Polonnaruwa, a region with a history going back to ancient times, has not produced very many political stalwarts in post-independence Sri Lanka. C.P. De Silva, who was prevented by circumstances from becoming the Prime Minister after the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in September 1959, hailed from the region.
Maithripala Sirisena, who stunned the world in January 2015 by defeating his former colleague and “invincible” President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election, is a proud son of Polonnaruwa. In keeping with an informal tradition in the country, a development programme for the region, which is the new President’s “home”, called “Pibidemu Polonnaruwa (Awakening of Polonnaruwa)”, is under way. Sirisena, popularly called “Maithri”, comes across as refreshingly different from his immediate predecessor, with an air of informality and simplicity about him. Some months ago, he attended the 75th anniversary of St. Anthony’s Balika Maha Vidyalaya at Kollupitiya, an upmarket neighbourhood in Colombo. The parents of the pupils were pleasantly surprised that notwithstanding the high-profile visit, no one was inconvenienced and the event went off smoothly. On January 9, the President, who made a spirited speech in the parliament on the significance of the Constitution-making process, was seen talking to several MPs in a friendly manner after the House was adjourned.
In May, when the country was engaged in intense discussions following the gruesome rape and murder of a Tamil schoolgirl in Pungudutivu of the Northern Province, Sirisena made a sudden visit to Jaffna to console the girl’s family.
Vickramabahu Karunarathne, a perceptive observer of Sri Lankan politics and general secretary of the Nava Sama Samaj Party, loves to call Sirisena a “populist”. He says that there is an element of “populism” in whatever Sirisena does. “Maithri is one who wants to keep every section of society happy,” he says, adding that the President also wants to be known as a man of peace, as a person who has brought peace to the region.“Human touch”
Sirisena’s policy of “human touch” towards Tamils came to the fore when he decided, during his visit to Jaffna in December, to go to a camp of internally displaced persons in Konapulam near Kankesanthurai. At the camp he interacted with the residents, especially women and children, for 45 minutes. In an interview with this correspondent early this month, the President said: “I blamed myself that I was not aware of the tragic situation [of many of the camp inmates who had been living there for 25 years].” His frequent visits to the Northern Province in the last seven months have had the effect of soothing the feelings of the people of the region, who are yet to shake off the ill effects of the civil war.
Although activists in the Northern and Eastern Provinces complain of continued surveillance by the security forces, it is remarkable that they feel free to express dissent, something that was quite impossible in the past, as Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, pointed out.
R. Sampanthan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief and Leader of the Opposition in the parliament, said that by taking steps towards the abolition of the executive presidency, Sirisena was doing what his predecessors, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had not done.
This, indeed, had been one of the important promises that were made at the time of the election. Within a few months of coming to power, Sirisena, along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, attempted to do away with the system of executive presidency. But the Supreme Court held some of the provisions of the draft 19th Amendment Bill to be violative of the Constitution. The Bill was revised. The powers of the President’s office have been diluted, but the system of executive presidency remains. Ending it is one of the reasons for which the country has begun to undertake another exercise, after several years, to draft a new Constitution. A resolution of the Tamil question, guarantees for fundamental rights of the people, elimination of preferential voting and making the judiciary independent are the other aims.Bridges with the West, India
The moment the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration came to power early last year, it swiftly mended the country’s strained ties with the West and India. The change was obvious at the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s (UNHRC) session in October last year. Along with Wickremesinghe, he managed to get a “favourable” resolution adopted on accountability and reconciliation. Originally sponsored by the United States and the United Kingdom, the resolution was subsequently supported by Sri Lanka, too. India, which did not make its position public until the resolution was adopted, later came out in support of the motion, which called for the institution of a judicial process to address the alleged human rights violations during the civil war in Sri Lanka.
For critics of the government such as Tissa Vitharna, Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) leader and Minister in the former Rajapaksa regime, the resolution marked a “complete betrayal of our nation’s independence and sovereignty”.Mixed record at home
In domestic politics, Sirisena does not appear to be in complete control of his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is the largest constituent of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). There are said to be at least 30 MPs, elected on the UPFA ticket, who are not on his side. Dinesh Gunawardena, a former Minister, claims that some 50 MPs of the UPFA are part of a dissident group, popularly called the “joint opposition”, which does not support the President.
There are important issues that need to be addressed—the resettlement of internally displaced people, the release of Tamil “political prisoners”, and the alleged disappearance of a large number of Tamils. Sirisena’s proactive involvement is required in the resolution of these problems. Issues concerning landless people in the North, a matter virtually ignored by Tamil leaders, must also be addressed.
Talking of Sirisena’s overall approach to the Tamil question, M.K. Shivajilingam, national organiser of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), which is a constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), says it is not enough to be good, the leader must also be competent. “My feeling is that he is always bothered by the Rajapaksa factor.” But, the President pointed out in an interview that the Rajapaksa camp now stands neutralised. He cited the example of the 2016 Budget being passed with a two-thirds majority in the parliament.Delicate balance
Sirisena must also maintain smooth relations with Wickremesinghe and his party, the United National Party (UNP). In August last year, the SLFP and the UNP struck a deal to form a national government and decided to remain together for two years. In recent weeks, there have been reports of differences between the allies over elections to local bodies. For the time being, the issue has died down as the elections have been postponed by six months. It is, however, matters concerning the economy that will prove to be the real test for the alliance.
The Budget underwent several changes before it was passed. Finance Minister and UNP leader Ravi Karunanayake said that it finally came out “very well” and ably incorporated opposing positions on a host of issues. But Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist, wondered whether Sirisena, known for supporting the periphery, peasantry and the rural masses, would now go along with the “neoliberal” economic policies of the UNP.
Expressing his concerns over the impact of such policies on people in southern Sri Lanka, Kadirgamar said that this could have an indirect bearing on the government’s efforts in areas of transitional justice and constitutional reforms.
As of now, going by the public posturings of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, there is mutual respect between them. In early September, Sirisena was the chief guest at the UNP’s anniversary celebration, something that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, given the traditional rivalry between the SLFP and the UNP. Even at the high-profile event of the inauguration of the Sri Lanka Economic Forum, which was the brainchild of Wickremesinghe and which saw the participation of several international economists, the organisers ensured that Sirisena attended the event, even if briefly.
“It is likely that the leaders have different views on various matters but neither has sought to impose his will on the other,” Jehan Perera said.
Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, said emphatically that cooperation between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe was critical to ensuring that “we do not return to the dark past of the Rajapaksas”. The current year will show whether the personal and political ties between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, one representing the Polonnaruwa peasantry and another the Colombo elite, blossoms into a lasting relationship that can generate a far-reaching impact on the polity of Sri Lanka.