Hold the Champagne in Sri Lanka

The country's longtime strongman has been voted out of office. But Colombo shouldn’t celebrate just yet.

Sri Lanka's main opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena waves after voting in the country's election at a polling station in the north-central town of Polonnaruwa, some 240 kms from Colombo on January 8, 2015. Sri Lanka went to the polls on January 8 in its tightest election in decades, with its strongman president battling for survival after accusations of corruption and a failure to bring about national reconciliation. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka held a relatively peaceful presidential election on Jan. 8, followed by a stunningly smooth transfer of power. While some reports allege that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa attempted to cling to power by staging a coup, the police and Army refused to back his defeated regime. That elections in Sri Lanka ushered in a democratic transition with little bloodshed is cause enough for celebration. But it’s too early to party. The real challenges for democracy — setting up inclusive, transparent institutions and dealing with issues of peace and reconciliation following Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war — are only just beginning.

The cornerstone of new President Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto is his promise to institute constitutional amendments that would restore good governance and rule of law. He has promised that within his government’s first 100 days in office, he will transform Sri Lanka from a near autocracy into a democracy, one in which the president will share power with Parliament. Second, Sirisena wants to establish independent commissions to ensure that the police, judiciary, elections committee, and the offices of the auditor and attorney general are impartial.

These reforms, however, are unlikely to assuage the minority Tamils and Muslims, who live predominantly in the country’s northern and eastern provinces. Neither presidential nor parliamentary forms of government — invariably dominated by the Sinhalese, who make up roughly 74 percent of the country’s 21 million people — is satisfactory to the Tamils and Muslims. Instead, they demand greater autonomy in the north and the east. But Sirisena’s election manifesto is completely silent on the matter.

On the campaign trail, Sirisena rejected the idea of offering more autonomy to the Tamils. And he’s boxed in politically: If he were to reverse his position, he would fall afoul of some members of his coalition, like the prominent anti-Tamil party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Shortly after the election, JHU issued a statement downplaying the role of the Tamil and Muslim communities that helped bring Sirisena to power. Whether the new president allows them to participate as equals in the political process remains to be seen.

If Sri Lanka is to enjoy rule of law and media freedom, Sirisena must repeal the draconian PTA. But doing so may humiliate the Sri Lankan military and police, which are so effective at clamping down on dissent only because the law grants them immunity from prosecution. Repealing the law would remove the impunity authorities have long enjoyed.

Another key question is how Sirisena’s reforms will address external trade and investment. According to his election manifesto, Sirisena wants to wean Sri Lanka off its dependence on China, a move praised by Indian and Western commentators alike. New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said before the election that he would stop the $1.5 billion China-financed Colombo Port City project.

But that’s easier said than done. The close economic ties Rajapaksa cultivated with China dramatically increased Beijing’s influence on Sri Lanka’s expanding economy — which enjoyed 7.3 percent GDP growth in 2013 — rivaling the pull of its neighbor, India. If Sirisena reneges on any standing investment treaties with Beijing, it would likely hurt his credibility with China and the global business community.

Sirisena’s pronouncements on accountability also raise questions. Allegations of war crimes and crimes against Rajapaksa’s government — in which Sirisena served as defense minister, among other positions — have resulted in demands for an investigation within Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa has persistently refused to do so. As a result, the U.N. Human Rights Council is demanding an international investigation. The investigating body is expected to present a report at the next Human Rights Council meeting, in March, but Sirisena has categorically rejected calls to give the former president up for trial. Instead, his manifesto promises to appoint a domestic mechanism for accountability.

If Sirisena wants to restore Sri Lanka’s credibility internationally, he cannot violate international law. He will have to adhere to the U.N. treaties that Sri Lanka has ratified and work within U.N. resolutions. For starters, he should allow the international investigation team that has been requesting visas to enter Sri Lanka to gather evidence on war crimes — a request rejected by Rajapaksa’s government.

Sirisena wants to restore democracy, but the challenges are immense. Many of the obstacles stem from his ties to his predecessor. Just as daunting is the melting pot of parties and contradicting agendas that have propelled the new president to power. Negotiating answers for these challenges will have to be Sirisena’s priority if he wishes to be credible — and for his election to truly be one that the outside world should celebrate.

Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/

J.S. Tissainayagam is a Sri Lankan journalist now based in Washington, D.C. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University from 2010-2011.