Sri Lanka’s Political Earthquake Continues

The political upheaval that began in January with the election of new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, an unassuming 64-year-old technocrat, continues to shake up a country on many fronts that had little going for it. Mainly, Sirisena is working to recast Sri Lanka’s standing away from its status as a pariah country.

With a broad 100 day plan, in addition to setting out to clean up the rot left behind with the departure of the clan of the defeated president Mahindra Rajapaksa, Sirisena is winning a fight to devolve power away from the government in the face of growing opposition from Rajapaksa’s forces. Despite concern over Rajapaksa’s residual influence, Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom he appointed as prime minister, have held their forces together and forged a bipartisan consensus to turn power away from his own presidency and back to the judiciary and the parliament.

He is also pushing to clean up corruption and shift his country out of the embrace of Beijing towards nonalignment. Given Sri Lanka’s less than wholesome status in the west, Colombo for decades turned to China for both economic assistance and political protection. Concerns have grown over Chinese expansion into the economy, particularly in a huge Colombo Port City project that gave China outright ownership of land next to Colombo harbor.

The US government, sensing the dramatic shift, sent Secretary of State John Kerry to visit the island last week to say the US is prepared to furnish “whatever legal, whatever technical assistance, whatever help we can to support Sri Lanka."

His economic policies are also earning praise. The change in the country’s direction has caught the attention of the International Monetary Fund, which “welcomed Sri Lanka’s recent favorable economic performance, including robust growth, low inflation, and a narrowing of the current account deficit.” The IMF urged authorities to adopt more ambitious measures to contain expenditures while protecting priority social and high value‑added infrastructure spending, emphasizing that a strengthening of the fiscal framework is needed to support consolidation and debt reduction. The IMF directors agreed to extend post‑program monitoring in light of risks and the desirability of maintaining a close policy discussion between the authorities and the Fund.

The US has been at odds with Sri Lankan officials for decades because of widespread civil rights abuses, the intimidation and murder of journalists and the deep corruption and repression of the Rajapksa regime, which used Sinhalese ethnic nationalism as a weapon to consolidate political power and defy the international community.

With the US having considerable trouble counterbalancing China’s growing clout regionally, the visit to Sri Lanka is regarded by US diplomats as a welcome state of affairs. Also, in a region where Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia appear to be turning away depressingly from the promise of democracy that prevailed in the later decades of the 20th century, Sri Lanka is a rare victory – so far.

Thus Kerry praised the new government extravagantly, promising a “partnership dialogue” and expanded bilateral assistance with regard to trade and investment that could help to consolidate the country’s post-war gains. In addition to announcing the start of an annual bilateral dialogue, Kerry promised expert help on economic growth, trade and investment.

“Highlighting the new and improved relationship he referred to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera by his first name as ‘Mangala’ and also as ‘friend,’ wrote Jehan Pereira in an article for the Sri Lanka Peace Council. “This is an opportunity to be supported by the most powerful and wealthy country in the world that Sri Lanka cannot afford to miss.”

“One thing about this Sri Lankan government seems clear,” Kerry told reporters. “The President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister are not afraid of tackling tough issues. They are willing to make difficult decisions and they are committed to keeping their promises. We have seen that in the 100 day plan.”

Sirisena, who served as President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s secretary of health, quit the government to challenge him. The change in governing style is dramatic. Sirisena has urged the press and other politicians to call his wife “the president’s wife” instead of “the first lady.” He has promised he would serve only one term. He has reached out to the Muslim and Tamil minorities that were repressed by the Rajapaksas and sought to reverse the poisonous sectarian atmosphere that prevailed after the bitter Sinhalese victory in the vicious 26-year civil war.

Reconciliation between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamils is an enormously difficult task. Kerry called attention to the process, urging the government to release all remaining political prisoners and work with international organizations to attempt to account for what are believed to have been tens of thousands of Tamils who were slaughtered during the waning days of the civil war.

The United Nations has responded to Sirisena’s efforts by agreeing to a six-month delay in publishing a report on alleged war crimes in order to give the country’s new government an opportunity to cooperate with investigators.

Kerry’s visit might have been controversial arrived the day before Vesak, the most sacred Buddhist religious festival and departed on Vesak day, which could have been construed as an insult. “However, the dramatic changes that have been taking place in Sri Lanka over the past four months since the government changed made this visit a part of the Vesak spirit of rejoicing, sharing and contemplation, “ Pereira wrote. “The tenor of Secretary Kerry’s remarks during his stay was overwhelmingly positive and supportive towards Sri Lanka with the promise of concrete support to come.”