In early January, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was thrown out of office. Rajapaksa, a two-term president who had ruled since 2005, allegedly abused state resources throughout the election campaign and few predicted he would lose. Though Rajapaksa still won a majority of Sinhalese votes (the overwhelming ethnic majority in a country whose population exceeds 20 million), Sri Lankans from all walks of life were simply fed up with a regime that had been plagued by corruption, nepotism, and heightened authoritarianism. Maithripala Sirisena campaigned on a bold agenda that pledged to stop the rot. But is Sirisena’s governing coalition really committed to meaningful change? Might reform in Sri Lanka be on the rocks?
It’s true that constitutional and electoral reforms require a two-thirds majority in parliament and that sweeping changes cannot happen overnight. Nonetheless, there’s plenty that the new administration could have done almost immediately. It’s also true that the Sri Lankan government has already made a few positive changes, such as removing some media restrictions and lifting travel restrictions for foreigners who wish to visit the north. Sirisena has also started to restructure the Foreign Service and corruption probes are underway. However, Sirisena was sworn into office more than three months ago, and the most important pledges in his 100 day plan remain unfulfilled. Perhaps the administration just needs more time. Would it be prudent to wait another couple of months and see how things play out before roundly criticizing the new administration? But aside from the overall lack of progress, the administration appears to have taken a few steps in the wrong direction. Let’s consider some examples.
Nepotism has plagued Sri Lankan politics for years. Two of Rajapaksa’s brothers held senior positions in his administration. Another brother, Chamal, remains speaker of parliament. His son, Namal, is a member of parliament. Rajapaksa’s network of nepotism ran deep and wide; in that context, Sirisena would bolster his credibility with the public by avoiding questionable presidential appointments and obvious nepotism.
Unfortunately, there have been early indications that the new president may follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. Kumarasinghe Sirisena, the president’s brother, has been appointed chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. Sirisena’s decision to appoint his son-in-law to the Ministry of Defence is also cause for concern. Add other questionable appointments and it appears that a return to responsible governance and a transparent selection process for key positions may not occur on Sirisena’s watch.
The Sri Lankan government’s detention of Tamil political prisoners has long been an issue. For decades, many Tamils have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention (or far worse), at the behest of the government. Though the precise number is unknown, there are likely at least several hundred Tamil political prisoners who are currently being held by the government on highly questionable charges.
In early March the government granted bail (with conditions) to Jeyakumari Balendran, a human rights activist. Seven other political prisoners were also released. This is ostensibly a positive development, but releasing people on bail is not the same as letting them go free. Balendran (and others) still have to report to the police on a monthly basis. She also had to give up her passport, as did others who had passports. The cases of these eight people will resume in the coming months.
Frankly, we should not be surprised that political prisoners were released during the 28th session of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, an important multilateral forum that has kept Sri Lanka’s poor governance and human rights record under the microscope for the past several years. The government’s inability or unwillingness to make meaningful progress regarding political prisoners is inimical to Sri Lanka’s need for reconciliation and has created well-founded suspicion among Tamil political leaders, civil society, and the international community. Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has helped make much of this possible. Yet, even though the war ended nearly six years ago, it’s unlikely that the government would repeal this undemocratic piece of legislation – which gives state security personnel broad powers to search, arrest and detain people.
Widespread militarization, including the military’s foray into virtually all spaces of civilian life – especially in the war-torn north – was a hallmark of Rajapaksa’s last five years in office. Yet demilitarization does not feature in Sirisena’s reform plan and this month a senior military official reiterated that any military drawdown in the north could threaten the country’s national security, a highly dubious claim.
Moreover, the new government has been widely criticized for not being open with the public about its agenda. A significant problem, which could have been rectified almost immediately, has to do with draft bills and regularly allowing the public to see (and debate) legislation before it is presented in parliament. More generally, a broader initiative to consistently engage the public is likely to be well-received and would stand in stark contrast to the days when Rajapaksa ruled – but that still has not happened. Clearly, there is an inherent tension between implementing a bold reform agenda quickly and ensuring that the process is inclusive and consultative. Yet the government has done a poor job of balancing those competing interests.
In addition, Sirisena recently decided to significantly expand the size of his cabinet and form a “national government.” This decision has been met with consternation in Sri Lanka since Sirisena had said he would have a limited number of cabinet members and eschew excessive government spending (in contrast to the Rajapaksa era). The fact that some of these recent appointments include people linked to corruption allegations (and the Rajapaksa regime) has made this move seem even more misguided. As many have suggested, the motivation for this decision was likely twofold. First, Sirisena knows that he needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to pass any constitutional amendments. Sirisena is a longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), but he won the presidency largely with the help of the United National Party (UNP), the country’s other big Sinhala-Buddhist party. The SLFP still holds the most seats in parliament and constitutional changes would not be possible without the support of a significant portion of that party. Meanwhile, the prospects of a Rajapaksa comeback have persisted. One way for Sirisena to try to forestall that development (or at least curtail Rajapaksa’s influence) could be to bring numerous members of the SLFP into a cabinet that had been dominated by the UNP. Nevertheless, these latest moves are unlikely to augur improvements in governance.
In spite of some mixed messaging, Sirisena made it clear that (at least) weakening the powers of the executive presidency was an essential component of his reform program. The current version of the 19th amendment to the constitution would not abolish the executive presidency, but an amendment that trims presidential powers and empowers independent commissions and institutions (and hopefully deepens democracy) would still be important.
However, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that, while constitutional, some parts of the 19th amendment would require a public referendum. Now the government’s plan is to remove those sections and present a different version to parliament on April 20. Sirisena has stated that he will dissolve parliament once the 19th amendment has passed. But passage is not a foregone conclusion. In a recent interview, J.C. Weliamuna, a prominent human rights lawyer, said that parliament’s failure to pass this legislation should be seen as “a complete reversal of the mandate of the people” and indicated that Sirisena would be left with no choice but to dissolve parliament. Electoral reforms have been another big topic of discussion, but it’s difficult to predict specifically what those reforms may look like and whether they would be included in the 19th amendment, tabled concurrently, or debated in detail on another occasion.
Sri Lanka’s recent political shake-up has meant that continued volatility has been the order of the day. But are things really changing? In short, they are, but maybe not nearly as quickly as many people have suggested. Rajapaksa’s defeat and his peaceful departure are positive developments. Yet the challenges for the new government in general and Sirisena in particular remain formidable. An important parliamentary election that’s expected in June ensures that Sri Lanka’s political situation will remain fluid in the coming months. The lingering potential for a Rajapaksa comeback further complicates the situation. Rajapaksa was ousted because Sri Lankans craved real reform – not cosmetic maneuvering.
When Rajapaksa left office, there was hope that things in Sri Lanka were changing for the better, that Rajapaksa’s unexpected defeat would quickly take the country back from the brink of autocracy. The U.N. Human Rights Council’s decision to delay the release of a report on wartime atrocities confirms that the international community still believes that Sri Lanka’s new government is intent on delivering positive change.
For now, then, it might be wise to keep the unbridled optimism and talk about “extraordinary positive change” in check. Sri Lanka’s complex political transition – towards more responsible governance, lasting institutional reform, and healing the wounds of three decades of war – is still in its early stages.
Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.