In a surprise upset on Friday, the country’s strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was voted out of office, losing to his opponent Maithripala Sirisena, who had promised much-needed reforms and reached out to the country’s marginalized Tamil and Muslim communities:
Sirisena, a one-time ally of Rajapaksa who defected in November and derailed what the president thought would be an easy win, took 51.3 percent of the votes polled in Thursday’s election. Rajapaksa got 47.6 percent, the Election Department said. … Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, but he has reached out to ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims and has the support of several small parties.
Kate Cronin-Furman stresses what a mess of things Rajapaksa made during his decade in office:
Over the course of 10 years in power, Rajapaksa had undermined the institutions of South Asia’s oldest democracy, beefing up Sri Lanka’s already robust executive presidency. He also consolidated power in the hands of his family. One brother served as secretary of defense, a second the speaker of Parliament, a third a cabinet minister, and numerous sons and nephews were installed in positions of power. Potential opponents to the dynastic project were bought off or brutally silenced. Election Day fell on the sixth anniversary of the killing of well-known journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who accused the Rajapaksas of his killing in a chilling posthumous editorial. Independent media have since learned to self-censor. …
The first few days of Sirisena’s presidency have already brought change.
By Saturday, long-blocked Web sites were suddenly viewable, surveillance of journalists had been officially discontinued, and political exiles had been invited home. Word spread that a reinstatement of impeached Supreme Court Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was in the works.
The editors of the Christian Science Monitor pray Sirisena will move Sri Lanka forward in the healing process after its lengthy and bitter civil war:
While his victory was a rejection of the power grabs and corruption under his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, just as noteworthy is the fact that he won a majority of votes from the country’s major ethnic and religious groups. This brings some hope that Sri Lanka will finally allow a full accounting of a war that lasted nearly three decades and took an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives. Sri Lanka’s government has not come clean on civilian casualties toward the end of the war. It needs that kind of truth-telling for social healing, as other conflict-scarred nations, such as South Africa and Brazil, have discovered.
The editors of Bloomberg View are excited at the prospect of turning the South Asian island nation away from China’s sphere of influence:
Whether the U.S. and India can exploit this opportunity, however, will depend on whether they recognize what’s unique about Sri Lanka. The first thing to appreciate is that voters weren’t necessarily driven by resentment of China. They elected Maithripala Sirisena as president because they had tired of the opacity and perceived cronyism of Rajapaksa’s administration, symbolized in part by multibillion-dollar projects handed out to Chinese companies with little oversight. Elites had begun to fear that Beijing would soon demand more political and military influence as part of its largesse. Yet, unlike Myanmar, which shares a land border with China, such concerns remain somewhat theoretical. Sri Lanka has vast infrastructure needs — and therefore good reason not to reject Chinese money entirely.
Harsh Pant observes that it won’t be easy to disentangle Sri Lanka’s extensive ties to the Middle Kingdom:
China’s support was crucial for Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war against the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]. Chinese support has also been invaluable for Sri Lanka to confront U.S.-backed resolutions at the UNHRC [United Nations Human Rights Council]. As a result, the two nations now have a declared “strategic cooperation partnership.” For China, its ties with Sri Lanka give it a foothold near crucial sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, as well as entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. China is financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities.
Indian policymakers will be mistaken if they think that a change of regime in Colombo will lead to a dampening of Sino-Sri Lanka ties. China’s role is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka – economically as well as geopolitically. India will have to up its game if it wants to retain its leverage in Colombo.
Alyssa Ayres links the China question back to Sri Lanka’s lingering challenges regarding good governance, human rights, and transitional justice:
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, as promised 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.
(Photo: The new president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, gestures to supporters after speaking outside of the Buddhist Temple of Tooth in the central town of Kandy on January 11, 2015. Sri Lanka’s new government on January 11 accused toppled strongman Mahinda Rajapakse of having tried to stage a coup to cling to power after losing last week’s presidential election. By Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)