Sri Lanka: Behind Maithripala Sirisena's defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa

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By Chris Slee

January 12, 2015 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Maithripala Sirisena has taken office as president of Sri Lanka, after winning the election held on January 8. Sirisena obtained 51.28% of the vote, defeating incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who got 47.58%.

Seventeen other candidates got a total of 1.14% of the votes between them. Duminda Nagamuwa, representing the Frontline Socialist Party, got 0.08%; Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party got 0.07%; and Sundaram Mahendran of the NSSP (New Socialist Party) got 0.03%.

Rajapaksa had been elected president in 2005, and re-elected in 2010. In his first term he presided over the most brutal phase of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The LTTE was formed in the 1970s to fight for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka. It was created by Tamil youth in response to discrimination against Tamils and the violent repression of peaceful protests. From small beginnings it grew into a powerful armed force.

In 2002 a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. Rajapaksa ended the ceasefire, and waged a genocidal war against the Tamil people. With military aid from the United States, China and other countries, his government was victorious. The war ended with the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians died in the final few weeks, as the diminishing LTTE-controlled area was bombarded from land, sea and air.

After the defeat of the LTTE, Tamils were subject to military occupation. Land was seized for new military bases, as well as for Sinhalese settlements and commercial enterprises. Many Tamils have suffered murder, torture and rape at the hands of the occupying Sri Lankan army and its local collaborators.

While Tamils were the main victims of the Rajapaksa regime, members of other ethnic groups, including the Sinhalese who are the majority of Sri Lanka’s population, were also at risk if they were critical of the government. A number of journalists were murdered (e.g. Lasantha Wickramatunga in January 2009) or disappeared, never to be seen again (e.g. Prageeth Eknaligoda in January 2010).

After his military victory, Rajapaksa benefited from a triumphalist mood among many Sinhalese, who were influenced by the anti-Tamil chauvinism that had been cultivated by Sinhalese politicians for many decades. Rajapaksa easily won the 2010 presidential election.

However discontent gradually increased, due to the corruption of the regime and its repressive actions against workers, students, peasants and fishers. There were a number of cases where the army fired on demonstrations and killed protesters. The army was used to evict slum dwellers from their homes to make way for development projects. Muslims have suffered pogroms instigated by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinist organisation with close links to the Rajapaksa regime.

Maithripala Sirisena

Sirisena was a minister in Rajapksa’s government for nearly 10 years. He resigned and announced his candidacy for president on November 21, 2014. He gained the support of the United National Party (the main opposition party), promising to appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. He also got the support of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinist organisation. (The BBS continued to support Rajapaksa.)

Sirisena benefited from the growing discontent with Rajapaksa. He promised to end corruption. He also promised to abolish the system of executive presidency, which concentrates power in the hands of the president.

Many human rights activists have long advocated the abolition of the executive presidency, and hence supported Sirisena in the election.

Debate among Tamils

The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil parliamentary party, also supported Sirisena, even though he had been part of a government that had waged war on the Tamil people.

A TNA statement issued on December 30, 2014, said: “The TNA ... believes that it is essential for the health of Sri Lanka’s democracy that the authoritarian and dictatorial trajectory on which the Rajapaksa regime has set the country be reversed urgently.

“The Rajapaksa regime has been particularly harmful for the wellbeing of the Tamil speaking peoples of Sri Lanka... Hundreds of thousands of Tamil speaking civilians displaced by the armed conflict in the North and East have not yet been resettled, rehabilitated and provided with housing and livelihood. Instead, tens of thousands of acres of private lands have been grabbed by the Rajapaksa regime...

“The Tamil speaking population in the North-East has been subjected to numerous other hardships: the denial of livelihoods; shelter; food; self-respect; physical safety, particularly for women and children who have been targeted by sexual violence; and justice in respect of the dead, the injured, the disappeared and those detained for long periods.”

The TNA statement referred to Sirisena’s commitment to abolish the executive presidency and “guarantee primacy to the rule of law”, but was unable to cite any commitment from Sirisena to remedy the specific problems of Tamils.

Most Tamils followed the TNA’s recommendation and voted for Sirisena. But there were dissenting Tamil voices, both inside and outside the TNA.

The Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) saw no real difference between Rajapaksa and Sirisena. In a statement issued on December 23, the TCSF said that:

“regime change does not necessarily result in change in the lives of the Tamil people. Both main parties in the South ... are deeply embedded in Sinhala Buddhist, chauvinist, anti-Tamil politics. They do not even have a minimally just position on Tamil issues. For example, both parties are not even prepared to discuss a solution that goes beyond the confines of a unitary constitution.

“Both parties are also against international investigations [of war crimes] ... The opposition candidate also has repeatedly confirmed that his position is no different from that of the incumbent President with regard to both a political solution and accountability for crimes committed against the Tamils.”

The TCSF said that changing the form of government from presidential to parliamentary would not solve the fundamental problem: “The Tamil people have suffered equally under Westminster style parliamentary form of governments, prior to the enactment of the Second Republican constitution. When the Sinhala Only Act was enacted in 1956 [making Sinhala the sole official language and denying equal status to the Tamil language] Sri Lanka had a parliamentary form of government”..

The TCSF also said that attacks on the democratic rights of people in the predominantly Sinhalese south of the island of Sri Lanka are a by-product of the war against the Tamils, and can only be ended by “taking a just stand on the National question”.

Debate on the left

There were also differing views among left parties.

The NSSP, while putting forward its own candidate in the presidential election, also supported the election of Sirisena. (This was possible under the optional preferential voting system.)

NSSP leader Vickramabahu Karunaratne said the key struggles in Sri Lanka are for democracy and against the influence of multinational corporations (MNCs), and that Sirisena should be given “critical support” for supporting these struggles.

Karunaratne said: “When presidential candidate Maithree [Sirisena] attacks the plunder carried out by MNCs with the connivance of the government, the NSSP gets the opportunity to put forward a consistent clear alternative program to be carried out under the power of workers, peasants and fishers”.

The United Socialist Party, by contrast, saw Rajapaksa and Sirisena as essentially the same. USP presidential candidate Siritunga Jayasuriya said: “There is no difference between these two capitalist parties. Choosing among them is not a real choice for the people.”

Jayasuriya campaigned against privatisation and for cutting military spending to fund better wages and services. He also supported self-determination for Tamils, saying: “The Tamil-speaking population has suffered immensely over the decades. I and my party stand firmly in support of the rights of the Tamil-speaking people and their ultimate right to self determination, including the right to secession if that’s what they desire, with the rights of all minorities safeguarded.”

The Frontline Socialist Party rejected both Rajapaksa and Sirisena. FSP leader Kumar Gunaratnam told Ceylon Today: “Our aim is to revive socialism. The two main parties in the presidential contest have forgotten the people’s real problems. Our aim is to build a better social system.”

The FSP calls for workers to unite across ethnic lines. However its failure to support the right of Tamils to self-determination limits its ability to win the support of Tamils.

Foreign policy

Sirisena’s election seems likely to bring a shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

The Rajapaksa government had close relations with China. According to journalist Jason Koutsoukis, writing in the Age, January 3: “Not only has China been a major investor in Sri Lankan roads, ports and other key infrastructure, but late last year Chinese nuclear submarines became regular visitors to Sri Lanka, in contravention of a long-standing agreement with India.”

In a subsequent article, Koutsoukis said that Sirisena “wants to loosen Sri Lanka’s increasingly tight embrace with China, pledging to scrap a $1.5 billion deal with China Communications Construction Co Ltd for a port city on the island” (Age, January 10, 2015).

This will please both the United States and India, which are rivals of China for influence in Sri Lanka.

During the war, the United States, India and China all supported the Sri Lankan government against the LTTE, as did US allies such as Israel, Britain and Australia. Western governments would make occasional mild criticisms of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, but this did not prevent them continuing to give military aid and other forms of support. US aid included weapons, military training and satellite surveillance information. Israeli aid included Kfir jets, which were used to bomb Tamil areas. The US banned the LTTE in 1997, and other Western countries did the same later.

After the war ended, Western governments became more critical of the Rajapaksa regime. It began to appear that Rajapaksa had outlived his usefulness to the West.

In part this was due to the rivalry between the US and China, and the perception that Rajapaksa was too close to China. But it was also partly a response to growing public awareness of the crimes of the Rajapaksa regime, due to the protests of the Tamil diaspora and information spread by some journalists and human rights organisations. This made continued support for Rajapaksa a public relations problem for Western governments.

Speaking to Tamilnet before the election, academic Jude Lal said that if Sirisena won, this would not result in a better situation for Tamils. Rather it would signify “the next stage of the genocidal process against the Tamil people”.

“This is when the US/UK, the real architects of the genocide of the Tamil people, by pushing away the Rajapaksa regime, which has been identified internationally as the public face of the massacre in 2009, will oversee its replacement by ‘fresh new faces’ who will take on the baton to give a new lease of life to the continued torment of the Tamil people.

“It will also bring the US/UK closer to claiming its military prize by undermining the Chinese influence – which had been brought in by Rajapaksa in a desperate attempt to avoid his regime being disposed of like a dirty rag after its usefulness is over."

The struggle continues

However the fall of Rajapaksa was not primarily the result of imperialist pressures. It was a result of the social discontent of the workers and peasants, and the hopes of Tamils for an improvement in their terrible situation of national oppression.

If these hopes and expectations are not fulfilled, new struggles will break out. The workers and peasants of Sri Lanka, and the Tamil people, still require our solidarity.