Restoring balance

economistFor many Sri Lankans the most remarkable feature of Maithripala Sirisena’s four-day trip to India this week, his first as president after a stunningly unexpected election victory in January, was that he took a commercial flight. His predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa—who, with his family, had given the impression of intending to rule for the long run—usually poached an aircraft from the national fleet. The trip was intended to change perceptions in other ways, too. The most important one was to restore a broken friendship with India without upsetting China, a big creditor in Sri Lanka and, under the Rajapaksa’s, an increasingly important ally.

Sri Lanka’s treatment of ethnic Tamils in its north had troubled many in India, especially Tamils. Mr Rajapaksa made matters worse by breaking promises to devolve more power to the north after a brutal civil war. And last year he infuriated India by letting a Chinese submarine dock twice at Colombo, the capital.

After the trip, the mood is notably cheerier. Several deals were signed, including Sri Lanka’s first on civil nuclear co-operation. Though it may not amount to much, India’s press gamely described it as pre-empting Chinese ambitions. And Narendra Modi, who was eager to charm, will visit Sri Lanka in March, the first visit by an Indian prime minister for 28 years.

India would be delighted if Sri Lanka kicked the Chinese out as it has the Rajapaksas. That is not on the cards. Mr Sirisena needs investment. He will not scrap a $1.4 billion project that would see Chinese firms build a property development on an artificial island off Colombo’s port. The terms of this and several other Chinese deals could, however, be reviewed. Debt owed to China has soared in recent years, ringing alarm bells.

China has responded to Sri Lanka’s warmer relations with India by sending officials to pledge to do what it takes to strengthen the “strategic partnership”. Mr Sirisena’s next big trip is to Beijing, in March. (A senior Sri Lankan diplomat dismisses the suggestion that the president is playing one suitor against another.)

Mr Sirisena also wants to placate Western countries, who worry about human-rights abuses, particularly against the northern Tamils. His predecessor had refused to set up a credible investigation into atrocities by both Tamil rebels and government soldiers in the final months of the civil war that ended in 2009. The results of a UN investigation, due to be published next month, were this week delayed until September—possibly to allow Sri Lanka to conduct a proper inquiry itself.

But Mr Sirisena must also concentrate on domestic affairs before parliamentary elections due in June. During his presidential campaign he promised change in his first 100 days, including constitutional reform, a law on freedom of information, cheaper food and even free Wi-Fi in every town. But progress is slow. The coalition led by the new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is made up of rival parties. Locals liken it to an achcharu, a mixed pickle.

Meanwhile, despite Mr Sirisena’s promise to weaken the institution, the presidency remains overweening, and there is no sign of a promised freedom-of-information bill. A more hopeful signal comes from the appointment of a new chief justice, a Tamil. A hated military governor in the north has also been replaced by a civilian. Though a heavy military presence remains there, some small plots of armyoccupied land are due to be returned to their owners soon.

Yet politicians will be distracted by those looming elections. On February 18th the opposition rallied Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters to call for his return, this time as prime minister. That is unlikely, but not impossible: as the presidential poll showed, voters dislike being taken for granted. (The Economist)

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