After the Shake-Up: Rhetoric vs. Reform in Sri Lanka

It has been a little more than a year since Sri Lanka’s authoritarian President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a stunning electoral defeat by his former colleague, Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena campaigned on a platform that focused largely on constitutional reform and putting an end to the widespread corruption, nepotism, and authoritarianism that had become all too common under Rajapaksa’s watch. The Sirisena administration now faces a high bar: Not only is it expected to accommodate the country’s pent-up desires for democratic reform, it has also now made various commitments regarding transitional justice and healing the wounds of war.

The international community (at least those who have been advocating for human rights, accountability, and justice) would like to believe that Rajapaksa’s defeat is a truly transformational event and that the deepening of democracy in Sri Lanka is now inevitable. But while Sirisena’s rise to power is significant, sweeping democratic gains may not occur on his watch. Furthermore, it is still unclear whether he will—or can—address the knotty root causes that led to the country’s three decades of violent war and an ethnic conflict that remains unresolved.


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From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war pitted government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Also known as the Tamil Tigers, the group fought for a separate Tamil state in the country’s northern and eastern provinces. More than six years ago, in May 2009, Sri Lankan forces finally dealt the Tigers a definitive military defeat.

First elected to the presidency in 2005, Rajapaksa saw his popularity rise with the end of war and was elected to a second term in 2010. The regime’s postwar agenda focused on the rebuilding of infrastructure and economic growth while Rajapaksa himself worked to centralize power and take the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. The regime’s policies alienated the Tamil populations and eventually the country’s Muslim community. (Sri Lanka is a diverse country of more than 20 million, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Sinhalese, with Tamils and Muslims as the nation’s two largest minority groups.) By the time Rajapaksa ran for an unprecedented third term, many Sinhalese were upset with the regime’s corrupt and nepotistic ways.

Nonetheless, when Rajapaksa called a snap election in November 2014, few analysts predicted he could lose. Yet the unexpected challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, a longtime member of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and health minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, managed to shake up the political scene. Backed by a diverse (and fragile) coalition, his message to cut back on corruption, nepotism, and authoritarianism resonated strongly.

Sirisena narrowly defeated Rajapaksa and took office a year ago, on January 9th. Sri Lanka looked set to return to its former identity as a vibrant, though flawed, democracy. Led by Sirisena and largely with the support of the rival United National Party, the country was theoretically ready to move forward, curtail corruption, improve governance, and abolish the all-powerful executive presidency. Right after being sworn into office, Sirisena appointed the leader of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as his prime minister. Yet in Sri Lanka the past was not only not dead, as William Faulkner famously wrote, but it wasn’t even past. Indeed, the legacy of Rajapaksa’s decade in power and his chauvinistic Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism remain formidable obstacles in the new government’s path.


In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Western policymakers were anxious for someone to deal with the Tamil Tigers, one of the fiercest insurgencies in the world, once and for all. The Sri Lankan government capitalized on this anxiety by re-framing the country’s long civil war as part of the “global war on terror.” (The Tigers remain a proscribed terrorist organization in more than two dozen counties, including the United States, India, and all members of the European Union.)

As Sri Lanka’s war progressed toward its tragic conclusion, the Obama administration considered getting more involved. There was talk of a humanitarian intervention to save civilian lives in early 2009, part of a push for a diplomatic solution to the war. Just days before the war’s end, President Obama asked the Tigers to free civilians being held against their will. He also requested that the Rajapaksa administration do more:

I’m also calling on the Sri Lankan government to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis. First, the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.

Second, the government should give United Nations humanitarian teams access to the civilians who are trapped between the warring parties so that they can receive the immediate assistance necessary to save lives.

Third, the government should also allow the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross access to nearly 190,000 displaced people within Sri Lanka so that they can receive additional support that they need.

But these requests fell on deaf ears, and, while casualty figures remain a source of fierce debate (knowledgeable observers say more than 100,000 died in the 26-year civil war), there is little doubt about the humanitarian crisis that occurred during the final months of fighting. Allegations of wartime abuses—including massive civilian casualties, the shelling of hospitals, and extrajudicial killings—have persisted since the conclusion of war.

In 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked a group of experts to conduct an investigation into what really happened. The group found “credible reports” that violations of humanitarian and human rights law had been committed by both Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers. Amid significant international pressure, the Rajapaksa administration created the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in May 2010 to investigate. However, leading international human rights organizations criticized the commission as “deeply flawed in structure and practice” and declined an invitation to engage with it. The commission’s final report contained nearly 200 recommendations, but the vast majority of them have not been fully implemented. Besides, the report’s blatant exoneration of the Sri Lankan military remains a glaring omission.

More recently, as part of a resolution passed in March 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights came out with its own report focused on wartime abuses. Publicly released in September 2015, this detailed, hard-hitting document reiterates the pressing need for justice, accountability, and deep reform in the country.


In 2015, many senior US government officials visited the island, including Secretary of State John Kerry. These visits were widely interpreted as the Obama administration’s wholesale endorsement for the new government. During his stopover last May, Kerry in particular spoke effusively of the “enormous progress” Sri Lanka had made since early January. State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon visited Sri Lanka in December and announced that the first US–Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue would be held in February 2016 in Washington, the presumed beginning of an annual event that will cover a host of issues including economic and security cooperation, regional affairs, and development cooperation.

There is more than a little realpolitik in Washington’s efforts to capitalize on the changing political dynamics within the country. During its last few years in power, the Rajapaksa administration moved considerably closer to China. Strengthened ties were dramatized by Beijing’s willingness to finance a host of infrastructure projects on the island. In addition, a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo, the capital, twice in 2014, a concern for policymakers in both Washington and New Delhi. The Chinese government also supported Sri Lanka’s deeply blemished record on human rights and accountability for wartime abuses in prominent multilateral forums like the Human Rights Council.

By indicating that he wants to improve his country’s ties with the US and India, President Sirisena clearly hopes to pursue a more balanced foreign policy. Yet Washington’s recent enthusiasm about his government seems to involve an element of wishful thinking.

Since taking power, the Sirisena administration has muddled though an overly ambitious reform program based on campaign promises to implement constitutional reform, fight corruption, and govern in a less authoritarian way.

In April, Parliament passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the president to two terms, allows for a range of independent commissions to be created, rolls back some of the presidential powers that had been expanded under Rajapaksa, and strengthens the office of the prime minister. The government has made a few other positive changes. It has lifted some media restrictions, and attacks against minority groups have decreased significantly. More broadly, the space for dissent has opened up since Sirisena came to power, especially in the south.

The government is now planning to draft a new constitution that purportedly would address electoral forms, abolish the executive presidency, and create a lasting political solution to the ethnic conflict. A “Right to Information” bill is also in the works.

After Sirisena dissolved Parliament in June, an important parliamentary election was held in August, in which the people reiterated their demands for change (although Rajapaksa still managed to get elected as a member of Parliament.) After the election, the country’s two principal political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party agreed to form a “national government” and work together toward further reform.

One month later, in October, the coalition government co-sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council. The resolution deals broadly with reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in the war-torn island nation. Many parts of the resolution were crafted in ambiguous language, and it remains unclear how much of the resolution will actually be implemented.

There are ongoing rumors that Rajapaksa will form a new political party. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party remains deeply divided; many of its members still view Sirisena as a traitor and continue to support the former president. Rajapaksa led the United People’s Freedom Alliance’s parliamentary election campaign in August. His continued presence in Sri Lankan politics, indisputable credentials as a war hero in the eyes of many ethnic Sinhalese, and hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism are matters that cannot be ignored.

Despite some signs of progress, there are many areas where the reform agenda appears to be floundering. For example, corruption investigations have produced few indictments and no convictions. In terms of reaching out to the Tamil community, the Sirisena administration has not made much progress on important issues, including the release of Tamil political prisoners and creating a broader demilitarization road map in the country’s historically Tamil Northern and Eastern Provinces. Put bluntly, daily life in the war-ravaged, Tamil-dominated areas has not really improved since Sirisena came to power. Furthermore, the government’s transitional justice plans remain ambiguous and incoherent. For example, consultations with people across the country, regarded by most observers as an essential element of a credible, inclusive transitional justice agenda, have yet to begin.

Indeed, there are growing and well-founded concerns that, while Sirisena may not rule with Rajapaksa’s iron fist, he might not be all that different from his predecessor.


Although many were disappointed by its hesitation to contemplate a more proactive approach during the bloody conclusion of the civil war, the Obama administration has played a leading role in ensuring that the international community remained aware of ongoing human rights and accountability issues in Sri Lanka during the past several years, especially at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. It is hard to imagine four resolutions being passed on Sri Lanka since 2012 without the administration’s backing.

However, as its attention is drawn away from Sri Lanka by a tumultuous international situation, the Obama administration may now be giving the new government too much diplomatic space. Some observers worry that the current administration believes it’s easier to call this a “win for democracy” and leave it at that. (Some see parallels with Washington’s enthusiastic response to Myanmar’s transition toward civilian rule in 2011, which the administration has since acknowledged was overly optimistic.)

The window for Washington to walk back some of its soaring rhetoric about Sri Lanka and instead focus on helping push the country toward more meaningful change is quickly closing. Obama’s team needs to redouble its efforts to emphasize more clearly that the same tough issues that were raised so consistently with the Rajapaksa administration remain urgent matters in Sri Lanka, and that the county’s crises can no longer be dealt with by a politics of gestures. 

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. He worked in Sri Lanka from 2011 to 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @taylordibbert.



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