From the January-February 2015 issue of News & Letters
The important defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa by Maithripala Sirisena in presidential elections this January occurred in a new moment in Sri Lanka. For a decade Rajapaksa has been running the country as a private family fiefdom. He carried out a brutal war against insurgents of the Tamil minority in the north and east of the country, resulting in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the last days of the war. The Tamils have faced a military occupation of their region for almost a decade. The Sinhalese majority (70%) have as well grown restive under Rajapaksa family rule. Crime, a drug mafia, nepotism and corruption characterized his rule.
After Rajapaksa called a quick election for a third and possibly illegal presidential term, Sirisena, who has been an important minister in Rajapaksa’s regime, suddenly broke away in November. A “common opposition” candidacy was formed from groups of the Left and the Right. Sirisena won the election, primarily due to Tamil and Muslim support with sufficient defections from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
What now? Sirisena has promised to end “the Executive Presidency” in which Rajapaksa consolidated his authoritarian and military rule. Perhaps. But more crucial questions remain: 1) Will the Tamil people be able to achieve genuine self-determination, including a reckoning of the war crimes committed against them? 2) Can the Sri Lankan people move out of the deep poverty and underdevelopment that has persisted—from the long history with the “West” (Portugal, the Netherlands, British imperialism), through “independence” in 1948, to today’s newest capital investments from China? The country’s official name is Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. What socialism there is, is highly questionable.