Tamil representation and fair treatment in public affairs need to be tackled. Much of the Tamil minority voted for Sirisena just because they wanted Rajapaksa out of office. Having been definitively hit the hardest after the civil war, the government has been short to acknowledge responsibility. Moreover, there has been evident anti-Tamil sentiment with the demoralizing notion that all Tamils are terrorists. This has led to the continuing issue of the detention of Tamil political prisoners with many Tamils being subjected to arbitrary arrest (or far worse), at the order of the government.

While Sirisena has called for government reform, his 100-day plan does not explicitly include Tamils. The Tamils need aid and assurance from their government that they will be compensated for the years of violence and grief that have plagued their lives. Sirisena needs to demilitarize the North and East, where the Tamil minority are concentrated, as well as provide humanitarian aid. The Western World got the defeat of the extremist Tamil Tigers, but right now Tamils need resources to build their communities up and assured peace and dignity introduced back in their lives. For this to occur, the government must acknowledge and move past their actions towards the Tamils to further change their attitudes towards the ethnic differences.

Perhaps it is premature to say that Sirisena is a new face in the old government practice; however, current evidence has shown otherwise due to the slow progression of reformative measures and state of the South Asian nation. Nevertheless, The United Nations Human Rights Council has decided to delay the comprehensive report on wartime atrocities committed against Tamil civilians by both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government it has accumulated over the past three decades. This notion confirms the global community has faith the new government is capable of developing an inclusive environment and advancing reconciliation concerning ethnic grievances. Ultimately, the beginnings of a reformatory era can only be amassed by the fulfilled demands of the Tamils, whether it be by the Western World or their own government.


by Jessica Shakesprere

(photo credit: Associated Press)