Sri Lanka’s Newfound (Cautious) Optimism

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Contributors: Amra Ghouse, Kumaran Nadesan, Suthamie Poologasingham, Nima Ranawana and Viranjith Tilakaratne

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 favour of him 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 find out 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 meritocracy 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 good will, 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. Both of these countries are also key allies in the mainly US-backed UN investigation on Sri Lanka which is expected to report back to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015. 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. Visit www.SLWB.ca to learn more.

Re-printed with minor edits of the original published on Groundviews.

-Featured image sourced from the BBC.

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Author

Kumaran Nadesan

Kumaran Nadesan

Much like many other Canadians of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, Kumaran is a third culture kid who grew up in several places, belonging everywhere and belonging nowhere. Nevertheless, he feels blessed to have finally found a home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which, despite its flaws, still manages to hum a beautiful tune of peoples, accents, and cultures even in the midst of polar vortexes.

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3 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s Newfound (Cautious) Optimism

  1. Sri Lanka has huge potential. Will Sri Lanka become the first developed country in South Asia?
    All the vital stats are there: High literacy rate, high life expectancy, low population growth, good infrastructure, excellent geography.
    From the IMF: Sri Lanka just reached “middle-income country” status. Sri Lanka’s GDP Per Capita (PPP) is $6,046 (India’s is $3,843).
    From the World Bank: “The Sri Lankan economy has seen robust annual growth at 6.4 percent over the course of 2003 to 2012, well above its regional peers. Following the end of the civil conflict in May 2009, growth rose initially to 8 percent… Sri Lanka experienced a big decline in poverty between 2002 and 2009 – from 23 percent to 9 percent of the population.”
    From the UN: Sri Lanka is categorized as “High Human development”. On the UN’s 2014 Human Development Index, Sri Lanka ranks 73, above several European countries including Serbia (77), Ukraine (83) and Macedonia (84).
    Sri Lanka’s population is only 20 million and population growth has stabilized. Sri Lanka doesn’t have the crippling poverty or overpopulation of India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. Far easier to lift a country of just 20 million people to First World status than 1.2 billion.
    Colombo is an impressive city: http://tinyurl.com/qcg88s4

  2. I’ve often wondered why Sri Lanka is more prosperous compared to most of South Asia / Southeast Asia.

    Here are two critical things Sri Lanka did right very early on:

    (a) Sri Lanka’s early post-independence governments heavily in education and health care. 

    Schooling is compulsory and free. Basic health care is free. Everyone has access to a hospital or professionally trained nurse/midwife when giving birth. As a result, SL has high literacy rates, high life expectancy and low infant mortality.

    (b) Sri Lanka enacted family planning initiatives early on. 

    Realizing it was only a tiny island, governments had the foresight to get a handle on a potential overpopulation problem before they ran out of land with too many mouths to feed. Now Sri Lanka’s population has stabilized at 20 million people. Its population is barely growing. Even countries that had lower populations in the past now have populations far exceeding it. 

    High female literacy also contributed to declining fertility rates. Mass emigration and the war also contributed to its depopulation.

    The fact that Sri Lanka has an HDI above much of Eastern Europe despite 26 years of civil war is remarkable.
    Sri Lanka is only now reaping the economic dividends of its early social/human development investments. 

    With the civil war now over, Sri Lanka is taking off economically and may leave the rest of South Asia behind.

  3. Ever since the mass genocide in 2009, I (and most Tamils would agree) have lost all trust towards Sinhalese leaders in Sri Lanka. Tamils will only start trusting the new government once the government puts Tamils as priority.  This means responding to the Tamil parliamentarians requests. Only then true peace will (as the Tamils will get what they actually want) come and the country can start focusing on infrastructure without worrying about a second civil war or genocide breaking out.

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