In a stunning upset, Sri Lanka’s Maithripala Sirisena defeated ten-year incumbent strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena is a former member of President Rajapaksa’s cabinet who defected, with more than twenty other members of parliament, to lead an umbrella opposition coalition just two months ago. Rajapaksa conceded with the vote count still underway; at the time of his concession early on Friday morning, the election results posted showed a nearly 52 percent lead for Sirisena against almost 47 percent for Rajapaksa.
The results represent a victory for Sri Lankan democracy, obviously—a last-minute motley coalition David defeated a seeming Goliath through little more than wits and the right message. But based on the promises Sirisena and the opposition coalition made during the campaign, the election outcome also suggests a coming rebalance of Sri Lanka’s external relationships as well as its approach to governance at home.
The opposition campaigned vigorously against corruption, accusing the Rajapaksa government of siphoning off funds for its own family and leading the country to a future of international isolation and economic insolvency. Based on Sirisena’s campaign manifesto, the first-order priority will clearly be anti-corruption probes, cancellation of suspected sweetheart deals, and a review of Sri Lanka’s foreign indebtedness—particularly to China, which has become a major provider of economic assistance and investment in recent years.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The next priority of the Sirisena government will be good, or more specifically “compassionate” governance—seeking to restore balance to the responsibilities divided between parliament and the presidency, scaling back the accrued powers of the presidency, and tackling nepotism. The Sirisena government will also—if fulfilling campaign promises—focus on restoring Sri Lanka’s international image as well as strengthening its “cordial relations with India, China, Pakistan, and Japan” and other important Asian partners (Thailand, Indonesia, and the Republic of Korea). The campaign manifesto specially commits to improving relations with India, “with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependent.”
Expect also, though the manifesto speaks only of taking a “humanitarian” approach to human rights questions, a less defiantly defensive approach to the difficult national questions of ethnic reconciliation, nearly five years after the end of a most brutal thirty-year conflict. That could mean faster implementation in letter and spirit of the hundreds of excellent and far-reaching recommendations provided by the domestic Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) released publicly in November 2011. Three manifesto commitments offer clues:
I will consolidate the right of all communities to develop and secure their culture, language and religion, while recognising the Sri Lankan identity. I will ensure that all communities will have due representation in government institutions. [p.25]
As a substantive response to allegations of human rights violations directed against Sri Lanka I will take action to promote humanitarian and environment-friendly attitudes both locally and internationally. [p.43]
I will…immediately [stop] the State media being used as a propaganda weapon of the ruling party….Maintenance of a free media will be ensured by stopping direct and indirect threats and intimidation against print and electronic media, their owners and media personnel as well as abductions by white vans and killings. [p.60]
Each of these promises directly responds to recommendations contained in the LLRC.
Sri Lanka’s ever-closer economic and growing relationship with China, the subject of the opposition’s considerable criticism and much international press coverage in recent years, cannot be separated from the country’s deteriorating relations with the many countries and UN bodies which have urged Sri Lanka to meet its obligations to its own citizens. Since the grim end in May 2009 to the country’s decades-long fight against the internationally-sanctioned terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), many in Sri Lanka and around the world have been looking for the government to focus on “winning the peace” after having won the war. Part of that has been a call to accelerate the process of reconciliation with the Tamil minority, and a call to review and account for what happened at the very last stages of the war, including allegations of tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The unique Panel of Experts report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in June 2010 to advise the UN secretary-general on the “modalities” of an accountability process in Sri Lanka contained numerous findings, with perhaps the most widely-cited statement that “a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths” (p.41) could not be ruled out, against the government’s claim of zero civilian casualties. The Sri Lankan government always rejected the validity, mandate, and findings of the Panel of Experts, stating that it exceeded the secretary-general’s mandate and intruded on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
In a positive and important step, the Government of Sri Lanka commissioned its own domestic commission, the LLRC, in 2010 to rightly take testimony from victims and their families, and examine what happened at the end of the conflict. Many international human rights organizations dismissed this effort as insufficient as it focused on reconciliation and not accountability. The UN Panel of Experts report assessed it as “deeply flawed” for the same reason.
However, the extensive 400-page report the LLRC released following their deliberations covered a surprisingly wide range of recommendations: from political reconciliation with the Tamil politicians of the northern and eastern provinces; election of provincial governments; resettling the internally displaced; tackling land title problems linked to decades of displacement and encroachments by LTTE terrorists, settlers, and security forces over three decades; freedom of the press; use of the Tamil language nationally; Tamil minority representation in government civilian and security forces; and other issues that cut to the heart of the cleavage between the country’s Sinhalese majority and its Tamil minority. The report also called for the government to implement the recommendations of past commissions of inquiry.
That the Rajapaksa government dithered on implementation of these fine recommendations, ironic after insisting on the illegitimacy of international recommendations as violations of national sovereignty, led ultimately to the three UN Human Rights Council resolutions of2012, 2013, and 2014. These resolutions were not condemnatory, but rather took note of the LLRC, urged faster process in its implementation, and urged the country to develop an accountability mechanism. It was only after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s report in 2013, and apparent foot-dragging on the part of the Sri Lankan government in fulfilling the recommendations of their own LLRC, that the international process added a new element in 2014: a UNHRC investigation.
Tensions between the Rajapaksa government and the many governments around the world supporting the resolutions intensified. In 2013, when Colombo hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, then-Indian Prime Minister Singh skipped the proceedings, as did Canada’s Stephen Harper and Mauritius’s prime minister; the UK’s David Cameron attended with a high-profile advance visit to the northern Tamil-majority Jaffna peninsula and a promised “tough message” for Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa actively sought and received solace from these perceived affronts to his leadership by looking east. Sri Lanka’s partnership with China deepened, with formal statements noting China’s “all weather” support for Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and the two countries’condemnation of “the use of human rights as a device to interfere in the domestic affairs of a country.” During this same period, the economic relationship with China intensified: China provided ever-increasing financial support and infrastructure financing to Sri Lanka, from the port at Hambantota, hometown of the Rajapaksas, to an airport, a coal power plant, part of the Colombo port, and a planned “port city” project in Colombo, among others. These projects have increasingly come under scrutiny within Sri Lanka for their cost, the terms of repayment for what are said to be largely commercial loans (rather than ultra-low interest financing, or grants), and alleged scope of personal enrichment directly to the Rajapaksa family.
Following these years of intensive global governmental and nongovernmental attention to Sri Lanka, one of the immediate lessons from the UN processes—whether Panel of Experts report or the UNHRC undertakings—appears to be how limited the toolbox remains for international institutions to try to enhance, influence, or bring about change when countries resist it, and can turn to alternative partners for whom rights are not an issue. Sri Lanka’s tilt toward China has occurred exactly as others were pushing Colombo to undertake actions it had many reasons to delay indefinitely.
But the story doesn’t end there yet. Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa with a platform focused on ending corruption, restoring Sri Lanka’s image and its relations abroad, and renewing a “compassionate governance” in the country. The perception of the Chinese financing itself became part of the Rajapaksa regime’s weakness—the perception that Sri Lanka’s ruling family had not only mortgaged the country’s economic security but had enriched themselves. Sirisena’s manifesto speaks of a 90 percent pilfering, for example (p.8). (These are all allegations, not proven facts.) We can expect a Sirisena government to launch inquiries, and likely cancel the more than $1 billion contract with China to build a new port city, aspromised by then-opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, now prime minister, in mid-December. While the new Sri Lankan government is not looking to end its relations with China—after all, it is the second priority country listed in the election manifesto—it will be very difficult to mount anti-corruption investigations and unwind these sorts of contracts without introducing tension into Sri Lanka’s relations with China.
Should the Sirisena government follow through on its promises to restore better governance and independence to institutions like the judiciary—clipped back by the Rajapaksa regime—and attend to the matters of its citizens on an equal basis, the issues of reconciliation on the island may find themselves righted in the process. It does appear unlikely that a Sirisena government would support an international accountability inquiry, not surprisingly, but he has promised a domestic inquiry. Depending on how that process moves, it may deliver more, with more at-home buy-in, than the international effort. A Sri Lankan government following through on such steps would no longer be as isolated as it has become from the many countries around the world for which human rights are an important part of their international commitments.
While it’s still early days, Sirisena’s dramatic win marks a big win for democracy. It may also mark a big win for the international liberal order in the medium term as well. His government deserves time and a chance to get things right.