Intro: The ouster of Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s is expected to usher in democratic reforms in the island country, and better relationship with India.
Recent political developments in Sri Lanka have not only drawn the attention of South Asian countries, but also of the world. The credit rightly goes to the people and the political spectrum of Sri Lanka for dislodging a despotic and arrogant ruler Mahinda Rajapaksa from the seat of power in what can be rightly termed as a bloodless coup managed through ballot box.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was prompt in congratulating Maithripala Sirisena on being sworn in as the new President of the island republic and assured to work with him and invited him to visit India. The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also called on her counterpart Mangala Samaraweera and congratulated him and invited him to visit India, which he immediately accepted. He is expected to begin his first foreign tour with his visit to India on January 18. But all said India is ready to allow Sirisena to settle down and take his own time in fulfilling people’s mandate.
Rajapaksa tenure was troublesome as he did create concerns for India. Arrogant as he is, he refused to devolve political and financial powers to the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces. India had asked him to devolve powers to the Tamil provinces as per the 13th Amendment to the country’s Constitution. After the brutal decimation of one of the world’s deadliest guerrilla group, LTTE, and killing of thousands of innocent Tamils in the process, he was slow in his rehabilitation plan.
He also refused to allow an independent inquiry into the horrific massacre in 2009 (more than 70,000 Tamils died and hundreds of thousands were left internally displaced in the war between the government of Sri Lanka and the secessionist rebels, the Tamil Tigers.). The violation of human rights in 2009 massacre invited global concern and issue was debated in the UN Human Rights Council, but India did not pressurise much hoping that good sense would prevail upon Rajapaksa sooner than later. Hopes are there that Sirisena may take steps to address the concerns of the international community. The UN Human Rights Council is likely to take up the 2009 massacre issue in the next session in Geneva in March.
Just to annoy India, Rajapaksa also planned to have closer links with China even at the cost of South Asia. Both Sirisena and the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe criticised Rajapaksa for inviting huge loans from China for building roads, ports and other infrastructure. Despite India’s protests, he allowed Chinese submarines to dock at Colombo port twice and threatened to turn Sri Lanka into a strategic asset for China at New Delhi’s expense.
After 2009 massacre Rajapaksa bounced back to power for the second successive term in 2010, but he did not prove well for the Sri Lankan democracy. The parliamentary elections held in April 2010 gave his party two-third majority to amend the Constitution that stipulated only two terms for a president. But why did he do this? He thought that the Buddhist-majority population would reward him for the 2009 massacre by bouncing him back to power many times. His other interest was to protect himself and his coterie–his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, army generals and officials and hosts of other Rajapaksas-from possible war crimes. He also trampled upon the independence of judiciary and removed Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and appointed Attorney General Mohan Peiris in his place.
The over-confident Rajapaksa met his fatal consequences when he declared his decision to hold presidential polls after completing four years of his six-year term. His colleague Sirisena defected to become the joint opposition sponsored presidential candidate. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with others came out to lend support to Sirisena, who also got support from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This ensured Sirisena’s victory.
Considering the political scenario, abolishing executive powers of the President, return to Westminster style of Parliamentary democracy and improving ties with India, is a daunting task for Sirisena.
Ashok B Sharma (The writer is a senior columnist)