When Sri Lanka celebrated its 67th Independence Day on February 4, it did so filled with hope that it can finally realize its true social, political and economic potential. Many Sri Lankan Canadians too are now cautiously optimistic about that country’s future.
This renewed hope for Sri Lanka is especially pronounced because of the stillborn reboot from six years ago. Then, in May 2009, the Sri Lankan state ended nearly 30 years of its own ‘war on terrorism’ defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In the process, however, a brutal price was extracted from ethnic minority Tamils caged in the crossfire whose dead and disappeared are still being counted – now the subject of an international UN investigation. The populism of the wartime presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa started eroding away soon after the war as nepotism, corruption, and cosmetic reconciliation efforts angered many in Sri Lanka and around the world. Additionally, authoritarianism, religiously motivated violence against Muslims and Christians, and a belligerent foreign policy pivot towards China alarmed powerful allies abroad.
It was in this context that Maithripala Sirisena, a sitting Cabinet Minister, stepped up as the common candidate to front a surprising coalition of communists, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, Tamil and Muslim minorities, and others to lead a ‘rainbow revolution’ against Rajapaksa. On January 8, 2015, in a largely peaceful transfer of power, Sirisena won the election with a record voter turnout of almost 82 per cent. Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.
Nearly half of the majority Sinhala Buddhists voted in his favour, with Muslims and Tamils playing kingmaker, the latter wisely rejecting the call from some quarters to boycott the election.
Since then, President Sirisena has initiated a wide-ranging set of reforms as part of his First 100 Days Program, aimed at building good governance while also addressing the long-standing grievances of the Tamil people, perhaps recognizing the inter-connectedness between both issues.
There are already encouraging signs.
Sirisena has not backed away from his main election promise of abolishing the unfettered Executive Presidency. He has appointed a leaner Cabinet and has also started cutting back on presidential expenses. A sweeping corruption probe has begun to investigate the excesses of the Rajapaksa coterie. A populist, interim Budget has been tabled ahead of parliamentary elections in April 2015. The government has also rolled back much of the media censorship imposed by the previous regime. The unlawfully impeached former Chief Justice was reinstated, and just last week, a new Chief Justice has been appointed on the basis of merit who also happens to be a Tamil – a first in over two decades.
With respect to Tamil grievances, Sirisena has scrapped the economic embargo on Tamil regions and reversed a recent ban on foreign nationals, many of them diaspora Tamils, visiting the former war zones. The military governor of the Northern Province, where Tamils have traditionally lived, has been replaced with a former UN diplomat. Even more significantly, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe has negotiated consensus within the coalition to implement constitutional amendments that will see more powers devolving to provinces albeit within a unitary state.
Some analysts have correctly observed that these amendments should be treated only as the first step in a longer devolution journey towards creating a truly inclusive national identity. To create more goodwill, the government has also announced that it will release 275 political prisoners, representing only a small percentage of the total number of Tamils being held in secret camps; publicly committed to returning Tamil lands that were illegally seized by the military; and is interested in repatriating the two generations of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in neighboring India.
It is important to note, however, that it is still early days for the new government. Rather troublingly, Sirisena has stuck to his predecessor’s line about not demilitarizing the Northern Province, and has also promised immunity for the political and military leadership of the previous regime from any international inquiry – likely to make more inroads into the Sinhala Buddhist base and to hold his rambunctious coalition together. Neither of these positions, however, will endear him to Tamil voters in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections or the Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.
Neither of these positions will endear him to Tamil voters in the … Tamil diaspora that wields great political influence in their host countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom that have general elections of their own coming up later this year.
Both of these countries are also key allies in the mainly U.S.-backed UN investigation on Sri Lanka which is expected to report back to the UN Human Rights Council next month. It remains the case that only such an international investigation can be fair and independent enough to deliver the kind of justice and accountability needed to allow for the meaningful reconciliation of Tamils to Sri Lanka.
This context, then, forms the litmus test for Sirisena’s political will to go beyond symbolic gestures and dive deeper to address the structural barriers to a democratic, inclusive, and peaceful Sri Lanka. By addressing systemic discrimination faced by minorities, especially Tamils, Sirisena can not only cement his own place in history but also gain the support of old and new allies in completing the country’s transition to middle-income status and awaken to its own ‘tryst with destiny’. Just as importantly, he can also earn the trust of the powerful diaspora, like that in Canada, and tap into their investment potential and knowledge base to help build a new Sri Lanka since they, including many Tamils in spite of the burden of memory and loss, still recognize the island as the place where their roots remain.
The authors are interim advisors to Sri Lankans Without Borders (SLWB), an independent, Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that promotes cross-community engagement between various ethnic communities in the Sri Lankan Canadian diaspora. SLWB is also firmly committed to a democratic, inclusive and peaceful Sri Lanka on the basis of truth, accountability and justice for all people. This opinion was originally published on Groundviews and has been re-published with minor edits.