The shock defeat of incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections has given rise, both internationally and in the island, to cautious optimism of a new era of governance that would break from the violent authoritarianism and cronyism of the past decade. Building his campaign around a pledge to end corruption, uphold the rule of law, ensure press freedom and abolish the executive presidency, the unlikely victor, Maithiripala Sirisena, successfully drew the support of a disparate array of opposition parties, including the United National Party (UNP), General Sarath Fonseka's party, the JVP and the JHU, as well as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC). Ongoing cross-overs from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have now given him the necessary parliamentary majority to make good on his pledges.
However, the only thing that united Sirisena’s backers, albeit to powerful effect, was intense resentment towards the Rajapaksa regime. With the latter’s collapse, Sri Lanka’s deep seated divisions and hierarchies are inescapably again at the fore. Central to these are the issues of demilitarisation of the North-East, accountability for wartime mass atrocities and a political (that is, power-sharing) solution to what the TNA continues to label the ‘national question’.
Within days of taking office, the new President ordered the climate of fear, including white van abductions, press censorship and state surveillance to end. This has created welcome reprieve across much of the South of the island. In the Tamil areas however, whilst these steps are no less desirable, the overwhelmingly Sinhala military remains as a blanket of pervasive repression. Almost six years since the cataclysmic end to the armed conflict, militarised rule continues to define every aspect of Tamils’ social, economic and political life. If Sirisena’s promise of a new dawn is to have any meaning, this must end. The point was made yet again last week, by over a hundred war affected women and a number of women's groups who called on the new president to prioritise demilitarisation. However, Sirisena’s assurances to the Buddhist clergy – also echoed by newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe - that the Tamil areas will remain under tight security, do not augur well.
On the horizon, meanwhile, is the UN inquiry into wartime mass atrocities against the Tamil people, which is due to publish its findings in March. The UN inquiry, flatly opposed by the previous president, has also been unanimously rejected by those now in government. Indeed, President Sirisena made it bluntly clear in his election campaign that he would resist the UN inquiry and protect Sri Lankans who fought against the LTTE from facing international justice. Keen to rectify Sri Lanka's pariah status internationally however, the new government has pledged to launch a domestic inquiry into allegations of war crimes. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s long-history of impunity for crimes against the Tamil people and ineffectual commissions – pithily termed by Amnesty International as ‘Twenty years of make believe’ - as well as the sheer scale and gravity of the crimes in question, means Sirisena’s promise of yet another domestic inquiry has been met with deep and justified scepticism from the Tamil people and international rights groups.
Moreover, as many Sri Lanka observers have pointed out, there are strong, wider reasons to be sceptical. As The Economist, contrasting Sirisena with his predecessor, put it clearly, “he offers a different brand of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, not its repudiation”. Indeed, Sirisena served in the Rajapaksa regime for many years – including, as he pointed out, in a striking move given the ongoing UN inquiry, as acting Defence Minister during the final two weeks of the armed conflict in May 2009. Speaking ahead of the first UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, Sirisena, then health minister, said of the demands for war crimes accountability, “the capitalist countries, including the US, are using various means to destroy the peaceful environment and stifle development and progress of the Asian countries. The US has presented these allegations [to the UNHRC] to please terrorist agents in certain Western countries. They are trying to revive terrorism in Sri Lanka. So, it is our duty to stand united against these foreign elements in order to protect to protect our independence, by shedding petty differences.”
While it remains to be to be seen how President Sirisena’s government will respond to demands for accountability – he is yet to answer the renewed international calls, including by British Premier David Cameron and the Canadian government, for Sri Lanka to cooperate with the UN inquiry - what is without doubt is that progress on this, as well as on the return of normalcy to the Tamil areas and a political solution to the Tamil question, will be determined entirely by international pressure.