Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 January 2020

Sri Lanka’s shock is a fresh start

The sudden departure of Mahinda Rajapaksa could signal reconciliation, both near and far.
Sri Lanka's newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena gestures after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo (AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA)
Sri Lanka's newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena gestures after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo (AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA)

The last time the Pope visited Sri Lanka was in 1995, when John Paul II toured the country. He arrived mere weeks after a new president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, had been elected. This time around, there is a new Pope, who arrives in Colombo on Tuesday, and there is a newly elected president to welcome him.

The outgoing president Mahinda Rajapaksa probably imagined he would be welcoming the Catholic leader. But, in an election upset, it is his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, who will do so. Mr Sirisena, who took office on Friday, has a lot to do, both at home and abroad. He won the election convincingly, but also in large part because he was not Mr Rajapaska.

The list of those who voted for Mr Sirisena includes many who had become disaffected by the previous president: the Tamils who bore the brunt of a brutal end to the 26-year civil war; Muslims who faced violence from Buddhist groups (and who accused Mr Rajapaska of not doing enough to halt it); and a substantial number of Sri Lankans of all backgrounds who simply wanted change and couldn’t shake the feeling that Mr Rajapaska was preparing for dynastic rule. (Mr Rajapaska’s appointment of two of his brothers to high office did little to undermine that impression.) The new president will have to be seen to take those concerns seriously.

Abroad, too, he will have a difficult balancing act. The last president was close to China, distant from India (Sri Lanka’s next door neighbour) and estranged from the West (over allegations of human rights violations). This was unwise. Sri Lanka can ill afford to alienate powerful friends even if its economy is booming and projected to hit 8 per cent growth this year.

The new president, then, will need to be many things to many people. Most of all though, he must be a peacetime president. The irony, of course, is that Mr Sirisena was defence minister during part of the war against the Tamil Tigers. If he can continue to drive economic growth and heal the wounds of war, Mr Sirisena might offer Sri Lanka the fresh start it badly needs both at home and abroad.

Updated: January 10, 2015 04:00 AM

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