Changing politics in Sri Lanka

Sirisena political strategy is proving to be quite different than Rajapaksa

Last January a diverse coalition of parties and political, ethnic and faith based groupings managed to upset the election favorite Mahinda Rajapaksa. The ousted president has been increasingly becoming an autocratic ruler and intends to strengthen both his domestic grip and strategic ties with other autocratic regional states. However his plans were halted due to the election of Maithripala Sirisena as the president. The election of Sirisena has significant long term implications for the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lanka sits in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a population of just over 20 million. Further, it promises strong economic growth that is likely to be sustained, particularly in its post-conflict transition. Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka was heading comprehensively into a Chinese camp. In some ways it was to be the centerpiece in a Chinese String of Pearls stretching from the Persian Gulf through Malacca – the other strategic fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific – to the South China Sea. There was much hope, stoked by the incoming government’s coalition on the campaign trail, that Sri Lanka’s tendency towards China would be reversed.

Sirisena has been trying to target the reform of government

Despite the opposition insisting to put a stop to the project, the main Chinese-Sri Lanka port project will go ahead. The new government’s earlier, public dissatisfaction with increasing Chinese influence and investment – as well as its potential environmental impacts – now appear to have been overridden by political imperatives. Officially the new government has cited satisfaction with an environmental report for the reversal of opposition to Chinese investment. However, the need to avoid confrontation with China and the potential diplomatic backlash of rejecting vast Chinese investments in the first months of government and at a critical point in Sri Lanka’s post-conflict transition appear to be the more important and immediate concerns. These investments constitute a crucial part of China’s regional strategy, the Maritime Silk Road, and Sri Lanka’s pragmatism is perhaps prudent. This outcome doesn’t necessarily mean that Sri Lanka will be less amenable towards its major northern neighbor, India, and the West, as certain analyses have suggested. However, it does introduce extra complexity into parsing Sri Lanka’s potential future role in, as well as the overall constitution of, the region.

Images by AP

Possible return of Rajapaksa

Rajapaksa’s supporters calling for his return to politics

The former president Mahinda Rajapaksa aims to get back into politics in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The supporters of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa aims to bring him back into politics and a move that could greatly challenge the new President Maithripala Sirisena’s agenda for democratic reforms. Rajapaksa has been known for successfully defeating the Tamil Tiger guerillas six years ago. However during the military operations carried out by his government, it has affected the lives of more than 70,000 civilians according to the report of the United Nations. It has been a surprise defeat against Sirisena last month as Rajapaksa was attempting to be the president for the third time. This however did not let him down and see that he could still run. In his statement, “What we are experiencing today is not a defeat but a result of a conspiracy”. He discussed in a rally held by tens of thousands of his supporters in Colombo that he could no longer ignore the wishes of those who think that he should serve the country again.

Rajapaksa greeting large crowd in a rally

The conspiracy that Rajapaksa has been talking about is the role of India in Sirisena’s victory. During his rule, especially after facing condemnation from the West and calls for an investigation over alleged war crimes, Rajapaksa moved closer to China as protection against any action by the international community. India, which is seen by the West as a potential counterbalance to Beijing’s increasing clout in the region, was naturally not happy with Rajapaksa, who allowed Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo port and who concluded deals with Beijing to build a deep-water port in the southern town of Hambantota and fund mega construction projects, among other overtures. Rajapaksa is trying to forward nationalist agendas in order to win support. He has called out the West and the United Nations as “propagandists and bullies” and therefore Sri Lanka’s enemies.

Images by AP and dailynews

The case of ‘The disappeared’

Sri Lankan Tamils holding up the pictures of their family members who disappeared during civil war

The implementation of Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism act has left hundreds of Sri Lankan citizens detained without trial. In his successful election, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has promised to release an official record. He said that the government is currently working on getting a full list of detainees—official and unofficial—from all security agencies and was in the process of verifying them. They are obtaining this data from the Defense Ministry, armed forces and police. After obtaining the data they would verify and issue a final list of people being held in custody by different agencies of Sri Lanka. “We will release all those against whom they are not going to file cases. If your name is not on (the list), either they have left the country or (are) no longer among the living.” He promised to give reparations to families whose relatives died due to this law.

Prime Minister Ranil vows to released the list of detainees

The UN estimated 5676 “outstanding cases” of missing people in Sri Lanka. They are currently among the highest in the world. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe however believes that the likely number of the missing persons is only in the hundreds. Families of the missing persons have protested in the north of Sri Lanka demanding that they should be released. They have also condemned the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to delay the release of a report into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the civil war, at the protection of the current government. The government is believed to be buying time because it could not afford to be seen to be releasing Tamil detainees who might have had even a passing association with the now inexistent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for the upcoming June parliamentary elections. While Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act allows police to detain citizens without trial for prolonged periods, the country also has a long history of abductions carried out by shadowy militia using white vans with no number plates.

Images by Reuters and  The Hindu

 

Next steps of Sirisena

Sirisena upset Rajapaksa on the last Presidential Elections

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was just sworn into the office last January. He immediately scheduled his first foreign state visit to India wherein he has signed a nuclear deal with India. The move could be seen as an intention of reviving the strained bilateral ties of the country. Sirisena arrived in India on Monday, February 16 and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was a four day visit wherein Sri Lanka is attempting to ease tensions and strengthen ties. There has been tensions experienced by two countries over the past  years. Sri Lanka became close with China during the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The former president relied mainly to Beijing as a key source of financial support and development. This in turn angered India because they view it as a strategy of Beijing in increasing its sphere of influence.

Sirisena on his visit in India

On the second day of Sirisena’s visit, India and Sri Lanka signed a deal on nuclear safety. While Indian PM Modi stated there was “unprecedented opportunity” to take bilateral ties to a new level, Indian officials said they would discuss ways to speed up reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka.Sririsena’s government is facing international pressure to speed up post-civil war reconciliation efforts at home. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera asked the UN last week to delay the release of its report on alleged war crimes during the war, saying the country was opening its own domestic probe.President Sirisena will likely seek increased Indian investment and assistance for the re-development of the war-affected northern province, as well as continued support from India at the UN human rights council. Sirisena has been a surprised candidate for the opposition party in Sri Lanka. He used to be the former health minister of Mahinda Rajapaksa who was running for his third term. Now Sirisena faces the challenge of trying to make all the past administrators accountable for corruption.

Images by Ishara Kodikara and Business Standard

Violent elections in Sri Lanka

Supporters of Maithripala Sirisena
Supporters of Maithripala Sirisena

Supporters of the opposition party died after being shot on the final day of campaigning. The three opposition supporters were preparing the rally for President Mahina Rajapaksa’s rival. The supporters had been hit in a drive-by shooting as they build the podium for Maithripala Sirisena’s speech on an opposition rally in the southern town of Kahawatte, around 130 kilometers from the capital Colombo. The elections had been causing violence as different supporters of the two candidates for president battle it out to win the elections. It is a close contest between the two but Maithripala Sirisena is leading the various polls. The statement released by the police chief Ajith Rohana, “We have information about the identity of attackers and we are trying to make arrest”.

Sirisena is the candidate for the opposition party
Sirisena is the candidate for the opposition party

There were also attacks on the nearby ruling party office immediately after the shooting in what appeared to be a retaliatory response according to police officials. The election has been quite violent with attacks occurring in other parts of the island. Maithripala Sirisena has appealed to the public to stay calm and let the campaign end peacefully. He said how it is necessary for peace to be maintained and not let indifferences to make the elections unsuccessful. In the statement Sirisena made to the public he said, “I have conducted a peaceful campaign and appeal to my opponent (Rajapaksa) to please also ensure that there is peace in the three days before the voting on January 8”. Violence may be due to the fact that Sirisena is leading the polls being conducted. It has been a surprise for everyone that Sirisena is leading the polls. Sirisena is confident of victory and promised protection for Rajapaksa and his family members in what he called a “new post-election political culture I will usher in from Friday”. The ruling party has also expressed confidence of winning the election that the incumbent called two years ahead the schedule.

Images by Eranga Jayawardena

Sirisena is the new president of Sri Lanka

Sirisena is the candidate for the opposition party
Sirisena is the candidate for the opposition party

It has been surprising to see Maithripala Sirisena win the presidential elections. He was able to oust leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and putting a stop to the possible third term of office of the former president. Maithripala Sirisena has been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president after a highly contested election that saw the ousting of Rajapaksa after a decade in power. Sirisena and his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both took the oath of office in Colombo’s Independence Square after Rajapaksa conceded defeat. During the elections, there were a lot of news about corruption of Rajapaksa’s government and growing authoritarianism against Rajapaksa. This was due to the rewriting of the constitution after his re-election in 2010 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency and give himself more powers over public servants and judges. Sirisena has promised to mend its ties with the international community after the inability of Rajapaksa’s government to appropriately respond from the allegations of wartime rights abuses. In a statement made by Sirisena, “We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organizations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people”.

Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to win the elections for his third term
Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to win the elections for his third term

The reason why Sirisena won was due to the public clamor for change. They have been longing to see a political change in the country and they saw a leader that could lead this country for more than ten years. It was surprising for Rajapaksa to hear that Sirisena has changed sides and became the opposition’s main candidate in November. Sirisena has vowed to root out corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency. Minority Tamils have voted for Sirisena after Rajapaksa has ignored their demands to heal the wounds of the fighting and years of ethnic divisions. The main Tamil party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), gave their support to Sirisena.

Images byEranga Jayawardena and Ministry of Highways, Ports and Shipping

Sri Lankan Elections

Mahinda Rajapaksa running for his third term
Mahinda Rajapaksa running for his third term

 

When Mahinda Rajapaksa seek early re-election, a lot of people were expecting for him to comfortably win it. This all changed when the joint opposition party announced that their presidential candidate is Maithripala Sirisena. In the election polls conducted by different agencies, he is closing in the gap against Rajapaksa who is still leading the race. However some say that it’s not impossible for Sirisena to win the election and stop Mahinda Rajapaksa to get elected for the third time. Maithripala Sirisena used to be a part of Rajapaksa’s government wherein he served as the Health Minister. The announcement of his candidacy surprised the government given that he also served as the General-Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party Rajapaksa heads.

Sirisena is the opposition party surprise candidate
Sirisena is the opposition party surprise candidate

The decision of the opposition party to make Sirisena their presidential candidate is a political masterstroke. He could gain the votes of nationalists among the island’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese-Buddhists. He could win the votes of Rajapaksa’s supporters and even win the votes of the island’s minorities. This minorities account for about 30 percent of the island’s population. Rajapaksa has angered some minorities such as the Muslims who are unlikely to vote Rajapaksa due to the religious violence against Muslims. Voters may favor Sirisena due to him being a new face in the government and people still has a high regard with his integrity. Rajapaksa’s reputation to the public has been falling. People are tired of the corruption and nepotism associated with the Rajapaksa family.

Rajapaksa won last 2005 beating his closest rival Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP). Rajapaksa gain the support of the public when his government successfully inflicted a crushing defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam which brought to an end on the 30 year long civil war. However recently a small group of intellectuals have been criticizing him due to his human rights violations. This lowered down the support of public. In the upcoming elections people are waiting whethe or not Rajapaksa could serve for the third time.

Images by Ministry of Highways, Ports and Shipping and Indi.Ca

Opposition plan to block port city

A private company won the bidding for the Colombo port city
A private company won the bidding for the Colombo port city

The leader of opposition in Sri Lanka announced that he would ensure the removal of the $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd wherein they would build a port city. The opposition has in fact a candidate who could win the next month’s election against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa is the incumbent president of Sri Lanka who is running for his third term next month. He has in fact scheduled the elections early on. The said project was announced when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the country last September. The port city is to be built on the reclaimed land in the capital, Colombo. The deal agreed between China Communications Constructions Co and the current government is said to be questionable. In fact Rajapaksa has become heavily dependent on China for infrastructure. The deal however did not follow appropriate procedures and the government did not disclose properly to the public the said project. The emergence of the united opposition candidate Mithripala Sirisena gave Rajapaksa a harder time in sealing a sure win for the upcoming January 8 elections.Mithripala was Rajapaksa’s former health minister.

Ranil Wickramasinghe announced Sirisena to be opposition's main candidate
Ranil Wickramasinghe announced Sirisena to be opposition’s main candidate

Ranil Wickremesinghe assured that he would stop such construction of port city if ever he gets to become the prime minister. He is concern over the possible harmful impacts that the project could do to the coastal area. He said in a meeting with tourism industry officials that “We have to protect our coastal area. If the port city is built, we will lose the coastal area”. The tourism industry is worrying over the construction of the port city near the coastal area. They fear the adverse impact on the beaches of the Indian Ocean island nation’s western coast which attracts a lot of foreign visitors. The port city is to be built on a 223 hectares of reclaimed land which would construct shopping malls, a water sports area, mini golf course, hotels, apartments and marinas. It has been reported that China Communications Construction Go Ltd will have 108 hectares of the port city.

Images by Ministry of Defence and Urban Development and Colombo Telegraph

Problematic Situation for Sri Lanka Government

Sri Lanka's High Court convicted five Indian fishermen
Sri Lanka’s High Court convicted five Indian fishermen

Recently there were five Indian fishermen convicted to death because of engaging in drug trafficking. The sentencing of the Colombo high court angered the Indian government. India believes after their own thorough investigation that the fishermen are all innocent. The Indian government promised that they would continue to hold talks with the Sri Lankan government at legal and diplomatic levels. However Sri Lankan minister of information, Keheliya Rambukwella, shut off the possibility of having a resolution over the matter. His stance is that India should be able to respect other country’s legal system, treaties agreed upon and different convict-exchange agreements. The interference of the Indian government in the justice system removed the possibility of obtaining the desired reversal of the claimed wrongful conviction.

Sri Lanka's relations to India is greatly affected by the conviction of the five fishermen
Sri Lanka’s relations to India is greatly affected by the conviction of the five fishermen

At the time wherein Mahinda Rajapaksa fired the chief justice in January 2013, a lot of critics of the justice system have surfaced. Majority of them come from international civil and political rights organizations. In a report published by the UN Human Rights Committee, it questions the power of Rajapaksa over firing the chief justice. It is believed to be an abuse of power by Rajapaksa because of the lack of following of due process and judicial independence. The action of Rajapaksa is believed to be politically motivated.

The decision of the court came after Sri Lanka’s defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had a meeting with Indian defense minister Arun Jaitely. The three talked about dealing with the increased activities of China near the Sri Lankan border. A Chinese submarine was spotted at the Colombo port making the Indian government concerned over such issue. The Sri Lankan government has ensured that they will prevent India from trying to influence the question of political rights of Tamils in the region. It is important for Rajapaksa to also not antagonize the Indian government thus the necessity for him to deal with this matter carefully.

Images by Colombo Independent and Sri Lanka News

Rajapaksa seeks for early elections

Rajapaksa seeking re-election in January
Rajapaksa seeking re-election in January

The current president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa is set to announce his intent of running again for the third term. He is in fact set to schedule the elections two years before its actual date. He intends to conduct the elections in January. Critics find such move as a way of using his current popularity in order to assure that he will keep being president. This opens up a great possibility of entrenchment of power.

Such announcement was leaked by the aide of the Information Minister Keheliya Rambulwella in a political rally. The elections might take place in the 8th of January. Rajapaksa was elected in 2005. He made efforts in trying to resolve the 26 year civil war. This helped his party in trying to secure the victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Rajapaksa’s party secured more than two thirds in the parliament. He immediately removed the two-term limit when he got re-elected in 2010.

Rajapaksa aiming to win for the third time
Rajapaksa aiming to win for the third time

Rajapaksa drew international critics after he was claimed to be the architect in the human-rights violations in the war’s final stages. In such war there were almost 40,000 civilians killed according to the United Nations panel conducted last 2011. This fight was between the Tamil Tigers and the government army. Due to the failure of the government to resolve the conflict that happened, international groups such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch say that the government needs to have a resolution over such war crime allegations. This continuously offends people over the failure to give justice to the victims of the war. Minorities particularly the Tamils still received small compensation over the incident. The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay encouraged the government to give justice to those who were affected by the war. He also called to the government for the improvement of the protection to the religious minorities.

Images by TheHindu and