Sri Lanka’s Election: A New Path Forward
An Interview with Nilanthi Samaranayake
By Kelly Vorndran
February 5, 2015
President Maithripala Sirisena’s surprise electoral victory has led to a re-evaluation of Sri Lanka’s political environment. For the past ten years, Sri Lankan politics have been dominated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who strengthened the executive presidency system, placed members of his family in key positions of power, and maintained a loyal political party. Sirisena’s victory represents an opportunity for changes in Sri Lanka’s domestic policies, as well as its foreign relationships with China, India, and the United States, which could significantly alter regional political and security dynamics in South Asia.
In this Q&A, Nilanthi Samaranayake, a strategic studies analyst with CNA Corporation, provides insight into the significance of Sri Lanka’s change in leadership and assesses the potential impact on the country’s relationships with major regional powers.
Following its stunning electoral victory, there are high expectations for the Sirisena government. How might the recently announced 100-day program—given its promises of systemic changes such as a full overhaul of the electoral system and election of a new parliament—produce meaningful political reforms? How achievable are these goals given entrenched governance challenges in Sri Lanka and the country’s slide toward authoritarianism under the previous government?
There is indeed a lot on the plate of President Maithripala Sirisena’s new government, and the situation continues to unfold. In the first month, the new government has taken steps to show that it is serious about changing the direction of the country and revoked some policies of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. For example, Sirisena has granted full amnesty to the former commander of the army who contested Rajapaksa in the 2010 election; declared null and void the controversial impeachment of the previous chief justice of the Supreme Court; swore in a new chief justice, who is the first person of Tamil ethnicity in the position in 25 years; and appointed a civilian to replace a retired senior army officer as the governor of the predominantly Tamil Northern Province. It is not yet clear, however, whether Sirisena’s campaign goal of abolishing the executive presidency will be achieved given the lack of consensus among party leaders who supported Sirisena on the extent to which the president’s powers should be curtailed.
Beyond domestic politics, observers have commented that the Sirisena victory may herald a shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Although his manifesto mentions strengthening relations with China and India, Sirisena has also indicated that he intends to work toward restoring nonalignment. What changes might we expect to see in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy under the new government? Will Sri Lanka continue to vacillate between India and China to garner benefits from both sides? Considering that China has been bankrolling major infrastructure projects in the country, is it practically possible for Sirisena to carry out a policy of distancing from China?
I wouldn’t characterize Sri Lanka’s approach as vacillating; rather, it sees itself as a smaller country that needs to be open to opportunities that help meet national development goals. South Asia as a whole needs more infrastructure development to enhance connectivity and trade, given the low degree of regional integration. Smaller countries in South Asia do not want to be in a position where they are forced to choose between investment from India or China—or from Japan, South Korea, and the United States for that matter. Meanwhile, unlike Japan or China, India has not been a strong investor in Sri Lanka’s maritime infrastructure, which Colombo sees as key to the country’s economic success.
I don’t think the new government ever planned to distance itself from China. The opposition’s problem was not with Chinese funds per se, but with the appearance of corruption over the awarding of contracts and the potential for unfavorable loan terms. So the new government has pledged to review these projects. As you might expect, we have seen some walking back of the more strident campaign rhetoric by cabinet officials, but all indications are that the administration will seek to make the contracts process more transparent. So this is something for Chinese companies to be mindful of going forward.
Sirisena is expected to make his first state visit abroad to India in February. How do you see the relationship between Colombo and New Delhi progressing under the new Sri Lankan government? What are some issues that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to address to improve relations?
Sirisena’s relations with New Delhi have gotten off to a strong start, and he appears intent on reaffirming Sri Lanka’s deep ties with India. Prime Minister Modi will expect to see progress regarding the devolution of powers to the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Both sides have also begun addressing the issues of repatriating Sri Lankan Tamils in refugee camps in India and resolving disputes between fishermen in Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka. That Modi reportedly will visit Sri Lanka in mid-March is a positive signal given that the last time an Indian prime minister visited for bilateral purposes outside the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) framework was in 1987 and under crisis circumstances (i.e., when Rajiv Gandhi visited due to Colombo’s war against the LTTE insurgency).
One consideration for both leaders, however, is to be careful about creating unrealistic expectations for how Sri Lanka’s future security cooperation will proceed with China. There is a bit of postelection euphoria between Colombo and New Delhi right now, which is understandable. But the two sides need to conduct the relationship in a way that is sustainable over the long term. For example, Sri Lanka will continue to seek military-to-military relations with China to some degree, as many Indian Ocean countries do, including India. This type of engagement is a way for countries to build partnerships and develop habits of interaction, such as how Indian, Chinese, and other navies coordinate their escort schedules on counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
This issue is related to the practice of warships visiting commercial ports for replenishment purposes. India became unsettled in November after a conventional Chinese submarine and a tender ship paid to and from port visits in Colombo on the way to a counterpiracy deployment. Despite the open nature of the submarine docking and advance notice that it would return to Colombo, many observers feared the strategic implications of these visits for India’s position in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Given that Chinese warships will continue to visit ports in Sri Lanka on their way to the Gulf of Aden and Horn of Africa for counterpiracy patrols, New Delhi would be wise to lay out clear, but reasonable, red lines for Sri Lanka to avoid any confusion about India’s expectations—especially as each new interaction has the potential to be spun up in the media. Meanwhile, the new government in Colombo will need to consider potential Indian sensitivities when pursuing greater security cooperation with China, as well as with the United States and Japan.
Since the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 the government has failed to address the human rights violations that occurred during the war or the alleged ongoing violations in the north. This lack of accountability has soured relations with many Western countries, and the United States in particular. With the change in leadership, what developments should we expect in the U.S.–Sri Lankan relationship, as well as Sri Lanka's relationships with other Western countries?
Washington is eager to work with the Sirisena administration, given the United States’ dissatisfaction with the previous regime’s efforts on postwar accountability and reconciliation. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Atul Keshap will travel to Sri Lanka in early February for meetings with government officials and civil society leaders. The timing of this visit will be important because the annual United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka that the United States sponsors occurs in March. So the findings from their trip may result in a modified U.S. government policy toward Sri Lanka to reflect a revised timetable for the new administration.
In addition, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera will travel to Washington in February for a meeting with Secretary Kerry. In the meantime, Sirisena’s foreign affairs adviser and former UN under-secretary-general Jayantha Dhanapala has briefed the UN high commissioner for human rights on the new government’s approach to postwar accountability. The UN high commissioner is expected to submit a report on Sri Lanka to the UNHRC in March.
Are there any other issues you think are important to address for readers?
It is important to recognize that the political situation in Sri Lanka is still in flux. Parliament is scheduled to be dissolved in April, and general elections will be held. So we could see more changes. Yet regardless of how the leadership configuration plays out later this spring, the government seems determined to set a new tone for both its internal governance and foreign policy.
This interview was conducted by Kelly Vorndran, an intern at NBR.