Last week was an auspicious time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to culminate his three-country tour around the Indian Ocean with the first visit by an Indian leader to Sri Lanka in three decades. Given the island nation’s shifting political landscape following the surprising defeat of its two-term president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in early January, the milestone represented by Modi’s visit Friday and Saturday was further amplified by the trip’s geopolitical importance.
Under Rajapaksa’s leadership, Sri Lanka ended a civil war that lasted nearly three decades. But his rule was plagued by corruption, nepotism, the centralization of power and increasingly illiberal governance. The man who unexpectedly defeated him in January, Maithripala Sirisena, an erstwhile member of Rajapaksa’s Cabinet and longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has promised to rebalance Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and implement sweeping domestic reforms. But are Sirisena’s goals realistic? Will he be able to strengthen bilateral relations with India and rechart the country’s authoritarian course?
In foreign policy, Rajapaksa cultivated closer ties with China, something that Sirisena criticized on the campaign trail, specifically regarding Chinese investment and infrastructure projects and the perceptions of an overreliance on Beijing that extended to the diplomatic, military and strategic spheres. The Sirisena administration’s decision earlier this month to suspend a $1.5 billion Chinese development project—ostensibly due to corruption allegations, but also environmental concerns—sent a clear message.
In February, in a further signal of his break with Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s first trip abroad was to New Delhi, where he inked four agreements, including on civil nuclear cooperation. Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka brought more energy deals.
Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean means that any major foreign policy shifts from Colombo will have geopolitical implications, and the high-profile demonstration of a rapprochement with India could color Sirisena’s upcoming trip to China later this month. Nonetheless, while it’s true Sirisena is likely to pursue a more balanced, less confrontational foreign policy, Sri Lanka’s ties with China will probably remain strong in the coming years, and any long-term shifts in the bilateral relationship are likely to be more subtle. After all, Sri Lanka still needs Chinese investment and Beijing has consistently defended Colombo’s disappointing record on human rights and reconciliation in multilateral forums, so long-term strategic shifts may not happen as quickly as some observers are expecting. Talk of downplaying or reducing military cooperation with Beijing should be viewed in a similar light.
Western countries are clearly as eager as Modi to work with the Sirisena administration. Based largely on Colombo’s request, the U.N. Human Rights Council has agreed to delay until September the release of an important report on alleged atrocities committed during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war—a long-standing source of tension between Western countries and the Rajapaksa regime. The Sirisena administration has promised to collaborate with the U.N. and has also started its own “accountability” process, no doubt placating Western policymakers for the time being.
That has also had a positive impact on Sri Lanka-India relations, as Rajapaksa’s disregard for ethnic Tamil issues created tension between New Delhi and Colombo, too. Tamil issues continue to be a concern in New Delhi for domestic political reasons, as Modi’s visit on Saturday to Jaffna, the symbolic capital of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, illustrated. But Colombo’s promises of accountability allow Modi to make security and economic cooperation his top priorities in order to strengthen ties with Sirisena. Nevertheless, while Tamils and Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena, concerns specific to Sri Lanka’s ethnic minorities, especially Tamils, regarding the devolution of power and accountability for wartime atrocities are unlikely to be addressed until after parliamentary elections expected in June, if at all.
Ahead of those elections, Sirisena faces plenty of challenges following through on his presidential campaign promises, which focused on tackling corruption, improving governance and introducing constitutional reform. As promised, Sirisena was conciliatory and appointed the leader of the United National Party (UNP), Ranil Wickremasinghe, as prime minister. Traditionally a rival, the UNP’s electoral support during the presidential campaign was crucial to ousting Rajapaksa. Sirisena has also lifted various media restrictions, replaced the divisive chief justice of the Supreme Court and replaced two controversial governors of the historically Tamil northern and eastern provinces, both with military backgrounds, with civilians.
However, key constitutional and electoral reforms still have not been passed, including an amendment to reduce presidential powers through new term limits and other measures, although discussions are ongoing. Sirisena campaigned on abolishing the executive presidency, but weakening the office now appears more likely.
There is also debate about whether trimming the power of the executive presidency and implementing electoral reforms should take place concurrently. The former is more urgent and would help crucial institutions such as the judiciary and the police regain their independence and thwart some of the excesses that became all too common under Rajapaksa. But for these reforms to be passed, the SLFP and the UNP would have to work together, as constitutional amendments would require a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Many observers, meanwhile, have complained about a lack of transparency in Sirisena’s administration, as the new government has done a poor job of keeping the public informed of its agenda. Others say that corruption investigations are also moving too slowly. To complicate matters, Rajapaksa still retains some support within the SLFP, and his supporters want him to run in parliamentary elections and mount a comeback. As the current leader of the SLFP, Sirisena may be moving deliberately against corruption to limit more party divisions and keep its brand as strong as possible. But that hasn’t stopped some party members from accusing him of not investigating the Rajapaksa regime aggressively enough.
With no shortage of challenges in Sri Lanka, at home and abroad, the international community must monitor Sirisena’s progress closely, supporting his government when it can but also holding it to account. Sirisena has to strike a balance between showing genuine leadership and proceeding with a spirit of cautious collaboration, given SLFP divisions and a Cabinet that is still dominated by the UNP, which is likely to be more concerned about adhering to some of the benchmarks of the presidential campaign.
The timetable for Sirisena’s domestic reform agenda is extremely ambitious, and the coalition is an uncomfortable alliance, especially with parliamentary elections expected in June. But as Sirisena’s engagement with India has shown, he has at least started to chart a different course between Sri Lankan and its neighbors. The coming months will offer a better sense of the long-term significance of Sri Lanka’s unexpected transfer of power. Early indications suggest that, while some things may continue to change, a great deal will remain the same. (World Politics Review)