New Sri Lankan president has delicate balancing act


Special To The Japan Times

Once again the people of the Indian subcontinent have sprung a surprise with their commitment to democracy against all the odds.

This time, Sri Lankans threw out their strongman President Mahindra Rajapaksa, even though he had brought an end to the long-running civil war and restored stability and high economic growth to a troubled land. Sri Lankans feared that Rajapaksa’s growing power was corrupting the country.

Democracy through the ballot box is the easy part. Making true democracy work will tax the competence and commitment of the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena as well as the good will of the potentially rich multi-ethnic country.

The most surprising thing is that Sirisena has power at all. Rajapaksa was supremely confident that he would win. The story of his downfall has the makings of a modern epic about the contest between good and evil and the corrupting influence of power.

Rajpaksa consulted his astrologers about the most auspicious time and place to make an announcement and sprung a snap election, two years before he needed to, with little more than six weeks for campaigning.

Most people agreed that Rajapaksa had little reason to worry. He had brought new stability to Sri Lanka and good economic growth after the prolonged bleeding of the civil war. He cozied up to China to provide important infrastructure investment with billions of dollars flowing in.

There was no challenger in sight. Even when his health minister Sirisena defected from Rajapaksa’s side, there was no obvious reason why the president should be concerned.

The opposition that Sirisena sought to unite under him was a ragbag collection of disgruntled former Rajapaksa supporters and a variety of no-hopers of assorted squabbling parties.

Rajapaksa was a classic big man. His campaign had the temerity to use pictures of Pope Francis. The posters showed the president and the pope smiling together with the slogan, “Blessings of the Holy Father. You are our president, victory for you.” Rajapaksa was boss to such an extent that principles of democracy had to bow before him.

Government in Sri Lanka was almost a family business in which Rajapaksa’s eldest brother was speaker of parliament; another brother was minister of economic development. A third brother, a former military officer, was defense secretary. Other close relatives were ambassadors to the United States and Russia, and in key positions in aviation and the national airline.

The more substantial charge against Rajapaksa was that the years after the crushing of the civil war should have become a time for healing, but instead they became a time of uncertainty and retribution. Appointments were politicized. The judiciary and rule of law became playthings of the rulers. Journalists were not safe, and Sri Lanka became more dangerous than Afghanistan for journalists.

Worst, people from the minority Tamil community, including well-respected editors and Catholic priests, just disappeared. In some cases, their bodies were never found.

Never mind, the World Bank and economic commentators generally gave Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka good marks for economic progress, with growth of 7.5 percent a year, inflation moderate, national debt down, and a flood of Chinese investment helping to lay the foundations for continued growth.

Rajapaksa won 47.6 percent of the vote, well below Sirisena’s 51.3 percent on a record high turnout of 81.5 percent. There were reports that Rajapaksa had asked the army to support him to retain power, but the army refused.

In public at least he accepted the result, issuing a Tweet, “I value and respect our democratic process and the people’s verdict, and look forward to the peaceful transition of power. — MR”

Perhaps to ensure that there were no hiccups or jiggery-pokery, Sirisena was immediately sworn in as president replacing Rajapaksa on the evening that the results were announced.

Sirisena will not have an easy task. Deep scars remain from a savage civil war where neither side gave any quarter, exacerbated because the Rajapaksas further damaged democracy. The new rulers must renew the state of government, starting with themselves.

Critics have pointed out that the new president was part of the old Rajapaksa regime until he resigned, the day after the presidential election was called. Indeed, Sirisena was defense minister in the closing days of the war, so he cannot shrug off the atrocities as happening in another time, another place.

Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice described the new president as “in some ways a more authentic version of Rajapaksa’s populist nationalist persona. He has ruled out more autonomy for Tamils and said ‘no international power will be allowed to ill-treat … a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism.'”

Sirisena has a delicate balancing act with too many things to do. He has promised many of them — including restoring the rule of law, inviting dissidents back, bringing back press freedom and judicial independence, rooting out corruption and nepotism and curbing the powers of the president — but that doesn’t make it much easier to achieve them through a politicized system.

Sirisena has a reputation for being a devout Buddhist, teetotaling and clean living with strong leftist leanings. His degree was in agriculture, and he presents himself as a real man of the people, rather than the fake folksy version that Rajapaksa adopted.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with a rich historical heritage but a complex historical, racial and religious make-up that complicate the task of any president. As a result of emigration of minorities, Singhalese are about 75 percent of the 21 million people, Sri Lankan Tamils 11 percent, and Indian Tamils another 4 percent, with 9.23 percent classified as Sri Lankan Moors.

By religion, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu, 9.71 percent Muslim and 7.45 percent Christian.

Some Buddhist groups have won a deserved reputation for militancy, another reason for Sirisena to tread carefully. But without reaching out to heal the aggrieved Tamils and making them feel part of the nation, he will make his task harder. Tamils and other minorities also have to realize they have little to gain by pushing the majority Singhalese too hard.

On my first visit to rural Sri Lanka many years ago, we were quickly surrounded by small children begging — not for pennies but for “school pens.” It demonstrated that Sri Lanka has the important willing potential of its people, which has been squandered by too many corrupt politicians.

Sirisena has pledged to reduce the powers of the presidency, but this is a delicate balancing act. The first task is to hold parliamentary elections in 100 days to replace the parliament elected in 2010 and full of Rajapaksa loyalists.

Then there is the question whether Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka was heading to become a modern colony of China, given the hundreds of millions of dollars of Chinese aid and investment pouring in, now totaling $4 billion. Chinese projects tend to come with Chinese laborers to do the job.

When a Chinese submarine put into Colombo harbor last year, India got worried, rightly. China has new plans for a $1.5 billion hotel, mall and housing complex in the heart of Colombo, a $1.3 billion coal power plant and a $1 billion highway. U.S. influence has faded as Rajapaksa got upset by American carping about human rights.

Sirisena has pledged an evenhanded approach to China, India, Pakistan and the U.S. But it will not be easy without some help from his friends.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Sirisena, but he needs to get U.S. President Barack Obama, Japan and the Europeans on board to help the people of Sri Lanka achieve their dreams. Unfortunately the West is too distracted.

Kevin Rafferty, formerly in charge of the Asian coverage of the Financial Times, has edited daily newspapers in Hong Kong, India, Malaysia and Thailand. He just resigned as a professor at Osaka University after the university president decreed he could not publish anything unless it was censored to conform with “the intention of Osaka University.”