When Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Sri Lanka today, he will find the island nation’s politics in a state of flux. Two months ago, Sri Lankan voters delivered a historic verdict against the authoritarian and corrupt rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the ghost of the former president’s legacy continues to haunt Colombo. The process of redressing the immediate grievances of the country’s Tamils may have begun, but the new government’s slow and somewhat hesitant steps have unleashed an unstable and unhelpful dynamic between the north and south as well as in the two regions. Some hardline Tamil politicians today are making irrational, maximalist demands, which in turn encourage the excessive circumspection that their Sinhala counterparts are already prone to because of the compulsions of competitive politics.
The truth is that both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe remain wary of the impact the limited steps they have taken so far could have in the south, where Rajapaksa retains considerable support. The government is committed to holding parliamentary elections soon after implementing its proposed 100-day agenda for constitutional reforms. Topping the list is the abolition of the executive presidency that Rajapaksa had twisted into a vehicle for personalised rule with few checks and balances. The problem with this laudable objective, of course, is that the reversion to a classical parliamentary system gives the defeated former president a second shot at power.
Parliamentary elections could be held as early as June or July. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to which both Sirisena and Rajapaksa currently belong, has a comfortable majority but is expected, by conventional wisdom, to lose ground to Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). The neatest political outcome would be the UNP winning a majority, after which executive power in the country would effectively pass into Wickremesinghe’s hands. Sirisena could then carry on as president, albeit with vastly diminished power. His reward would be to go down in history as an elder statesman who sacrificed power for the sake of peace. The story gets complicated if the SLFP wins a majority. Since Sirisena is unlikely to ditch the presidency, the party would have to choose one of its other leaders as prime minister.
Rajapaksa’s supporters believe he would then be the natural choice for the key job. Nimal Siripala De Silva, the current leader of the opposition in parliament, also nurtures ambitions.
Rajapaska’s supporters have already begun to accuse the new government of endangering Sri Lanka’s security and integrity by adopting a more accommodative stance towards the Tamil minority. Fears about a revival of the terrorist LTTE have been a staple of Sinhala chauvinist politics over the past few years, a card the previous government played to the hilt.
Wickremesinghe recently hit out at what he called “racist media” for spreading communal disharmony, accusing them of being in the pay of Rajapaksa. But in all their public utterances, government ministers have been careful not to expose themselves to the charge of undermining the country’s unity.
There are, broadly speaking, five immediate and longer-term grievances the Tamils of the north and east expect the new government to redress. First, they want the sprawling army camps in the region to be closed or downsized and the land they occupy returned to the farmers, from whom it was taken. Second, they want the release of the “political prisoners” — men and women arrested under draconian anti-terrorism laws and held in what amounts to indefinite preventive detention. The irony is that even while most ex-LTTE combatants taken into custody when the war ended have since been rehabilitated, an unknown number of Tamil civilians continue to languish in jail. Third, they want a proper investigation into the fate of the thousands who went missing in the closing stages of the conflict. Fourth, they want justice for the war crimes that were committed by the Sri Lankan army. Finally, they want a political settlement of their grievances as an ethnic minority within Sri Lanka: ensuring autonomy and equal rights.
For Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, the first three grievances are relatively easy to deal with, the last two, not. The process of identifying and releasing political prisoners started last week with a court granting bail to one of the most celebrated detenus, Jeyakumari Balendran. Her son went missing during the war and she had been active in the struggle against enforced disappearances, before getting arrested in March 2014. So far as the army’s presence in the north is concerned, ministers acknowledge the need to reduce its footprint but do not want to be rushed into a redeployment that Rajapaska and the Sinhala Buddhist clergy would then criticise them for. This desire to appease Sinhala sentiment was apparent in the February 7 speech that the state minister of defence, Ruwan Wijewardene, made to soldiers in Jaffna.
There would be no withdrawal, he said, because that would endanger the security of the north and the east.
Last week, I briefly met Wijewardene as part of an International Federation of Journalists delegation that visited Jaffna and Colombo to assess the state of media freedom. He urged that his speech be seen in the context of rumours that the new government was going to demobilise thousands of soldiers. His intention was to nip any panic in the bud. He said the army had already indicated its willingness to immediately vacate about 1,000 acres around the Palaly base near Jaffna, and that more would slowly follow.
In the climate of distrust that still pervades Lankan politics, however, Wijewardene’s speech was seized upon by Tamil politicians as evidence that nothing was ever going to change. The fact that the minister is Wickremesinghe’s nephew also coloured the politics that followed.
When our delegation met C.V. Wigneswaran, chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), he cited the speech as one of the triggers for the infamous genocide resolution that the NPC unanimously adopted last month. Declaring that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been subjected to genocide since 1948, the resolution calls upon the UN Human Rights Council to investigate and submit its findings to the International Criminal Court for action. As if this were not provocative enough, the NPC added: “Tamils have no hope for justice in any domestic Sri Lankan mechanism, whether conducted by the Rajapaksa regime, Sirisena regime, or its successor.” Predictably, government leaders have reacted bitterly to this resolution. For their part, Sinhala hardliners cite it as proof of Tamil secessionism.
Temperatures may cool after the elections but the result may just as easily complicate the situation further.
Even as Indian analysts remain focused on the China factor in Sri Lanka, Modi needs to use his influence to get the Tamil leadership in Jaffna to dial back the rhetoric. Colombo, in turn, must ready itself for genuine reconciliation. For the first time in decades, the country has a real shot at an inclusive political settlement. Outflanking the nascent Chinese presence is small change. The real payoff for India from the emergence of a new government in Sri Lanka would be the prospect of a just and lasting peace.
The writer recently visited Sri Lanka as part of an International Federation of Journalists delegation